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Encyclopedia > St. Francis Dam
Colorized photo of the St. Francis Dam, ca. 1926. Image colorized by Pony R. Horton.
Colorized photo of the St. Francis Dam, ca. 1926. Image colorized by Pony R. Horton. [1]

The St. Francis Dam was a concrete gravity-arch dam, designed to create a reservoir as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The dam was located 40 miles (64 km) northwest of Los Angeles, California, near the city of Santa Clarita. The dam was built between 1924 and 1926 under the supervision of William Mulholland, chief engineer and general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (then called the Bureau of Water Works and Supply). Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam catastrophically failed, and the resulting flood killed more than 600 people. The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is the worst American civil engineering failure of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California's history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fire, and it marked the end of Mulholland's career. Image File history File linksMetadata Download high-resolution version (500x700, 447 KB)Colorized photo of the St. ... Image File history File linksMetadata Download high-resolution version (500x700, 447 KB)Colorized photo of the St. ... This article is about the construction material. ... This article is about structures for water impoundment. ... The Ashokan Reservoir, located in Ulster County, New York, USA. It is one of 19 that supplies New York City with drinking water. ... There are two Los Angeles Aqueducts--the original Los Angeles Aqueduct was designed by William Mulholland (an Irish immigrant who became a self-taught engineer and head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) and completed in 1913 to deliver water from the Owens River to the city... Los Angeles and L.A. redirect here. ... This article is about the U.S. state. ... Santa Clarita can refer to: Santa Clarita, California Santa Clarita Valley This is a disambiguation page — a navigational aid which lists other pages that might otherwise share the same title. ... William Mulholland (1855–1935) was a prominent and influential water-services engineer in Southern California. ... Look up engineer in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is the largest municipal utility in the United States, serving 3. ... is the 71st day of the year (72nd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... Year 1928 (MCMXXVIII) was a leap year starting on Sunday (link will display full calendar) of the Gregorian calendar. ... Flooding in Amphoe Sena, Ayutthaya Province, Thailand. ... San Francisco Earthquake redirects here. ...

Contents

Planning and design

Mulholland, a self-taught civil engineer and native of Ireland, had risen through the ranks of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (then called the Bureau of Water Works and Supply), and had quickly established himself as having a penchant for thriftiness, an enormous capacity for innovation, and the ability to complete difficult projects on-time and on-budget. These traits undoubtedly aided him in designing and building the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, which at the time was the longest aqueduct in the world, bringing water 233 miles (380 km) from the Owens Valley to the city of Los Angeles. The rapid growth of Los Angeles demanded a larger water supply, so a series of small reservoirs were built in the 1920s to provide the rapidly-expanding city with a water supply in the event of a drought or damage to the aqueduct, but the need for larger reservoirs was obvious. A civil engineer is a person who practices civil engineering. ... There are two Los Angeles Aqueducts--the original Los Angeles Aqueduct was designed by William Mulholland (an Irish immigrant who became a self-taught engineer and head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) and completed in 1913 to deliver water from the Owens River to the city... For other uses, see Aqueduct (disambiguation). ... “Miles” redirects here. ... A kilometer (Commonwealth spelling: kilometre), symbol: km is a unit of length in the metric system equal to 1,000 metres (from the Greek words χίλια (khilia) = thousand and μέτρο (metro) = count/measure). ... Owens Valley is the arid ranching valley of the Owens River in southeastern California in the United States. ... Fields outside Benambra, Victoria, Australia suffering from drought conditions A drought is an extended period of months or years when a region notes a deficiency in its water supply. ...


In the process of designing and building the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Mulholland had considered San Francisquito Canyon—about 30 miles (50 km) north of Los Angeles—as a potential dam site in 1911. Conveniently, the Los Angeles Aqueduct ran along the canyon, and two generating stations in the same canyon used aqueduct water to provide power for Los Angeles. To Mulholland, the location appeared to be ideal: the reservoir would protect against drought, and if the aqueduct was damaged by an earthquake or sabotage, the reservoir could provide ample water to Los Angeles until repairs could be made. The St. ... Grand Canyon, Arizona Noravank Monastery complex and canyon in Armenia. ...


Construction and modification

Construction of the St. Francis Dam, ca. 1925. Photo courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society[1]
Construction of the St. Francis Dam, ca. 1925. Photo courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society[1]

In 1924, construction was quietly begun on the dam so as not to attract the attention of the farmers dependent on the water of the San Francisquito Creek. Additionally, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was the target of frequent sabotage by angry farmers and landowners in the Owens Valley, and Mulholland was eager to avoid the kind of expensive and time-consuming repairs which plagued the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The dam was named the "St. Francis", an anglicized version of the name of the canyon in which it was built. Image File history File linksMetadata SFD_CONSTRUCTION.jpg‎ Construction of the St. ... Image File history File linksMetadata SFD_CONSTRUCTION.jpg‎ Construction of the St. ...


Immediately after construction had begun in 1924, Mulholland decided to raise the height of the dam 10 feet (3 m), increasing the capacity of the reservoir from 30,000 to 32,000 acre-feet (39 million cubic meter) of water, and Mulholland made minor changes in the dam's design to accommodate the additional height. In July of 1925, when the dam was roughly half-completed, Mulholland added an additional 10 feet (3 m), bringing the dam's new height to 195 feet (59 m) and increasing the reservoir's capacity to more than 38,000 acre-feet (47 million cubic meter) The dam's new height necessitated the construction of a "wing dike" along the top of the ridge of the western abutment to prevent water from spilling over the ridge.


Prelude to disaster

The St. Francis Dam (looking north) with water in its reservoir.

Throughout 1926 and 1927, several cracks appeared in the dam and its abutments, some of which leaked muddy water as the reservoir was filled. The cracks and leaks were inspected by Mulholland, who dismissed them as normal for a concrete dam the size of the St. Francis. On March 7, 1928, the reservoir was filled to capacity for the first time, whereupon damkeeper Tony Harnischfeger spotted new cracks and leaks and contacted Mulholland, who again dismissed them as normal. Photo of the St. ... Photo of the St. ... An Abutment is the end supports of a bridge superstructure. ... is the 66th day of the year (67th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... Year 1928 (MCMXXVIII) was a leap year starting on Sunday (link will display full calendar) of the Gregorian calendar. ...


The same week, motorists traveling on the road along the east shore of the reservoir reported cracks and a deepening sag in the roadbed near the dam's east abutment. By the morning of March 12th, the roadbed had sagged almost five feet (1.5 m).


The same morning of March 12, Harnischfeger discovered a new leak and immediately alerted Mulholland. Mulholland and his assistant Harvey van Norman inspected the new cracks and leaks, and once again Mulholland, convinced the leaks were relatively minor and normal for a concrete dam, pronounced the dam safe. is the 71st day of the year (72nd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ...


Collapse and floodwave

The dam after the breach. Note the standing center section (the "Tombstone"), and the landslide and washed-out road at the extreme right of the photograph.
The dam after the breach. Note the standing center section (the "Tombstone"), and the landslide and washed-out road at the extreme right of the photograph.

Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed, less than 12 hours after Mulholland had inspected and declared it safe. There were no eyewitnesses to the dam's collapse, but a motorcyclist named Ace Hopewell rode past the dam and reported feeling a rumbling and the sound of "crashing, falling blocks," after riding about a half-mile (800 m) upstream. He assumed this was either an earthquake or another one of the landslides common to the area, not realizing he was the last person to have seen the St. Francis Dam intact, and survive. Photo of the St. ... Photo of the St. ... is the 71st day of the year (72nd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... Year 1928 (MCMXXVIII) was a leap year starting on Sunday (link will display full calendar) of the Gregorian calendar. ...


Harnischfeger and his family were probably the first to die in the floodwave, which was at least 125 ft (38 m) high when it hit their cottage in the San Francisquito Canyon 1/4 mile (400 m) downstream from the dam. 45 minutes before the collapse, the motorcyclist also reported seeing a light in the canyon below the dam—the dam itself did not have lights—suggesting Harnischfeger may have been inspecting the dam immediately prior to its failure. The body of Harnischfeger's wife was found fully clothed and wedged between two blocks of concrete near the broken base of the dam; their six-year-old son's body was found further downstream, but Tony Harnischfeger's body was never found.


Twelve billion U.S. gallons (45 billion liters) of water surged down San Francisquito Canyon in a floodwave, demolishing the heavy concrete walls of Power Station Number Two (a hydroelectric power plant), and destroying everything else in its path. The flood travelled south down San Francisquito Canyon, flooding part of present-day Valencia and Newhall. The deluge then turned west into the Santa Clara River bed, flooding the towns of Castaic Junction, Fillmore, Bardsdale. The flood continued through Santa Paula in Ventura County, emptying its victims and debris into the Pacific Ocean at Montalvo, 54 miles (87 km) from the reservoir and dam site. When it reached the ocean at 5:30am, the flood was almost two miles (3 km) wide, traveling at a speed of 5 miles (8 km) per hour. Bodies of victims were recovered from the ocean, some as far south as the Mexican border. Hydroelectricity is electricity produced by hydropower. ... A typical stretch of Valencia Boulevard. ... Newhall is a small city in the Santa Clarita Valley in California, USA and is home to the William S. Hart County Park, featuring tours of this famous silent movie makers mansion. ... Santa Clara River The Santa Clara River is a river, approximately 116 mi (186 km) long, in southern California in the United States. ... Castaic Junction is an unincorporated area located in Los Angeles County, California. ... Fillmore is a city in Ventura County, California, United States. ... Bardsdale is a small unincorporated community in the agricultural belt on the Santa Clara River in Ventura County, California. ... Location in Ventura County and the state of California Coordinates: , Country State County Ventura Area  - City  4. ... Ventura County . ... Montalvo is a district in Ventura, California located in the south part of the city. ...


Telephone operators in Fillmore (notably Louise Gipe) and two motorcycle policemen in Santa Paula notified people in their homes of the danger, until the rising floodwaters forced their retreat. Fillmore is a city in Ventura County, California, United States. ... Location in Ventura County and the state of California Coordinates: , Country State County Ventura Area  - City  4. ...


Aftermath

Search and rescue efforts after St. Francis Dam disaster, 1928

The dam broke into several large pieces, some of which were carried almost 1/2 mile (800 m) downstream, while the center section of the dam—nicknamed "The Tombstone"—remained standing. Two months after the collapse, 18-year-old Lercy Parker fell to his death while climbing the ruins, and in the following months, the upright section was toppled with dynamite and the remaining blocks demolished with bulldozers and jackhammers to discourage sightseers and souvenir hunters from exploring the ruins. Although the west wing dike remained intact, it was used by Los Angeles firemen to gain experience of using explosives on building structures. The St. Francis Dam was not rebuilt, although Bouquet Reservoir in nearby Bouquet Canyon and Castaic Dam in the town of Castaic were subsequently built as replacements for the St. Francis Dam (1934 and 1973, respectively). This article is about the construction tool. ... Bouquet Reservoir is a reservoir in Los Angeles County, California about 15 miles west of the city of Palmdale. ... Castaic Dam is a dam located on Castaic Creek and forms Castaic Lake. ... Castaic, California (2000 Census population 22,173 in the 91384 ZIP Code) is a Los Angeles County, USA unincorporated community north of Santa Clarita in Castaic Canyon a few miles north of the Santa Clarita Valley and Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. ...


To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown. The official death toll in August 1928 was 385, but the bodies of victims continued to be discovered every few years until the mid-1950s. Many victims were swept out to sea when the flood reached the Pacific Ocean and were not discovered until they washed ashore, some as far south as the Mexican border. The remains of another victim were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, and the current death toll is estimated to be more than 600 victims (excluding the itinerant farm workers camped in San Francisquito Canyon, the exact number of which will never be known.) Newhall is a small city in the Santa Clarita Valley in California, USA and is home to the William S. Hart County Park, featuring tours of this famous silent movie makers mansion. ...


Immediately following the disaster, Mulholland said he, “envied those who were killed” and went on to say, “Don’t blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, and I won't try to fasten it on anyone else.” At the Coroner's Inquest, the leaks Tony Harnischfeger had spotted and reported to Mulholland were cited as evidence of the dam leaking the day before the break, and that both the LADWP and Mulholland were aware of them. Mulholland admitted being at the dam the day before the break, but had noticed nothing out of the ordinary, testifying that leaks in dams—especially in dams the size of the St. Francis—were not unusual.


The Los Angeles Coroner's Inquest concluded the disaster was primarily caused by the paleomegalandslide on which the eastern abutment of the dam was built, but would have been impossible for the geologists of the 1920s to detect. Indeed, two of the world's leading geologists at the time, John C. Branner of Stanford University and Carl E. Grunsky, had found no fault with the San Francisquito rock. Therefore, the jury determined responsibility for the disaster lay with the governmental organizations which oversaw the dam's construction and the dam's designer and engineer, William Mulholland, but cleared Mulholland of any charges, since neither he nor anyone at the time could have known of the instability of the rock formations on which the dam was built. The hearings also recommended, "the construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent." John Casper Branner (1850-1922) was an American geologist and academic. ... Stanford redirects here. ...


Soon after the inquest, Mulholland retired from the LADWP and retreated into a life of self-imposed isolation. He died in 1935, at the age of 79.


Analysis

Modern geologists know the type of rock found in the San Francisquito Canyon is unsuitable for supporting a dam and a reservoir, but in the 1920s, two of the world's leading geologists at the time, John C. Branner of Stanford University and Carl E. Grunsky, found no fault with the San Francisquito rock. The dam was built squarely over the San Francisquito earthquake fault, although this fault has since been inactive. This article includes a list of works cited but its sources remain unclear because it lacks in-text citations. ... John Casper Branner (1850-1922) was an American geologist and academic. ... Stanford redirects here. ... Geologic faults, fault lines or simply faults are planar rock fractures, which show evidence of relative movement. ...


J. David Rogers, a professor of geological engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, has published a comprehensive account of the dam's failure. The dam's failure can be attributed to three major factors: the instability of the paleomegalandslide on which the dam was built, the failure to compensate for the additional height added to the dam's design, and the design and construction being overseen by only one person. UMR redirects here. ...


Recently, a critique of Rogers' historical analysis of the dam's collapse was published in the journal California History (Fall 2004) by historians Norris Hundley Jr. (Professor Emeritus, UCLA) and Donald C. Jackson (Professor, Lafayette College). While accepting the validity of Rogers' geological analysis of the failure, this article makes clear how the structure built under Mulholland's direction in San Francisquito Canyon fell well short of standards for large-scale concrete gravity dams as practiced by other prominent dam engineers in the 1920s.


Epilogue

After the disaster, the City of Los Angeles immediately reinforced another dam identical in shape and design—Mulholland Dam (which created Hollywood Reservoir), also designed and built by Mulholland—by piling tons of earth and rock on the face of the dam (ironically, this dam met a nearly identical "cinematic" demise as the St. Francis in the 1974 film Earthquake). The Mulholland Dam is a dam located in located in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, California. ... Hollywood Reservoir (Lake Hollywood) is a reservoir located in Hollywood, California. ... Earthquake is a 1974 action adventure/disaster/thriller film that achieved huge box-office success, inspiring the Disaster film genre of the 1970s where recognizable all-star casts attempt to survive life or death situations. ...


Roman Polanski made numerous references to Mulholland, the California Water Wars, the aqueduct, and the St. Francis Dam disaster in his 1974 film noir classic, Chinatown. Mulholland is split between the characters of Noah Cross (John Huston) and the city's chief engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling)—the name Noah a reference to the flood, and Hollis Mulwray an anagram for "Mulholland"—to suggest the conflict between good and evil in one man. In one scene, Hollis Mulwray makes a specific reference to the St. Francis Dam disaster: Roman Polanski (born August 18, 1933) is an Academy Award-winning film director, writer, actor, and producer. ... The California Water Wars was a struggle between Los Angeles, California and people living elsewhere (including the Owens Valley) over water rights. ... This still from The Big Combo (1955) demonstrates the visual style of film noir at its most extreme. ... Chinatown is a 1974 film directed by Roman Polanski featuring many elements of the film noir genre, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama. ... John Marcellus Huston (August 5, 1906 – August 28, 1987) was an American film director and actor. ...

In case you've forgotten, gentlemen, over five hundred lives were lost when the Van der Lip Dam gave way. Core samples have shown that beneath this bedrock is shale similar to the permeable shale in the Van der Lip disaster. It couldn't withstand that kind of pressure there. And now you propose yet another dirt-banked terminus dam with slopes of two and one half to one, one hundred twelve feet high and a twelve thousand acre water surface. Well, it won't hold. I won't build it. It's that simple. I am not making that kind of mistake twice. Thank you, gentlemen.

Rock musician Frank Black has made several references to the disaster in his songs, including the tracks "St. Francis Dam Disaster" and "Ole Mulholland". Shale Shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock whose original constituents were clays or muds. ... For other persons named Frank Black, see Frank Black (disambiguation). ...


Today, the only visible remains of the St. Francis Dam are weathered, broken chunks of gray concrete and the rusted remnants of the handrails that lined the top of the dam and the wing dike. The ruins and the scar from the paleomegalandslide can be seen from San Francisquito Canyon Road, about five miles (8 km) north of the city of Newhall, and can be found with Google Earth at 34.547707° N 118.512971° W. Take Interstate 5 to Valencia Boluevard, then head east into Santa Clarita. Head north on McBean Parkway, turn right on Copper Hill Road, then left on San Francisquito Canyon Road. The dam site is roughly six miles north on San Francisquito Canyon Road; look for the ruins of the wing dike atop the ridge to your right. Interstate 5 (abbreviated I-5) is the westernmost interstate highway in the continental United States. ...


Further reading

  • Outland, Charles F. Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St Francis Dam. A.H. Clark Company: 1977. ISBN 0-914421-28-X
Outland's study of the dam and the ensuing flood, first published in 1963, is the only widely published comprehensive work about the dam, the failure, and the disaster. This book is the result of good original research. An expanded edition is available from the Historical Society of Southern California.
  • Nunis Jr., Doyce B. (Ed.). St. Francis Dam Disaster Revisited. Historical Society of Southern California. 2002. ISBN 0-914421-27-1. +
This collection of articles about the dam includes contributions from Catherine Mulholland, William Mulholland's granddaughter, and Dr. J. David Rogers. It is the only other book on the St. Francis Dam in print today.
  • Jackson, Donald C. and Hundley, Norris. "Privilege and Responsibility: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster." California History (Fall 2004): 8-47.
This article provides extended analysis of how Mulholland's efforts in designing and building the St. Francis Dam compare with - and fall short of - other prominent concrete gravity dams built in the 1920s
  • Horton, Pony R. "A Test of Integrity: The Original Story Upon Which The Docu-Drama is Based". A brief journalistic article detailing the St. Francis Dam disaster. Based on Horton's 25 years of research into the story. Informational sources include Horton's interviews with Catherine Mulholland, Dr. J. David Rogers, and Robert V. Phillips, former Chief Engineer & General Manager, LADWP. [2]

See also

Castaic Dam is a dam located on Castaic Creek and forms Castaic Lake. ... Castaic Lake Castaic Lake Panorama Castaic Lake is a lake on Castaic Creek formed by Castaic Dam, in northwestern Los Angeles County, California, near the town of Castaic. ... Castaic, California (2000 Census population 22,173 in the 91384 ZIP Code) is a Los Angeles County, USA unincorporated community north of Santa Clarita in Castaic Canyon a few miles north of the Santa Clarita Valley and Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. ... This article needs additional references or sources for verification. ... Dam on the Reyran River in southern France, above Fréjus. ... The Kelly Barnes Dam, located in Stephens County, Georgia, just outside of the city of Toccoa, was originally built as a rock crib dam in 1899 to create a reservoir for a small hydroelectric plant. ... Aerial View of Buffalo Creek area taken the day after impoundment dam #3 failed. ... The Baldwin Hills Reservoir was a man-made water storage basin located on a low hilltop in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles. ... Vajont Dam is a dam completed in 1961 under Mount Toc, 100 km north of Venice, Italy. ...

External links

  • SAN FRANCISQUITO CANYON and the ST. FRANCIS DAM. Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. Retrieved on 2003-03-29. dozens of excellent photographs of the dam under construction, completed, its ruins, and a list of the victims.
  • The Failure of the St. Francis Dam Dr. J. David Roger's technical descriptions of the dam failure, with a few colorized images of what the dam would have looked like in color.
  • The St. Francis Dam Disaster A 90-minute documentary in development by Wilkman Productions.
  • St. Francis Dam Disaster 30-minute television program available online.
  • Remembering the St. Francis Dam Disaster, by Michele E. Buttelman, The Signal March 11, 2001.
  • A Test of Integrity, A 90-minute docu-drama on the work of William Mulholland and H.A. Van Norman, and the St. Francis Dam disaster. Currently in production by Pony R. Horton and Gravity Arch Media.
  • Vajont Dam disaster archives
  • Google Earth image of the St. Francis Dam ruins

Year 2003 (MMIII) was a common year starting on Wednesday of the Gregorian calendar. ... is the 88th day of the year (89th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... is the 70th day of the year (71st in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... Year 2001 (MMI) was a common year starting on Monday (link displays the 2001 Gregorian calendar). ...

References

  1. ^ Photo courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society

Coordinates: 34°32′49″N, 118°30′45″W Map of Earth showing lines of latitude (horizontally) and longitude (vertically), Eckert VI projection; large version (pdf, 1. ...


 
 

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