Lucy on the Line
copyright 2015 by Tim Griffin

It was nineteen hundred twenty eight when the engineer Mulholland
Said the Saint Francis dam was good to go
With a whole year’s of water for a thirsty growing Southland
And no danger to the people down below

But a little short of midnight came a thunder like a cannon
With a lot of sleeping people in the way
50 million tons of water came down Francisquito canyon
And a night-shift operator started calling folks to say:

Can you hear me in Castaic? This is Lucy on the line
Wake your family, get them up to higher ground (there’s not much time)
You’ve got to run out of that canyon, leave all your things behind
Now I’ve got some other calls to make, said Lucy on the line

Now Lucy was a Hello Girl in the town of Santa Paula
You’d hear her voice each time you used the phone
With her fingers on her switchboard, she connected every call
And sometimes she worked the evening shift alone

Then one night in 1928 came word from up the valley
The dam had failed and death was on the way
And though Lucy was no expert, she knew water runs downhill
So she sat down at the switchboard, calling people up to say:

Can you hear me up in Saugus? This is Lucy on the line
You know a lot of little towns are in the way (one is mine)
We’ve got a monster in our valley and we’re running out of time
Go get the children out of bed, said Lucy on the line

Then Piru gone right off the grid, the flood was coming closer
With a hundred feet of water, earth, and stone
When the sheriff ordered Lucy out she simply told him, No sir
And went back to saving people on the phone

When the flood came down to Fillmore town a lot of homes went under
She knew which town would be the next to fall
Then through an open window Lucy heard a growing thunder
But she held the line to place just one more call

Can you hear me, Santa Paula? This is Lucy on the line
Wake your neighbors, wake your children… (pause)
And the families who, thanks to Lucy, made it out in time
Helped to spread the word and thanked the Lord for Lucy on the line

The flood ran down along the banks of the Santa Clara river
Leaving fifty miles of death from dam to sea
With near five hundred people lost and some were never found
Mulholland said, “Just put the blame on me.”

All the people of the valley wondered what became of Lucy
But all the phone and power lines were down
It took a long time to fix them and then the people learned
When they all picked up their phones… and heard an old familiar sound:

Can you hear me down in Saticoy? It’s Lucy on the line!
You know it got a little hairy here but sure, I’m doing fine
I thought the water had me beat but it missed by several feet
Give the neighbors my best wishes…
And a big hug for the Mrs…
Give all the kids my kisses, this is Lucy on the line.

Notes

The events described are true. The Saint Francis dam was built to store water brought from the Owens valley via the California Aqueduct; the dam failed just before midnight within days of being filled and sent 50 million tons of water raging down San Francisquito canyon into the Santa Clara River valley while people slept in the small towns along the banks of the river.

Lucy is a composite character representing the “Hello Girls” of Santa Paula who worked at their switchboards through the night to reach as many people as possible up and down the river and get them out of harm’s way, though they knew they were in the path of the oncoming flood. When the flood reached Santa Paula it came within feet of the switchboard office but left the Hello Girls unharmed; they continued making calls to warn the towns downstream even as chunks of concrete the size of houses rolled by.

There were other heroes that night, including law enforcement officers of various agencies who rushed into the path of the flood to get people out. There is a bronze statue in the center of Santa Paula commemorating the courage of the officers; the Hello Girls each received a $25 bonus including overtime from a grateful public.