On This Day: The St. Francis Dam Disaster, 12 March 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted before on this blog (including this weekend’s post on the Big Tujunga Dam), William Mulholland was a legendary figure in greater Los Angeles in the first three decades of the twentieth century.  As chief engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct and other water delivery and flood control projects for the Department of Water and Power, he was a figure of immense power and respect.

Mulholland was pushing 70 when he oversaw the construction of the St. Francis Dam, northeast of the present city of Santa Clarita and roughly fifty miles from Los Angeles.  Work started in 1924 and was completed two years later.  The dam was 185 feet high (twenty feet higher including its foundation) and stored some 12 billion gallons of water, a further securing of supply for a rapidly growing and increasingly thirsty region.

Yet, ninety years ago today, on the morning of 12 March 1928, the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger, noticed a leak on the west side that was muddy, an indication of a problem with the foundation and soil.  Mulholland and his assistant Harvey Van Norman (for whom the reservoir near San Fernando is named) hurried out to the site, but determined that the leak did not indicate any structural problems and left.

St. Francis disaster The_Van_Nuys_News_Tue__Mar_13__1928_
Van Nuys News, 13 March 1928.

Late that evening, at 11 p.m., Harnischfeger completed his rounds and returned to his on-site residence, where his girlfriend and son lived with him.  A few minutes before midnight, however, a sound uttered forth that those nearby thought was an earthquake.  Within minutes, the dam collapsed sending a massive wall of water ten feet high moving at nearly twenty miles per hour.  Harnischfeger and his family were the first to be killed by the onslaught, which then moved rapidly down the course of the Santa Clara River, a full fifty-four miles to the Pacific Ocean near Ventura.

The damage was astounding.  Over 1,200 houses were destroyed, thousands of animals were destroyed, and well over 400 people died in the terrible wake of the flood, though an exact count is impossible because of a lack of knowledge of how many people lived in the affected area.  For context, only one other disaster in California history took as many lives and that was the earthquake and fire at San Francisco in 1906.

It was said that, when Mulholland was awakened by a call informing him of the dam’s collapse, he uttered “God, don’t let people be killed!  Please, God, don’t let people be killed!”  He rushed to the scene and arrived about 2 1/2 hours after the dam broke and was completely overcome with the scale of the disaster.  He seemed to insinuate that an act of terrorism, dynamiting specifically (which was done to the Aqueduct by Owens Valley ranchers enraged with the loss of their water), caused the collapse.

St. Francis editorial Santa_Ana_Register_Tue__Mar_13__1928_
Santa Ana Register, 13 March 1928.

At a coroner’s inquest a little over a week later, Mulholland, appearing haggard and pained as he was blamed by many for what happened, stated, “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 an occasion like this, I envy the dead.”

The Department of Water Power refused to accept Mulholland’s resignation, stating that it could not assign blame to him alone.  The inquest jury, however, stated that no project like that should be due to the judgment of one person “no matter how eminent,” though Mulholland was cleared of any direct culpability.

Later, it was held that the site was one of an ancient landslide, which shifted under the dam causing the instability that led to the disaster.  Mulholland would not have known this, however, according to a geological engineer who examined the incident in a 1995 book.  Still, it was said that Mulholland died a broken man seven years after the disaster just shy of his 80th birthday.

Photo Damage From St Francis Dam Collapse 2008.215.1.1
This real photo postcard in the Homestead’s collection shows a house in Fillmore, between Santa Clarita and Ventura, that was washed away in the flood caused by the collapse of the St. Francis Dam on 12-13 March 1928.

Among several artifacts in the Homestead’s collection related to the St. Francis Dam disaster is the dramatic photograph that accompanies this post.  It shows a Craftsman style home that was washed downstream in the flood with people standing near the dwelling and piles of debris around it.  A caption reads, “St. Francis Dam Horror . . . Homes Washed For Miles In Path Of Flood . . . Fillmore, California.”

The image is a stark reminder of an event that of such regional importance that an effort to create a national monument led to a bill offered in the Senate by Kamala Harris and cosponsored by Diane Feinstein last October.  The monument would honor the victims, including many migrant Latino farmworkers, who lost their lives in the flood, and, if passed and signed, would authorize the Department of Agriculture to build a memorial, visitor center and educational facilities, and other elements.  The bill is now with the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and we’ll see if it gets out of the committee and moves toward a vote.

2 thoughts

  1. William Mulholland was entirely self taught. He never attended engineering school or college. He only read (consumed?) many and any book he could get his hands on. Self taught, it is stunning what he accomplished in bringing the Owens river to Los Angeles. The math and engineering that was needed is staggering.

    Today geology students make field trips to the dam site. Professors explain that there are many different geological conditions and any one of them would make a particular location totally unsuitable for a dam. Amazingly ALL those conditions exist at the St Francis site.

    It is not clear if the geologists of the 1920s understood or appreciated all of the hazards that existed. Dam building in the west was still something new. The rocks were different here, did the engineers of the time really know? OR was it the hubris of Mr Mulholland that felt that site was appropriate? Would another engineer have spotted the hazards? That was the basis for never again allowing just ONE person to approve all the work, regardless of how competent they seemed.

    In any case the continuous review of the calamity to this day has brought us a greater understanding of all the mechanics involved and there has not been a repeat collapse in the many thousands of western dams that were subsequently built.

    The best memorial that society can give to those who died in a disaster is to ensure that it is never repeated.

  2. Hi Jim, there is no question that Mulholland was an exceptional figure in Los Angeles in the early 20th century. That 1995 finding that Mulholland could not have been aware of the conditions at the dam site reflects that issue of the risks we take in monumental building projects. Sadly, so many innocent people lost their lives in a terrible tragedy. The bridge collapse in Miami is just the latest example of how what seem like solid structures can turn out otherwise for any number of reasons. Thanks for the comment!

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