The Disaster That Broke Mulholland

Los Angeles Times: "Stories That
Shaped the 20th Century"
Oct. 12, 1999

Almost from the start, the St. Francis Dam seemed prone to leaks. Just small ones, nothing too serious, even if folks in the farm towns downstream used to joke they'd see you later "if the dam don't break."

The St. Francis was the big dam that William Mulholland, Los Angeles' chief water engineer, needed to protect the city water system from earthquakes. His famous aqueduct from the Owens Valley passed through the rift zone of the San Andreas fault. The dam would hold a two-year supply of water in case the aqueduct were ever severed.

Mulholland chose the location in San Francisquito Canyon, five miles upstream from today's Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park in Valencia. He designed the dam. And when it sprang ominous new leaks the morning of March 12, 1928, it was Mulholland who inspected and declared the concrete structure fit.

That night, the St. Francis shuddered and broke apart. A wall of water 10 stories high plunged down the dark canyon, sweeping homes, cars, mud and huge slabs of soaked concrete toward sleeping towns. The flood and tumbling debris hit the Santa Clara River at 18 mph, then followed the riverbed to the sea, washing over bridges as it sped through the dark.

First to go were Castaic and Piru. Sirens wailed desperate warnings as telephone operators called frantically ahead, trying to outrace the flood and waken as many people as they could. The wall of water slammed into Fillmore, devouring dozens of farmhouses. Motorcycle officers raced ahead to alert Santa Paula. Three hours after the break, the flood inundated the town, demolishing 300 homes.

Santa Paula was 42 miles downstream from the dam. The ocean at Ventura was still 12 miles distant. In Los Angeles, Mulholland's assistant telephoned the chief's house on St. Andrews Place to deliver the grave news: "The St. Francis is gone."

The water chief -- perhaps the most admired resident of Los Angeles -- dressed formally and had his chauffeur drive him to the scene. When the sun allowed a glimpse of the devastation, it revealed unthinkable carnage. A tall spire of jagged concrete was all that remained of the St. Francis. The dead included 140 workers in a Water and Power Department work camp and 42 children who had attended Saugus Elementary School -- half of the school's pupils. Bodies were entombed in the silt or washed into the ocean. One corpse was found later on the coast in San Diego.

On the flood plain, survivors and livestock clung to trees or were snarled in fences. Disaster crews worked for days to rescue the lucky ones -- and to slaughter and cremate animals as a hedge against disease. Relief camps opened to feed and house the dazed survivors.

Officially, at least 450 people died. The real toll is believed to be higher because an unknown number of migrant farm workers had been camped along the Santa Clara River. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the St. Francis Dam collapse was California's deadliest disaster. It also was recorded as the worst American civil engineering failure of the century.

When it came time to place blame, suspicion first turned on embittered ranchers in the Owens Valley who had set off dynamite at the Los Angeles Aqueduct several times in the previous year. Other theories centered on earthquake faults or blasting by road workers. But out in the relief camps and muck, most of the anger was directed at Los Angeles and its water czar. A woman who lost her entire family posted a sign that read, in dripping red paint, "Kill Mulholland!"

At the coroner's inquest, it was Mulholland's bad fortune to testify on the same morning that newspapers reported the retrieval of a baby's corpse. Dist. Atty. Asa Keyes grilled Mulholland unrelentingly about the history of leaks. When a grainy home movie of the devastation was shown, Mulholland sobbed in court and muttered, "I envy the dead."

After deliberating for two weeks, the inquest jury ruled that no prosecution was warranted. But it placed the blame squarely on Mulholland and his reputation. Failure of the rock anchoring the dam caused the tragedy, the jurors found, but the self-taught Mulholland should not have been given the power to build the dam. He lacked the expertise to act as the leading authority on such a large concrete structure, the jury ruled.

"The construction of a municipal dam," the jury said, "should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent." And it never was again in California. The state Legislature quickly passed a law requiring that a formal panel of engineers and geologists review all new dams.

Mulholland's distinguished career was over. He resigned seven months later at age 72, depressed and ill from Parkinson's disease, and died sad and broken in 1935.

New inquiries in the 1990s shifted the blame for the St. Francis to an ancient landslide, undetectable even by the most accomplished geologists of the 1920s.

©Los Angeles Times 1999

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