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)

(Continued from page 1)

The water continued from there, moving at a rate of 18 miles an hour, causing catastrophic damage to the towns of Castaic, Saugus, Filmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy. With each stop, the water picked up more debris, more trees and more casualties. The lucky few that had survived the initial crush, grabbed onto anything that would float - mattresses, trees, roofs and even a water tank, which someone reported to have seen a woman riding in an evening gown. According to the L.A. Times, the first warning to residents in the affected areas didn’t come until 1:20 a.m.. Towns that had already been hit did their best to warn others in the water’s path. Heroes emerged, including the “Hello Girls,” female telephone operators like Louise Gipe in Santa Paula and Reicel Jones in Saticoy who called residents in low-lying areas. California Highway Patrol officers Thornton Edwards - who earned the nickname the “Paul Revere of the St. Francis Flood” - and Stanley Baker crisscrossed streets on their motorcycles, sirens wailing. 

It is not known exactly when William Mulholland knew what had happened. Frankly, it didn’t make a difference. There was nothing he could do. Legend has it, when the call finally did come, he prayed out loud, “God, don't let people be killed. Please, God, don't let people be killed."

When Mulholland and Van Norman reached the scene around 2:30 a.m., they quickly realized the extent of the damage. Said Mulholland later, “We saw at once that the dam was completely out and that the torrential flood of water from the reservoir had left an appalling record of death and destruction in the valley below."

By dawn, most of the water had finished its 55-mile journey to the ocean. The only thing that remained of the dam was a little bit of concrete rubble and the middle portion of the dam, which had held. But the survey of the damage had only just begun. Twelve hundred homes were destroyed, thousands of livestock had been killed, and over 500 people were dead or missing. In the coming days, bodies would be found as far south as the California/Mexican border, having been swept away by the water. It is now believed that over 600 people perished due to the many undocumented people who worked in the area but were never accounted for.

Thousands rushed in from across the region to help search, rescue, and bring relief. Universal Studios donated spotlights so crews could work through the night. The L.A. Times set up a “Flood Relief Fund.” The city of Los Angeles set aside $1 million to help treat, feed and shelter the survivors. When it became national news, aid came in as far as Savannah, Georgia.

Prior to March 12, William Mulholland was looked upon as Los Angeles’ savior, the man who quenched the thirst of a growing empire. Now, he was a murderer solely responsible for the breaking of the St. Francis Dam. Residents across the region put up signs in front of their house that read simply, “Kill Mulholland.”

A coroner’s inquest began in earnest, at the public’s demand, on March 21. Witnesses testified to seeing leaks, drips and cracks in the dam in the days prior. A statement made by William Hoke, a friend of Harnischfeger, indicated that “[Harnischfeger] had made some remarks to the unsafeness of the dam and was told by some of the higher-ups... that if he had wished to retain his position, that he better stop talking about the dam as unsafe.” Trained civil engineers explained faults they found in Mulholland’s dam design. When it was the Chief's time on the stand, his expression was pained and his words more so, “Don’t blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, and I won’t try to fasten it on anyone else. On occasion like this, I envy the dead.”

Mulholland also insinuated that he thought the dam had been dynamited; perhaps a callback to his days building the aqueduct, saying that the location in the canyon left it “vulnerable to human aggression.” Furthering his thoughts, he had “a suspicion” of whom to blame, but didn’t want to say whom because “it is a very serious thing to make a charge - to me it is a sacred thing to make a charge, even of the remotest implication.” In a rather emotional testimony before the inquest, he attempted to resign as Chief Engineer, but the board refused it saying, “The board herby declines to grant such a request and urges the chief to remain on the job he has so faithfully filled for half a century.”

After weeks of interviews, the inquest cleared Mulholland of any charges, but did declare that, "the construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent.”

The Commission’s report was released a few weeks later in April and, while also not blaming Mulholland of any intentional wrongdoing, it added, “The failure of the St. Francis Dam was due to defective foundations.” Despite these rulings, many still blamed Mulholland for his negligence, lack of formal engineering training, and arrogance – his belief that he could control the immense power of water.

It would take 68 years before Mulholland would be exonerated. In 1995, geological engineer J. David Rogers concluded in his book, The St. Francis Dam Disaster Revisited, that the dam had been partially built on an ancient landslide site, which shifted under the massive weight of the dam. Said Rogers in an interview with the L.A. Times, "Considering the technology available at the time, there was no way he or any of the people working for him would have known about this gigantic landslide."

At the end of the commission’s report, Governor C.C. Young gave his thoughts on what the future would hold for Los Angeles and its precious water, “While fully cognizant of the appalling loss of life and great destruction of property caused by this frightful disaster, it is at the same time self-evident that the full development of this great commonwealth requires that her water resources be fully conserved. This can be done only by containing the constructions of great dams, such as those which are now doing their work without signs of weakness.”

There are still concrete remains of the St. Francis Dam in the San Francisquito Canyon. Nearby these haunting reminders, there is a sign: “On March 12, 1928, just before midnight, it collapsed and sent over twelve billion gallons of water roaring down the valley of the Santa Clara River. Over 450 lives were lost in this, one of California’s greatest disasters.”

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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