Jon Wilkman on the failure of the St. Francis Dam and the making of modern Los Angeles.

Tombstone St Francis Dam
"Tombstone," the last major remaining fragment of the St. Francis Dam.

On the morning of March 12, 1928, William Mulholland, the chief engineer at the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply, traveled north from downtown L.A. to inspect the St. Francis Dam after seemingly ominous leaks were reported by the dam watchman. Mulholland, the preeminent engineer of his era and a man whose dams and aqueducts made modern Los Angeles possible found nothing untoward and quickly returned to the city. But that night the two-year-old dam failed catastrophically, emptying the contents of St. Francis Reservoir into San Francisquito Canyon, with the resulting wall of water taking the lives of almost 500 people while en route to the Pacific Ocean.

Looking back its clear that this was a watershed event. Much like the Iroquois Theatre Fire and Triangle Shirtwaist Fire led to better fire safety, the St. Francis Dam failure ushered in the modern dam safety movement, leading to professional engineering registration and new dam safety legislation. Of course, major dam failures still occur from time to time, like Frances Malpasset Dam (1959) and Idaho’s Teton Dam (1976), but today engineers worry more about issues like age and insufficient maintenance, two reasons why Kariba Dam (Zambia/Zimbabwe) and Mosul Dam (Iraq) are currently considered among the most at-risk dams in the world.

In the recent book “Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles” (Bloomsbury Press), author Jon Wilkman tells the story of the largely-forgotten St. Francis Dam disaster, emphasizing the role of the dam’s designer, the aforementioned Mulholland, as well as the personal experiences of the flood victims. In the following Failure Interview, Wilkman discusses the reasons for the dam’s failure—technical, political, and economic—and explains why the St. Francis Dam disaster isn’t better remembered.

For one, the site of the disaster is still not recognized with a National Memorial. “For years the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society has wanted to declare the St. Francis Dam site a National Memorial,” begins Wilkman, “but they can’t get it through Congress. Unlike when you go to the Johnstown Flood [National Memorial] in Pennsylvania there is no memorial [here]. So the fight continues to get this recognized.”

The effort has also been complicated by the fact that San Francisquito Canyon is home to endangered species, as well as Native American burial grounds. The bill they have presented [asks to] remember the dam and also preserve the ecosystem. It’s the opponents to preserving the ecosystem—off-road motorcyclists and the like—who are opposing the bill. Perhaps they can break the bill apart so they can just do the St. Francis Dam, but so far its not happening. In the meantime, Wilkman continues to work on a documentary film about the disaster, while continuing to raise awareness about “Floodpath.”

Tell me what happened on March 12, 1928.

On the morning of March 12, 1928, William Mulholland and his assistant, Harvey Van Norman, were called to take a look at a particular leak that appeared to be issuing muddy water. If the water was muddy that meant the foundation was dissolving, and that meant the dam was coming down. Mulholland did not see any mud in the water and neither did his assistant, so they left. Twelve hours later, near midnight, the dam collapsed catastrophically and released 12.4 billion gallons of water on a flood path that was 54 miles long, killing almost 500 people in the process.

There were a number of levels of failure involved, wouldn’t you agree?

Aside from the technological detective story—the forensic engineering and the effort to figure out why the dam failed—it was a failure of the state legal system, which didn’t have a proper set of safety laws and supervision. It was also a failure of politics, because though there was enthusiasm for growth—and enthusiasm for all the benefits that water would bring and did bring—a lot of people in the city, state, and across the country were overwhelmed, or uninterested in, the technological developments that were taking place in the 1920s and ’30s. Public indifference didn’t crack the St. Francis dam open, but public officials were not keeping a close eye on it and engineers and politicians weren’t developing the laws that were needed to encourage safety. That’s what made the St. Francis disaster such a major turning point; it was the foundation of the modern dam safety movement, which is still in place.

How did you get interested in the story of the St. Francis Dam?

I grew up in Los Angeles not too far from the site. I had never heard of it—and I think most people had never heard of it—before I went to school in the Midwest and then went off to New York. When I came back I was re-discovering my hometown and became fascinated with the non-stereotypical history of the city. It really does have a history, though many people say it doesn’t and that its all about the present and fun in the sun.

Then in the 1980s, I began producing a documentary series for a local television station here called the Los Angeles History project, and I encountered a book by Charles F. Outland called “Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St. Francis Dam,” which was published in 1963. I read it and wondered why nobody knew about the story,the deadliest civil engineering failure of the twentieth century. So I had this double mystery. First, what had happened? And how did this get lost to history?

Why isn’t the St. Francis Dam failure better remembered?

One of the reasons the St. Francis Dam isn't remembered is the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The story of a dam collapsing in southern California quickly went off the radar. Also, until fairly recently American history has been the purview of the historical establishment on the East coast. That’s not a secret. But why isn’t the history of America’s second largest city well-known? It’s partly because Los Angeles has been a victim of its stereotypes. But the city is more than the clichéd perceptions of Hollywood, the beach, and Disneyland. Forty percent of U.S. trade comes through here; its the center of the third largest metropolitan economy in the world. Now [people are] beginning to explore the breadth of Los Angeles. One of the goals of the book is to make a contribution to that. Plus the story has links to the present, as in dealing with crumbling infrastructure and unmaintained dams.

Why was the reservoir and dam built?

The reservoir was part of the Owens River Aqueduct System, which William Mulholland completed in 1913. For a period of time it could be said that Los Angeles was one of the fastest growing cities in the world. But being a semi-arid environment, the river there wasn’t enough to supply a major city. So Mulholland decided to go where the water was [northern California] and to build an unprecedented 233 mile aqueduct to bring the water to southern California. But he also needed to store and distribute the water and that involved the building of dams. And when the small communities in northern California realized what was happening to their water they struck back and fought in the courts, and when that wasn’t good enough they began dynamiting the aqueduct in an attempt to interrupt it. Mulholland began to think it would be better to have large storage systems close to Los Angeles. So in the early 1920s he began to build major reservoirs close to Los Angeles and two of them had concrete dams, which he had never built before. One was in the Hollywood Hills [Mulholland Dam], and the other was the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon.

Tell me about Mulholland.

He was a self-taught engineer and a hero to people in California and people in Los Angeles in particular, built up by the beginnings of a modern media system. In some ways, I think he believed his own press. He was 72 years old and had more experience than anyone and I think he figured that he knew more than the young whippersnappers who had [only] studied books. He had built 19 dams and watched the construction of them, so it was a kind of hubris that is part of his story. Basically, he stayed too long. He had devoted his life to supplying the city he loved with water. He was like a general and there to win victory for the city because he felt the cause was right and he was the guy to do it. So his personal failings contributed [to the disaster]. What I bring out in the book is that the failings were substantial. There was no one politically or technically who could take him on. He was never questioned and never felt like he had to answer to anyone.

Who were the victims of the St. Francis Dam disaster?

The middle portion of the book covers these life-and-death stories of survival—with first-person direct quotes—of people who woke up hearing rumbling noises at midnight, not knowing what it was. It was pitch-black outside, they opened the doors to their cabins, and a wall of water would pick them up and throw them away

Many of those who were hit hardest were Mexican-American farm workers. At the time, no one cared about these Spanish speaking workers, but they are no longer peripheral. As Latino culture and political power and influence have become more important, Latino history has become more important. So with the cultural and demographic changes, these ignored victims and their stories have become relevant. In the book I tell the story of these Mexican-American workers, who weren’t in the narrative [at the time]. So the St. Francis Dam story is a step toward inclusiveness.

Were the Bureau of Water Works workers who lived downstream nervous about living there?

The workers who lived below the dam weren’t really concerned. They admired Mulholland and didn’t really have any doubts. Others in the canyon were concerned; they saw the leaks and didn’t have the vested interest that the workers did. One of the things about the Department of Water and Power and the Bureau of Water Works and Supply was this incredible esprit de corps—this pride about what they were doing for the city and the things they were building—and that pride meant that they were less concerned. The ranchers and farmers were concerned, but even those people said, If it really were dangerous, wouldn’t someone say something? And downstream a lot of people didn’t even know there was a dam.

Were the victims’ families well compensated?

That’s another reason why the story isn’t well known. Los Angeles rushed to make restitution and pay people for their losses. They agreed that they would compensate up to a maximum of five-thousand dollars per victim, based on each individual’s economic value and earning power. There was a personal injury law firm that promised $450,000 settlements but almost every case was settled for pretty much what everyone else got. And the poorer people—the Mexican-Americans—were stunned to get anything. The city was very eager to limit the payouts by settling quickly. Really everyone just wanted to get it behind them—financially, technically, emotionally, and historically. There was no drive to keep it alive.

Tell me about the post-disaster investigations that took place shortly after the dam failed. What did they find?

The governor of California put together a panel of well-known and prestigious engineers to look at the dam and to come up with a conclusion as to what happened. They gathered information, they went to the site and did some tests, and within six days they had their conclusion. A lot of the detail of understanding the forensic engineering, it didn't come to its fullest conclusions. Generally, modern engineers believe that the governors committee was wrong.

What was Mulholland’s reaction to the disaster?

He was personally devastated. He didn’t crawl into a shell exactly but his career was left in disgrace. And his entire career had been surrounded by controversy. On the one side were people who were against public ownership of utilities. On the other side were those who felt that insider business interests had profited from the creation of the aqueduct and claimed that the huge project was built to line the pockets of real estate interests. Then, as he got older he was caught between the days of the bootstrap engineer—who learned on the job, in the field—versus a new generation of academically trained engineers, who said, after the St. Francis, We never thought the old man knew what he was doing.

So the critics were on all sides. Private enterprise people said he built a public project that couldn’t work. On the left, people said the disaster proved that the rush to build things was to make profits for big business. And the educated engineers said he never really had it. So the failure of the dam [seemed to prove] all his critics correct.

And whether he realized it or not, the final criticism of him was that his success and the great skills he had as a leader and hands-on guy blinded him to his own weaknesses. So while the failure sums up his career, you need to take into account his successes. Frankly, you wouldn’t have Los Angeles without the aqueduct he built. I tried to take a nuanced view of him without letting him off the hook. But you can imagine how crushing that failure was to him. His granddaughter Catherine, whom I interviewed, remembered this old man sitting in silence at family gatherings, lost in his own thoughts, knowing that from the heights of success and admiration of so many people he would be remembered for this terrible tragedy. But the others around him—the voters, the state officials, the political leaders of Los Angeles, and other engineers—share a bit of the blame for not having a system which could have stopped Mulholland from acting as independently as he did.

Talk about the dam safety movement that came after the fact.

Part of the progressive movement was to grant power to cities to be responsive to the needs of their citizens, so early on the policy for dam safety was that any city large enough to have its own engineering department could build dams without having to answer to larger entities like the state or federal government. They were relatively free to answer the needs of their constituents. But this lack of supervision is behind the St. Francis failure because there was no authority behind Mulholland to double- and triple-check. So when the St. Francis failed, the first thing they did was to say never again would a large dam be built in California without state supervision and multiple-peer review. That awareness of the need for supervision and peer review started with the failure of the St. Francis Dam. It spread across the country and other state organizations started thinking that way as well.

So one of the things the St. Francis Dam teaches is that its not just the technical failures of design and whatever technical skills an engineer has; there are social, political, and economic pressures that can lead to failure and have led to failures—before the St. Francis and up to the modern day.

What do you see if you go to the site today?

The thing that is most visible today is the remains of what is known as the wing dike, an extension that went on a ridge line which made it possible to raise the dam height twice and bring more water behind the dam. But if you climb up into the hillsides you can find old chunks of concrete, and downstream you can still see remains of the dam—some pieces quite large. 

If the Tombstone—seen in the photo on the cover of your book—had not been dynamited the site would have remained much more distinctive.

I tell this story in the book, but on May 27, 1928, an 18-year-old boy named Leroy Parker was climbing it when and a friend playfully tossed a snake at him, and Parker panicked and fell, then died a short time later in the hospital. The boy’s distraught father sued the city. The concrete monolith was a dangerous public nuisance, and a reminder of a failure that the leaders of Los Angeles preferred to forget.

Is there a song or creative work that is strongly associated with the disaster, much like the Gordon Lightfoot song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” made the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald especially famous?

There was a song that was written in 1928 by a famous balladeer, Vernon Dalhart. One of his records, “The Wreck of Old 99,” was considered the first multi-million selling country music song, and he also wrote a song about the St. Francis Dam. Another one is a ballad that was done in 2001 by a band called Frank Black and the Catholics.

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