W

illiam Mulholland began his career in 1878 as a zanjero, or ditch tender, for the City of Los Angeles, one of an army of men tasked with minding the network of troughs that brought the Los Angeles River to the city’s taps. He was brilliant, teaching himself mathematics, hydraulics, and geology in his off-hours. By 1923, he was head of an ambitious project that aimed to construct the world’s largest concrete-arch dam. When it was finished in 1926, the St. Francis Dam held some 12 billion gallons of water a mere 10 miles north of what is now Santa Clarita. It promised to solve LA’s water woes for the next century, sustaining the population through any drought. Instead, just before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam broke loose, unleashing a 100-foot wall of water that tore its way through the towns and countryside between it and the coast. Thousands of people lay sleeping in its path.

Thornton Edwards
Thornton Edwards used his Hollywood stunt-riding skills to land a job as a state motorcycle officer. His heroism during the disaster got him hired as Santa Paula’s police chief, a position he held until 1939.Santa Paula Times

Louise Gipe, the telephone switchboard operator on duty in Santa Paula, didn’t receive a warning call until almost 1:30 a.m. on March 13. When the dam collapsed, it took an hour for two years’ worth of Los Angeles drinking water to empty from the reservoir into the canyon below. The initial wave traveled at 18 miles per hour, then subsided a bit as it rushed through Castaic Junction and westward through the Santa Clara River Valley. It cut a swath of destruction as it rushed toward the sleeping villages downstream. Gipe immediately began notifying local officials. One of them was motorcycle patrol officer Thornton Edwards.

Born in Deering, Maine, Edwards was one of five children. As a young man, he left his family and the East, moving across the continent to become an actor in Southern California. By 1916, he'd picked up a handful of roles, mostly as a villain in silent Westerns. It was the same year he married his wife, Ethel Hopper, a swimsuit model. By the early '20s, Edwards had added motorcycle stunt riding to his repertoire, performing staged falls for the crowd and a minor paycheck.

St. Francis Dam disaster
Crews work to clear debris following the flood that killed more than 400 people.Santa Paula Times

It was work that prepared him for a more stable career as a motorcycle officer. Work that helped make him the man that would go tearing through the spring dawn on his Indian, charging toward a wall of water hellbent on erasing everything in its path.

When the dam broke, Edwards was living in Santa Paula with his young family. After he got the call, he gathered them up in the dark and moved them to high ground, warned his neighbors to do the same, then straddled his bike, ran the siren, and rode toward the flood. At the time, 7,000 people lived in Santa Paula. More lived outside town, on farms and ranches spread throughout the valley. There was no way to warn everyone in time. Instead, Edwards woke the occupants of every third house, instructing them to warn the neighbors on each side. It was a decision that would save hundreds of lives.

He found a crowd gathered on a truss bridge that spanned the river, the onlookers eager to see the approaching flood, unable to understand the destruction that was coming their way. Edwards shooed them off shortly before flood-borne trees and boulders knocked the bridge from its footing and swept it downstream, exploding a gas line in the process. Edwards didn’t stop. He kept going, riding through the darkness until a 3-foot wall of water swamped his bike and forced him to fight his way to safety.

St. Francis Dam disaster
When the St. Francis Dam failed on March 12, 1928, it unleashed a 100-foot wall of water that killed hundreds of people and left a swath of destruction in its wake. More could have died were it not for the efforts of a pair of Santa Paula motorcycle cops who warned people sleeping in the wave’s path to get to higher ground.LA Library

When the flood waters subsided, more than 400 people were dead. Recent estimates including undocumented farm laborers put that number closer to 600. More than 10 bridges had been wiped out. All that remained of the St. Francis Dam was a 185-foot-tall concrete monolith—the center section had remained standing, turned slightly by the force of the reservoir emptying around it. Edwards was one of 1,200 families that lost their homes in the flood. He received only $2,089.22—about $30,000 in today’s money—in restitution from the City of Los Angeles. But his efforts and those of another motorcycle patrolman, Stanley Baker, saved hundreds of lives in Santa Paula. The city lost 16 people in the disaster.

William Mulholland, the ambitious LA water superintendent and self-trained engineer who had overseen the geologic exploration, design, and construction of the dam, took full responsibility for the calamity, attending the LA Coroner’s inquest. Throughout the proceedings, he refused to allow anyone else to shoulder the blame. The jury did not find him criminally responsible, but he retired in November 1928 all the same, resigning himself to a life of seclusion, though he did consult briefly on both the Hoover Dam and the Colorado Aqueduct before dying in 1935.

The state gave Edwards a medal for his heroism, and he was appointed the police chief of Santa Paula the next year. It was a short tenure. Before the flood, Edwards had earned a reputation as a hard-nosed officer who cracked down on overloaded trucks, and drivers who disregarded the state’s headlight laws. It was a determination that propelled him from a local officer to the state patrol, but it likely did him no favors when he broke up a poker game among the local elite in 1939. The city council fired him shortly after.

motorcycle police officers
Officers direct traffic and survivors away.Santa Paula Times

With his police career over, Edwards turned back to Hollywood. He appeared in a few John Ford films—including a role as a police officer in The Grapes of Wrath in 1940—and in a number of Hopalong Cassidy movies and other B-grade Westerns. In all, he appeared in more than 120 features. When the world turned upside down during World War II, Edwards joined the Navy, serving as a military policeman in Long Beach. By 1950, his prolific acting career came to an end, and Edwards moved north to California's Central Valley, where he would spend the remainder of his days in relative obscurity. He died in Tulare, California, in 1988 at 93 years old.

Unlike the ravaging flood that followed the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, time wears things away gradually, one grain at a time. One by one, eyewitnesses and survivors of the St. Francis Dam disaster have passed away. In Santa Paula, few remain who remember firsthand the motorcycle rider who shouted them awake in the middle of the night to warn of impending disaster. But an effort has been made to preserve the memory of the men who rose to the occasion. A pair of mounted riders, cast in bronze and steel, stand on a street corner in town, forever at the ready to ride off into the night and save their neighbors from calamity.