An Engineering Disaster on Edge of L.A. Offers an Ominous Warning

The St. Francis Dam in California, pictured after it collapsed in 1928, released 12 billion gallons of water onto the surrounding countryside and killed hundreds in the resultant flooding. Bettmann/Corbis

The remnants of the worst engineering disaster of 20th-century America sit about an hour's drive from downtown Los Angeles. You head north on the 5, past the Hollywood Hills, into the San Fernando Valley, through the placid suburb of Santa Clarita. The familiar landscape of strip malls and palm trees gives way to something far more dramatic, a true West of roads cutting through narrow canyons. You feel small beneath the rising cliffs; you would feel smaller yet if nearly 15 stories of water were coming your way, the result of a public works project failing as few others have in the nation's history.

Eighty-eight years ago, the St. Francis Dam burst in the middle of a March night, killing nearly 500 people. There are some images of the aftermath, but numbers tell the story better: 12.4 billion gallons of water rising to the furious height of 140 feet, surging 54 miles to the Pacific Ocean, an inland tsunami 2 miles wide leveling towns in its path. Some thought a saboteur had dynamited the dam. This would be easier to believe than the dam failing and people dying senselessly. But that was the case. And given the sorry state of American infrastructure, something similar could be the case again: the St. Francis Dam as portent, not aberration.

Whether there's anything to be learned from the St. Francis Dam disaster is nearly immaterial, since so few people even know it took place. Two people are trying to change that: Alan Pollack, who runs the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, and Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, who is behind the legislative push to have the dam site memorialized as a national monument and the surrounding federally managed forest turned into parkland. Back in January, they agreed to show me what remained of the dam. I was told not to wear good shoes.

The hills were turning orange in the rich winter light when we met, late in the afternoon of the appointed day. We wound through San Francisquito Canyon, on a sinuous road where there was no evidence of the notorious Los Angeles evening rush, then pulled off and started walking down another road, which had been abandoned about a decade ago. The forest had grown thick and unruly on either side, like a crowd held barely back from a Hollywood red carpet. We kept walking until the trees gave away. We were now on the canyon floor, on the spot where, in the waning minutes of March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam did precisely what it was engineered never to do.

The dam burst on its sides, so that a strangely picturesque center section remained, standing there as a lone man might on a deserted train platform. Morbidly nicknamed "the Tombstone," this vertical slab of concrete was dynamited to bits after a boy climbing the structure fell and died (another boy had thrown a snake at him). The stated reason for the demolition was public safety, but as Jon Wilkman wrote in his excellent book on the St. Francis Dam disaster, Floodpath, "it was a memorial to a failure the leaders of Los Angeles preferred to forget."

The flanks of the dam remain, misshapen concrete protrusions emanating from the canyon face, pale outgrowths in weird shapes. We climbed one of these, the remnant of a structure that once stood 205 feet high and 700 feet long. The concrete had rocks embedded in it, which gave it the feel of an ancient wall: 880 years old, not 88, the ruined battlements of some medieval siege. Strands of rebar rose in twisting shapes like a pernicious desert weed. It was impossible to tell what had been destroyed by the water, by the dynamite that followed and by the vandals who came after that.

The dam was intended to hold 32,000 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover a single acre of land with water to the depth of a single foot: about 326,000 gallons). But once the dam broke and the water fled, the land returned to what it had once been, a thick forest receding into the northern horizon. The beauty was great but terrible—the haunting beauty of a graveyard.

Pollack and Erskine-Hellrigel have taken politicians, journalists and tourists to this vantage point, and I suspect they are accustomed to the newcomer's awe: that this place exists, that it is so little known, that it is just... this. To them, though, it is more than a quirky relic of the past. Rather, it is a lesson about hubris, memory and will, not to mention the great cost of making the Southern California desert a vast oasis populated by millions who take it for granted that water is there for their faucets, lawns and swimming pools.

Pollack looked out over the land in the way that historians probably look at all land, which is to see time past, time present and time future all at once, a canvas with imbricated layers of paint, a painting that should not work but somehow does.

"This is the story of Los Angeles," he says.

'What Are You Sons of Guns Going to Do Here?'

Nothing drives serious historians of Los Angeles nuts quite like references to Chinatown, the 1974 Roman Polanski film about the Southern California water wars of the early 20th century. No matter how many times you remind people the film is fiction, they insist on treating it as fact. Maybe it's the case that a place as unreal as Los Angeles is best explained by a work of fiction.

Near the film's beginning, civil engineer Hollis Mulwray is presenting plans for an aqueduct at a raucous meeting of public officials. "In case you've forgotten, gentlemen," he says, "over 500 lives were lost when the Van der Lip Dam gave way." Mulwray is based on William Mulholland, the Bureau of Water Works and Supply potentate who nurtured the dry soil of Los Angeles with water from the Owens Valley, via a 233-mile aqueduct that remains one of the nation's great engineering feats. As for the Van der Lip Dam, it could only be the St. Francis.

A self-made Irish immigrant who never went to college, Mulholland was not the milquetoast civil servant suggested by Mulwray. Known as "the Chief," he made his agency (today, the Department of Water and Power) into the kind of unchecked fiefdom that New York City urban planner Robert Moses would carve out with his Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Just like his East Coast counterpart, Mulholland had plenty of enemies. His tended to come from the Eastern Sierra, where the Los Angeles Aqueduct begins and where residents regarded Mulholland as a big-city bully and outright thief. City-country tensions run throughout American history; the farmers of the Owens Valley were on the losing side but also in the right. The aqueduct was necessary for the flowering of Southern California, but it was built on lies—and its construction profited not just the people but also a small group of elite Angelenos. That was another truth of Chinatown.

William Mulholland testifies on the witness stand on March 26, 1928 in Los Angeles, at the coroner's inquest over the bodies found out of a total 450 who lost their lives in the St. Francis Dam Disaster. Mulholland took responsibility for the disaster, and expressed guilt at the trial, saying, "The only ones I envy about this thing are the ones who are dead." Bettmann/Corbis

Mulholland wanted vast reservoirs close to Los Angeles in case either earthquakes or saboteurs severed the city's aqueous lifeline. The Mulholland Dam went up in 1924, creating the Hollywood Reservoir. Construction on the St. Francis Dam started that same year. It was finished in 1926 and promptly put into service.

A few days before the dam's collapse, the water level was only 3 inches from the top of the dam, according to Wilkman's Floodpath. One rancher in San Francisquito Canyon posed the question bluntly to a dam manager: "What are you sons of guns going to do here, going to flood us out down below?" The Mulholland mandarin answered sarcastically that he "expected this dam to break at any minute."

Two days later, a dam keeper noticed that brownish water was seeping through the dam. He knew this could mean the dam's foundation was eroding. The chief drove out to Santa Clarita with a trusted deputy and, after an inspection, concluded that there was no reason to worry. Satisfied, Mulholland returned to Los Angeles.

A few minutes before midnight, Ace Hopewell was riding his motorcycle through San Francisquito Canyon, on a road above the dam. He was about a mile past the dam when he heard a "rumbling noise." This was still wild country, never more wild than in the night. Hopewell continued on his way.

The sound he heard was the St. Francis Dam giving way, billions of gallons of water hurtling south through San Francisquito Canyon. The deluge turned west upon reaching the Santa Clara River Valley, a funnel that would direct the water toward unsuspecting settlements that included Saugus, Piru, Fillmore, Saticoy and Santa Paula.

In his meticulous re-creation of the deadly hours after the breach, Wilkman described the flooding water as "a battering ram of rocks, mud, debris, and mangled bodies." Castaic Junction, a town near the dam, was "swept as bare as a pool table," he wrote.

The water traveled toward the ocean at a rate of about 12 miles per hour, reaching the coast at 5:25 a.m., emptying into the Pacific near the city of Oxnard. San Francisquito Canyon had been, until recently, the symbol of Mulholland's engineering might. Now it was, in Wilkman's words, "a mud-shrouded graveyard."

Learn the Hard Way

"I have been suspicious from the beginning that the dam may have been tampered with," said the mayor of Los Angeles right after the disaster. Conspiracy theories can be calming; like most, this one proved untrue, for no revolutionary or Owens Valley malcontent had blown up the dam. The canyon walls, composed of schist, were probably unsuited to the task assigned them by Mulholland; hubris may have also led Mulholland to build the dam taller than it should have been.

Mulholland took responsibility in a way that no public figure would today. During the official inquest, he claimed the mistake as entirely his own. "The only ones I envy about this thing are the ones who are dead," the crestfallen chief announced. He lived another seven years but spent most of them in brooding anonymity, not seeking that second act that is supposedly an American birthright. It was too late for that.

The chief's legacy, though, appears to have outlasted that of the St. Francis Dam. His name still graces one of the most famous thoroughfares in Southern California—Mulholland Drive—while his aqueduct continues to bring water into the city. As for the St. Francis Dam, it is just a pile of broken rock and twisted steel.

Alan Pollack grew up in North Hollywood but moved to Santa Clarita in 1991 and immediately became interested in the area's history. Some years later, he went to Pittsburgh for a medical convention (when not exploring local history, he is a doctor). While there, he took a trip to Johnstown, where more than 2,000 people were killed by a dam failure in 1889. Pollack was struck by the similarities between the Johnstown and St. Francis disasters, except while Johnstown was properly memorialized, the St. Francis Dam has remained in obscurity.

Pollack enlisted the help of Erskine-Hellrigel, who was recently involved in the successful push to have President Barack Obama declare 350,000 acres of federal land in the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument. Erskine-Hellrigel grew up in Santa Clarita and first heard about the dam disaster from her mother when she was 6. Her mother had been 6 herself when the dam broke, and she often told her daughter stories about the disaster. Together, Pollack and Erskine-Hellrigel have prevailed on U.S. Representative Steve Knight of California to propose a bill that would turn the St. Francis Dam into a national memorial surrounded by parkland. When I spoke to Knight, he was confident about the memorial, even as The Santa Clarita Valley Signal reported his bill had "little traction."

It's telling that the St. Francis question finds its way to Congress at a time when the nation's infrastructure is coming to resemble that of a Third World nation not quite recovered from a lengthy bombing campaign. Most of the 84,000 dams in the United States are now firmly in middle age, having withstood water and gravity for an average of 52 years. In the latest version of its quadrennial national infrastructure report, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued the nation's dams a collective grade of D. The cost to repair them is estimated to be $21 billion. So maybe we will have to learn the hard way.

Visiting the St. Francis Dam today is not unlike visiting the Mayan ruins of Mexico. More people should have the sensation, which is partly wonder at what civilization can accomplish and partly terror at how easily nature can wipe away those accomplishments. "To celebrate the power of human technology," Wilkman wrote in Floodpath, "stand in the shadow of a great dam. To suddenly feel helpless, do the same."