THE ST. FRANCIS DAM COLLAPSE
At just three minutes before midnight on this date, March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, which had been designed as a reservoir for the Los Angeles water supply, suddenly failed, releasing eleven billion gallons of water into a narrow valley in northeastern Los Angeles County, destroying everything in its path. Over the course of the next four hours, a roaring wall of water swept through the night, traveling 55 miles from the San Francisquito Valley, through the Santa Clara Valley, and on to the Pacific Ocean.
The dam had been built between 1924 and 1926 under the supervision of William Mulholland, chief engineer and general manager of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply. The concrete gravity-arch dam should have been impregnable, but Mulholland’s mistakes during the planning -- which he took complete responsibility for -- led to disaster. The devastating flood killed more than six hundred people and its collapse is one of the worst American engineering failures in American history.
The collapse of the dam marked the end of Mulholland’s career and the catastrophe has left an eerie haunting in its wake.
The St. Francis Dam before the disaster
The St. Francis Dam was built by the city of Los Angeles and was the brainchild of William Mulholland, an Irish, self-taught engineer who had fought his way through the ranks of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (then called the Bureau of Water Works and Supply). He had made a name for himself as a man with a penchant for thriftiness, an enormous capacity for innovation and for having the ability to bring in projects on time and under budget. His skills aided him in designing and building the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, which at the time was the longest aqueduct in the world, bringing water 233 miles from the Owens Valley to L.A. The city had been built in the desert and the water was critical to its dreams of growth and glory. The aqueduct brought in fresh water, but the city always demanded more, forcing other, smaller ones to be built.
But the promise of more water was overshadowed by the deceit and corruption involved in taking away the water rights of the Owens Valley farmers and residents who also needed the water. Mulholland's financial backers became rich off of the water bonanza while the people of Owens Valley suffered financial ruin. Some called it "The rape of Owens Valley." At the opening ceremony for the aqueduct, Mulholland uttered his most enduring quote, "There it is. Take it.”
The aqueduct and the series of small reservoirs built in the 1920s proved insufficient to quench the city’s rabid thirst and it was obvious that a larger reservoir was needed. When building and designing the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1911, Mulholland had considered sections of the San Francisquito Canyon – beginning about thirty miles north of L.A. – as a potential dam site. Conveniently, the aqueduct ran along the canyon and two generating stations in the canyon used aqueduct water to provide power for the city. Mulholland quickly saw the potential of the canyon to serve as a reservoir that would provide ample water for L.A. in case of a drought or if the aqueduct was damaged in an earthquake.
In 1924, construction was quietly started on the dam so as to not attract the attention of the farmers who were dependent on the waters from San Francisquito Creek. The Los Angeles Aqueduct had already been the target of frequent sabotage by the angry farmers and landowners in the Owens Valley, who felt the city was stealing their water. Mulholland wanted to avoid costly repairs and delays caused by sabotage at the new dam – and avoid the scandal that surrounded by the building of the aqueduct – so almost no publicity was generated about the new project. The dam was named the “St. Francis,” an anglicized version of the name of the canyon in which it was built.
The official plans for the St. Francis Dam describe a curved, concrete gravity dam. The basic principle of this type of dam was simple – the mass of the structure had to be great enough to hold against the pressure of the water behind it. However, rock at the dam site, both the red conglomerate rock and the sandstone on the western side of the canyon and the mica schist on the eastern wall, were less than ideal for construction. The conglomerate lost strength when it was wet and mica was a porous rock that was unstable under pressure. When water seeped into the rock below and alongside the concrete dam, pressure pushed it upwards, reducing its effectiveness against the water pushing behind it. There are several ways to counter this effect, but Mulholland used only one technique, installing drainage wells to reduce water in the material beneath the dam. In addition, during construction, the width of the dam was decreased and the height increased. Mulholland, the self-taught genius, had ordered these important changes, even though they were never formally studied by trained engineers. It was later determined that the unstable rock along the eastern side of the dam was what caused it to give way.
The St. Francis Dam project was a disaster in the making, although apparently no one ever noticed – or they were afraid to speak up. As the reservoir filled during 1926 and 1927, several cracks appeared in the dam and its supports, likely caused by temperature changes and the contraction of the concrete. The cracks and leaks were inspected by Mulholland and his assistant, Harvey van Norman, but they dismissed them, stating that there were to be expected in a concrete structure the size of the new dam. By March 1928, the reservoir had reached full capacity. The water had risen steadily and uneventfully for almost two years but by the middle of March, motorists traveling along the east shore reported cracks and a sagging roadbed near the dam’s east support. On March 12, the road was reported to have sagged more than one foot.
That same morning, the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger, discovered a new leak and immediately alerted Mulholland. He inspected the leak, along with his assistant van Norman, but convinced that it was relatively minor and normal for a concrete dame, Mulholland pronounced the structure absolutely safe.
At three minutes before midnight on March 12, the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed. No one actually saw the dam collapse, but a motorcyclist named Ace Hopewell was riding about one-half mile upstream from the dam around this time and reported that he felt a rumbling and the sound of “crashing, falling blocks.” He assumed that the sensation was either an earthquake or one of the landslides that were common to the area and didn’t realize at the time that he would be the last person to see the dam intact – and survive.
Dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger and his family were, most likely, the first casualties caught in the wave of water that tore through the dam. The wave was at least 125 feet high when it hit their cottage in San Francisquito Canyon, about one-quarter mile downstream from the dam. Thirty minutes before the collapse a motorist passing by the dam reported seeing lights in the canyon below the dam (the dam itself did not have lights) and many believe that the lights could have been Harnischfeger inspecting the dam immediately before its failure. He may have been nervous about the cracks that had been discovered earlier in the day. The body of Leona Johnson, who lived with the Harnischfegers and was later mistakenly reported to be Harnischfeger's wife, was found fully clothed and wedged between two blocks of concrete near the broken base of the dam. Neither the body of the dam keeper or that of his six-year-old son, Coder, was ever found.
The remains of the dam in two photos taken after the disaster occurred.
As the dam collapsed, eleven billion gallons of water surged down San Francisquito Canyon, demolishing the heavy concrete walls of Power Station No. 2, destroying the Harnischfeger home, wiping out a camp of migrant workers and destroying everything else in its path. The flood surged south through the canyon, flooding parts of present-day Valencia and Newhall. The deluge then followed the Santa Clara River bed to the west, flooding the towns of Castaic Junction, Fillmore and Bardsdale. The water continued west through Santa Paula in Ventura County, emptying the victims and debris that it carried with it into the Pacific Ocean, 55 miles from the reservoir and dam site. When it reached the ocean, the flood was almost two miles wide. Bodies of victims were recovered from the ocean, some as far south as the Mexican border.
Many more were never found at all.
To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown. The official death toll in 1928 was 385, but the bodies of victims continued to be discovered all of the way until the middle 1950s. Many bodies were swept out to sea when the flood reached the Pacific and were not discovered until they washed ashore. The remains of another victim were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, and the current death toll is estimated to be more than six hundred victims. This number does not include the itinerant farm workers camped in San Francisquito Canyon, the exact number of which will never be known.
The wall of water wiped out homes, small towns and (below) even shifted an entire railroad line from its course.
Immediately following the disaster, Los Angeles officials wanted to put it behind them as quickly as possible. Because of this, official investigations and hearings were short and cursory. Mulholland publicly announced that he was willing to shoulder all of the blame. He said that he “envied those who were killed” and went on to say, “Don’t blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, and I won't try to fasten it on anyone else.” Although he did imply that the dam had been cursed or that it had been sabotaged, a coroner’s inquest ruled that the disaster was caused by the faulty rock on which the dam was built and blamed the governmental organizations that oversaw the dam's construction and the dam's designer and engineer, William Mulholland. However, Mulholland was cleared of any charges, since neither he nor anyone at the time could have known of the instability of the rock formations on which the dam was built.
At the time, Mulholland managed to escape severe criticism and he won accolades for his courage and the responsibility that he took for the disaster. It was not until much later that evidence emerged that his arrogance and negligence were the real causes of the dam’s collapse. Perhaps because of his lack of formal education, Mulholland relied more on experience and guesswork than on scientific study and data. He discounted or ignored contemporary knowledge about the dangers of the uplift in the rock and failed to implement a wide variety of safety measures that were available at the time. Too proud and independent to hire expert consultants, as was the custom on large engineering projects, Mulholland forged ahead and never submitted any of his plans for an independent safety review. His authoritarian management style made sure that none of his subordinates would question his judgment.
The catastrophe haunted Mulholland and it marked the end of his career. He retired several months after the disaster and retreated into a life of self-imposed isolation. With almost no contact with the world, he died in 1935 at the age of 79.
With thousands of homes destroyed and hundreds of people dead, the St. Francis Dam Collapse remains a dark event in American history and was one of the worst disasters to ever take place in California. The calamity left an indelible mark on the landscape of Southern California --- and many believe that it earned a place in the annals of the supernatural, as well.
The exact number of victims in the disaster will never be known.
Over the years, San Francisquito Canyon has remained a sort of blighted spot near San Fernando. The area where the dam keeper’s cottage was once located – and where many migrant workers were camped – has been turned into a public park. But it’s a place where remnants of the past still make themselves known today.
It’s been said that just about anyone who has lived in San Francisquito has a ghost story. In 1986, a local historian was videotaping in a small cemetery and his friend came out of a gulley with a mysterious acid burn on his arm. When the pair got back to town, the historian found his videotape was completely blank, even though frequent inspections during taping showed the video was good. He went back for a second shoot and this time, his camera caught fire in an odd case of spontaneous combustion. The owners of the property weren’t surprised. They mentioned that a half-ton watering trough had been mysteriously moved in the middle of the night -- with no tracks. Another time, a man was painting his barn and he happened to look up and see the wet palm print of a child impressed on the wood. There were no children anywhere nearby at the time.
The large park located in the canyon is said to be one of the most haunted spots in the region. Here, where an unknown number of itinerant workers met their death in the floodwaters, visitors who have braved the place after dark say that many of the flood victims have remained behind. According to reports, strange things occur here at night, especially when it’s foggy. Eerie voices are sometimes heard, people are touched, pushed and caressed by invisible hands and on other occasions, shadowy forms are seen walking in the mist. When approached, they always vanish.
Who are these mysterious apparitions? Are they the doomed workers who perished in the flood? Or could they be the spirits of victims whose bodies have not yet been discovered? That particular mystery remains unsolved.
The story of the St. Francis Dam collapse – along with other stories of American disasters and the hauntings that following in their wake – can be found in the books AND HELL FOLLOW WITH IT and A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor & Rene Kruse. Both books are available in print from our website or as Kindle and Nook editions.