A massive landslide on Pacific Coast Highway (State Route 1) in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles engulfed the 58-year-old highway superintendent on March 31, 1958.
Sheff was examining the progress of maintenance workers who stayed on the job around the clock to clear away an earlier landslide on the highway north of Santa Monica. Suddenly a larger section of the cliff collapsed, burying him while other workers scrambled to safety.
“He was considered one of the outstanding superintendents in District 7, the only one holding a California license as civil engineer,” the California Highways and Public Works magazine reported in its May-June 1958 edition following his death.
Sheff is one of 184 California Department of Transportation employees who have been killed on the job since 1921, according to official records as of March 25, 2016.
Sheff was born Aug. 18, 1900, in Cloquet, Minn., and lived in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was survived by his wife, Ruby, a stepdaughter, two grandsons, five sisters and four brothers.
He served with the 1st U.S. Engineers during World War I with the Army of Occupation in Germany. After working for the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, Sheff went to the State Division of Highways in 1929.
He was assigned to District 7 Maintenance in 1948. In 1952, he transferred to District 1 in Eureka as maintenance superintendent. Less than six months later he returned to District 7 as superintendent of the Venice maintenance territory.
According to a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, Sheff died while inspecting the cleanup where rain-soaked earth had fallen several days earlier, blocking a 200-yard section of Pacific Coast Highway at the west end of Via de las Olas. Then came the second, larger slide.
“Sheff desperately ran for the beach but stumbled and fell,” the newspaper reported. “His crumpled body was exhumed after seven hours of digging.”
The day after the tragedy, the International Press news agency reported that “the engineer was buried beneath more than 100 feet of earth” when “an estimated 600,000 tons of rock and dirt cascaded down on the route north of Santa Monica, burying the highway for a quarter mile.”
It added, “Cleanup crews, including trucks, bulldozers and skip-loaders, were tossed around like toothpicks as the new chunk of wet earth spilled from the towering cliffs along the ocean. Some of the men rode their heavy equipment almost to the breakers.”
Sheff “was undoubtedly one of the best liked of District 7 employees and will be very greatly missed by all of his many friends,” reported the April 1958 edition of Caltrans District 7′s Highway News Bulletin. “Sheff’s great absorbing interest outside his work was fishing the local and distant trout streams, which he did in company with his friends and associates, who are proud to tell of his prowess as a fisherman. He was a lover of growing things and took great pride in his garden.”
After the tragedy, state employees established a scholarship in Sheff’s memory at the campus then known as Los Angeles State College, now called California State University, Los Angeles.