Memories Flood In, Lift Town

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.”

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.


Near two kilns where Mexican immigrants had fired pottery, they found figurines that had survived decades underground, including a ceramic frog, a donkey and a man riding an ox.

None of the items was considered significant enough to halt the dam expansion. But the digs had another effect, sparking interest in Prado. The resulting preservation efforts, though modest, have fulfilled Prado residents’ dream of creating a vibrant historical record that will remain after they die.

Among the most ardent chroniclers of old Prado was the late Christena Fear Desborough. A descendant of one of the town’s most prominent farming families, she was in her late 30s when the great flood struck.

She helped organize Prado reunions and picnics. She always asked the old-timers -- who called themselves “Rinconites” -- to bring written accounts, old photographs and other memorabilia. Onetime neighbors renewed acquaintances over sandwiches and coffee and swapped newspaper clippings and old photos.

Desborough also collected keepsakes and wrote an exhaustive and opinionated chronicle of Prado’s development and destruction. In the unpublished manuscript, she took potshots at Orange County, which lobbied aggressively for the dam.

“How one county could have so much influence ... is something the average ‘Rinconite’ has never fully understood,” wrote Desborough, who died in 1988.


Her prodding resulted in the creation of a place to display historical items, now called the Heritage Room at Corona library. A sampling of the pottery and other artifacts collected from the archeological digs is on display at the San Bernardino County Museum. The Corps of Engineers published a book on its ceramics discoveries titled “The Mexican Potters of Prado.”

Randy Amelino, 50, of Corona lived a few miles from old Prado for a dozen years before learning about its history. As a member of the Toastmasters, a speech-making group that often stages historic reenactments, he portrayed Lynn Lillibridge, Neil’s father, and other pioneers during a cemetery tour sponsored by the Corona Historical Preservation Society several years ago.

Later, he struck up a chance conversation with a Prado survivor at a Mexican restaurant.

“It opened my eyes,” said Amelino, who owns a cleaning products company in Corona. “To have a whole place flooded out and to see that kind of destruction is something. I think it’s an important part of history.”

Amelino has mixed feelings about what happened. “We live in a flood zone, so we know the dam had to be there,” he said. “Unfortunately, a small town had to be sacrificed for this to happen.... It’s like the growth of the West. It’s ever-expanding.”