When I was a child, I had a series of recurring dreams about being caught in floods and tsunamis that were so vivid and frequent, I can still remember them in detail. My waterlogged nights were the reason that, while visiting my Auntie Jo as a young girl, I plucked a book off her shelf about the St. Francis Dam disaster, kindling a fascination with the story that continues to this day, because today marks the 88th anniversary of the collapse: the deadliest American civil engineering disaster of the 20th century.
The St. Francis Dam in February 1927, a year before it failed. At the time, the St. Francis Reservoir was the largest lake in Southern California.
Shortly before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, suddenly and catastrophically collapsed, sending the 12.4 billion gallons of water in the St. Francis Reservoir racing down San Francisquito Canyon and across the Santa Clara River Valley to the sea. In its path were families asleep in their beds, colonies of migrants who worked on local ranches and farms, camps of powerhouse and railroad workers, and untold numbers of animals, all swept away by a wall of water that reached 140 feet at its peak. When it was over, more than 400 people (and possibly as many as 600) were dead, the second largest loss of life in California state history.
This past January, a new and exceptional account of the disaster hit bookshelves. Floodpath is the result of more than 20 years of meticulous research by author and documentary filmmaker Jon Wilkman. It chronicles the rise of Los Angeles, the life and career of William Mulholland, personal stories about the night of the flood, and details of the aftermath and investigation in such a way that the book reads like a novel. Since the author may have been the last person to interview some of the remaining eyewitnesses and survivors before they died, this is likely to stand as the definitive account.
The chapters in Floodpath describing the night of the collapse are gripping, detailing events of the disaster from the first ominous rumble at 11:57 pm to the last rush of water and debris that entered the Pacific Ocean five and a half hours later. The floodwaters had scoured a path through the canyon and down the valley for 54 miles, destroying property and lives and changing the landscape of Southern California in more ways than one. Equally compelling and tragic is the story of William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer and architect of the St. Francis Dam who had been lauded as a hero for bringing water to drought-parched Los Angeles, but who ended his life a broken man living in seclusion after the failure of the dam.
All that remained after the collapse was this center section of the dam, nicknamed the Tombstone.
Because I’d known about the St. Francis Dam collapse since I was young, I didn’t realize until reading Floodpath that the disaster has been virtually forgotten by all but civil engineers, L.A. history buffs, and dam enthusiasts. Jon Wilkman lays out some possible reasons for this “historical amnesia” in his book, including a campaign by civic leaders to whitewash what had been an embarrassing misstep in the aggressive growth of Los Angeles, but it was still a shock when driving through San Francisquito Canyon this week to encounter not one sign leading to the site or marking its location. The only indication that the area had witnessed the greatest man-made disaster in 20th century America—second only to the San Francisco earthquake and fire in terms of Californian lives lost—was a single plaque behind a chain link fence at Power Plant No. 2 that I stumbled upon when I stopped to take a picture (the former powerhouse at that location having been completely washed away in the flood).
The site of the St. Francis Dam today looking east. The five steps protruding from the dirt once led up the front of the Tombstone.
The classic film Chinatown popularized the California Water Wars, but even though the St. Francis Dam failure is alluded to in the movie (as the Van der Lip Dam disaster), the collapse has slipped from public consciousness almost as quickly and completely as the waters of the St. Francis Reservoir slipped past the remains of the dam. With our aging infrastructure and shortsightedness in preventing another such disaster, this cautionary tale could not be more relevant. Hopefully, Floodpath will revive interest in this important chapter in the history of Los Angeles and unleash a flood of memories for those who can’t afford to forget.
Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:
Floodpath can be purchased online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bloomsbury, IndieBound, and Powell’s.
Jon Wilkman is currently working on a documentary about the St. Francis Dam. Read more about this project on his website.
The abandoned road heading southeast toward the former site of the St. Francis Dam.
This area of blue sky was once blotted out by the 208-foot high wall of the dam.
View of the west abutment.
If you look closely at the top of the hill in the center of this picture, you can see a metal bar protruding from the hillside where the concrete of the dam was ripped away from the wing dike.
Looking northwest past the western abutment.
This tree line marks the former location of the dam.
The remains of the Tombstone lie at the foot of the east abutment. Although vegetation has covered these hills in the years since the collapse, the ridge where the hillside gave way is still visible.
Debris at the base of the east abutment.
Looking south down San Francisquito Canyon at the path the floodwaters took after the collapse of the dam.
A close-up look at the steps of the Tombstone. The center section of the dam remained upright after the collapse, but was demolished on May 10, 1929 after a young man visiting the site fell from the steps to his death.
The steps of the Tombstone from atop the pile of debris.
A tangle of concrete and rebar.
Metal debris from the demolished Tombstone takes many forms.
Everywhere you turn, metal from the dam juts out of the debris pile.
Power Plant No. 2, 1½ miles south of the dam site, is registered as California Historical Landmark No. 919.
This memorial plaque at Power Plant No. 2 was dedicated on the 50th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam collapse.
The rebuilt Power Plant No. 2 stands on the site of the original building, which was swept away in the flood. Only one powerhouse worker survived.
Yesterday, while my pre-scheduled post about Floodpath was going live, I returned to San Francisquito Canyon for a tour of the St. Francis Dam site through the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. This annual tour on the anniversary of the disaster was led by Dr. Alan Pollack and Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel with an assist from Evan Decker. It began in the Saugus Train Station at Heritage Junction Historic Park with a one-hour lecture and video presentation about William Mulholland and the California Water Wars, the construction and collapse of the St. Francis Dam, and the resulting flood with its deadly consequences.
On the way to the site, we passed the former location of Hollywood cowboy Harry Carey’s Indian Trading Post, a popular tourist attraction that had been swept away by the floodwaters, as well as a private cemetery on a hillside in the canyon where seven members of the Ruiz family, all victims of the flood, are buried. We also walked farther down the floodpath from the dam site than I’d gone on my previous visit, seeing large blocks of concrete from the collapsed dam that had been borne downstream by the water (new picture gallery below). The most powerful moment for me came while standing by Power Plant No. 2, where Dr. Pollack pointed up the hillside to indicate that the floodwaters had reached 3/4 of the way up the canyon walls. Referring to the powerhouse workers and their families, who lived in a small community across from the plant, he lamented, “They never had a chance.”
The SCV Historical Society is actively pursuing legislation to designate the dam site as a National Memorial and Monument and grant it federal protection. Despite the fact that the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. Department of Water and Power seem to prefer that the St. Francis Dam disaster remain a distant and fading memory, this event in our history is of significance not only for Southern California, but for the country at large. Lessons learned from the collapse of the St. Francis Dam helped to improve the building of dams nationwide, and the tragedy should be acknowledged for its role in strengthening our infrastructure and contributing to the growth of this country.
For more information, visit the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
Debris strewn across the canyon floor as seen from the road leading to the dam site.
Looking northwest from the canyon floor at that same debris.
Large pieces of the dam can be seen everywhere you turn on the canyon floor.
Debris from the dam is easy to distinguish from the surrounding rock by its color and texture.
Someone left a makeshift memorial to victims of the flood at the base of this large dam fragment.
This chunk of the dam clearly shows the steps that led up the south-facing side.
Looking upstream toward the dam site from the canyon floor in the floodpath.
Three roads leading to the dam site are visible in this picture. The more modern lower road was abandoned in recent years. More difficult to discern is the original road about halfway up the hillside, which can be seen below the rocky area in the center of the picture. This was the road traveled by Ace Hopewell, the last person to have seen the St. Francis Dam intact, who drove past the dam on his motorcycle mere minutes before the collapse. A higher road that was used after the disaster runs near the ridge of the hill to the right of center.
A closer look at the original road leading to the dam, hidden amid the scrub brush. The waters of the flood would have reached the top of the ridge in this picture.