William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster

By Jackson, Donald C.; Hundley, Norris, Jr. | California History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster


Jackson, Donald C., Hundley, Norris, Jr., California History


A few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam gave way under the hydrostatic pressure of a full reservoir. During the early morning hours of March 13, some 38,000 acre-feet of water surged down from an elevation of 1,834 feet above the sea. Roiling through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara Valley in southern California, the flood wreaked havoc on the town of Santa Paula and dozens of farms and rural communities. By the time it washed into the Pacific Ocean near Ventura at daybreak some fifty-five miles downriver, more than four hundred people lay dead. Damage to property was in the millions of dollars. Considered the greatest civil-engineering disaster in modern U.S. history, it was the nation's deadliest dam failure ever save for the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, which took nearly 2,200 lives. The St. Francis Darn tragedy engendered great public interest not only because of the deaths and destruction, but also because it involved the failure of a curved-gravity concrete dam, the design type then planned for the massive Hoover (Boulder Canyon) Dam on the Colorado River. The disaster prompted critics to urge reconsideration of that project--which was being vigorously promoted by Los Angeles civic authorities--as well as to call for renewed scrutiny of efforts by the city of Los Angeles (builder/owner of St. Francis Dam) to expand its municipal water-supply system. And it focused attention on William Mulholland, longtime head of the city's Bureau of Water Works and Supply and the official in charge of the failed dam's design and construction. (1)

Despite the absence of a prominent roadside marker located amidst the concrete remains at the dam site, the failure of the St. Francis Dam remains an enduring--almost mythic--story within the history of California and the nation. (2) Part of this tale's fascination derives from the sheer horror of the event. But much of it relates to the disaster's effect upon the reputation of William Mulholland, the engineer credited with building the 233-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct that delivered prodigious quantities of Owens River water from the Sierra Nevada into the southland starting in 1913. For good reason, the aqueduct is viewed as an essential component of the region's hydraulic infrastructure responsible for much of the growth and economic development associated with modern Los Angeles. In addition, the aqueduct is now (and was at the time of its construction) considered by many to comprise an audacious "water grab" allowing control over the Owens River to pass from Inyo County settlers into the hands of Los Angeles. (3)

Not surprisingly, the potent image of an engineer responsible for the city's controversial--yet incredibly important--water supply system being also responsible for a key storage dam that collapsed in horrible tragedy has etched itself into the historical consciousness of Californians and countless others. Those memories have attracted scholars, with two in particular shaping the public's current knowledge of the disaster and influencing its attitudes toward William Mulholland. Drawn first to the subject was Charles F. Outland, author of Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St. Francis Dam, a carefully crafted book. As a teenager living in Santa Paula at the time of the disaster, he witnessed firsthand the tragic aftermath of the flood. This experience later energized him to convey the impact of the disaster on Santa Clara Valley residents with moving, yet tempered eloquence. Though first published over four decades ago in 1963 and then briefly revised and expanded in 1977, Outland's account remains the essential overall history of the tragedy. Arriving later to the topic was J. David Rogers, a geologist whose particular interest was in the mechanics of the dam failure and the physical causes of the collapse. His findings were set out in two articles, one published in 1992 and the other in 1995, and expanded upon in an interview published in 1997 and another longer interview published on the Internet in 2000 and also circulated in a CD format. …

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