The 94th Anniversary of the St. Francis Dam Disaster


By Michele E. Buttelman

Signal Staff Writer

On March 12 it will be 94 years since the night in 1928 when, at 30 seconds past 11:57 p.m., the mighty St. Francis Dam shuddered, fractured, then collapsed. A 120-foot-high deadly wall of water from a 4-mile-long reservoir behind the dam roared down the narrow confines of San Francisquito Canyon scouring the landscape of everything in its path.

The water, which also caused destruction as it passed through Fillmore and Santa Paula, was still 15 feet deep when it reached the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles away near Ventura at approximately 5:30 a.m.

Entire families, homes, barns, cars, trucks, herds of animals, trees, rocks, soil … all were swept away as the estimated 12.4-billion-gallon reservoir, built to satisfy the increasing water needs of a thirsty city of Los Angeles, emptied in little more than an hour.

The death toll, listed as somewhere between 400 and 500, but most likely higher, made the event one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

The owner of the dam, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, did its best to try to would have the time,” she said.

erase the event from the history of the Santa Clarita Valley. It dynamited the remaining rubble and quickly paid claims to victims.

Yet, the stories of the survivors, and of the dead, live on in several well-documented books, as well as “Forgotten Tragedy: The Story of the St. Francis Dam,” a documentary widely seen on Amazon Prime Video before being removed.

National Memorial and Monument

Signal File Photo

After years of neglect, the site of the St. Francis Dam is now a National Memorial and Monument.

The legislation to give national recognition to the disaster was championed by SCV residents Alan Pollack, M.D., president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, and Dianne Hellrigel, executive director of the Santa Clarita Community Hiking Club and Historical Society board member.

In 2012 Pollack attended a medical conference in Pennsylvania. During his visit, he spent time at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, the site of the largest-ever U.S. dam disaster, which killed more than 2,000.

Pollack returned home and read “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough and made note of the parallels between the two disasters.

“Each of these events had their own intrigues and their heroes, different, but the end result was the same, a massive loss of lives and property,” said Pollack. “I thought, we have the two biggest dam disasters in American history, the stories are very parallel, but there was a major difference.”

According to Pollack, the difference was the Johnstown site, which had been declared by Congress a National Memorial in 1963, had a visitor’s center, a memorial and a museum.

“When you go to our site, there is nothing but the ruins,” he said.

Pollack started putting out feelers about a national memorial for the St. Francis site.

He soon joined forces with Hellrigel.

At first, Hellrigel was hesitant to take up the cause.

“My background is in legislation and at the time he contacted me I thought, ‘I’ve got seven legislations that I’m working on right now.’ I didn’t think I

Family Connections

As Hellrigel pondered taking on the national memorial legislation for the St. Francis she realized she had a family connection to the disaster.

“I remembered the story my mother told me about visiting the dam two days before it failed,” she said.

Hellrigel’s family, who lived in Burbank, took a day trip out to visit the dam so her grandfather, an avid fisherman, could see about fishing in the reservoir.

“My grandmother and grandfather took my mother and her two siblings out to the dam,” she said. “My grandpa wanted to fish out there in the worst way. He bugged Tony Harnischfeger, the dam keeper, to take him out in his little boat. At the end of the day Tony promised my grandfather he would take him out fishing in a couple of weeks.”

As they drove though rural San Francisquito Canyon, Hellrigel’s mother, age 6 at the time, became enamored of the little schoolhouse she saw with horses standing around and children playing.

“Two days later the school was gone, the children were dead,” said Hellrigel. “When I was about age 6 my mother started telling me about the dam and took me out to the ruins. Honestly, at the time I was more interested in chasing lizards.”

Hellrigel said she heard her family talk often about the St. Francis over the dinner table and in everyday conversation.

“My grandmother always said, ‘It was such a beautiful dam, how could it have failed, it was just gorgeous.’ My grandpa reminisced about all the fish he could have caught in the reservoir,” Hellrigel said.

A few days after speaking with Pollack about the national memorial, Hellrigel realized she needed to make it a priority.

“It hit me, this was a huge thing for my family,” she said. “They talked about it their entire lives. I thought, ‘I have to do this,’ and it became my No. 1 priority.”

After years of frustration and legislation passed in the House of Representatives, but never to see the light of day in the Senate, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act was signed into law, by coincidence on the 91st anniversary of the dam’s failure, March 12, 2019.

This image was taken March 9, 1928, by E.B. (Al) Louden. Walking the parapet are William Mulholland, Harvey Van Norman and Tony Harnischfeger. It is one of the last photos taken before the dam collapsed.
One of the first photographs taken after the St. Francis Dam collapsed on March 12. SIGNAL FILE PHOTOS

The act, which designated more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness area and expanded several national parks, also authorized the establishment of the St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and established the St. Francis Dam Disaster National Monument.

Foundation Formed

The St. Francis Dam National Memorial Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, with the goal of raising funds to support the United States Forest Service in building and maintaining the St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and Monument, including the construction of a visitor’s center and memorial wall with the names of all the known victims.

The 353 acres of the National Memorial and Monument are administered by the U.S. Forest Service within the Angeles National Forest.

No federal money was attached to the bill authorizing the national recognition, so it will be up to the foundation to raise funds for infrastructure improvements and to protect the site.

Pollack is the president of the foundation and Hellrigel is vice president and executive director.

Fundraising is now ongoing to finance the construction of a visitor’s center and other improvements.

To donate or volunteer, visit stfrancisdammemorial. org.

Abbreviated Timeline

March 12, 1928, 11:57:30 p.m. The St. Francis Dam collapses, beginning with a landslide of the water-saturated eastern abutment and exacerbated by the hydraulic uplift phenomenon of the inadequately constructed base of the dam.

March 12, 1928, 11:58 p.m. Tony Harnischfeger and his family are most likely among the first casualties caught in the flood wave, which is about 140 feet high when it hits their cottage, approximately one-quarter mile downstream from the dam.

March 13, 1928, 12:03 a.m. Five minutes after the collapse, having traveled 1-1/2 miles at an average speed of 18 mph, the now-120-foot-high flood wave destroys the heavy concrete Powerhouse No. 2 — leaving only two turbines — and claims the lives of 64 of the 67 workmen and their family members who lived nearby.

March 13, 1928, 12:05 – 1 a.m. San Francisquito Canyon is ravaged. Six members of the Ruiz family are killed in the flood.

March 13, 1928, 1 a.m. The deluge, now 55 feet high, continues, generally following the westward course of the river. It hits and demolishes Edison’s Saugus substation, leaving the entire Santa Clara River Valley and parts of Ventura and Oxnard without power. At least four miles of the state’s main north-south highway (now Interstate 5) are under water, and a short distance away, near the present-day Magic Mountain amusement park, the flood is washing away the town at Castaic Junction.

March 13, 1928, 1:30 a.m. Telephone operators Louise Gipe in Santa Paula and Reicel Jones in Saticoy bravely stay at their posts and begin systematically calling residents in low-lying areas, urging them to flee to higher ground. March 13, 1928, 2:30 a.m. The phone rings at the Mulholland residence. As he lurches for the phone, he repeated the mantra over and over: “Please, God, don’t let people be killed. Please, God, don’t let people be killed.”

March 13, 1928, 5:30am Having devastated much of Santa Paula and heavily damaging the towns of Fillmore and Bardsdale, the floodwaters empty into the Pacific Ocean near Ventura at Montalvo, washing victims and debris out to sea. It had taken 5 hours and 27 minutes to travel 54 miles from the dam site to the ocean. As it reaches the coast, the flood is nearly two miles wide, traveling at 6 mph. Bodies of victims would be recovered from the Pacific Ocean, some as far south as the Mexican border, while others are never found.

Timeline courtesy Santa Clarita Historical Society. 

In 2001, the Santa Clarita Historical Society provided a few images to Frank Black as cover art for their CD-single of his song “St. Francis Dam disaster.” To listen to the song, visit www.

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