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.
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.
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.
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.