Children of the Dammed: On the St. Francis Dam Disaster

By Jeffrey BurbankMay 26, 2016

Children of the Dammed: On the St. Francis Dam Disaster

Heavy Ground by Norris Hundley Jr. and Donald C. Jackson
Floodpath by Jon Wilkman

THE FLOOD MYTH is a narrative staple of many societies and cultures — a tale most often told of a catastrophic deluge that is retribution meted out by a vengeful creator. The Old Testament’s flood of Noah, Mesopotamia’s Epic of Gilgamesh, and the story of Deucalion in Greek mythology are some of the most familiar in this watery canon.

Southern California may not be a separate society or culture — although many have argued otherwise — but it does lay claim to harboring its own flood myth: the spectacular failure of the St. Francis Dam. The actual 1928 tragedy is not a myth at all, but a fact that had been submerged for decades by a willfully amnesiac public. The disaster is nevertheless mythic in its enormity and drama, now more of a legend than a memory, and its tale has recently been told twice: in Heavy Ground: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster and Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles. The former is an academic work with the imprimatur of the Huntington Library, and its co-authors Norris Hundley Jr. (now deceased) and Donald C. Jackson capitalize on a vast reservoir of documents and images archived at the Huntington, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), and other sources, including the authors’ collections. The latter is the work of Jon Wilkman, an accomplished film documentarian with his own collection of images, and it presents a cinematic unfolding of the story (indeed, Floodpath appears to have been written as the companion volume to an as-yet-unfinished documentary feature). While both books were published virtually at the same time, they provide complementary rather than redundant narratives and rarely contradict one another. What those narratives tell us today can prove surprisingly relevant.

The story of the St. Francis Dam cannot be told without recounting the story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and its chief architect, William Mulholland, whose triumph (the aqueduct itself, a civil engineering marvel of its day) and tragedy (the dam’s colossal failure) serve as bookends to a career. Begun in 1908, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913 on time and within budget — a 233-mile-long highway of concrete channels, tunnels, and siphons that conveys water by sheer gravity from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. As I read both books, I was reminded of poet Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” whose speaker “placed a jar in Tennessee, / And round it was, upon a hill. / It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill.” Here the St. Francis Dam serves as the anecdotal jar around which a complex story organizes itself — the recounting of a triumph as seen through the lens of a resulting calamity.


Much has already been written about the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the controversy surrounding it — the “water wars” that it precipitated with the ranchers and residents of the Owens Valley, whose land and water rights had been subsumed by Los Angeles. In that saga, Mulholland is part of a trio of collaborators — the others being onetime Los Angeles mayor Fred Eaton and the Reclamation Bureau’s J. B. Lippincott — who have been understandably vilified by Owens Valley residents since almost the turn of the last century. It was Eaton and Lippincott who convinced Mulholland that the Owens River was the ideal water source for the growing metropolis, and the city proceeded to acquire so much land in the Owens Valley that it easily exceeded the area of its city limits proper.

Fifteen years after the aqueduct’s completion, the St. Francis Dam, which backed up a newly filled reservoir (at the time, it is astonishing to learn, the largest freshwater lake in Southern California), collapsed, emptying 12 billion gallons of water into the Santa Clara River drainage — cutting a 54-mile swath of destruction and death in the middle of the night of March 12, 1928. Its violent path coursed through the settlements of Saugus, Castaic Junction, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy, Montalvo, and on to the sea. “There it is. Take it!” had been Mulholland’s resonant declaration on November 5, 1913, when the aqueduct’s waters first ceremoniously spilled into the LA basin. “The only ones I envy,” Mulholland is reported to have said after the dam burst, “are the ones who are dead.”

The reason for the dam’s collapse and the ensuing death and destruction that it wrought form the bulk of each narrative. But both histories necessarily must be “his stories” — biographies of Mulholland the man himself, who was born in Belfast in 1855 and immigrated to the United States in 1876 after several years before the mast, settling in the west to seek his fortune first as a miner, and then as a ditch-digger, for the privately held Los Angeles Water Company. A self-taught, driven man with a strong work ethic, Mulholland early on became fascinated by the mechanics of geology and engineering, and he read voraciously on those subjects and many others. He went from being the water company’s zanjero, or ditch tender, to its superintendent and chief engineer (in 1904) after the utility became a municipally owned concern. Known by many as “the Chief,” and by familiars as Bill, Mulholland was the type of leader who inspired loyalty among his blue-collar workers and superiors alike, in part because he had modest origins and preferred to be a field man rather than a desk-bound functionary. (He loathed paperwork, and he made up for it with his prodigious memory; he was able to pinpoint every pipeline in the city by marking it on a map, noting its diameter and other details. As a result, Wilkman says, Mulholland didn’t leave much of a paper trail.)

Both books seize on a signal anecdote from Mulholland’s early zanjero days: while the young Irishman was toiling away on a ditch, ankle-deep in mud, a man on horseback rode by and asked him what he was doing. “None of your damn business!” was Mulholland’s alleged retort, and it turned out that the man whom he had addressed was William Perry, the head of the department. As Hundley and Jackson remark,

While perhaps apocryphal, the anecdote […] highlights two fundamental attributes at the core of Mulholland’s professional character: a willingness to work hard in the service of his employers and a disposition to resist (perhaps even resent) outside review of his work. The latter would prove particularly significant when it came time to build the St. Francis Dam.

That time came in the mid-1920s after the aqueduct was a fait accompli and Mulholland was already a firmly installed pillar of the community, revered and respected by many. Los Angeles’s growing water needs required additional nearby storage, and Mulholland chose a site in San Francisquito Canyon, near the aqueduct’s own existing right-of-way and close to the two power plants that the city built several years earlier to capitalize on the hydroelectric potential of the aqueduct’s elevation drops through the canyon. (The turbines of Power House 1, nearly a century old, and a rebuilt Power House 2 still whir and thrum in the canyon to this day.)

Floodpath and Heavy Ground both point out that municipally built dams in California were not subject to state regulation or inspection, and Mulholland essentially proceeded with the St. Francis Dam on his own terms, using “in-house” resources in lieu of outside contractors, with scant outside review. He was determined to build a concrete gravity dam at the St. Francis site, rather than to consider other options — such as the multiple-arch buttress design used at Littlerock Dam (near modern-day Pearblossom), a technologically more appropriate option for the canyon’s topography.

Earlier, in 1925, the Chief had completed a reservoir much closer to the city, in Weid Canyon: Lake Hollywood, backed up by what is now known as Mulholland Dam. This structure is notable for being Mulholland’s first concrete gravity dam and for being virtually identical in design to the subsequent St. Francis Dam. Shortly after the disaster, the city camouflaged Mulholland Dam’s sheer verticality by depositing some 330,000 cubic feet of soil around its flanks to create an apron or berm that, when planted with foliage and trees, creates the impression that the dam is merely a quaint concrete dike decked with fanciful grizzly bear finials, rather than a 200-foot-high edifice backing up thousands of acre-feet of water. Wilkman’s book includes a rare photo of the original Mulholland Dam as seen from the “flats” of Hollywood, which shows it looming dramatically and menacingly above the cityscape. (The author also quotes geologist J. David Rogers’s observation that after the disaster, this doppelgänger dam became “the most peer reviewed dam in American history.”)

So, when we come to March 12, 1928, the true story begins, and that story is populated with characters Dickens could have named. There is Ray Rising, one of the workers at the Power House 2 settlement downstream from the dam who miraculously survives the flood by leaping onto the roof of a floating bungalow, finding refuge on land but never recovering his wife and children. (Subsequently Rising would return to work at a rebuilt Power House 2 and live out his days with a new wife and family in a house not far from where he resided when the disaster hit.) There is Ace Hopewell, a worker at Power House 1 who passes the dam on his motorcycle near midnight and is the last one to see it intact. There is Mulholland’s engineering nemesis, Frederick Finkle, who excoriated the Chief at every turn for poor dam-building practices. There is Thornton Edwards, the chief of police in Santa Paula, who rode his motorbike as a latter-day Paul Revere, warning residents of the imminent flood. There is Asa Keyes, the Los Angeles District Attorney who plays a key role in the coroner’s inquest that follows the disaster. There is Ezra Scattergood, the head of the Bureau of Power and Light, the energy side of the DWP, who distanced himself from all aqueduct-related concerns. And there is the Chief himself, the man on the witness stand, devastated but still ever-confident, if not arrogant, in his own judgments, who had come to the dam on the morning of March 12 at the bidding of dam-keeper Tony Harnischfeger.

The dam-keeper had been alarmed by the preponderance of leaks emanating from the structure — particularly water issuing from the dam’s west abutment that seemed to be muddy — a telltale sign that water had penetrated the dam’s very foundations and could literally push the structure upward and topple it. Mulholland and his deputy Harvey Van Norman then showed up and spent several hours inspecting the leaks, and the Chief departed confident that nothing was amiss because the water was actually clear, deriving its muddiness from passing over a roadcut. (Later Mulholland would proclaim at the coroner’s inquest that the St. Francis “was the driest dam of its size” he’d ever seen.) Mulholland and Van Norman returned to Los Angeles at 2:00 p.m. in time for a late lunch, and in the middle of the night the call came notifying the Chief that that dam had failed.

Both books elaborate the aftermath of the great tragedy in which a wall of water, initially more than 100 feet high, surged through San Francisquito Canyon at an 18-mile-per hour clip into the Santa Clara River. The stories of searches for bodies, the makeshift morgues set up for their identification, and the documentary photos that accompany them are moving and explicit, many previously unpublished. To this day the exact tally of the dead is not known but has been estimated to be between 400 and 500, a statistic that has bequeathed many superlatives: “the worst American civil engineering disaster of the 20th century,” or “California’s worst man-made disaster” among them. For purposes of comparison, both books reference the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 as the state’s worst natural disaster with a death toll of more than 3,000, and Pennsylvania’s Johnstown Flood of 1889, which ranks as the nation’s worst civil-engineering catastrophe, with more than 2,000 casualties.

Much ado is made of the geology of the dam site, its eastern abutment consisting of gray mica schist — or Pelona schist — that constituted an ancient landslide or “paleomegaslide” as the argot has it, and its western abutment a reddish sandstone conglomerate (part of the colorful Sespe Formation). It was widely believed that the Sespe Formation on the west side was the least stable and would break first, but in fact it was the eastern abutment that gave way. The title Heavy Ground comes from the aqueduct engineers’ description of the Pelona schist as being particularly susceptible to shearing and fracturing when tunneled — its “heaviness” making it prone to collapse. The fact that the dam was built without sufficient drainage at its base and abutments and the fact that its level was raised some 20 feet during construction without a commensurate increase in its foundation Hundley and Jackson use to indict Mulholland’s lack of rigor, whose design they condemn as “egregiously retardaire.” In this respect Heavy Ground often reads like a prosecutor’s brief, making — from an engineering perspective — a convincing case for Mulholland’s culpability in the disaster. (It is also oddly self-referential, often citing itself in phrases like “It is not the purpose of Heavy Ground to …” and referencing issues that either have been discussed or will be discussed in specific chapters, as if the book were not expected to be read linearly.) The authors observe that a concrete gravity dam is superficially imposing and dramatic in appearance, and that Mulholland likely favored it for that very reason. At the same time, despite its occasional workmanlike lapses and labored awareness of its own “definitive” scope, Heavy Ground is an impressive piece of historiography, relying as it does on one of the linchpins of research — the primary text. Hundley and Jackson liberally quote from what is apparently the only extant copy of the transcript from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s inquest, and these passages are telling and emotional. (Wilkman, too, quotes from this essential document, but not as liberally.) In one passage, Mulholland is asked if he were to build the dam over again, would he build it in the same spot?

A: [Mulholland] Not in the same place.
Q: [assistant D.A.] Why not?
A: Well, it fell this time and there is a hoodoo on it, that would be enough for me.
Q: A hoodoo?
A: Yes, it is vulnerable to human aggression and I would not build it there.
Q: You don’t mean that because it went out the morning of the 13th?
A: Perhaps that, but I did not think of that before, but that is an additional hazard. I had not thought of that.

What Mulholland may have thought of but never admitted was his initial fear that saboteurs had dynamited the dam as they had earlier dynamited the aqueduct several times in the Owens Valley. This notion, shared overtly by others, was almost immediately disproved.

In any event, the passage is a poignant form of historical eavesdropping, uncovering the sense of Mulholland’s sorrow and superstition in the wake of a tragedy that he took responsibility for even though he was legally exonerated.

Today, there is a touch of irony in the observation that the most visible emblem of the aqueduct’s triumph and the locus of its tragedy are but 20 crow-miles apart, one evident to all and the other easily bypassed. The Cascades, located where Interstate 5 and Balboa Boulevard intersect, is a dramatic terminus of the aqueduct — a dual cataract of rushing water released from what is actually two aqueducts into a nearby storage reservoir and seen by thousands of freeway commuters each day. It was here in 1913 that the aqueduct’s dedication took place and is duly marked by a historical plaque. If you were to drive north on the interstate, exit at Magic Mountain Parkway, and proceed another 10 miles into the upper reaches of San Francisquito Canyon, you would come to a junction with the old, abandoned highway. A short walk south on the old roadbed takes you to the site of the dam, marked not by a plaque but by scarcely noticeable piles of rubble. For years the main canyon road passed right through the former foundation of the dam, where its remains were hidden in plain sight. Now they are visited only by those dedicated “dammies” (as Wilkman tells us students of the disaster are called) who wish to seek it out. (A mile south, at the DWP’s historic Power House 2, stands a somewhat displaced historic marker commemorating the disaster, protected behind a chain-link fence.)

After decades of forgetting, in more recent times the St. Francis Dam disaster has become the stuff of legend, popular culture, and academe. It is the fictional Van der Lip Dam referenced in the film-noir classic Chinatown, itself a brilliant if bowdlerized retelling of the Los Angeles water saga, transporting it to the 1930s and adding layers of conspiracy and melodrama to the mix. As Wilkman observes, the disaster has even been the subject of a moving alt-rock ballad by Frank Black and the Catholics (2001). And, of course, it is on the syllabus of many an Engineering or Geology 101 class. (I recall my own professor Robert W. Webb, an esteemed California geologist, devoting an entire lecture to the dam’s failure.)

Wilkman is particularly fluent in popular culture and the “Hollywoodized” aspects of the tragedy. In addition to noting how the western actor Harry Carey owned a ranch and tourist trading post in the dam’s floodpath (Carey and family were in the east when the flood hit, although much of their ranch was obliterated), he points out how silent western star William S. Hart, a local resident whose rancho still stands as a county park in Newhall, was so moved by the tale of a drowned boy that he donated funds to pay for the burial and posed for a photo kneeling at the boy’s grave. Wilkman likewise notes that Paramount Pictures sent newsreel cameramen to the flood-ravaged town of Santa Paula and that Universal Studios donated its klieg lights to help in the nocturnal search for the dead. The St. Francis Dam even made a stock-footage cameo appearance in the 1926 Greta Garbo film The Temptress.

Wilkman is on less steady ground when addressing geologic issues. In discussing the St. Francis Dam’s west abutment, he calls the contact plane where the mica schist meets the conglomerate an earthquake fault, whereas Hundley and Jackson correctly indicate that it is not a seismic fault at all. When referring to the San Francisco earthquake, Wilkman says that it was well known at the time that “California rested on a creeping patchwork of tectonic plates,” but the plate-tectonic theory was not developed until the 1950s. When noting contemporaneous criticism of the quality of the cement used for the dam, he describes one of its components, tufa, as a “kind of volcanic rock.” (Tufa is nonvolcanic calcium carbonate; tuff is volcanic.) Hundley and Jackson are exacting in their science and historiography, but they show an occasional lapse in cultural references. When they discuss the inevitable Chinatown, they identify the actor who played the sinister Noah Cross as Walter Huston instead of his son, John.

Questions remain. Some are theoretical: could the level of the dam have been lowered fast enough to avert its breaking? Hundley and Jackson spend a chapter suggesting that it could have. And some cultural: How has the St. Francis Dam disaster remained so mythic? Both books rightly note that its decades of obscurity were willful; the failure of the dam jeopardized the next big job on the slates: the Boulder Canyon Project, which was the purpose of the Swing-Johnson Bill and a project Mulholland himself championed. The project was a multistate initiative to generate hydroelectric power and construct yet another aqueduct, the Colorado River Aqueduct, to bring water to the growing Los Angeles Basin. If too many aspersions were cast on the safety of a concrete gravity arch dam, this project clearly would have been endangered. Instead, after the St. Francis Dam broke, the city swiftly made reparations and with a few notable exceptions managed to avoid civil lawsuits.

The great concrete monolith that marked the only upright portion of the dam to survive (which Wilkman has nicknamed the Tombstone, based on a Los Angeles Examiner reference) was duly demolished less than a year afterward, as it had become both an unwanted monument to the disaster as well as a recreational hazard. Even if we accord the St. Francis Dam disaster a mythic resonance, where is the redeemer that is so often one of the dramatis personae in a flood myth? If there is any form of redemption, it may come with the knowledge that we have inherited the very infrastructure that Mulholland himself oversaw a century ago, and a clue to that redemption comes in the subtitle of Wilkman’s book: “[T]he Making of Modern Los Angeles.” In his final chapter, Wilkman brings his narrative arrestingly up to date. He tells us of the reparations the city has made to the Owens Valley to conserve water resources and mitigate the alkali dust pollution at Owens Lake, and he reminds us that even in the midst of an almost decade-long drought, a 30-inch pipe burst beneath Sunset Boulevard near UCLA in 2014, unleashing 20 million gallons of water and costing millions of dollars to repair. It is but one of many examples of an aging infrastructure that dates back to Mulholland’s day. Perhaps redemption comes with this knowledge and awareness, and perhaps the movie Chinatown is still more relevant than we care to admit. When detective Jake Gittes visits the morgue, the attendant Morty tells him, “In the middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.”


Jeffrey Burbank is a Los Angeles–based writer and editor who has contributed articles to numerous periodicals.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Burbank is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has contributed articles to numerous periodicals.


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