On Occasions Like This, I Envy the Dead: The St. Francis Dam Disaster

William Mulholland was the savior of Southern California until he wasn’t

The front page of the Los Angeles Times on March 14, 1928 (Los Angeles Times)
smithsonian.com

It was three minutes before the stroke of midnight on a windy March 12, 1928, when the St. Francis Dam broke. Many of the sleepy residents of the San Francisquito Canyon mistook the shaking and rumbling for an earthquake, a common enough occurrence in Southern California. Within moments, the canyon was filled with 12.6 billion gallons of water, which had been intended for the sinks, bathtubs, and residents of Los Angeles 47 miles away. The water instead roared through the canyon, valley, and the small towns that populated the region, smashing everything in its path.

It wasn’t until 6 a.m., with the sun peeking over the eastern horizon and the water finding its only logical exit into the Pacific Ocean, that the damage could finally be assessed. “200 Dead, 300 Missing, $7,000,000 Loss in St. Francis Dam Disaster,” read the Los Angeles Times front page on the 14th. The final tallies would end up being much worse.

Humans make mistakes all the time – mistakes that are unintentional, without malice, and completely by accident. Assigning blame is thought to alleviate the pain, but is often pointless; fault cannot erase the tragedy or consequences. Blaming can also impede progress and causes the effected to be stuck in the past, rather than move towards an improved future.

This is the story of progress at any cost, of William Mulholland, of empire building, of intended and unintended consequences. This is the story of the St. Francis Dam Disaster, the worst civil engineering failure of the 20th century.

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Upon her arrival among the citrus groves and sunshine in the 1870s, novelist Margaret Collier Graham described the city of Los Angeles as a “queer little Spanish town.” For the first half century of its existence, that was an apt description. The 1848 Mexican-American War gave the United States the opportunity to “annex” Los Angeles and the rest of the state of California from its southern neighbor. When the city of Los Angeles was incorporated as a city in 1850, it had only 1600 people, most of who spoke Spanish or were native Paiute or Tongva . Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, the city grew at an exponential rate, reaching 50,000 residents by 1890 and doubling that number just ten years later.

As people streamed into Los Angeles at the turn of the century, drawn to the constant warmth, beautiful sun, and arid climate, it was clear the burgeoning metropolitan was in need of many civil services. A reliable water source for a city prone to drought was the most necessary. In 1902, the city of Los Angeles officially formed the Los Angeles Department of Water, naming their long-time employee William Mulholland the first “Chief Engineer and General Manager.”

Born in Ireland in 1855, William Mulholland ran away from home after a particularly severe beating from his father (due to a bad report card) and joined the British Merchant fleet, the largest in the world. His four years on the high seas took him across the Atlantic, where he moved about, from New York City to Michigan to Pittsburgh to San Francisco, before settling in Los Angeles.

In the spring of 1878, William Mulholland was hired to be a deputy zanjero, responsible for digging ditches, or zanjas, meant for pipes drawing water from the Los Angeles River. Embodying the American industrious spirit, he used his down time and meager savings to acquire textbooks on engineering, geology, hydrology, and mathematics. For the next 23 years, Mulholland rose through the ranks of the company - from zanjero to foreman to superintendent

Nicknamed “The Chief,” Mulhollland knew the Los Angeles River was too small to provide water for a city that had grown beyond 100,000 people. Water needed to come from somewhere else. Working with mayor (and former roommate) Fred Eaton, Mulholland came up with a plan on how to bring water to the city of Los Angeles. Taking a page out of the Roman playbook, they would build an aqueduct that would carry water from the clean and plentiful Owens Lake 224 miles away to their growing city. It was a bold and legacy-defining plan that would lead Los Angeles into the future.

In 1913, the 233-mile-long aqueduct opened with Mulholland declaring, “Only water was needed to make of this region a tremendously rich and productive empire, and now we have it.” Moments later, he gave the signal for the giant spigot to be turned, and as water spilled out, Mulholland turned to the crowd and yelled, “There it is. Take it!”

The next few years, however, would make clear that Mulholland needed a back-up plan.

While the aqueduct held during the 1920 Inglewood earthquake, other buildings in the region crumbled, a warning about how susceptible the dam could be to disaster. Additionally, Owens Lake began drying up sooner than projected. And then there were the saboteurs.

Many Owens Valley farmers and landowners were angry about what had been done to their once-fertile region. They blew up parts of the aqueduct with coordinated dynamite attacks, which intensified in 1924 when the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the farmers for “wrongfully diverting” water to their farms. In response, Mulholland began building five reservoirs across the Los Angeles area  - Stone Canyon, Encino, Haiwee, Silver Lake and Mulholland Dam. After their successes, he began construction on his most ambitious project yet - the St. Francis Dam in the San Francisquito Canyon.

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Completed on May 4, 1926, the St. Francis Dam stood nearly 200 feet tall, 700 feet long and covered 600 acres. Built into a sparsely populated mountainous canyon about 47 miles northeast from downtown Los Angeles, the area’s residents consisted mostly of farmers and workers at the dam or hydroelectric power plants, known as Powerhouse #1 and Powerhouse #2. It was the largest arch-supported dam in the world, with the ability to hold over 12 billion gallons of water, about two years worth of water for the city of Los Angeles. It cost $1.3 million to build, which was actually under budget - a tendency for a Mulholland-led project. It was Mulholland himself who opened the gate on the morning of May 13 to fill up the reservoir at a rate of 70 million gallons a day.

Less than two years later, the dam collapsed.

Early in the morning on March 12, the day of the disaster, dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger was doing his normal daily inspection when he found something distressing; a rather significant leak on the west abutment was pouring out muddy water - a potential sign that foundation material was being washed away. Harnischfeger called Mulholland, who rushed to the site accompanied by his deputy, Harvey Van Norman. Arriving around 10:30 a.m., they inspected further, but discovered, much to their relief, that the water was not muddy at the point of origin of the leak. This left them convinced that construction nearby had made the water muddy and the dam itself was not in immediate danger of collapse. They returned to Los Angeles and ate “a late lunch,” apparently unconcerned. Around 11 p.m., Harnischfeger completed his usual nightly inspection. Less than an hour later, the dam broke.

Estimates put the dam officially collapsing at 11:58 pm, possibly even a few seconds earlier. It is believed that Harnischfeger, his girlfriend and their son were the first ones to perish. There are no first-hand accounts from anyone who actually saw the dam break; anyone who did see it would presumably have been killed instantly. Seconds later, the water took out the nearby power lines, leaving the canyon in total darkness. At 12:03 a.m., according to the official report written by an independent commission, the “liquid avalanche” took out the concrete Powerplant #2, crushing it “as easily as an eggshell.”  

The St. Francis Dam, circa 1926/1927 (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)

Ray Rising was one of only three people from a nearby community who survived the disaster; his wife and two daughters did not make it through alive. In a 1963 profile, Ray described his harrowing experience:

“We were all asleep in our wood-framed home in the small canyon just above the power house. I hear a roaring like a cyclone. The water was so high we couldn't get out the front door. The house disintegrated. In the darkness I became tangled with an oak tree, fought clear and swam to the surface. I was wrapped with electrical wires and held by the only power pole in the canyon. I grabbed the roof of another house, jumping off when it floated to the hillside. I was stripped of clothing but scrambled up the razorback of a hillside.”

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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