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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

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

When the Morenos awoke the next morning, they couldn't believe the devastation. The river had crushed homes and barns and pushed everything down into the river basin. Refrigerators sat perched in trees. Kitchen towels hung from tree limbs. Wagons and farm equipment were upended.

The Ranneys' ranch was under six feet of water.

No one in Prado proper had died, but several bodies were pulled from the muck on the outskirts. Neil Lillibridge's mother got the news that her maid, who lived downstream, had drowned.

One of the eeriest signs that morning-after was the absence of livestock. Many were found under layers of mud. Others were washed miles downstream.

"One horse was dug out of the mud still alive near Huntington Beach, 35 miles downstream," Ranney wrote in a journal.

Up Goes the Dam

The destruction and death were far greater to the south in Orange County, where the Santa Ana meanders through canyons to the ocean. The river toppled bridges and washed out roads and railroad tracks. At least 50 people died. For days, the only way to get from Newport Beach to Santa Ana was by rowboat.

To prevent future disasters, the federal government ordered the Corps of Engineers to build a dam to tame the Santa Ana. The Prado Dam was one of six the federal government built in Southern California during the New Deal era; it was the only one that required the destruction of an entire community.

Government land agents swept through what was left of Prado and began acquiring land. What they couldn't buy, they condemned through eminent domain. Houses went for $140 to $550 apiece. Even the 90-foot spans from the abandoned railroad bridge -- all 561 tons -- were sold as scrap.

As for downtown Prado, its dozen or so wooden structures, including the two-story Hotel Rincon, general store and post office, were razed or left to rot. In the end, 7,000 surrounding acres, once farms, dairies and homes, became the property of the Orange County Water District and the Army Corps.

In what residents saw as a final insult, the corps turned part of Prado into an excavation site that supplied dirt to build the dam.

Barbara Gile, now 80, remembers how her family watched helplessly as their way of life disappeared before their eyes. The government condemned her uncle's home, general store and ranch. He used the compensation to set up a new business in Oceanside, but he was never the same, Gile said.

"It just tore him apart," she said.

The family's general store wasn't damaged in the flood, so the loss was especially painful. They had named their ranch Melmead, meaning "sweet meadow."

Neil Lillibridge's family, which owned one of the largest farms in Prado, fought the government for years, trying to keep their land.

Lillibridge recalls long car trips with his father to the federal courthouse in Los Angeles. The family lost the case, and the government acquired the farm, paying fair market value as determined by assessors. The government also agreed to lease the family land around the dam to farm. Neil Lillibridge's son wrote a college paper on his family's struggles titled "The Damn Dam."

The dam was finished in March 1941. It stretched 2,200 feet, closing off the southwestern end of the Prado basin.

Orange County prospered under the dam's protection. After World War II, it saw an explosion of growth in areas once prone to winter flooding.

Finally tamed, the stretch of river became an intermittent lake that covered about 7,000 acres during the peak spring flood. In summer, much of the basin is dry except for a stream. Chain-link fences and signs warn away trespassers.

Residents Scatter

After the dam went up, suburban tract housing replaced many of the farms in the surrounding area. The Prado residents scattered, some to Corona, Norco and other nearby communities. The old town became a memory and, after a while, not even that.

Then, in the early 1980s, the Army Corps floated its proposal to raise the dam 28 feet to provide better flood protection and store more drinking water.

That's when a detective arrived in the person of Anne Stoll, an archeologist from Redlands hired by the corps. Before the dam could be raised, the corps had to determine whether doing so would harm significant artifacts. This meant completing an excavation of old Prado during the dry summer months.

Decked out in her work boots, jeans and wide-brimmed hat, Stoll led a team of archeologists who used ground-penetrating radar and old maps to retrace the town.

"I remember excavating on hands and knees with a trowel, being careful not to disturb what was there," Stoll said.

Stoll and her team uncovered part of an old adobe built in 1852. Inside, they unearthed the wall of the chapel. Another group of archeologists made a dig in 1987, collecting fragments of wood, a harmonica, a child's shoe, clay dolls, a candlestick in the shape of a crucifix -- 10,000 items in all.

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