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"L.A. Plots Destruction" 1900s Headline Reads

On March 12, 1928, one of the worst disasters in the United States occurred. 

"On an occasion like this, I envy the dead." -- William Mulholland, 1928

Everyone knows about the Titanic, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina. These tragedies in our history have been taught in schools, made into movies and books, given days of remembrance. But what is it about these tragedies that make them more well known than others?

In 1926, on May 6th, the St. Francis Dam was completed. In just under two years, it would collapse. I am honestly unsure why this piece of history is so obscure, but according to writer and historian for PBS SoCal Hadley Meares, “By 1931 the tragedy was so sufficiently swept under the carpet that a book about California water did not even mention the disaster.”

In 1906, the worst disaster in California’s history occurred. There was an earthquake in San Francisco and between that and the subsequent fires, over 3,000 people died. The second worst disaster to happen in the state was just twenty years later. 

Thirst for Water

William Mulholland was an Irish immigrant and a self taught engineer. He was so successful in his career that by age 31, he was already superintendent. He set his mind on a goal: bring water to California. The LA river had been decimated and the city needed water if it was to support the population growth. So with his friend, mentor, and past mayor of Los Angeles, Fred Eaton, he set off to find a source of water that he could use. The two set their sights on Owens Valley, a town 224 miles away from LA. 

Owens Valley was home to hundreds of ranchers. Their ranches were supported by the Owens River that flowed into the town. Eaton pretended to be a rancher and invaded the town. He bought land and water rights for well below its value; the other farmers believed that their land had very little worth. Construction on an aqueduct was started and the aqueduct was completed in November of 1913. 

A large crowd gathered around the aqueduct to watch as the water poured into their city. The people of Owens Valley were rightfully angry as their once fertile land was now useless. For years they used dynamite to blow up pieces of the aqueduct. When they attempted to divert some of the water back towards their ranches, LA took took legal action. 

47 miles from downtown LA, the St. Francis Dam was built in the San Francisquito Canyon in Santa Clarita. William Mulholland was the chief engineer. The dam measured at 195 feet tall, which was 25% bigger than the original design. It was able to hold 12.4 billion gallons of water in the reservoir. If you know anything about the architecture of dams, you know that the width of the base is incredibly important to the height of it. The width is what keeps the dam from tipping over and, overall, maintain a stable structure. However, despite the increase made to the height, no change was made to the base. 

The dam showed signs of instability. It had cracks that were regularly filled, and while most dams do end up with some cracks, these ones continued to show up and were found in the foundation, abutment (the part of the valley side, or man-made structure, which the dam is constructed), and the wing dike (a barrier made to redirect water). These cracks didn’t bother Mulholland even though it was a sign that the dam was not structurally sound. 

Tony Harnischfeger was employed as the dam keeper. Tony noticed muddy water leaking from the west abutment and alerted Mulholland and his deputy engineer, Harvey van Norman. The muddy water was a sign that pieces of the foundation were being washed away. The two engineer’s went to examine the dam, but determined that it was fine. However, Harnischfeger was still scared. 

Dams have more purpose than providing water. They also provide electricity. With the development of the dam, the city constructed powerhouses. Ray Silvey was a nightshift worker at Powerhouse One. On the night of March 11th, leading into the morning of the 12th, Silvey was on the phone with his friend Lou Burns working the same shift at Powerhouse Two, which was positioned right below the dam. The two were talking and laughing, enjoying their shift. At 11:57 pm, there was a blip on the control panel in Powerhouse One. At 12:02 am, everything went black. Silvey never spoke to his friend again. 

The Dam Breaks

The dam had broken and water was flooding out. All 12.4 billion gallons of water emptied from the reservoir within an hour. If you remember, Powerhouse Two was located just at the base of the dam. Powerhouse workers would bring their families to live close to their work, and so communities were often created near these buildings. Houses, churches, and more were built. This was the first place to be hit by the flood. At 12:15 am, Powerhouse Two was gone, and 126 out of the 129 residents were dead.

The flood roared down the flood path, sweeping up hundreds of people along the way. The small town of Piru was one of the first towns to be hit. The train tracks running through the town were demolished, entire sections being picked up by the water and dropped miles from where they had started. Santa Paula was the largest populated town in the flood path, with a population of over 7,000 people. By 5:30 am, the flood finally hit the pacific ocean at a beach between Oxnard and Ventura. 

The flood path

In total, the flood had moved across 54 miles. People were carried many miles by the water—clinging to objects near them, being banged into things. It was reported that bodies were found as far as San Diego and the Mexican Border. The search for bodies was around the clock, and included everybody. Even boy scouts would search and plant white flags near the bodies they found. Rescue workers took notice of any circling vultures- a sign of bodies. Many bodies were never found, and others had been mutilated. Lou Burns, the employee of Powerhouse Two, was found twice. First his torso, and then months later, his legs. Remnants and remains of the destruction were still being found as recently as the 1990s.

Counting the Dead

It was estimated that 600 people were dead. However, the real number is impossible to decipher. Many people in the area were workers and immigrants that were never accounted for. Many victims did drown in the flood, but the majority of deaths were caused by head trauma from being thrown into objects. 

Due to the large amount of fatalities, makeshift morgues popped up everywhere. General stores, dance halls, feed stores, and the American Legion Headquarters were turned into morgues where survivors could search for lost loved ones. But even these morgues were segregated. There was one dance hall that had been turned into a morgue so hastily that decorations were still hung up, and a large and cheery banner bearing the word “Welcome!” hung above the victims.

"Where once bloomed flowering trees, bodies of those trapped in the rushing wall of water lay exposed on slimy banks." -- LA Times, 1928

Hello Girls

Victims were buried everywhere. In the small town of Piru, it is nearly impossible to find a cemetery without a grave or memorial from this disaster. But the death count would have been much higher if it wasn’t for the Hello Girls. In the 1920s, phone operators were generally women, referred to as Hello Girls. In the midst of the flood, many of these girls stayed at their phones and dialed number after number to warn people of the water heading their way. And while many lives were saved, it was impossible to save everyone. 

A family of Italian immigrants was hit hard. The Gottardi family consisted of a mother, father, and their six children. The father had roamed his land in the aftermath, calling out and searching for his family. He was unaware that his wife and five of his children had been claimed by the water. The body of one of his daughters was never found. In the 1950s, when Mr. Gottardi passed, he was laid to rest with his wife and children.

Who's to Blame

After the events of the disaster, the city tried to place the blame on Owens Valley for the dam’s failure, claiming that it was their bombers who triggered its fall. However, the main cause was determined to be oversight from the engineers. Geological engineer J David Rogers believes that it was a landslide that ultimately triggered the collapse of the dam. He believes that the landslide destroyed the foundation, causing the construct to lean and open up the cracks. Whatever the cause, the general consensus is that Mulholland could have been able to build a better, more stable dam, if he knew more about the construction of concrete dams and had done more research on the geology of San Francisquito Canyon. Mulholland did take full responsibility for the events that occurred after the initial collapse, but he received many death threats. 

The entirety of the dam had not collapsed. In the center of where the dam had been, a chuck of the wall remained. This piece was referred to as the Tombstone and became a tourist attraction. Sadly, the dam was not done claiming lives. Two months after the flood, on the 27th of May, 1928, 17-year-old Leroy Parker was visiting the sight with his friend and father. As teenage boys tend to do, he decided to climb it, and his dad joined him. On the ground, the friend discovered a snake. With a nearby stick he also found, he threw the snake in the direction of Leroy. Of course, wanting to dodge the animal, Leroy ended up losing his balance and he fell the thirty feet to ground. It was the very next year that the Tombstone was demolished, and the St. Francis Dam Flood was repressed and forgotten.

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How could something this big in such a populated area just get swept under the rug? Hundreds of people died.


I can't believe more people don't know about this, the part about the boy scouts searching too was shocking.

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