I can imagine the unease felt by the technicians at Power House Number One, three miles above the St. Francis dam. The needles on their Steven Gauges, indicating water level in the reservoir two miles below in Francisquito Canyon, had been slowly dropping for hours. It was worrying, and more importantly the night shift workers who had just checked in, had reported a foot drop in the road along the eastern abutment of the dam. When Ace Hopewell reported for work at the Power House a few minutes later he reported hearing what he thought was a landslide somewhere in the dark near the reservoir. Finally, about 11:57 P.M., somebody got worried enough to pick up the phone and call the operators in Power House Number Two, a mile and a half below the dam. Was everything okay? “Yes”, came the quick answer. But the haste of the response belied its assurance. And fifteen seconds later, at 12:57 A.M. and 30 seconds, Monday March 12, 1928, every light in Los Angeles went out. At that same instant 53 million tons of water (12 billion U.S. gallons) wrenched apart the St. Francis Dam, and released a 10 story wall of black water, desperate to reach the Pacific Ocean, fifty miles away.
In August of 1924 (two months after the first bombing of the Los Angeles Aqueduct) William Mulholland began construction of a new dam in Francisquito (Fran-sis-kito) canyon. Originally the concrete gravity arch dam was to be 600 across at the top and 185 feet high. But almost immediately Mulholland decided to add ten feet in height, increasing the storage capacity of the future reservoir by 2,000 acre feet. What must have daily haunted Mulholland at this point was the ease with which the angry citizens of Owens County had cut off the drinking water to the city of Los Angles. And this reservoir in Francisquito Canyon was the final piece in a series of dams and reservoirs which would give Los Angeles a year’s supply of water within their own reach. He was in a rush to complete it.
Baily Haskell was one of the construction workers on the dam, and decades later he noted to a local newspaper that in their rush to finish this final addition to the aqueduct system, Muholland’s mangers were using gravel taken directly from the bed of Francisquito creek “They didn't use washed gravel”, he said. “I could see these great chunks of clay going right into the dam.”
A year later, as negotiations with the Watterson Brothers in the Owens Valley stalled, Mulholland increased the height of the dam by another ten feet, to 205 feet high. This increased the 3 mile long and ½ mile wide reservoir to 38,000 acre feet. But no strengthening was made to the base of the dam. On March 1, 1926, with the dam almost finished, water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct began to fill the canyon above the dam.
As the great Cecilla Rasmussen, writer for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out in a February 2003 column, “From the day the St. Francis Dam opened in 1926, it leaked. The folks in the farm towns downstream used to joke to their neighbors that they'd "see you later - if the dam don’t break’.”
On March 7, 1928 the intakes were closed. The reservoir was now full and the water was a mere three inches from the top of the dam. That week drivers along the east shore road above the reservoir complained that the road was sagging near the dam’s eastern abutment.
But at every step in the filling of the reservoir William Mulholland had personally checked the dam and declared it safe, the last time between 10:30 A.M. and 12:30 P.M. on Monday, March 12, 1928.
Again, and for the final time, Mulholland declared the dam safe. Less than 12 hours later it collapsed.
It was not a landslide that destroyed the dam. That did not occur until after the 250,000 ton concrete structure had been wrenched apart like a child’s toy by the weight of the water that had soaked into its porous concrete.
I still have a three pound chunk of the dam sitting in my living room, and what stands out to me are the large miscellaneously shaped rocks peppered throughout the concrete, and the rough and uneven feel of it in your hand. As the dam was twisted apart a wall of black water 140 feet high burst forward and began to scour the walls of Francisquito canyon. The first to die was Tony Harnischfeger, the dam's watchman, who was probably inspecting the dam he felt so nervous about. Tony’s body was never found. The corpse of his girlfriend, Leona Johnson, who shared his cabin a quarter mile below the dam, was eventually found wedged between two large pieces of concrete. The body of their six year old son, Coder, came to rest further down stream.
Lillian Curtis was startled awake in her cabin near the three story Power House Number Two (above). She remembered “a haze over everything”, as her “big, husky cowboy” of a husband, Lyman Curtis, lifted her and their three year old son Danny out their bedroom window.
Lyman told her to run up the hill next to the penstock water pipes while he went back for their two daughters, Marjorie and Mazie. Panic drove Lillian up the almost vertical slope, clutching the boy to her, dragging the family dog, Spot, with her. Then, in the black night judgment day crushed the world.
Five minutes after the initial dam's collapse (now 12:02 a.m. Tuesday March 13th ) a wall of water pounded Power House Nunber Two, and its adjoining cabins and the seventy employees and their families who lived there, into oblivion. Waist deep water pulled at her, but Lillian was just able to reach the safety at the top of the ridge. Lillian and her son, and another employee, Ray Rising, were the only survivors of the seventy. Ray had to fight to get out of his own cabin. “The water was so high we couldn't get out the front door... In the darkness I became tangled in an oak tree, fought clear and swam to the surface... I grabbed the roof of another house, jumping off when it floated to the hillside... There was no moon and it was overcast with an eerie fog - very cold.” Ray lost his wife and three daughters to the flood.
Just downstream the waters engulfed the Ruiz farm. Dead in an instant were Rosaria, Enrique and their four children, one farm had.. The farmhouse and barn were wiped out as if they had never existed.
Next the tidal wave swept across the ranch and trading post owned by silent film star Harry Carey, before sweeping across Castaic road junction where it destroyed the encampment of 150 California Edison employees, killing 84 of them.
The victims did not drown. They were found, mostly, caught in trees, stripped of their cloths, “battered and bruised, but didn’t show any anguish – so probably they were taken in their sleep.” By one in the morning the reservoir was empty. “An entire lake had disappeared” in less than an hour. But the flood was just getting started.
At about 1:20 a.m. the warning finally began to go out to the little farming towns ahead of the flood. The wave was 40 feet high as it swept down the stream bed of the Santa Clarita River, plowing through orchards and farms and homes from Piru to Fillmore and on through Santa Paula.
It reached the ocean just before dawn, as a wave a quarter of a mile wide, consisting of “50% water, 25% mud, and 25% miscellaneous trash” according to one witness. Along the way it had demolished 1,200 houses and smashed 10 bridges. The dead would be washing up for days as far south as San Diego and Mexico.
The failure to build a head end reservoir had now produced dried out orchards in the Owens Valley and drowned trees in Southern California. The last known victim of the flood would be uncovered in the city of Newhall, in 1992.
How many were carried out to sea or remain buried in mud closer to home will never be known, but it seems unlikely to me that the toll of the dead could be merely the 450 officially claimed. I would estimate it could not be much fewer than 1,000 lives, counting migratory workers and the unemployed living in the fields and orchards along the river.
Mulholland began by inspecting the disaster the next morning, insisting the failure must be more work by the Owens Valley dynamiters. But the evidence and the official rush to close down the publicity, boxed him in, until he said he “envied those who were killed.”
The corner’s jury was convened within the week, and issued its report a mere 12 days after the disaster. It recommended that “…the construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent.. .... for no one is free from error.” The St. Francis dam, it added, had been constructed on the site of an ancient landslide. And for seventy years that was the accepted version.
But in the late 1990’s Professor of Geological Engineering, Mr. J. David Rogers, of Missouri University of Science and Technology, reached a different conclusion. “Probably the greatest single factor", he wrote, "was the decision to heighten the dam a second time. "
"Had the dam not been heightened that last 10 feet, it might have survived.” But the ultimate failure, alledged Professor Rogers, was the concrete. So rushed had been the construction that it was never allowed to properly cure, never prepared as carefully as it should have been. “If it had been of better quality, it (the dam) would have never fallen apart as it did. It was so filled with fractures.” The disaster’s cost was later estimated at $13 million ($160 million today).
A year after the disaster William Mulholland resigned as Chief Engineer for the Los Angeles' DWP. In the words of his granddaughter, after the disaster he became a “…stooped and silent” recluse. And still shunned by the citizens of Los Angeles, and still hated by residents of the Owens and now Santa Clarita valleys, William Mulholland, passed into the valley of death in his Los Angles home, on July 22, 1935
His onetime friend, Frank Eaton, had died just over a year earlier, on March 12, 1934 at the age of 78. Franl's grandson described his last years as bitter. “He felt he'd been made the goat for all the troubles that came to ail the Owens Valley, and because he felt he never got the proper credit for his role in the creation of the aqueduct.” The Long Valley reservoir was finally opened in 1941. It had been built on land originally owned by Frank Eaton, and it had finally finished the aqueduct he had planned but which had been built by William Mulholland. But the dam and resevoir were not named for either man. Instead they carry the name of a Catholic priest who had struggled for peace between the DWP and Owens Valley residents. Both the lake and dam carry the name of Crowley Lake.