“An Error in Human Judgment”: Photos of the St. Francis Dam Collapse, 8 April 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As greater Los Angeles transformed dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, central to this profound growth was the securing of a water supply necessary to quenching the thirst of our region. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, opened in 1913 after years of planning, raising funds, and construction, was truly a marvel of its age, bringing the precious fluid well over 200 miles from the Owens Valley of Inyo County in eastern California to Los Angeles via a masterfully planned delivery system.

The overarching figure in the development of this amazing project was William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. An Irish immigrant at age fifteen, who landed in New York and worked in a store in Pittsburgh and in lumber camps in Michigan, he came west. After some time in San Francisco and then in territorial Arizona where he engaged in mining and in Indian wars, Mulholland drifted into Los Angeles in 1877.

Photograph Construction of St Francis Dam 2005.376.1.1
A photo from the Homestead’s collection of the St. Francis Dam in construction, ca. 1925.

He found work clearing out the zanjas in the archaic system controlled by the private water company contracted since the late 1860s, but the self-educated engineer rose to be superintendent by the time the city and region entered the famed Boom of the 1880s.

When the city decided to renew the private contract and set up its own department, Mulholland was so well regarded that he was asked to lead it and continued in that position for thirty years. Though publicity averse, he became one of the region’s best-known and respected figures and was fondly known as “The Chief” to those who worked in his powerful department.

A View of Power House No.2 St Francis Dam 2015.458.1.3
Power House #2 at the dam site, ca. 1926.

His stellar reputation, however, was shattered in the stunning circumstances of the collapse of St. Francis Dam, a project of his design, located northeast of modern Santa Clarita, in March 1928. The results were horrific as a ten-foot tide of water consisting of billions of gallons moving at twenty miles an hour tore through the Santa Clara River west more than fifty miles to the Pacific.

More than 400 persons perished in the tragedy and three times that many homes were destroyed with thousands of animals also carried off by the deadly deluge. Only the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906 took more lives than the dam’s collapse.

A Snapshot Of Flood Damaged Area From St Francis Dam Disaster Lo
One of several snapshots from the museum’s holdings showing where the dam burst sent billions of gallons of water roaring along the Santa Clara River westward toward Ventura and the Pacific Ocean and dated 8 April 1928, less than a month after the disaster.

Mulholland, who’d inspected the dam before its collapse when he was alerted to a muddy leak that implied foundation problems and declared the structure sound, was devastated by the destruction. At the coroner’s inquest, Mulholland took full responsibility for the “error in human judgment” and told those assembled, “on an occasion like this, I envy the dead.”

Investigations later determined that the collapse was due to an ancient landslide, which then shifted under the weight of the dam, and it has been said there was no way for Mulholland, who left his post after the disaster, to have known of this when the project was carried out. Still, he reportedly carried the weight of the tragedy with him until he died seven years later.

A Snapshot Of Flood Damaged Area From St Francis Dam Disaster Lo

A post here two years ago discussed the tragedy and ended by noting that a bill was submitted by California’s senators, Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, to create a national monument at the dam site. A year later, in March 2019, an act named for the late Michigan senator John Dingell, Jr. established both a monument and memorial on 353 acres, so that the history and legacy of the dam and its collapse can be perpetuated.  There are no funds to proceed with work on the project, but a foundation is leading the effort.

There are a several photographs in the Homestead’s collection, taken on 8 April 1928, less than a month after the disaster, that show the tremendous devastation wrought by the collapse and flood.  The views were taken by Thomas Ward along the Santa Clara River, with the first one showing what appears to be part of a steel railroad bridge in the river bed and plants and trees bent to the left, which means the view is looking northward.

A Snapshot Of Flood Damaged Area From St Francis Dam Disaster 20

The third view shows more uprooted trees and their orientation to the right indicates that Ward crossed the river bed and photographed the scene looking to the south.  At the center, enmeshed with the ravages trees, appear to be wood and metal debris, but is hard to tell what this material was, whether parts of structures, farm equipment, or both.

The fourth photograph was taken at a bend in the river and Ward may have taken this to show how the raging flood waters ate away at the existing bank of the Santa Clara as it surged through on its way to the ocean.  There is a starkness to these photos that are dramatic, even if they don’t show more damage to structures and other human elements of the landscape of what was then, and still largely remains, a rural agricultural area.

A Snapshot Of Flood Damaged Area From St Francis Dam Disaster 20

More than ninety years later, the St. Francis Dam disaster remains the region’s worst event of its kind in terms of loss of human life. The recent designation of the national memorial and national monument, following the fiftieth anniversary state historic landmark designation in the late 1970s, with the site now under the management of the United States Forest Service within the Angeles National Forest, is important in the preservation of the history of this signal event, provided that funds can be raised to build a memorial wall, visitor’s center and other elements.

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic led to our stay-at-home orders, the Santa Clarita Valley Signal ran an article on two area residents who are creating a musical about the tragedy called The Water Way.  The production begins with Mulholland’s arrival in Los Angeles in 1877 and will follow his career through his work with the aqueduct and the St. Francis Dam tragedy. 

A View of Power House No.2 St Francis Dam 2015.458.1.1
Another view of Power House #2 at the dam, ca. 1926.

The creators, Jerry Danielsen and Braddon Mendelson, are utilizing as much factual history as they could in developing the work, which includes some twenty original songs, with Mendelson’s script and lyrics completed, while Danielsen is at work on the music.  The two hoped to have the work ready for a premiere later this year or in early 2021, though current circumstances may well delay that.

For more on the musical, here is the article.

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