(Editor’s note: Stewart Slavin posted the story below on his Facebook. Circling the News asked if we could post it for readers. Slavin is a longtime resident who has worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia and the Pacific granted his permission. He said in writing the story, “I was interested in the history of the Palisades and had access to old news stories and photos of the time.” Slavin has recently relocated to North Carolina.)
BY STEWART SLAVIN
It was March 1958 when a pair of hillsides in Pacific Palisades collapsed a mile and days apart. One slide, below Via de las Olas, killed a state highway supervisor. A second slide, near the Bel Air Bay Club isolated 154 families at the Palisades Bowl mobile home park. The slides would alter the course of the Pacific Coast Highway.
On March 27, William H. Martin, 17, a junior at University High, was at the wheel of a tiny blue, Italian-designed Isetta sports car, driving his stepdad to work in a heavy rainstorm on Pacific Coast Highway.
Suddenly, a huge slice of earth tore loose from the cliff below Via de la Paz, and a mountain of mud came cascading down on Martin and his stepfather, Forrest P. Boniface, 42, of Topanga Canyon.
Their two-seat “bubble car” was carried like a toy on the crest of the 120-foot-wide wave of mud and rocks and dumped at the water’s edge.
Miraculously, both occupants crawled to safety through a broken rear window. They were taken to Santa Monica Hospital where they were treated for cuts and other minor injuries.
Martin had worked as a delivery boy at a Palisades pastry shop owned by the father of my Palihi classmate and now civic leader Richard Wilken.
“Our car just floated along the crest of the slide,” Boniface said. “We were lucky to have a small car. If we’d have been in a larger car, we would have been killed.”
Boniface said they were about midway through the slide area, when the mass of mud rolled down on them. “By the time we saw it, it had picked us up. I think we made one complete turn in what seemed like a river of flowing dirt.”
He said they saw no other cars in the slide area, although another motorist told authorities he saw two vehicles.
Four days later, a second large slide struck below Via de las Olas, where district highway superintendent, Vaughn O. Sheff, who had been the chief spokesman on the earlier slide, was directing cleanup operations.
Supposedly, Sheff was just set to reopen the road, when an estimated 600,000 tons of rain-loosened earth and rock came tumbling down, burying the highway and covering Sheff in more than 100 feet of debris at the foot of Via de la Paz.
Although there were at least 26 other workmen present at the time of the slide, only Sheff was buried by the earth.
Mechanic Samuel Patterson, 42, said he screamed a warning to Sheff and other men when he saw the slide coming and heavy equipment including bulldozers being pushed and tossed by the crumbling earth. “Sheff started to run, and then stumbled and fell,” Patterson said. It took seven hours to exhume his body from the small mountain of dirt and rocks.
In the first of the ‘58 avalanches, some 200,000 tons of rain-loosened earth spilled across all four lanes of the highway, leaving a 25-foot-high pile.
Police said a big chunk of the nearly vertical cliff “looked like it was cut off with a huge knife.” There were no houses on top of the cliff in the immediate vicinity of the collapse, dubbed the “killer slide” because of Sheff’s death.
Before he was buried alive four days later, Sheff also served as spokesman for operations involving the first slide and commented on the remarkable survival of the pair in the Isetta although such good fortune would later elude him.
“That little foreign job escaped because it was light,” Sheff said. “A heavier vehicle probably would have been caught and buried. If anyone is in there, we’ll have to move 200,000 tons of earth to find them.”
Hours after the slide, new fissures appeared on the face of the cliff at Via de las Olas, threatening a further collapse. Residents of nearby streets, including Via de la Paz, were given warnings.
A new collapse, near the Bel Air Bay Club, isolated 154 families living at the Palisades Trailer Bowl, which was located between the two slide areas. The collapses were in the same area as another major slide that blocked PCH for three days in February 1956.
The coast highway between Santa Monica Canyon and Sunset was closed. While PCH was being cleared and repaired, a half-mile, four-lane causeway was built as a detour between Temescal and Potrero canyons.
During the closure, Chautauqua and Sunset Boulevards that connected to Pacific Coast Highway were often bumper to bumper through the Palisades.
The caption on a photo (above) explained that: “Never ending line of traffic plagues residents of Palisades, most of whom moved to the community because of quiet and smog-free air; now must join stop-and-start caravans whenever they want to venture out of town — or even into town.”
Of course, landslides in Pacific Palisades are nothing new and geological maps have shown their danger since 1926. In 1958, geologist Harry R. Johnson said old faults and the failure of home and road builders to recognize geologic hazards can be blamed for the loss of life and property resulting from landslides.
The “killer slide” of ‘58 under Via de las Olas was the result of the Potrero Fault, according to Johnson.
He traced the fault from just north of the old Flagg’s By-the-Sea Restaurant across the canyon and up La Cumbre Drive, through Santa Monica Canyon where it cuts across Leo Carillo’s old ranch, to the vicinity of 14th Street and San Vincente Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Johnson said fault areas can also be associated with slide areas in Castellammare, where four homes had been condemned, and slippage north of the Bel-Air Bay Club.
If the ground is saturated by rain, the water will act as a lubricant between soil particles, and the strength of the saturated ground is pulled down by gravity, said Jim O’Conner, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “An entire hillside can begin flowing downhill if sufficiently soaked,” he said. “Strategies to decrease the risk of mudslides include draining water off hillsides, armoring the bases of hills so they are not undercut by rivers, and ’loading the toe,’” O’Conner said in an article in the National Geographic in 2014.
“In the case of ‘loading the toe,’ engineers put heavy mass, such as large rocks, at the base of a hill to try to anchor the slope and prevent it from coming loose,” he said. Measures have also included retaining walls with horizontal drainpipes and tiebacks — pipes in retaining walls fitted with high-tension strands that can withstand large amounts of pressure.
Lorilyn Teasdale, who was raised in the Palisades, recalls her mother telling her a story of how highway supervisor Sheff died in the 1958 slide.
“In the version of the story that I was told, the highway superintendent had ordered the mudslide “toe” supporting the cliffs removed, and that he then waved his arm to order PCH reopened, and was killed by the landslide,” Teasdale said. “Like some sort of Divine Intervention for not respecting Mother Nature.”
Pacific Coast Highway was subsequently moved around the toe of the slide, closer to the ocean.
Palisades historian Randy Young noted there had been more than 30 road-closing slides between 1911 and 2012, all involving only three miles of coastline. At least eight homes were destroyed during that time and PCH has been rerouted five times.
“The history of the Palisades is a history of land movement,” Young said. “(But) one reason the Palisades is so charming is because of these slopes. You have to live with the good and the bad. It’s the yin and the yang of the Palisades.”
Peggy Samuel Granbery grew up about two blocks from the slide.
“The slide area became one of our favorite play areas — we called it the Cowboy Place,” she said. “I don’t think we realized how dangerous it could have been, but we fully understood the loss for so many people.”