The Saint Francis Dam Disaster (1928)

Los Angeles is arid. Water for its populace must be brought from hundreds of miles away.

In 1913 the Los Angeles water department, led by its celebrated chief engineer, William Mulholland, completed its famed aqueduct to channel water from the distant Owens Valley. But the farmers of that valley resisted, going so far as to dynamite the aqueduct in 1924 and interrupt the city’s water supply for several weeks. Besides, what if the aqueduct were severed by an earthquake?

To solve the problems, Mulholland and his engineers built a 180-foot-high, 600-foot-long dam for a storage reservoir in San Francisquito Canyon near Saugus.

By 1926 it was filled with water, twelve and half billion gallons of it, enough to hold a year’s supply of water for the entire city of one million, two hundred thousand people.

At three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, though, the dam gave way — and a 78-foot wall of water tumbled toward the Pacific Ocean 54 miles away, bringing ranches, automobiles, animals, trees, boulders, houses and people with it.

He Usually Lived With

Within an hour or so, more than 500 men, women and children were dead, and the little coastal town of Santa Paula lay crumpled beneath twenty-five feet of mud and filth.

Brick Garrigues had been in Ventura County just that day, and this is the way he recalled it in a little pamphlet he published in May 1938 ( republished in January 1939):

Why Didn’t Somebody Tell Somebody?

Santa Paula

A curious, graceful peace seemed to hang over the narrow, verdant valley as the season hovered halfway through the spring. Hay wagons were loading in the fields, peaches ripening on the trees. And people, as though they didn’t know that all humanity is supposed to rush frantically from task to task, were sitting in the shade in the little towns, gossiping, or chatting, or just sitting.

Usually we don’t go on jaunts in such a gentle mood. Usually we boast that we made it to Santa Barbara in two hours or to San Diego in two and a half or to San Francisco between eight and six. But today — because it was spring and because we were tired of the whish-whish of crowded highways, we had chosen the longest way around and were prepared to boast that we had made it to Ventura in not a minute less than eight hours.

You have known, perhaps, a friend, chatting, laughing, making plans — unconscious that he was doomed to die within a few hours? Perhaps he has left your side and started to cross the street and was run over by a truck. Or perhaps a building fell. And you read the next morning that such-and-such has happened and that the funeral will be held at such-and-such a time.

But did you ever take leave of a whole city, a whole population, laying aside, regretfully, a sudden new friendship for a people, while your new friend went on about its manifold tasks unconscious that it, too, had been doomed to sudden death in the night?

None of us knew of — or thought about — Saint Francis Dam, a narrow wall of concrete, bracing itself against billions of gallons, millions of tons, of water back somewhere in the hills. City people don’t know about such things. A lake is such a placid thing; one forgets that it can become in a moment a raging carrier of death.

The last place we stopped in Ventura was at a roadside stand where a tawny-haired, smiling girl served us with steaks and French fried potatoes between whispered, laughing conferences with a blue-shirted boy at another table. Afterwards, we sat in the gathering dusk, and after a little while she turned out the lights in the place, and they sat with us for a while and we talked of crops and the weather and the price of gasoline and other things that people talk about when it doesn’t matter whether they talk or not.

When he had gone away, she said, unnecessarily: “Isn’t he swell! We’re going to be married next month.” There was pride and challenge in her voice — a challenge to the whole world to try to take away their happiness. And then we swung away into the darkness and saw the man we had to see in Ventura, and by midnight were back in our bed in our smelly, narrow city apartment.

It must have been three hours later that the telephone began to whirr. The voice of the city editor grated through the instrument: “Get on your clothes and get up to Ventura. There’s been a big dam break up there and plenty hell to pay. Get going.”

At dawn we were on top of a narrow hill from which we could look up the narrow valley — a valley filled from brim to brim with a raging yellow flood down which came tumbling houses and trees and the bodies of animals and people.

They found the girl wedged in the crotch of an uprooted tree — her tawny hair caked with mud, the laughing teeth set in a grimace of terror. Just one of 400 who died because “somebody didn’t tell somebody.” And what didn’t they tell? Listen:

The story begins with two aging men — one a great engineer with a violent temper, the other a one-eyed millionaire with a genius for selling to agencies of government — at his own price — things they could buy from no one but him.

The engineer was William Mulholland — father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The other shall here be nameless — because he had no way of knowing that the plan he had so carefully worked out many years before would drive Mulholland into a rage which would result in the deaths of nearly 500 people. . . .

But in 1928 Brick Garrigues did not know exactly what had caused the Saint Francis Dam to collapse; nor did anyone else.

Yet this stunning tragedy was a momentary blip in Southern California life near the end of a joyous decade. People across the country were pretty well satisfied with the way things were going, and if some of them were getting rich from building faulty dams, it didn’t affect the pocketbooks of most Angelinos.California historian Carey McWilliams wrote later that although Los Angeles city officials knew in advance of the dam’s weakness, nothing was done.

“For this folly, the city paid a heavy indemnity, but retained, and continued to honor, its chief engineer.”

Recent research, however, has demonstrated that, based upon the scientific knowledge of the time, the dam had been built as safely as was possible to do in the 1920s.