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’d better 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 her 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…
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 in Ventura? This is Lucy on the line
You know it got a little hairy there 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.
The Saint Francis dam was built to store water brought (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the Owens valley to Los Angeles county via the California Aqueduct; the dam failed just before midnight within days of being filled and sent about 50 million tons of water, mud, and concrete raging down San Francisquito canyon into the Santa Clara River valley while people were sleeping in the small towns along the banks of the river.
"Lucy" is a composite character representing the Hello Girls (telephone switchboard operators) 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 the operators knew they too were in the path of the oncoming flood. When the flood reached Santa Paula it rose to within a few feet of the switchboard office but left the Hello Girls unharmed; they continued making calls to warn 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. Some of them lost their lives. There is a bronze statue in the center of Santa Paula commemorating the extraordinary courage of those officers; the Hello Girls each received a $25 bonus (including overtime pay) from a grateful public.
As a story of engineering, this is a cautionary tale. Chief engineer William Mulholland reckoned the ground where he decided to build the dam looked solid enough, and on the surface it was; but when the new reservoir was filled, the tremendous mass of water pressed down into the softer soil underneath, which began to erode and flow under the dam. Mulholland inspected the muddy leaks at the base of the dam and determined it was just normal settling. Twelve hours later, the dam collapsed and sent a blast of water, mud, and concrete all the way to the sea. Bodies were found washed ashore as far South as San Diego. However, one of the key features of engineering is that we can study our mistakes, learn from them, and then do it better the next time. One can make a case that maybe a disaster like this *had* to happen before we could build Hoover Dam just a few years later.
Here are some academic content standards addressed from the Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core, and California History/Social Studies:
4-ESS3-2. Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the design solution.
ESS3.B: Natural Hazards. A variety of hazards result from natural processes (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions). Humans cannot eliminate the hazards but can take steps to reduce their impacts. Note: This Disciplinary Core Idea can also be found in 3.WC.
ETS1.B: Designing Solutions to Engineering Problems. Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions.
4-ESS3-1. Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology. Knowledge of relevant scientific concepts and research findings is important in engineering.
4-ESS3-1-2. Influence of Science, Engineering and Technology on Society and the Natural World. Over time, people’s needs and wants change, as do their demands for new and improved technologies. Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, to decrease known risks, and to meet societal demands.
RI.4.3. Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.
CA HSS 4.1.3. Identify the state capital and describe the various regions of California, including how their characteristics and physical environments (e.g., water, landforms, vegetation, climate) affect human activity. (Comment: California's growth and development has been guided and restricted by where we can find water, how we get it to where we want it, and how this affects the people involved.)
CA HSS 4.1.4. Identify the locations of the Pacific Ocean, rivers, valleys, and mountain passes and explain their effects on the growth of towns.
CA HSS 4.4.4. Describe rapid American immigration, internal migration, settlement, and the growth of towns and cities (e.g., Los Angeles).
CA HSS 4.4.6. Describe the development and locations of new industries since the turn of the century, such as the aerospace industry, electronics industry, large-scale commercial agriculture and irrigation projects, the oil and automobile industries, communications and defense industries, and important trade links with the Pacific Basin.
CA HSS 4.4.7. Trace the evolution of California’s water system into a network of dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs.
5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.
5-ESS2-2. Describe and graph the amounts and percentages of water and fresh water in various reservoirs to provide evidence about the distribution of water on Earth.
3-5.ETS1.1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
3-5.ETS1.2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
MS.ESS2.1. Develop a model to describe the cycling of Earth’s materials and the flow of energy that drives this process.
MS.ESS2.2. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales.
For more information about the Saint Francis Dam disaster, I highly recommend the website SCVhistory.com. It includes photos of places and people affected by the flood, some of which were used (with permission) for the demo video of this song.
For further reading, much of what I learned for this song came from the book Water To The Angels by Les Standford, a fascinating biography of William Muholland.
In 2019, "Lucy On The Line" won the Pegasus Award at OVFF for Best Song.
Chords: C, G, F, G7, Am
You can play the chords as written, but I usually play this song on guitar with a capo on the fourth fret with the chord shapes of G, D, C, D7, Em. That way you get the same key but a little more mandolin-like sound.