Sweetwater Dam Burst, September 30, 1916

Thanks to the careful note-taking of photographer Lee Passmore, we know what's happening in this shot and when, although we probably could have figured this one out on our own. I assume that's NOT Earl perched on the bluff at left with a camera. If you're not sure why the Sweetwater Dam burst you need to read up on the San Diego Flood of 1916. (Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center)

My father-in-law, Harry Achenbach, was a teenager living on his parent's Otay lemon ranch when the dam broke.  His family was warned that the dam might break so great-grandpa loaded everyone on the buckboard and went to safety over-looking the valley. When all the women folk were safely on the hill, great-grandpa said that Grandpa Achenbach could go back down and salvage some things, but he better hurry. Grandpa quickly went down to the old farm but he panicked. It was getting dark and the dam might break at any moment. He looked around and thought, "What should I save?" He decided to save a chicken!  He returned to the top of the hill just before dark -- and just in time to hear the wall of water tear away everything in the valley. When great-grandpa and grandpa went back into the valley they could not even find one lemon tree, and they could not locate where the house had stood. Everything was gone. Trees, roots and all, the house, the barn, the fertile valley soil -- everything had been washed into the sea.  In the 1960s he would look wistfully at my grandmother's clock and, with great regret, would say "We had a clock just like that. I could have saved that clock, but instead I grabbed a chicken!" Jeannine Berger Passenheim 60

Return to San Diego Photos Page

Return to Historic Photos Page