An old saying goes like this: “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is something to fight over.” In 1913 the Los Angeles Aqueduct started to divert the Owens River water to Los Angeles, and the Owens Valley that used to be called “The Switzerland of California” began to be transformed into a desert. The man most responsible for this transition was William Mulholland.
In 1877 when Mulholland arrived, Los Angeles was all of 9000 inhabitants. He was born in Belfast, Ireland, and ran away from home to join the British Merchant Navy at age 15. He became a civil engineer, by mostly self-education, and worked for the LACWC (Los Angeles City Water Company, eventually to become the LADWP) of which he became superintendent. Mulholland’s vision was to see a “megalopolis” in the desert climate of the Los Angeles basin. What prevented LA’s growth was lack of water!
His famous line was, “If you don’t get the water, you will not need it!” He tried to get water from the Colorado River but was denied. He then looked to the Sierra Nevada, and realized that he could get all the water he needed, by gravity feed, from the Owens Valley. He promised the farmers that he would only take the excess water they would not use anyway, and then built the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile system to move water from the Owns Valley to San Fernando just north of Los Angeles. He deceived the farmers and actually took all of the runoff from the Sierra Nevada! The Owens Valley dried up.
The farmers took up arms and explosives and fought back violently, which became known as the “California Water Wars.” The aqueduct was blown up with dynamite in several locations, and people went to prison. But Mulholland prevailed, and commented it was too bad that all the trees in the Owen’s Valley died because there were not enough trees left to hang all the malcontents that opposed his grand design!
With more water, Los Angeles grew. By 1920 the population was 576,673. Another large reservoir was needed to store the water. Mulholland picked a narrow canyon north of Los Angeles. The San Francisquito Canyon was ideal as it narrowed at a spot that would not require a very large dam. What was not known then was that there was an ancient landslide that was the likely cause of the narrowing and contained rock, called Pelona Schist, that was soft, at the eastern abutment of the dam. This did not serve as a strong enough foothold and later would have devastating consequences.
It took two years to build, and the St. Francis Dam started taking water on March 12, 1926. It took nearly two years to fill. Almost immediately, cracks and leaks were noted. On the morning of March 12, 1928, Tony Harnischfeger, the dam keeper, telephoned Mulholland that he noted a larger leak on the west abutment of the dam that was discharging dirty water. This would indicate that the leak was eroding foundation cement. Mulholland came out himself to inspect the dam by 10:30 AM. For two hours he walked around and by 12:30 PM declared the dam was safe. Two minutes before midnight a brief flickering of the lights in Los Angeles marked the dam’s failure in a dramatic collapse of the right and left parts of the dam, leaving the center stand, later called the “tombstone” by the steady stream of spectators that came to see what was left of the dam. A 10,000-ton piece of the dam was found a mile downstream, and 12.4 billion gallons of water surged down the San Francisquito Canyon and then through the Santa Clara Valley on its 54-mile path to the Pacific Ocean that started as a 135-foot high water wall. The communities of Castaic, Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula were devastated. It barely took 70 minutes to empty the reservoir.
Harnischfeger, who had misgivings for some time, had built a set of stairs to higher ground to give him and his six-year-old son an escape route should the dam break, which he never got to use. He, along with his son, were the first victims. Their bodies were never found. Fourteen months after the tragedy, the dam claimed its last life. An eighteen-year-old man climbed the remaining central monolith, by now, called the “tombstone” and fell to his death. After that, the City of Los Angeles decided to demolish the remaining pieces to prevent any more accidents. Only the 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused more destruction and deaths in California. The dam disaster cost at least 431 lives, bodies having been found as late as 1994! 1200 houses and 10 bridges were washed away. An unknown toll of animals drowned.
We are always fascinated by the worst, the best, the first, etc. This was “the worst disaster” ever that was due to the failure of a human-built structure. There is a sculpture near the Santa Paula train station memorializing the heroism of two motorcycle police officers, Stanley Baker and Thornton Edward, that at the risk of their own lives, rode ahead of the wall of water to wake people up and warn them to get to higher ground, saving hundreds of lives.
Mulholland took full responsibility for the dam’s failure. His statement to the board of inquiry was telling, “The only ones that I envy about this whole thing are the ones that are dead!” He resigned as Supervisor of the LACWC in November 1928, and lived in relative seclusion, devastated by the disaster. He died in 1935.
The financial cost of the St. Francis Dam collapse was estimated at 13.5 million dollars ($196,281,000 in today’s money). The coroner’s inquest declined to prosecute Mulholland criminally, but blamed him for poor construction. His home was in Acton about 35 miles from the dam. It was entirely constructed with massive amounts of concrete that, some say, was diverted from the dam.
To demonstrate the difference between then and now, all the claims were settled out of court and not one lawsuit was filed. Los Angeles became the second-largest city in the US by population (4,000,000), but the largest by square area (502.7 square miles).
I owe a debt of thanks to John Nichols’ book, St. Francis Dam Disaster, that served as a source for this essay.