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Memories Flood In, Lift Town

A dam obliterated Prado in 1941, but archeologists and survivors are compiling its history and giving it new distinction.

January 23, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

A great flood in 1938 washed out most of the village of Prado. What remained was bulldozed off the map by dam builders, sacrificed so that Orange County and its environs could be protected from catastrophic floods.

Today, the town's ruins lie behind Prado Dam, under tons of mud, water and debris. But the spirit of Prado is rising again.

A handful of survivors -- most in their 80s and 90s -- were determined that its memory would not die with them. So they compiled oral histories, donated old photos that now make up a library exhibit and talked about the old days to whoever would listen.

They had help. Archeologists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug up the buried life of a frontier town, retrieving the everyday objects that gave the place its soul, from ketchup and pepper bottles at the old restaurant on Main Street to fragments of the pottery that Mexican immigrants sold at roadside.

In death, Prado has achieved a distinction it never had in life. It has become a favorite topic of history buffs, the subject of historical tours and dramatic readings. Its story has stirred the imaginations of people in the bedroom suburbs that now surround the dam and given younger generations an appreciation of the sacrifices made to tame the Santa Ana River.

Kathleen Dever, a volunteer who has organized history walks, said that learning about Prado's watery demise has changed her regular drives past the site of the town -- west of Corona, less than a mile north of the Riverside Freeway.

On a recent drive, she noticed that a row of eucalyptus trees just outside the dam's flood basin had been felled. There was a story behind those trees, and Dever had heard it from a woman who once lived in Prado. The eucalyptuses had formed a border on her family's farm.

"I knew her dad had done that. He planted them because his wife wanted them," Dever said. "And now, instead, it's a pile of wood. I don't even want to look over there."

The rediscovery of Prado comes as the town fades further from the physical world. Until recently, enough water receded during the dry summer months that old-timers could make out an old grove of trees or pieces of wood that once framed houses.

Now, so much dirt and sediment have built up that the last of the old markers are becoming invisible. The Corps plans to raise the dam 28 feet, extending the flood basin and possibly burying the last reminders of Prado.

Neil Lillibridge, a 71-year-old former resident, stood recently on a rise above the dam basin, surveying the landscape below, trying to find the remains of a cottonwood that towered in front of his family's farmhouse when he was a boy.

"It used to be right around here someplace," he said. "But now that the tree is gone...." He hesitated, trying to pierce the mists of time. "I believe it was right over there."

Spartan Town

Prado sat on a fertile shelf of land along the river. Gabrielino Indians camped there. Then it was part of a Spanish grant, Rancho El Rincon. The vast haciendas supported a village called Rincon, "the corner."

At the request of the Santa Fe Railway, which stopped in lots of towns named Rincon, the name was changed to Prado ("the meadow").

On this plain grew cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, tomatoes, peppers and corn for tortillas. Livestock outnumbered the 300 or so residents who lived on the four dirt streets of Prado.

The town was spartan, like the folks who lived in it. There were a schoolhouse, a railroad depot, a hotel, a post office, a general store and in later days a garage and pool hall. But the heart of the town was the river -- bone dry during the summer months, violent and unpredictable during the winter rains.

Monster Flood

The phone rang at Clarence Ranney's house just outside Prado around midnight on March 3, 1938.

On the line was a relative who told him to head to the family ranch, a dozen miles east. A heavy snowpack in the San Bernardino Mountains, coupled with warm weather, had swelled the river. Then it had rained for five days, turning the Santa Ana into a monster.

Rising water threatened the Ranney family's 400-acre dairy ranch and its 250 cows. Ranney drove up the canyon as far as he could, then walked the remaining eight miles to the ranch.

"Me and Uncle Joe opened up the gate. We had to let the cows out because of all that water," recalled Ranney, now 92 and living in Iowa.

An upstream dam in Colton gave way that night. The river washed out most of the bridges downstream. As it reached the Prado basin, the debris clogged an opening under a railroad bridge. The backup caused the water level in Prado to rise 30 feet above normal.

While most families fled for higher ground, the Moreno family huddled in the dairy barn and tried to ride out the storm.

"We prayed and prayed and prayed," said Henry Moreno, now 73 and living in Arcadia. "My grandmother ... got out rosaries and in the candlelight we prayed all night."

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