Green Fairy Tale

Author: Kirsten K., Cocktails, Drinks, Entertainment, Food & Drink, History, Movies, Recipes, Spirits

Twenty-five years ago today, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in theaters. Being a fangirl (emphasis on “fang”), I flew out to see it, but amidst the gore and gothic romance, one scene sank its teeth into me:

Count Dracula fills a glass with green liquid, then pours water from a carafe over a sugar cube, which rests on an intricate silver spoon suspended atop the glass. He tells Mina, “Absinthe is the aphrodisiac of the self. The green fairy who lives in the absinthe wants your soul, but you are safe with me.” Mina takes the sugar cube and sucks on it with a look of ecstasy on her face.

Needless to say, I swooned.

For the past decade, absinthe has been enjoying a revival, but back in 1992, I hadn’t heard of it. The public Internet was in its infancy, so I had to do some old-fashioned library research in order to learn more about this mysterious drink. I discovered that it was a popular libation in Gilded Age Paris that was purported to have psychedelic properties and had been credited with inspiring great works of impressionist art, literature, and music. It had also been illegal in the United States since 1915.

Absinthe is a potent alcoholic drink featuring a mixture of botanicals, including sweet anise, fennel, lemon balm, star anise, and peppermint. One primary ingredient is grande wormwood, an herb containing high levels of thujone, long thought to be responsible for absinthe’s mind-altering effects. Due to its transformational nature and the vivid green color of the liquid, drinking absinthe became known as “romancing the green fairy.” It was believed to be highly addictive and, in the lead-up to Prohibition, took the blame for many of the social problems of the day.

The forbidden always seems more exotic, so I plotted to get my hands on a bottle, but years passed without success. I traveled to New Orleans in the spring of 2000 and visited the site of the Old Absinthe Bar where, ironically, there was not a drop of absinthe to be had due to the continued ban on its importation, but I was not the only one who’d caught absinthe fever. That same year, a product called Absente was released in America. Marketed as the first legal absinthe in the U.S. since the ban, it was made using a process similar to the original 19th-century versions, replacing the wormwood with southernwood and adding sugar.

I immediately purchased a bottle, along with their matching absinthe-style glasses and spoons. Still infatuated with the ritual that I’d seen at the cinema and read about in my research, I reverently set up my glass and spoon, placing the sugar cube just so, then carefully poured ice-cold water over the sugar and into the glass of Absente. I watched, captivated, as they combined to create la louche—the magical alchemy that transforms clear, emerald-hued absinthe into the opaline shade of green milk glass. This was finally happening! I brought the glass to my lips and took a sip.

In the build-up to this moment, I’d never entertained the thought that anticipation of a thing is often greater than the thing itself. I had also failed to consider that absinthe contains two types of anise—a flavor I don’t favor. Further, I’d never been a fan of hard liquor. Even watered down and sweetened up, this brew was robust, to say the least. I could only choke down about half of the liquid.

Disappointed, but unbowed, I wasn’t quite ready to abandon my quest for true absinthe. Despite discovering that I didn’t dig the drink, I still yearned to experience the heady effects that had inspired artists like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec and authors such as Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, so the search carried on and I continued to accrue absinthe accoutrements.

Helping to keep the dream alive, absinthe was featured in two movies released in 2001. The first was Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, in which several characters savor the spirit and subsequently hallucinate a green fairy in the form of Kylie Minogue. A few months later, I found myself once again in the theater staring up at a stunning bottle of absinthe in From Hell, where Johnny Depp’s character is at once chasing the dragon and romancing the green fairy.

Eventually, Kirsti—who’d caught the absinthe bug from me—convinced a friend who was traveling to the Czech Republic to smuggle a bottle of genuine absinthe back to the U.S. for us. Bottle finally in hand, we set out our paraphernalia and prepared to imbibe. This was it.

Antique silver absinthe spoons are highly collectible, but these stainless steel versions are beautiful and affordable.

I didn’t feel the same thrill I’d experienced when preparing to drink Absente for the first time, but we performed the revered ritual and drank up. I finished my entire glass and even had another, but as the evening progressed, I never felt more than a slight buzz from the alcohol—no symphonies heard, stanzas conceived, or scenes envisioned, and not a single flash of fairy wings.

The romance was officially over.

My absinthe-related supplies and books were relegated to a dusty shelf, while the bottle of contraband liquor languished in a cabinet. This would have been the end of the story if not for our friend Mika, who, in addition to being a trained opera singer and pastry chef, is a talented mixologist with a knack for dreaming up delicious drinks. She likes to rinse a glass with absinthe before constructing a cocktail, or incorporate a small measure in the mixture itself, imparting an almost floral note that I find enchanting. Like many a skilled composer, she doesn’t always transcribe her technique, but BuzzFeed compiled a convenient list of absinthe cocktails for those who don’t take their liquor neat—or too seriously.

Hidden within this vintage-inspired artwork by Robert Rodriguez are the names of Tempus Fugit’s absinthes.

If you have the heart of a true absintheur, you’re in luck! Absinthe was officially legalized in the United States in 2007, leading to a flood of options for enthusiasts. Absente was reformulated to contain actual wormwood, and even Marilyn Manson got in on the game with his acclaimed version, Mansinthe. Many are of high quality, but beware of imitations. I tried one that looked more like mouthwash than absinthe and did not form a louche when water and sugar were added. We at The Swoon Society are partial to Vieux Pontarlier, a pre-ban absinthe from Tempus Fugit Spirits, purveyors of luscious liqueurs in beautiful bottles.

Despite some conflict along the way, this green fairy tale has a happy ending, so raise a glass in cheers to a journey of 25 years, but opt for emerald and skip the silver…unless there are vampires about.


Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:

Absinthe

 

Have you caught the bug? For detailed information about the history, ingredients, and ritual of absinthe, visit Absinthe Fever.

 

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Fruits of Your Labor

Author: Kirsten K., Crafts, History, Holidays

fruit-pomanderI love homemade holiday decorations, especially those fashioned from natural materials. The scents of the season—evergreen, bayberry, cinnamon, cloves—muster memories, both real and imagined, of an old-fashioned Christmas. While the creative process is part of the pleasure, it’s always nice when you can preserve your handiwork to last for more than one season, which is why I enjoy making pomanders.

Traditionally, a pomander (from the French pomme d’ambre, meaning “apple of amber”) was an apple-shaped ball of sweetly-scented herbs and spices held together by ambergris. It was carried in a bag or encased within an ornate orb and suspended from the waist or neck. Used since the Middle Ages to mask unpleasant odors and prevent sickness due to “bad air,” pomanders among the wealthy were often made of gold or silver and encrusted with jewels, but by the 18th century they began to take the more common form of the clove-studded orange we know today.

pomander-ornamentIn addition to oranges, pomanders can be made from lemons, limes, apples, pears, or kumquats. If you want this fragrant fruit to remain ripe with scent, cover the entire surface with cloves, then roll it in a mixture of ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and orris root powder. Allow the pomander to cure in the open air for a week and you’ll have an aromatic adornment that can last for years.

Pomanders lend themselves to all kinds of creative expression, so get inventive. For a sachet with cachet, use cloves to create patterns on the fruit, from simple lines and shapes to swirls and spirals, leaving some or most of the colorful skin visible. Tie a bow around the finished product and hang it on the tree, or pile several of the decorated fruits into a clear glass bowl for a sweet and spicy centerpiece.*

Pomanders are so easy to make that you can build an entire decorating scheme around them. If you take the necessary steps to properly preserve and care for them, you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor all season long.

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Fruit Pomanders

 

For ease, I like to use the Williamsburg Pomander Ball Kit, which comes with cloves, preservative spices, ribbon, and detailed instructions, but do-it-yourselfers can use the following recipe (adapted from The Spice House):williamsburg-pomander-ball-kit

FRUIT POMANDERS

¾ cup orris root powder†
½ cup cinnamon
¼ cup ground cloves
2 Tbsp. ground nutmeg
2 Tbsp. ground ginger
whole cloves (about ¼ cup per fruit)
whole oranges, apples, pears, lemons, or limes

Working from the top in a circular manner, poke holes in the fruit with a toothpick or cake tester and insert cloves by the pointed end, pressing in. It will take 30 minutes to an hour (or more) to completely cover the fruit, so put on some holiday music, make a cup of tea or hot chocolate, and settle in to enjoy the process. I find the repetitive method to be meditative and relaxing, which is a nice antidote to the holiday hustle and bustle.

When the fruit is covered (or your design is completed), mix the spices and orris root together in a shallow bowl or ziplock bag and either roll or shake the fruit in the powder until thoroughly coated. Tap or brush off the excess and set out to dry for several days.

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The Williamsburg Pomander Ball Kit is not available online, but can be purchased from Williamsburg Celebrations by calling (757) 565-8642.

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*Sparsely decorated fruit pomanders won’t last as long as densely covered designs, so keep an eye out for mold.  To extend their life, put them in the refrigerator when not on display.

†Orris root is a member of the iris family. The powder is used as a fixative in perfumes and potpourri. It is available from Amazon and a number of online retailers.

 

Shell-Stocked

Author: Kirsten K., Food & Drink, History, Hot Drinks, Tea

cacao-shell-teaThis presidential campaign has left many Americans feeling shell-shocked. The divisive rhetoric, constant twists and turns, arguments among friends and family members, and contentious result have brought a new level of anxiety to an already incendiary topic. When I’m stressed, I usually deal with it by making myself a hot cup of tea, enjoying a bit of chocolate, and reading up on a favorite subject—such as American history—which is why I’ve been keeping my cabinets well-stocked with Martha Washington’s cacao shell tea.

The latest twist on drinking chocolate, cacao tea is actually a Colonial American tradition.martha-washington An invigorating brew made from roasted cacao shells, Martha Washington’s Chocolate Shell Infusion is as delicious today as it was during her tenure as First Lady. Cacao shells are the husks that encase cocoa beans before they are removed during chocolate production. When steeped in hot water (at least 10 minutes for optimal flavor), they create a tasty caffeine-free beverage with just a touch of chocolate’s natural stimulants, making it a great way to start the day or end the evening. According to the label, Martha Washington enjoyed sipping cacao shell tea at breakfast.

While the roasted shells have a similar aroma to brewed chocolate, the infusion has its own unique flavor profile. Cacao tea has a delicate bouquet and mild bitterness that is completely unlike hot cocoa or chocolate-flavored black teas, delivering the essence of chocolate without the richness or the jitters. For a treat that’s lighter than hot chocolate and won’t keep me up at night, I add a little milk and sweetener. When I want a more intense flavor, I heat the shells and water together on the stove for several minutes before straining into a teacup. It’s a versatile brew fit for both the White House* and your own house.

tea-party-politics

It was tea that got this party—and these Parties—started, so why not host a post-election tea and serve Martha Washington’s Chocolate Shell Infusion? It may not contain any actual tea, but it might help you form a more perfect union, because whether you gather to celebrate or commiserate, cacao tea is sure to get the popular vote.

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Cacao Shell Tea

 

Martha Washington’s Chocolate Shell Infusion is available directly from the producer, Oliver Pluff & Company, which also makes a mint version.

 

*Yes, I am aware that Martha Washington never lived in the White House.

 

Shrub the Right Way

Author: Kirsten K., Cocktails, Cold Drinks, Drinks, Food & Drink, History, Holidays, Recipes, Spirits

Shrub 1Here in Southern California, we’re in the midst of an early summer heat wave, but instead of searching for the cool shade of a tree, I’ve been reaching for the cool treat of a shrub. Shrubs, also known as drinking vinegars, are refreshing beverages made from sweetened fruit and vinegar mixed with still or sparkling water. Used since the 15th century and popular in colonial America as a way to preserve summer fruits, the shrub is currently enjoying a revival.

I first learned about shrubs on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg several years ago and bought a bottle of pre-made shrub syrup from the Williamsburg Marketplace to try at home. I instantly fell for this sweet/tart thirst quencher, but why buy the syrup when you can easily make your own? Shrub 2The recipe is simple, requiring only three ingredients and a bit of pre-planning. Some people recommend cooking the mixture to speed up the process, but I prefer the cold method. It can take a few days, but involves only minutes of hands-on time, and the resulting syrup has greater depth and nuance.

While fresh summer fruits are now becoming available, frozen fruit works just as well when making shrub syrup. In fact, unless you grow your own fruit, pick it yourself, or obtain it from a farmer’s market, I suggest using frozen fruit (preferably organic) to make the syrup, since it is flash frozen a short time after it’s been picked and is actually fresher and more flavorful than most “fresh” fruit. Plus, it’s convenient, having been pre-washed and prepared.Shrub 3

In anticipation of the upcoming 4th of July holiday, I’ve made patriotic red raspberry and wild blueberry shrub syrups. After bottling, it’s best to leave the syrup in the fridge for at least a week or more to cure, so if you get started now, your shrub(s) will be just right to serve at that Independence Day picnic or barbecue. The fruit flavors intensify the longer the mixture sits, and the acid from the vinegar will dissolve any residual sugar over the course of a few days.

Once your syrup has matured a bit, it will be ripe to drink. You can mix it with water to taste, but a good ratio is 2 Tbsp. of syrup for every 8 oz. of water. As mentioned above, you can use still or sparkling water, but get inventive. Use the syrup in place of sugar to sweeten iced tea or lemonade, or follow the lead of trend-setting mixologists who have embraced shrub syrups as a way to add a tart kick to cocktails. The designated drivers and teetotalers at your gathering will appreciate a sophisticated shrub in place of the standard club soda and lime.

As we get ready to revel on America’s birthday, prepare to party like it’s 1776 and celebrate colonial-style with a bottle of aged shrub. It’s the perfect “cure” for the summertime red, white, and blues.

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Shrub 4Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:

COLONIAL SHRUB SYRUP

1 cup berries or fruit cut in small chunks
1 cup sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar*

Put fruit in a glass bowl and stir in sugar, mixing until the fruit is coated. Cover bowl (I try to avoid using plastic wrap, so I just rest a plate on top) and put it in the refrigerator for one to several days. The longer the mixture sits, the more flavor will be drawn out by the sugar, but I find that two days is usually sufficient.Shrub 5

When you remove the bowl from the fridge, the fruit should be floating in a watery syrup. There are a couple ways to separate out the fruit. If you want to save the sweetened fruit to use later, you can either remove it with a slotted spoon, or pour the mixture through a strainer, pressing down on the fruit with a spoon or spatula to extract all the liquid, but it will still be coated with some undissolved sugar and you will need to scoop out any remaining sugar in the bowl to add back in to the liquid.

Since I like the least amount of fuss, I simply add the vinegar to the fruit mixture first and stir until most of the sugar is dissolved. Then I pour it through a strainer and press down on the fruit. Shrub 6What remains is a small pile of sweet, vinegar-infused fruit that you can toss in a smoothie or spoon over ice cream (if that sounds unappetizing, you’ve obviously never drizzled balsamic vinegar over vanilla ice cream).

Whether you add the vinegar before or after you strain the fruit, stir well and pour the mixture into clean bottles or jars. Place in the fridge or a cool pantry (shrub syrup does not strictly need to be refrigerated) for one or more weeks before serving. Makes about two cups of syrup.

Variations
If you want to get creative, experiment with different combinations of fruit, vinegar, and herbs. For a list of herbs that pair well with summer fruits, click here. You can also make shrub syrups with different types of vinegar, including balsamic, champagne, red wine, rice, sherry, white balsamic, and white wine varieties. Balsamic vinegars should be mixed 50/50 with lighter versions, such as dark balsamic with red wine vinegar (great with strawberries) or white balsamic with champagne vinegar (try it with peaches). Use rice vinegar with plums and Japanese basil for an Asian twist. You can even play around with other kinds of sugar, like turbinado, demerara, or muscovado. The possibilities are endless, so have fun!

*I recommend Bragg’s organic unfiltered apple cider vinegar.

 

To serve your drinking vinegars in authentic colonial style, purchase tavern shrub glasses from the Williamsburg Marketplace.

Tie Yourself Up in Scots

Author: Kirsten K., Books, Entertainment, History, Literature, Pop Culture, Television, Travel

Outlander 1As I mentioned in our Holiday G.I.F.T. Guide (that thing keeps coming up again and again and again), I went to Scotland in 1997 with Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, which has been developed into a popular television show on Starz that will begin its second season this Saturday, April 9th.

At the time of this Highland fling, I worked for an audiobook company that did business with Romantic Times magazine (now RT Book Reviews). I was already a huge fan of the Outlander books—a genre-bending series that defies categorization—when the magazine announced that it was organizing a trip to Scotland led by Diana Gabaldon in which the author would take readers to the places she’d written about in her books. So, 19 years ago today, I hopped on a plane to spend a week in the land of kilts and bagpipes with one of my favorite authors.*

Outlander 2

Flushed from too much Scotch whiskey with Diana at the Stakis Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh.

Looking back, I’m not sure why Diana agreed to do it. If I was an author, being trapped in a foreign country with a bunch of fangirls would be my worst nightmare, but she was gracious and accommodating, making herself available to sign our books and answer our endless questions about the series. Her fourth novel, Drums of Autumn, had just been released, so the trip doubled as a book tour of sorts. Walking into one store, we were amused to see Diana’s novels displayed with other “Books by Scottish Authors,” since she is an American who had never set foot in Scotland prior to writing the first book in the series.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Outlander, the novel is told from the perspective of Claire Randall, a British World War II combat nurse who, while vacationing in the Highlands of Scotland with her husband after the war, is transported through a circle of standing stones to 1743. There, she encounters her husband’s ancestor—a sadistic Redcoat—and a band of Scottish clansmen that includes Jamie Fraser, a man who will force her to choose between two different lives and two distant centuries. The series is enthralling, with its combination of historical realism, eloquent prose, pulse-pounding adventure, and passionate romance.

Outlander 3

With Diana at Clava Cairns near Inverness, April 14, 1997

***BOOK/SEASON TWO SPOILER AHEAD***

Back in 1997, Diana accompanied us to Clava Cairns, a prehistoric burial site near Inverness surrounded by stone circles that inspired Craigh na Dun, the fictional circle through which Claire travels back in time. We also visited Culloden field, site of the definitive battle between Scottish clans and British troops that, within the space of an hour, brought an end to the clan system and changed the course of Scotland’s history. There was a tangible sense of grief pervading the area, making us aware that the characters Diana wrote about in her books had flesh-and-blood counterparts who shed that blood on the very field beneath our feet.

***BOOK ONE SPOILER AHEAD***

Outlander 4During the trip, a few of us formed a group of friends, one of whom let us in on a little secret. Back in the states, she had done research on contemporary silversmiths in Scotland, trying to locate someone who could recreate the wedding ring that Jamie gives to Claire in Outlander, described as “a wide silver band, decorated in the Highland interlace style, a small and delicate Jacobean thistle bloom carved in the center of each link.”† She found a woman in Stirling who employed 18th-century techniques to fashion silver jewelry with Scottish motifs. On one of our free days, we met with this woman to discuss the ring and place our orders. Her final design was more rustic and had larger elements than the ring described in the book, but I still treasure it as a memento of the trip and an authentic piece of Scottish artistry.

***END OF SPOILERS***

Outlander 5Twenty-three years after its publication, I was thrilled to see that Outlander was being made into a series for television. Like most fans, I worried about casting and changes to the story, but everyone involved in the production did a fantastic job of bringing Diana’s first novel to life. Season One is out on DVD (in Volumes One and Two) and available for streaming, so there’s still time to tie yourself up in Scots by setting your DVR to record the new season as you catch up on the previous one.

With the series currently standing at eight full-length novels (a ninth is in progress), two novellas, one short story, a graphic novel, and a spin-off series (more of a “sub-series”), the producers should have plenty of material to keep the show going for years. And with some of the highest viewership in the history of Starz, that’s not an outlandish assumption.

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Outlander – Books
Outlander – Television

 

*Technically, I hopped on a plane to New York City on April 7th in order to meet up with part of the RT group on the 8th. We flew to Iceland for a two-day pre-tour in Reykjavík before flying to Scotland on the 11th to join the rest of the group.

 

***SEASON ONE SPOILER BELOW***

†In the Starz adaptation, Jamie gives Claire a wedding ring made from the iron key to the front door of his home, Lallybroch. It may have been a sentimental choice, but it is not a particularly attractive one.

A Flood of Memories

Author: Kirsten K., Books, History, Literature, Nostalgia

When I was a child, I had a series of recurring dreams about being caught in floods and tsunamis that were so vivid and frequent, I can still remember them in detail. My waterlogged nights were the reason that, while visiting my Auntie Jo as a young girl, I plucked a book off her shelf about the St. Francis Dam disaster, kindling a fascination with the story that continues to this day, because today marks the 88th anniversary of the collapse: the deadliest American civil engineering disaster of the 20th century.

A Flood of Memories 1

The St. Francis Dam in February 1927, a year before it failed. At the time, the St. Francis Reservoir was the largest lake in Southern California.

Shortly before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, suddenly and catastrophically collapsed, sending the 12.4 billion gallons of water in the St. Francis Reservoir racing down San Francisquito Canyon and across the Santa Clara River Valley to the sea. In its path were families asleep in their beds, colonies of migrants who worked on local ranches and farms, camps of powerhouse and railroad workers, and untold numbers of animals, all swept away by a wall of water that reached 140 feet at its peak. When it was over, more than 400 people (and possibly as many as 600) were dead, the second largest loss of life in California state history.

A Flood of Memories 2This past January, a new and exceptional account of the disaster hit bookshelves. Floodpath is the result of more than 20 years of meticulous research by author and documentary filmmaker Jon Wilkman. It chronicles the rise of Los Angeles, the life and career of William Mulholland, personal stories about the night of the flood, and details of the aftermath and investigation in such a way that the book reads like a novel. Since the author may have been the last person to interview some of the remaining eyewitnesses and survivors before they died, this is likely to stand as the definitive account.

The chapters in Floodpath describing the night of the collapse are gripping, detailing events of the disaster from the first ominous rumble at 11:57 pm to the last rush of water and debris that entered the Pacific Ocean five and a half hours later. The floodwaters had scoured a path through the canyon and down the valley for 54 miles, destroying property and lives and changing the landscape of Southern California in more ways than one. Equally compelling and tragic is the story of William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer and architect of the St. Francis Dam who had been lauded as a hero for bringing water to drought-parched Los Angeles, but who ended his life a broken man living in seclusion after the failure of the dam.

A Flood of Memories 3

All that remained after the collapse was this center section of the dam, nicknamed the Tombstone.

Because I’d known about the St. Francis Dam collapse since I was young, I didn’t realize until reading Floodpath that the disaster has been virtually forgotten by all but civil engineers, L.A. history buffs, and dam enthusiasts. Jon Wilkman lays out some possible reasons for this “historical amnesia” in his book, including a campaign by civic leaders to whitewash what had been an embarrassing misstep in the aggressive growth of Los Angeles, but it was still a shock when driving through San Francisquito Canyon this week to encounter not one sign leading to the site or marking its location. The only indication that the area had witnessed the greatest man-made disaster in 20th century America—second only to the San Francisco earthquake and fire in terms of Californian lives lost—was a single plaque behind a chain link fence at Power Plant No. 2 that I stumbled upon when I stopped to take a picture (the former powerhouse at that location having been completely washed away in the flood).

St. Francis Dam 1

The site of the St. Francis Dam today looking east. The five steps protruding from the dirt once led up the front of the Tombstone.

The classic film Chinatown popularized the California Water Wars, but even though the St. Francis Dam failure is alluded to in the movie (as the Van der Lip Dam disaster), the collapse has slipped from public consciousness almost as quickly and completely as the waters of the St. Francis Reservoir slipped past the remains of the dam. With our aging infrastructure and shortsightedness in preventing another such disaster, this cautionary tale could not be more relevant. Hopefully, Floodpath will revive interest in this important chapter in the history of Los Angeles and unleash a flood of memories for those who can’t afford to forget.

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Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:

Floodpath

 

Floodpath can be purchased online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bloomsbury, IndieBound, and Powell’s.

Jon Wilkman is currently working on a documentary about the St. Francis Dam. Read more about this project on his website.

 

 

Update 3/13/16:

Yesterday, while my pre-scheduled post about Floodpath was going live, I returned to San Francisquito Canyon for a tour of the St. Francis Dam site through the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. This annual tour on the anniversary of the disaster was led by Dr. Alan Pollack and Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel with an assist from Evan Decker. It began in the Saugus Train Station at Heritage Junction Historic Park with a one-hour lecture and video presentation about William Mulholland and the California Water Wars, the construction and collapse of the St. Francis Dam, and the resulting flood with its deadly consequences.

On the way to the site, we passed the former location of Hollywood cowboy Harry Carey’s Indian Trading Post, a popular tourist attraction that had been swept away by the floodwaters, as well as a private cemetery on a hillside in the canyon where seven members of the Ruiz family, all victims of the flood, are buried. We also walked farther down the floodpath from the dam site than I’d gone on my previous visit, seeing large blocks of concrete from the collapsed dam that had been borne downstream by the water (new picture gallery below). The most powerful moment for me came while standing by Power Plant No. 2, where Dr. Pollack pointed up the hillside to indicate that the floodwaters had reached 3/4 of the way up the canyon walls. Referring to the powerhouse workers and their families, who lived in a small community across from the plant, he lamented, “They never had a chance.”

The SCV Historical Society is actively pursuing legislation to designate the dam site as a National Memorial and Monument and grant it federal protection. Despite the fact that the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. Department of Water and Power seem to prefer that the St. Francis Dam disaster remain a distant and fading memory, this event in our history is of significance not only for Southern California, but for the country at large. Lessons learned from the collapse of the St. Francis Dam helped to improve the building of dams nationwide, and the tragedy should be acknowledged for its role in strengthening our infrastructure and contributing to the growth of this country.

For more information, visit the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.