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Photos: The Deadly St. Francis Dam Disaster That Killed More Than 600 People
On this day in 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, resulting in the massive surge of 12 billion gallons of water that rapidly flooded the San Francisquito Valley. Located 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, near Santa Clarita, the dam's collapse is considered one of the worst civil engineering disasters of the 20th century in America—it's the second-greatest loss of life in California's history, just after the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco.
According to the Los Angeles Public Library, the official death toll by August 1928 was nearly 400, but over the years, bodies were frequently discovered, and attributed to the St. Francis Dam flood. Now, the number of those killed is presumed to be more than 600.
As the LAPL notes, the dam was built under the supervision of William Mulholland, who was then acting as chief-engineer and general manager of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply (now the L.A. Dept. of Water and Power). Mulholland altered the original design of the dam to increase the capacity of the reservoir to 38,000 acre-feet of water. But, this was a very bad idea. The LAPL continues:
On March 7, 1928, the reservoir was filled to capacity for the first time. Several cracks had been noticed prior to filling, and more cracks and leaks appeared after it was full. Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam catastrophically failed and 12 billion gallons of water surged down San Francisquito Canyon in a flood wave, taking victims and destroying everything in its path.
This great read from the Smithsonian also includes this account from a man named Ray Rising, who was one of only three people in a nearby area to survive the flood (his wife and daughters died). He described his experience:
We were all asleep in our wood-framed home in the small canyon just above the power house. I hear a roaring like a cyclone. The water was so high we couldn't get out the front door. The house disintegrated. In the darkness I became tangled with an oak tree, fought clear and swam to the surface. I was wrapped with electrical wires and held by the only power pole in the canyon. I grabbed the roof of another house, jumping off when it floated to the hillside. I was stripped of clothing but scrambled up the razorback of a hillside.
After the disaster, Mulholland was not charged with any wrongdoing, but was determined to be "partially responsible," according to the LAPL. Still, he retired from the LADWP shortly after the incident, and "retreated into a life of self-imposed isolation."
If this story sounds familiar, it might be because Mulholland's disaster in water politicking was the inspiration for Roman Polanski's Chinatown.
Ed. note: Any and all "Dam, Daniel" jokes will be deleted from the comments.