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St. Francis Dam disaster: Mulholland’s tragic mistake

The Signal recounts the historic collapse of dam in 1928

Posted: March 22, 2009 1:49 a.m.
Updated: March 22, 2009 4:30 a.m.

The St. Francis Dam after the catastrophic failure.

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What's the worst disaster in California history?

Most people know this one. If you said the great San Francisco earthquake and fires in 1906, you would be correct. Roughly 2,000 lives were lost.

Now, in terms of lives lost, what's the second worst disaster in California history?

I'll give you a minute. ... Don't know? That's OK. Most people don't. The answer is the St. Francis Dam disaster of March 12, 1928.

No one knows the true cost in lives lost, but it is estimated that more than 600 people were drowned, mangled by debris or impaled by trees when the concrete dam failed moments before midnight. The failed dam unleashed a wall of water that sped under cover of darkness from San Francisquito Canyon, located nearly five miles northeast of the Santa Clarita Valley, to the Pacific Ocean.

It snuck up on unsuspecting families, farmers, ranchers and laborers in their sleep during its 54-mile rampage along the Santa Clara River to the sea.

Don Grainger, an 86-year-old rancher in Fillmore, was 5 when it struck his family's Santa Paula dairy and walnut farm.

"I woke up hearing sirens. My mother was on the telephone, then turned to my father and said, ‘We have to get out of here because the dam broke,'" remembers Grainger.

With just the clothes on their backs, Grainger, his parents and his six brothers and sisters loaded into the family car and fled for high ground atop a nearby hill.

"There were people all up and down that hill just waiting to see what was going to happen," he said, adding that police were knocking on doors warning as many people as possible.

"What happened" was a 20-foot-high wall of water and debris moved through town, Grainger said.

"We couldn't see it, but we could hear it," said Grainger. One report said it sounded like 100 steam engines going off at the same time.

At daylight, Grainger and his family had their first look at the devastation.

"It was almost like what happens in war when you have so many people killed in a short period of time," said Grainger, a World War II Navy veteran. "There were bodies laid side by side at the mortuary that they dug out of the mud and were hosing off."

Among Granger's childhood memories is that of a flat-bed truck driving by with bodies stacked up like cordwood. Grainger's family lost everything, but he said they were lucky.

Entire families were wiped out when the dam broke in the early morning hours. Twelve billion gallons of water were released, creating a 125-foot-high wave that traveled down San Francisquito Canyon.

Over the course of five and a half hours, it flooded parts of the Santa Clarita Valley, then followed the Santa Clara River bed flooding Castaic, Fillmore, Bardsdale, Santa Paula and Montalvo, growing to about two miles wide and slowing to about 5 mph before finally emptying into the ocean near Ventura.

Bodies were found in the ocean as far as San Diego and Oxnard and continued to be recovered through the mid-1950s. Quarter-mile stretches of railroad tracks were literally turned upside down, and Powerhouse No. 2, which generated power for the city of Los Angeles, was completely destroyed.

Nearly 24,000 acres of prime land was washed away, devastating the local farming industry for years. Trees, bridges and homes were all wiped from their foundations.

In the end, one man took the blame.

The Rise and Fall of Mulholland
"I envy those that were killed," said William Mulholland. "Don't blame anyone else; you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human."

Mulholland's was an original rags-to-riches story, said Santa Clarita Valley resident Frank Rock, who has spent years studying the St. Francis Dam disaster.

"He was an illiterate and self-educated man who eventually became the most renowned civil engineer in California, building 19 dams through his career," said Rock, who recently hosted a tour of the St. Francis Dam rubble to mark the disaster's 81st anniversary.

At a time when the San Fernando Valley's population tripled and land prices escalated 500 percent, Mulholland saw the need for a dam to provide water for the burgeoning area of Los Angeles.

"There were two sites considered for the new dam, and San Francisquito was Mulholland's second choice," said Rock. "When land owners of his first choice discovered the city was looking for a site, they raised the prices."

The St. Francis Dam was built from 1924 to 1926 with Mulholland at the helm of L.A.'s Bureau of Water Works and Supply, now the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The immense concrete structure towered 185 feet over the canyon, holding back an artificial lake almost three miles long. The water weighed nearly 52 million tons.

During construction, Mulholland added 20 feet to the dam's height without increasing the base width - one critical mistake, according to J. David Rodgers, a civil engineer, geologist and professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

While Rodgers notes there were many design deficiencies, he suggests it was the instability of the land that was the dam's ultimate demise. A site that looked idyllic to Mulholland was actually the site of an ancient landslide, and the ground was still moving - information that geologists in the 1920s would not have had access to, said Rodgers.

Despite being cleared of any charges, Mulholland was vilified by the media. He had admitted to inspecting the dam just 12 hours before its collapse after the dam keeper expressed concern over leaks.

Just five days earlier, the dam reached full capacity for the first time. Convinced the leaks were normal, Mulholland declared the dam safe.

"He was an honorable figure," said Rodgers. "Did he make mistakes? Yes, a lot. Did he realize he was making them? No. Others of that era would have made the same mistakes."

Mulholland retired after investigations into the failure of the St. Francis Dam and retreated to self-imposed isolation until he died at age 79.

Lessons Learned
The sudden failure of a new concrete dam, built by a reputable public agency, had colossal repercussions, said Rodgers.

"The public outcry was enormous. It changed things politically and had a huge impact on California and the country," he said. "It also had a huge impact on Hoover Dam."

According to Rodgers, if the St. Francis Dam hadn't failed, Congress would have passed the controversial Boulder Dam Project (Hoover Dam) in the spring of 1928. Instead, that project was delayed for further review, which resulted in changing the Boulder Canyon location to Black Canyon, where Hoover Dam stands today.

The St. Francis disaster also prompted the federal government to order safety inspections of all dams, which revealed one-third of U.S. dams in need of alterations, repairs or changes, said Rodgers.

Inspections of the concrete Mulholland Dam in the Hollywood Hills of L.A. revealed that it, too, was flawed. It was retrofitted with a vast earthfill toe.

"It brought great attention to the necessity of external peer review," said Rodgers.

The original investigations concluded that "construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man."

Legislation was passed to increase dam safety, engineering geologic input on dams became commonplace, and a state professional engineering registration became mandatory for civil engineers.

The city of Los Angeles created a state-mandated arbitration council, a council that is still in place, said Rodgers. More than $7 million in restitution was paid to the victims' families and affected landowners - equal to more than $60 million today.

"They took responsibility," said Rodgers. "It was very noble and they had remarkably little disagreement. In my whole adult life, I've never seen anyone stand up and take the blame for accidental deaths. That's unheard of today."

Reminders of the Past
It's been 81 years since the St. Francis Dam collapse. Towns have rebuilt and the earthfill Bouquet Canyon Dam, about 15 miles west of Palmdale, was built as the replacement for St. Francis.

"I used to drive by that dam and think about it going out," said Grainger. "All my life I have made sure there was always plenty of gas in the car and I park where I can get it out without anything in the way."

Sometimes, he says, he still has nightmares that water is coming: "It just stays with you."

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