by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A horrific human-caused disaster fell upon hundreds of sleeping and unsuspecting victims just before midnight on 12 March 1928 when the St. Francis Dam, north of Los Angeles, collapsed and sent a massive wall of water westward down the Santa Clara River toward the Pacific Ocean at Ventura, sweeping away all in its path.
In subsequent days, as bodies were located, claimed and buried and as the cause was sought, the Los Angeles County Coroner prepared to hold its inquest to determine what happened to lead to the deaths of approxmiately 450 people. Given the scope and scale of the disaster, this was an extraordinarily complex proceeding for that official, involving many witnesses and pieces of evidence. Today’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is Center Press Association photograph, dated 21 March 1928, from that inquest.
No witness received anywhere near the attention and media coverage as the legendary William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply (which became part of the Department of Water and Power). A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland who migrated to Los Angeles in the late 1870s and who got his start working with the old zanja system of earthen ditches to deliver water to the small city, Mulholland achieved his fame for his supervision of the intricate planning of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the engineering marvels of its time as it delivered water from the Owens Valley of eastern California to the thirsty, growing city when it was completed in 1913.
Over his storied career, Mulholland oversaw the design and construction of some twenty dams as part of the municipal system and had a public presence rare for engineers and a renown comparable to any local and regional politician. He had complete oversight of St. Francis, built in San Francisquito Canyon north of modern Santa Clarita, which was a 205-foot high concrete structure construcuted as part of a plan to impound more water for a burgeoning Los Angeles in the aftermath of shortages of the precious fluid, conflicts with Owens Valley residents, and other issues.
After considering the Big Tujunga Canyon area to the southeast, but abandoning that because of the high prices asked for by private landowners, Mulholland selected the new site and plans were completed by summer 1923. Planned to be 185 feet, the structure had two 10-foot amendments before construction began in August 1924, but without a corresponding widening of the base, and was completed a little more than a year-and-a-half later. The reservoir was filled in spring 1926 and it seemed like St. Francis was another testament to Mulholland’s remarkable ability as a water engineer par excellence.
On 7 March 1928, almost exactly two years after the reservoir was filled, the water line was within just three inches below the top of the spillway, which led “The Chief,” as he was commonly known, to call for more water placed against the dam. Five days later, at about 10:30 a.m., after the dam keeper conducted a normal inspection and found there was a leak at its western side, where there had been previous problems like this, and which included mud in the water, the chief engineer and his assistant, Harvey Van Norman, went to inspect the situation.
The pair determined that the mud was not from the foundation and concluded that the amount of water leaking was not of immediate concern and that repairs could be done later. At ten minutes to midnight, an employee of the downsteam Power Station #1 rode by the dam on his motorcycle and heard what he described as rocks rolling down the mountain. Assuming it was a landslide and that it was not near him, he continues on his way. Two and a half minutes prior to the end of the day, the dam gave way and the tragedy unfolded through the early morning hours of the 13th.
Within a short time after his dam’s failure, Mulholland was awakened by his daughter with the news of the disaster and he was reported to have exclaimed
Please, God, don’t let people be killed. Please, God, don’t let people be killed.
Because there had been recent instances of angry Owens Valley ranchers and residents blowing up sections of the Aqueduct with dynamite, rumors immediately were spread that this was the cause of the collapse of the dam and some officials, including Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer, speculated as to the possibility of human agency.
The Los Angeles Express of 21 March began its lengthy coverage of the hearing, with Coroner Frank Nance sitting on the bench in a courtroom, by observing, “in a deluge of sensational testimony, as yet leaving unsolved the causes of the disaster which cost 400 lives, the public probe of the collapse of the St. Francis reservoir dam was resumed this afternoon with motion pictures of the ruins and damage to be shown the nine engineers, contractors, and business men serving as the coroner’s jury.” The film was presented by Nat Fisher, a newspaper figure from Alhambra (perhaps of the Evening Post), who acquired it just after the disaster.
The movies were shown after the morning appearance of Mulholland, of whom it was said that he was “near collapse after a morning of apparently frank, but conflicting testimony as to the construction, inspection and apparent safety of the ill-fated dam.” The paper also reported that the chief engineer, answering questions from Deputy District Attorney Edward J. Dennison, obliquely referred to “just a bare suspicion” he had as to what caused the failure,” though he quickly followed this with “but I don’t want to utter it—it’s a sacred matter,” though see below about his “hoodoo” supposition. He added, “this thing is more important to me than any human being, living or dead,” and the Express noted that, as he testified, “his face [was] drawn, and his showing untold suffering. He previously had wept on the stand.”
When it came, however, to questions concerning whether he was aware of the possibility of the dam’s collapse, “Mulholland’s voice rose strong and vibrant as he denied any knowledge of apprehension that the dam was about to give way.” He stated forcefully that “there never had been a hint of such a catastrophe impending” and also brushed aside talk that resident bureau employees threatened to move because of their concerns regarding the stability of the edifice. He claimed that they would have to expressed their worries to him and he added that he would have “sent a regular Paul Revere alarm ringing through every foot of that valley” if he had any inkling of a problem.
Mulholland’s voice was laden with emotion as he exclaimed “why, man alive, had I thought such a thing might happen I would have been the first, the very first, sir, to spread the alarm. I would have exerted every effort to get every man, woman and child out of the path of those terrible waters.” As to the possibility of draining the reservoir if the dam’s stability was in question, he noted that, even with all flood gates open, it would have taken two months to release all of the water stored there.
As the engineer testified, the Express observed, he expressed the “gamut of emotions,” as “his eyes filled with horror and his trembling fingers grew stiff and rigid as he talked of the tragedy.” Asked about any apparent danger, “he shook his head sadly and tears glistened in his eyes,” though he did offer that, during construction, “we certainly must have overlooked something.” Remarkably, he confessed that he would not build a dam there again, as “it’s hoodoed” at that location, saying that he thought the dam was constructed on “an invulnerable spot” so that “the break has all the appearances of a hoodoo.” A “hoodoo” is generally understood to mean an act of sorcery or spiritual possession, so Mulholland’s supposition is surely striking. The paper added that friends of his said “the chief engineer has aged 10 years since the disaster” and that “he was a broken man today as he entered the coroner’s inquest room and held up a shaking hand to take the oath.”
In what was presented as verbatim questioning from Nance and responses from Mulholland, the engineer told the coroner that “of all the dams I have ever seen, in every section of the country, it was the driest,” though when he was asked about the muddy water reported by the on-site employee, he allowed that the situation was “bad, very bad” as the presence of mud “indicates a leak through the earth, which is always a serious matter.” At one point, “the aged engineer dropped his head forward for a moment, and then, slowly raising his eyes until he met the eyes of the jurors, said, ‘I surely would like to be able to say why it went out.”
After Mulholland testified that he and Van Norman found the source of the leak between the conglomerate masonry of the dam and the ground, the paper said that Nance was pursuing several theories for its failure, including movement of the eart that put too much pressure on the structure; seepage of water at the foundation which wore away the bedrock underneath; faulty or careless construction; an unfit bedrock structure to support such a massive edifice; and “destruction by dynamite planted by enemies of the city.” Finally, it was noted that, while the coroner’s jury would issue a verdict as to the cause of death of victims and that there would be no legal effect as to responsibilty, “its importance as affecting public opinion . . . is conceded to be great.”
While the Express reported that Mulholland uttered the the rueful statement that “the only ones I envy are those who are dead,” the Los Angeles Times printed his comment as “on an occasion like this I envy the dead.” That paper noted that the Board of Water and Power Commissioners would request a formal Grand Jury investgation into the disaster, including whether there was any potential criminal liability for those involved, such as the chief engineer.
As to Mulholland’s veiled thoughts of a cause, the Times quoted him as saying, “I have a suspicion, but it is a very serious thing to make a charge that I don’t even want to utter it without having more to show for it,” meaning evidence. It was then that he told a deputy district attorney that “it is a thing of the most importance to me, more importance than to any being, dead or alive.” Rather than refer to a “hoodoo,” the paper reported Mulholland as “remarking in a sinister manner” after answering that he would not build a dam in that site again, “it’s in a place vulnerable to human aggressiveness.”
Moreover, the Times article stated that Mulholland and Van Norman found that the water leaking from the dam was clear and only became muddied after it made contact with the ground below it. Some seepage was found to be common and a repair had been made about a week prior to the disaster. Stating he had more experience than anyone in dam design and construction, Mulholland also stated that St. Francis was built to withstand three times the maximum pressure a full reservoir could exert. He added that the concrete mix used was better than any in downtown Los Angeles and that there was no way that material could have been the problem.
Unlike the Express, the Times devote some substantial space in its coverage to allegations that the dam might have been dynamited, referring to a man who claimed to have picked up a map dropped by a suspicious looking person in Hollywood and another in Bishop, north of the Owens Valley, who claimed that he heard a pair of men talking about dynamite being used by making holes on both sides of an unnamed object, of which the “west side would be best.” This witness said there was no specific mention of the St. Francis Dam, however.
The Los Angeles Record published a very large headline reading “QUESTION MULHOLLAND” above a photo of the failed dam site, as well as a subheading of “‘Dynamite’ Story A Ghastly Joke.” It’s much less detailed coverage included the assertion that “Mulholland answered questions from Coorner [sic] Nance slowly, at times evading a direct statement as to figures and other specific data by referring his interrogator to office records.” Otherwise, there was far little direct testimony cited by the paper.
While Mulholland was both heavily criticized by some and heartily defended by others, the coroner’s jury did hold him, to a degree responsible, declaring that “the destruction of this dam was caused by the failure of the rock formations upon which it was built, and not by any error in the design of the dam itself or defect in the materials on which the dam was constructed.” Yet, it was added that “the construction of a municipal dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent.”
In the 1990s, a St. Louis geological engineer, however, concluded that contemporary assertions that it was the west side of the dam that failed first, a conclusion made by Mulholland and others, were incorrect and that the east side was unstable when saturated with water. Moreover, the dam was actually lifted and moved slightly forward, which was observable with the intact center portion, the only section built properly according to the engineer in the Nineties, and which was leaning as noted, though it also tilted to the west causing the failure of that portion of the edifice.
While this engineer observed that Mulholland should have consulted outside engineers, he added that the field was just then starting to understand the nature of stress and uplift and concluded that it was not the chief engineer that was to blame, given the lack of knowledge of these geological forces. Yet, other scholars assert that there were advances in fortifying arched dams like St. Francis within the last dozen years or so of the disaster and that Mulholland deserved blame because his privileged position in the Bureau of Water Works and Supply led him to make decisions based on his sense of absolute authority.
Whatever his culpability, there is no disagreement that the St. Francis Dam disaster was the effective end of his career and the 72-year old soon receded into a self-enforced seclusion for most of the rest of this life, dying of a stroke at age 80 in 1935. His reputation remained mixed, though most people today would only know him for the mountaintop highway in the Santa Monica range named for him when initial portions were built in the 1920s.
The St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and National Monument, long lobbied for by historians and politicians in the Santa Clarita Valley, was created on 12 March 2019 by an act of Congress and the United States Forest Service has a memorial design contest underway that closes at the end of April. Future plans include a memorial wall to those whose lives were lost, a visitor center and other elements to commemorate this terrible tragedy, which is approaching its centennial.