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The Flood: St. Francis Dam Disaster, William Mulholland, and the Casualties of L.A. Imperialism

My cousin and I took the I-5 North from Los Angeles one hot and dusty Los Angeles morning, blasting country music as we chatted away. Forty minutes later we were in the town of Valencia, the strange, upper-middle class desert behemoth of mini-mansions and endless air-conditioned strip malls that fade away into empty, grassless lots. We turned onto San Francisquito Canyon Road and instantly the landscaped changed. Expansive, ramshackle ranches dotted the otherwise desolate terrain, and a large concrete house stood half-completed high on a hill. We passed a group of firemen exercising in hosed down tents. Then we came upon a large art-deco building directly under a sheer mountain drop off with a sign signaling that it was called Power Plant #2. In front of the powerhouse sat a small boulder with a historical marker -- it was the marker we had come to see.

Three LADWP workers in straw hats sat under a large sycamore eating their lunches as we began to take pictures of the marker.

"You know about the dam?" one asked.

"Yes." We nodded.

"If you go further down the road to the right you'll find another marker up the canyon road," he said. "And before you leave here go on over and take a closer look at the Powerhouse. The original was completely washed away when the dam burst in '28."

We complied and then got back into the car and winded up the twisting canyon road into the brown mountains. To our right was a gaping and desolate desert valley. We were passing the former site of the St. Francis Dam, but we couldn't tell where it had been, so effective had nature been in reclaiming its land. After about six miles of almost nothing besides a small correctional facility, we came to a sign that pointed us to Power Plant # 1. Maybe this was what the workers were talking about.

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We drove apprehensively down into a small valley and soon found ourselves on a deserted street called Turbine Way. We were in a ghost settlement of turn of the century craftsmen houses with yellowing lace curtains, dormitories, a clubhouse and a strange park with old equipment that had been used in the creation of the County of Los Angeles' impressive Aqueduct system. Further down another road was Power Plant #1, water rushing under it, creating a deafening roar.

In these little houses another roar had been heard on the night of March 13, 1928. It had been the sound of the dam in the canyon below them breaking and sweeping their fellow LADWP workers at Powerhouse #2 away, many of whom were sleeping in little homes just like the ones we now peered into for any sign of life.

Power Plant #1 marker | Photo: Hadley Meares

Power Plant #2 marker | Photo: Hadley Meares

Ghost settlement of turn of the century craftsmen houses | Photo: Hadley Meares

Site of the St. Francis Dam | Photo: Hadley Meares


The Creation of Eden

"There it is, take it!"
-- William Mulholland, at the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 19131

The Los Angeles of the 1870s was a small, burgeoning desert city. The streets were lined with ditches called zanjas, which supplied residents with water from the Los Angeles River. In 1878, an adventurous 23 year old Irishman named William Mulholland was hired as a "Zanjero" to dig wells in what is now Compton. In a former life he had fixed watches, and his mechanical brain quickly became fascinated with engineering. He began to passionately devour textbooks on geology, hydrology, and mathematics, and in 1902, when the city officially formed what eventually became known as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the charismatic Mulholland was unanimously named Chief Engineer.

Mulholland, along with other city leaders (including the ever present Harrison Grey Otis of The Times), knew that for Los Angeles to become the dazzling metropolis of their dreams, the meager and unpredictable Los Angeles River would not do. In what we now call the California Water Wars, the powerful in Los Angeles waged a dirty fight to secure the rights to Owens Lake in the Owens Valley in Sierra Nevada, 222-miles north-east of Los Angeles. They eventually succeeded, and Mulholland oversaw the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. When it opened in 1913 the world's longest Aqueduct used gravity alone to bring water from Owens Lake all the way to Los Angeles, making way for unprecedented growth in the first decades of the 20th century.

But Mulholland the trailblazer was not yet done. The Aqueduct went through the San Andreas Fault, making it susceptible to earthquakes. Radicalized farmers from Owens Valley also continually dynamited and sabotaged chunks of the Aqueduct and showed no signs of stopping. So, Mulholland began construction on a series of reservoirs around the city of Los Angeles as an insurance policy in case of emergency or drought. For the site of the most ambitious of these, he chose a deep canyon in-between the hydroelectric Powerhouse #1 (built in 1917), and Powerhouse #2 (built in 1920) in San Francisquito Canyon, a mountainous area sparsely populated with farmers, work crews, and Powerhouse employees and their families.

Construction of the arched 205 feet high St. Francis Dam began in 1924, using sacks of concrete comprised of sand and gravel from the canyon itself. Around 160 men continuously worked on the project, many living with their families near the site. When it was completed in 1926 the dam was able to hold 12 billion gallons of reserve water. Water would be supplied from the Aqueduct, which after running through Powerhouse #1 would run through the dam's inlet gate before making its way to Powerhouse #2 in the valley below.

St. Francis Dam prior to its failure, ca. 1926 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Mulholland was a constant visitor to the site, and it was he who opened the inlet gate to start the formation of the lake on May 13th, 1926. Water flooded in at a rate of 70,000,000 gallons a day, a swirling testament to L.A.'s triumph. Not only would the dam enable the city to hold two years worth of water in reserve, it was also hoped that in due time the lake formed behind the dam would become a tourist attraction. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The lake that will be formed by the aqueduct water behind St. Francis Dam will be one of the largest in Southern California, and is expected to create a scene of rare beauty in its surrounding of rugged mountain slopes. 2

Once the dam was built, life went on, and it seemed the self-taught Mulholland had again produced an elegant miracle in the middle of the dry desert. Dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger spent his days maintaining and patrolling the secluded dam, often with his six-year old son Coder, in tow. They lived in a small cottage right below the dam, along with Tony's girlfriend, Leona Johnson. Cracks quickly appeared, leading to minor adjustments and causing concern in the surrounding valley. A muddy leak on the morning of March 12, 1928 worried Harnischfeger so much that he called Mulholland out to investigate. Mulholland and his deputy pronounced the leak safe and went back to Los Angeles.

Harnischfeger wasn't convinced. Nor were many of the workers at Powerhouse #2, or the farmers who lived in the small towns in the valley below. The mountain above seemed soaked with water in the days before the tragedy. A gallows humor developed in the valley below the dam, with men joking "see you later if the dam don't break." 3 One farmer was so wary that he slept in his barn with the door open. He was sound asleep when a couple of minutes before midnight on March 12, his dog began to furiously bark.

Then came the roar.


Midnight

"Papa, the wind isn't blowing. I see silvery stuff and it's coming this way."
-- Carmen Navaro, March 13, 1928 4

Tony, Leona, and Coder were the first victims. No surviving human saw the dam break and the concrete shatter. Nearby power lines were snapped at 11:58 p.m., putting the catastrophic break a few seconds before. At 12:03 a.m., the wall of water, more than ten stories high, swept into the community of 74 at Powerhouse #2. LADWP employee Ray Rising, who lived there with his wife and three daughters, described the scene:

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. There was no moon and it was overcast with an eerie fog -- it was very cold. 5

On the hillside he found his neighbor, Lillian Curtis Eiler, clinging to her three year old son. A few moments before midnight Lillian had awoke in bed and noticed a strange mist. She and her husband instantly knew it was the dam, and he thrust her son in her arms and pushed her through the window while he went to save their daughters. He and his daughters were swept away, as were the rest of the Powerhouse #2 community and the concrete Powerhouse itself. The three lone survivors huddled together and waited for a rescue that wouldn't come until dawn, crying and shivering as the water continued to flow.

But the devastation had only just begun. The water emptied into the Santa Clara Riverbed at 18 miles-per-hour and caused it to overflow. The the flood waters followed the river through the towns of Castaic, Saugus, Piru, Filmore, Santa Paula, and Saticoy. At a makeshift Edison Power Company Camp on the Los Angeles/Ventura county line, a group of around 150 itinerant linemen was nearly wiped out. Most of the few who survived had luckily zipped up their tents for the night, which worked as rudimentary flotation devices.

The path of the St. Francis Dam Flood, from the dam site to Ventura

Along each stop the muddy water, now filled with houses, cars, bridges, roads, livestock, and human bodies, took more prisoners. The living clung to whatever they could -- a woman in an evening dress rode on top of a water tank. Sisto Luna and her three children held onto a feather mattress for two miles, and a man named William Spring swam a mile with his infant swung around his neck, while his wife climbed up an orange tree. Cliff Corwen of Filmore was trying to outdrive the flood in his car when it swept him away. His passenger jumped out of the car and to his death, crying, "I won't be caught like a rat in a trap! I'm going out!" 6 Cliff stayed until the car had almost completely filled with water and then hung on the hood and let the car carry him to safety in the pitch dark night.

The first official alarm was sounded at 1:20 a.m. Telephone operators, like Louise Gipe in Santa Paula and Reicel Jones in Saticoy (subsequently nicknamed the "Hello Girls"), bravely stayed at their posts and began systematically calling residents in low lying areas, urging them to flee to higher ground. Motorcycle officers, including Thorton Edwards, "the Paul Revere of Santa Paula," rode into the path of the flood and knocked on the door at every third house, warning them and telling them to warn their neighbors. Sirens screamed, alarms were sounded and many residents were thus saved, rushing into the hills, where they watched as their homes were crushed below them.

William Mulholland was awakened by a phone call as well. His daughter answered and woke her father with the terrible news. As he lurched for the phone he repeated a mantra over and over: "Please, God. Don't let people be killed. Please God, don't let people be killed." 7

By the time the tempered flood emptied its 54 miles worth of wreckage into the Pacific Ocean near Ventura at Montalvo, it was 5:30 a.m. on March 13, 1928. William Mulholland had already been at the former site of the St. Francis Dam, stooped and stupefied, for three hours. The Red Cross had already set up headquarters in nearby Newhall and men plowed through the muddy debris, as high as 20 feet in some places, looking for survivors.

The long night of cascading confusion was over. But the real horror had only just begun.


Crushed like Eggshells

"Where once bloomed flowering trees, bodies of those trapped in the rushing wall of water lay exposed on slimy banks."
-- The Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1928 8
"On an occasion like this, I envy the dead."
-- William Mulholland at the Coroners Inquest into the disaster at St. Francis, March 22, 1928 9

Daylight revealed a scene of utter devastation. Over 1,200 homes had been destroyed, orchards were ripped from the ground, livestock dead by the thousands, and over 450 people were dead or missing. Mobilization of aid, rescue, and police forces was swift to meet the almost unimaginable plethora of needs of the survivors. Hundreds of tractors sorted through the rubble. Volunteers searched through the stinking silt for survivors but more often found bodies. Each new find was marked with a small white flag before they were transported in makeshift shrouds to makeshift morgues, some of which were set up in local dance halls. Crowds thronged around these morgues searching for loved ones, while the Red Cross served mounds of sandwiches and pots of coffee to weary volunteers and homeless survivors who were set up in tent cities all along the destructive path. Into the night the tractors worked, aided by giant spotlights on loan from the studios at Universal City.

Of the dam itself, only the middle portion remained, and it stood like a massive tombstone for all the dead still trapped below. At least a dozen official inquiries, including ones by the federal, state, county and city governments, were immediately set up, and the now dry canyon swarmed with geologists, newspaper men, and government dignitaries. Looky-loo's had to be kept away from both the dam and the devastated towns, and police were dispatched from surrounding areas to control looters and shady lawyers who menaced the survivors. Both the Mayor and Mulholland, along with many of the public, initially chose to believe the Owens Valley terrorists had struck again and guards were stationed at every reservoir in the city. The Los Angeles Times urged the public, "let's not get rattled." 10

Remains of St. Francis Dam after its failure | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Woman stands in midst of the St. Francis Dam devastation, 1928 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

This post-failure photograph shows men working in a field of broken trees, wagons and other debris attempting to clear it away | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

People examine the damaged road and washed away railroad track, caused by excess water flowing down the Santa Clara River after the failure of the St. Francis Dam in 1928 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

In the midst of all this tumult miracles still occurred. A ten year old girl was found under brush having floated ten miles from her home; a baby thought to be dead began to cry at the morgue; and a man was found still alive though stuck in mud all the way up to his neck. A neighbor found a naked 12 year-old girl in a tree -- she was so embarrassed to be found in such a state that she would never make eye contact with the man again. The city of Los Angeles set aside one million dollars to aid victims, although the racism of the day would mean that some human lives were worth more than others. Telegrams and monetary donations rolled in from all over the country -- even as far away as Savannah, Georgia, where the Mayor offered any assistance needed.

On March 18, the sad procession of funerals began when the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ruiz and their four children were taken ten miles up San Francisquito Canyon Road by horse drawn carriage to a small family cemetery that had withstood the flood. At the Los Angeles coroners' inquest on March 21, Ray Rising choked back tears as he identified the body of his wife, Julia, aged 29. Her body was to stand in for all the lost -- the little girl found clutching her doll, the torso of a woman still wearing her diamond necklace and ring, the unknown family of four that sat unclaimed in the dance hall morgue -- and many more.

The broken Mulholland took the stand and uttered the immortal words, "I envy the dead." The public was in a lynching mood, and Mulholland had attempted to resign from his post as Chief Engineer for the good of the city, but his board had refused, stating:

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. 11

Mulholland's magical belief that the dam's destruction had been caused by saboteurs was quickly deemed wishful thinking. As early as March 24, the various committees' findings began rolling in, all generally blaming the dam's collapse on "defective foundations" and the poor, crumbling quality of the reddish earth that it was built on. By March 28 he had accepted the blame, declaring: "Fasten it on me. If there was any error of judgment -- human judgment -- I was the human." 12 When the Coroner's inquest was completed, it cleared Mulholland and the LADWP of any crimes, but stated unequivocally that the disaster had been caused by an error in engineering judgment and recommended that:

The construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent. 13

With this sad pronouncement the grim task of reassessing and rebuilding began. Unclaimed bodies were meticulously photographed before being buried, many in the mass grave at Ivy Lawn Memorial Park in Ventura. The death toll was probably considerably higher than the official count of 450, since many undocumented Mexican migrant workers' bodies undoubtedly disappeared into the sea. The cities hit rebuilt quickly, some homes that washed off their foundation were simply fastened back on. California passed the Dam Safety Program in 1929, and soon had some of the strictest oversight laws in the country. By 1931 the tragedy was so sufficiently swept under the carpet that a book about California water did not even mention the disaster.

Recent investigations into the disaster have revealed that the St. Francis Dam was built on an ancient landslide, which would have been undetectable to engineers of the 1920s. The middle section of the dam was blasted away in 1929 after a teenage boy climbing the attraction fell to his death. All that is left now is a scattering of concrete blocks and an occasional twist of metal. It is all that is left of the dream of Mulholland, who died in 1935, a much maligned and disparaged old man, forever haunted by the hundreds of lives he had inadvertently destroyed in the name of his beloved Los Angeles.

A park at Power Plant #1 near the disaster site displays artifacts related to the construction of the L.A. Aqueduct | Photo: Hadley Meares

''Water Driven Exciter,'' a 1922 generator | Photo: Hadley Meares

Section of the original Aqueduct | Photo: Hadley Meares

A plaque marks the historical site of Power Plant #2, near the St. Francis Dam | Photo: Hadley Meares

______


1 William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles by Katherine Mulholland
2 "New reservoir put in use": The Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1926
3"L.A. Then and Now: An Avalanche of Water Left Death and Ruin in Its Wake": Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2003
4"Snapshot Exhibit Focuses on Flood From Personal Angle": Los Angeles Times, April 17 2000
5Images of America: St. Francis Dam Disaster by John Nichols
6 "L.A. Then and Now: An Avalanche of Water Left Death and Ruin in Its Wake": Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2003
7The St Francis Dam Disaster Revisited, edited by Doyce B Nunis Jr.
8 "Thousands rush to aid in work of rescue and relief": Los Angeles Times, March 14 1928:
9 "Water board to demand grand jury quiz on dam": Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1928
10 "Let's not get rattled": Los Angeles Times
11 "Water board to demand grand jury quiz on dam": Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1928
12 "Mulholland Unflinching": Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1928
13 "L.A. Then and Now: An Avalanche of Water Left Death and Ruin in Its Wake" Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2003


About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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Please forgive me but I remember talking to people who lived through the disaster and they all said that Mulholland committed suicide due to the disaster, but I can't find out any more of that information anywhere.

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Hadley - this is an awesome piece of work. I am digging into the LA Aqueduct (and of course the St. Francis dam disaster) because of the Powerhouse Fire recently. I live in Lancaster and had no idea there was a powerhouse in the mountains so i decided to get a little smarter on it. One thing led to another and now I have probably spent a couple hundred hours researching this subject. a couple of us have started a group on Yahoo about the LA Aqueduct History. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/la_aqueduct/ I plan on visiting all of the sites you did plus a lot more - the LA Aqueduct is a rather complex engineering work of art with lots of parts. The history is amazing considering when it was built; it was one of the wonders of the world in it's day. Thank you for your great article.
timmy