Around 100 people walked along an abandoned road to the site of one of the worst American engineering disasters of the 20th century on Saturday, some having held onto tickets for a tour of the location for nearly three years because of the pandemic.
Heavy rain had eroded much of what used to be San Francisquito Canyon road, and its bridges, making the 2-mile hike, from Power Plant No. 2 to the former site of the St. Francis Dam, treacherous at points.
At points throughout the hike, San Francisquito Creek looked like a river. The sight of flowing water and decaying concrete was an ominous reminder of when more than 12 billion gallons of water roared down the narrow canyon, two minutes before midnight, on March 12, 1928 — killing somewhere between 343 and 411 people in its wake. Sunday marked the 95th anniversary of the disaster.
“The St. Francis Dam flood is a tragic chapter in the story of the water history of Los Angeles and Southern California,” said Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. “It is also the Shakespearean rise and fall story of William Mulholland, probably the most important historical figure in Los Angeles history.”
Preceding the hike to the dam site, attendees were treated to an expert panel describing the history of the event, detailed stories of individuals affected by it and a lecture on research that created the most accurate list of deaths — done by an archaeologist working for the state of California. These were presented by Pollack, Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel and Ann Stansell, respectively. Frank Rock, an expert on the St. Francis Dam disaster, served as a tour guide.
Pollack detailed the story of Mulholland — already a celebrity in L.A. following the completion of an aqueduct that, to this day, supplies water to the metropolis —- and the story of the dam’s construction, which many point to as having clues about the its failure, the cause of which is still disputed.
Construction began on the dam in 1924 and was completed in 1926. Stansell said, at the site, it took two years for the reservoir to reach full capacity — sitting just 2 inches underneath its spillway. To hold more water, the dam’s height was increased by 10 feet, which created a need for a nearly 600-foot dike on its wester abutment. Experts, including those on the panel, believe this modification, in addition to not increasing the base of the dam, caused uplift — which contributed to its failure.
While its cause is still debated, Stansell and Pollack, along with other experts, have said another contributing factor was its eastern schist being wedged into an “ancient paleolithic landslide.”
“The dam was placed at risk of a phenomenon called hydraulic uplift or tilting upward for water pressure, due to a lack of drainage wells along the entire foundation except in its intersection,” said Pollack. “The mixture of concrete was also of questionable quality — local rock was added to the concrete mix and was not adequately washed.”
Another contributing factor, the panel said, was the fact that all of this was under the supervision of one man — Mulholland. On the day of the dam’s failure he had visited and inspected the dam at the insistence of the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfege, who had noticed muddy runoff coming from the abutment. They all concluded the leak was of no immediate concern and they returned to L.A.
Once the dam had failed, the news came to the Mulholland residence.
“Around 2 a.m., the phone rang at the Mulholland residence. The chief’s daughter answered and woke her father with terrible news. As he lurched for the phone, it’s said that he repeated the mantra over and over. ‘Please God, don’t let people be killed,’” said Pollack.
By 5:30 a.m., the flood had devastated much of the Santa Clarita Valley and heavily damaged the towns of Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula. Floodwaters emptied into the Pacific Ocean near Ventura at Montalvo — washing victims and debris out to sea. It had taken five hours and 27 minutes to travel 54 miles from the dam site to the ocean.
Mulholland lived the rest of his life as a broken man, saying once, “Don’t blame anybody else. You just fasten it on me. If there is an error of human judgment, I am the human.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Stansell, who has compiled the most accurate list of those who died in the disaster as part of a thesis she did for California State University, Northridge, pointed out where the eastern abutment had been nestled to visitors of the site — the exact location many experts believe the dam’s failure began.
Compiling an accurate number of the dead wasn’t easy, but Stansell’s research has produced previously unknown stories of those who tried to identify them following the disaster.
“Although a concerted effort was made to search for victims, burning up huge piles of debris on [un]reclaimable land during restoration efforts likely served as funeral pyres for some,” said Stansell. “It’s probable that their remains will never be recovered.”
Questions regarding the cleanup and relief provided following the disaster remain to this day. Michael Mendez, assistant professor of environmental policy at University of California Irvine and a member of the L. A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, was at the event conducting research.
Stansell is part of a foundation seeking to build a memorial near the intersection of San Francisquito Canyon Road and Copper Hill Drive. During a Q&A section of the tour, Mendez asked about the inclusion of victims’ untold stories in the historical archives.
“I know several of you are part of the National Monument Memorial Foundation… I’m really happy that [Stansell was] able to highlight some of the untold stories, particularly people of color, Mexican and Latino undocumented farmworkers and Japanese Americans as well,” said Mendez. “Looking at your website for the monument, I didn’t see much about acknowledging those silences in the historical archives. Is there a plan to more explicitly talk about race, class and the silences of these people that also died or are in unmarked graves?”
Stansell acknowledged that disaster relief payouts, including housing provided following the disaster, were discriminatory.
“There absolutely was segregation in Santa Paula. There were big army tents set up where all the Anglos were accepted into local Anglo family houses, the Mexican-Americans were put in tents, and then had to live there for months, essentially. So yeah, there was absolutely, unfortunately, inequality in a lot of the recovery efforts and Japanese-Americans, they did not even receive payouts at all,” said Stansell.
As attendees of the tour walked back from the site to their bus waiting for them at Power Plant No. 2, they traversed through the same route that an approximately 140-foot tall flood wave took —- and walked behind all the remaining questions and conflicts that came with it.