Headlines tell story of St. Francis Dam failure

As the weeks passed, the ranks of the dead increased and the tally of property losses swelled, while the search for the cause of the disaster played out in area newspapers, according to reports in The Signal, and the now-defunct Los Angeles Examiner, The Record and the Santa Paula chronicle.

By Michele E. Buttelman

Signal Staff Writer

The bold, black headlines echo down through the years, staring up from the fading, crumbling newspapers that carried the tale of death and destruction to their readers.

The second worst disaster in California history began on March 12, 1928, near midnight, in the remote San Francisquito Canyon area of Saugus.

The St. Francis Dam failed at 11:57:30, a time pegged to the loss of electricity from the Southern California Edison transmission lines to Lancaster. The lines were located 90 feet above the dam’s eastern abutment.

The dam’s reservoir of 12.5 billion gallons of water poured down the narrow canyon, initially in a 140-foot-high wall of water, and swept nearly 500 men, women and children to their deaths. In California history, only the 1906 San Francisco earthquake killed more people.

As the flood carved out a path to the sea, it lay waste to Castaic Junction, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, more than 50 miles away, near Ventura.

“Death and Destruction Carried by Great Flood Wave When Big Dam Breaks”

“Many Bodies Remain Buried in Debris as Death Toll in Catastrophe Still Mounts”

“Fillmore Funeral Chapel Stacked With Bodies of Victims of the Flood”

After the catastrophic failure of the dam, the newspapers, including The Signal, dispatched reporters and photographers to the scene of the tragedy. They filled their pages with photographs, interviews with survivors and lists of the dead.

Remarkable tales of survival and tragic tales of loss were reported in the Fillmore American of March 15, 1928. “Shot his Way Out Thru Roof of House Saved by Sycamores” was one such headline.

“Frank Maier and his wife and three children, residing on (a) ranch below the Bardsdale bridge, had a remarkable escape. As the waters swirled in around them, they made their way to the attic. Here Frank shot a hole through the roof, through which he passed his wife and two of the children to the roof. As he was about to follow them with his son, the house began to move, it was caught in a little circle of sycamore trees, where it rocked from side to side, without turning over or being carried away. The house floated, like a leaky boat, the mark showing that there had never been more than eighteen inches of water in it, when it dropped back to the ground.”

Another story in the same paper reported, “How Old Man Koffer Swept to Safety on Mattress of his Bed.” Demonstrating how writing style and political correctness have advanced through the years, the story read:

“Old Man Koffer was saved. And the term old is not used lightly or slurringly, for he is 74. He and his wife, also aged, lived on the Carter ranch above Fillmore. The waters caught them as they slept. And that is about all that Old Man Koffer remembers. For when he realized where he was, he was on his knees, clinging to the mattress, his old wife gone. A few awful moments and the mattress and its aged occupant swirled out to one side and landed in a lemon orchard, where help came to him.”

In another tragic report, a man was able to save his baby, but his wife and four other children “swept by, crying for help that could not come.”

“Wastes Scarred by Fearful Hand of Death Stretch Under Leaden Skies in Land of Misery”

“Corpses Flung in Muddy Chaos by Tide of Doom”

“Desolation Stalks Where Fertile Fields Once Held Happy Homes, Now Hurled Into Oblivion”

“St. Francis Dam Disaster Most Appalling”

The St. Francis Dam was the brainchild of William Mulholland, the manager and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Mulholland had designed the aqueduct from the Owens Valley that brought a reliable and steady supply of water to Los Angeles. 

The Signal, a weekly paper in 1928, first reported the tragedy on Thursday, March 15.

“One of the worst calamities that ever happened in Southern California took place Tuesday morning at about 12:30 a.m. when the great San Francisquito Canyon dam broke and sent a wall of water crashing down the canyon, sweeping everything in its path to destruction. … The loss of life was appalling, coming as it did, in the dead of night, without any chance of escape…”

In a Los Angeles area paper, the tragedy is reported in the dramatic style of the day: “Death and devastation continued last night to stare back from the sodden wastes of Santa Clara valley upon a horror-stricken world, mute with the knowledge of appalling loss of life and property in the greatest disaster in the history of Southern California.”

“Total Loss in Lives and Property Is Still Very Incomplete”

“Responsibility for Disaster Undoubtedly Up to Los Angeles”

“Flood Indictments Hinted”

“Dynamite Theory Now Advanced as Cause of Break”

“Blame Mulholland for Dam Structure”

 As the weeks passed and the list of missing dwindled, the ranks of the dead increased and the tally of property losses swelled, the search for the cause of the disaster — and the assigning of blame — played out in the area newspapers.

Eventually, blame for the dam’s failure was laid at the feet of the dam’s builder, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Mulholland.

He was reportedly devastated by the disaster, and photos of him at the scene of the calamity on the morning of the tragedy show a shocked Mulholland as he surveyed the damage.

Years after Mulholland’s death, geologists discovered that the dam had been built in the area of an ancient landslide, something unknown to Mulholland and the geologists and engineers of the time. However, that may or may not have contributed to the dam’s failure. 

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