Community Historian


Fillmore, California was sleeping peacefully on the night of March 12, 1928 in the midst of the lengthy Santa Clara River Valley. Wealthy farmers, migrant workers, and oil and electricity men - engineers and laborers alike - were looking forward to spring when the scents of orange blossoms, newly-mown alfalfa, and millions of wild flowers would rise from the valley's fertile soil. The rich, the poor, the educated, and the humble - average people, all - didn't know a clock had stopped in an electric company station 20 miles away.

A monster had blasted from the Earth at 11:57 PM. With pitiless, reptilian indifference, it vented its fury on pockets of small-sown-America in its path: Castaic Junction, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, and Saticoy were ground to bits under the monster's feet - some worse than others, but none escaped - before the monster slipped quietly into the Pacific Ocean and became invisible.

The St. Francis Dam had exploded. The Los Angeles Aqueduct had been swimming in controversy before and after its completion in 1913 for having "stolen" water from farmers in the Owens Valley, a couple of hundred miles away, to feed Los Angeles' growing thirst. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power finished the St. Francis Dam in 1926 as a safety reservoir to continue the flow of water to the city in the event of one of California's common earthquakes. Built on unstable ground from inadequate materials, the failing dam's 180-foot-high, 25-MPH flood waters found the Santa Clara River bed and roared west. Five hours, 50 miles, and 495 lives later, the by-then 15-foot-deep deluge fell harmlessly into the ocean near Ventura.

A 200-foot-tall section of the concrete dam's face stood alone in the middle of San Francisquito Canyon well into 1929. People called it the Tombstone, but few realized it was an omen of Black Thursday - October 29, 1929 - when the American stock market crashed and plunged the US and the world into the mouth of the Great Depression.

A young man opened a Chevrolet dealership in a small town and sold a car on his first day. The man was William L. Morris, the town was Fillmore, California, and the day was Black Thursday. Fillmore survived the St. Francis Dam disaster, and William L. Morris Chevrolet survived opening for business on the first day of the Great Depression.