(Photo above left) This is what is left standing following the St. Francis Dam collapse March 12, 1928. Floodwaters rushed down the Santa Clara River, devastating communities along the way and taking many lives (photo Courtesy of JohnNicholsGalley.com). Pictured above right is William Mulholland.

St. Francis Dam: Murky events surrounded circumstances of disaster

April 10, 2009
Santa Paula News
By Peggy Kelly Santa Paula TimesIn the early part of the 20th century people came to believe that, after the good Lord created everything else, on the seventh day He didn’t rest but instead created William Mulholland. And, like Moses, Mulholland was destined to part the waters - or at least separate them from Owens Valley farmers - to beget the precious stream that created Los Angeles.There is no doubt Mulholland, who parlayed an illustrious career from his days as an Irish immigrant ditch digger for what became the mighty Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply - now the DWP - which he eventually headed, was an amazing man.Much like other ambitious Irish of the 1870s who landed firmly upon the golden shores of America, Mulholland was a self-taught man. After digging holes all day he backfilled his mind at night, likely shifting side to side to accommodate pains inherent to hard labor, his sponge-like mind soothed by consuming books centered on engineering.Mulholland’s greatest achievement was in 1913, when the Los Angeles-creating Aqueduct splashed into being and for which his name is still revered. His greatest failure was the collapse 15 years later of the St. Francis Dam, which destroyed the Santa Clara River Valley, hundreds of people crushed and drowned by murky waters - and the murkier greed of Los Angeles land developers, a clique that included the owners of the region’s largest newspaper.But Mulholland’s Aqueduct is what remains uppermost in the mind of history, and honors for The Chief - as he was affectionately known and a nickname true on many levels - continue to this day. There is Mulholland Drive and a Mulholland Monument, and - just for fun - Mulholland Farm, where the dashing 1930s-1940s film heartthrob Errol Flynn created Lotharion havoc in the most notorious house in Hollywood.There was once a Mulholland Dam, although its name was minimized shortly after the March 12, 1928 collapse of the St. Francis when it was subtly rechristened the Hollywood Reservoir. When I attended Birmingham High in Van Nuys, located in the San Fernando Valley - an area of frantic growth once baptized in the waters of the Aqueduct - Mulholland Junior High shared the campus.In 2006, the 150th anniversary of Mulholland’s birth was cause for great celebration within the DWP and audible excitement regarding the proposed Mulholland Scattergood Learning Center & Museum, its establishment committee under the enthusiastic leadership of the Association of Water & Power Associates.No doubt the future will continue to bring new honors for the stubborn Chief whose underlings - and, if antidotal history is to be believed, his own family - knew not an iota of doubt ever existed in his lanky frame and that the great man was never, ever to be questioned.History remains Mulholland’s and the water agency’s apologist, the sharp edges of unflattering recollections smoothed, the harsh circumstances leading up to the collapse of the St. Francis Dam buried as deep as its escaped waters buried river valley farmland.Mulholland did shoulder the blame, albeit with a somewhat ambiguous statement that at the same time exonerated deliberate wrongdoing and stopped further investigation as dead as the hundreds - or perhaps even 1,000 - of disaster dead. There was no doubt Mulholland was heartbroken and a broken man when he resigned from the water agency he begat, but in retrospect one must wonder why it took him eight months to leave the building, proclamations from a very, very grateful Los Angeles in hand.
All in all, the City of Angels just wanted to forget the St. Francis Dam Disaster, retire the bonds taxpayers howled at but settled the claims - most in a remarkably short time - for lost loved ones, lost property, and lost ways of life. Ultimately, the true story of the St. Francis Disaster itself was also lost, but it’s not hard to loose something you never really had.The disaster itself was all but forgotten except for diehard historical types until more recent history all but solidified Mulholland’s legacy with a 1990s study that reinforced that the ancient landslide - a sad state of geological affairs described as impossible to detect at that time - caused the catastrophic collapse. Long-dead Mulholland was again exonerated, a puzzling state for a legacy to be in when no one ever really questioned culpability.After all, then-Governor Young’s own ordered report on the collapse of the dam - a scant dozen of so pages of rush to judgment, rushed to print within weeks of the tragedy - had concluded the geology of the St. Francisquito Canyon area was indeed the main culprit.A Grand Jury that considered the issue, also in a ridiculously short timeframe, agreed, but also questioned those in charge who let one man, one engineer, one boss as it were, handle everything under nobody’s purview but Mulholland’s own. And The Chief was counted on to get the St. Francis Dam built rapidly, cheaply and as secretly as possible.A little more than a year later, when a foolish young man fell from the monolithic mid-section of the dam, the 185-foot high concrete column as well as boulder-sized chunks pushed an astonishing distance by the 12-billion-plus gallons of released water was dynamited. Then the fallen column, as well as boulder-sized chunks pushed an astonishing distance by the 12-billion-plus gallons of water released, were jack hammered into oblivion.By the time the City of Los Angeles was done, the rubble caused by the state’s second most deadly disaster was indistinguishable on the ground of San Francisquito Canyon, and that, as is said, was that. Over the years, fragments of the St. Francis Dam, made even tinier in comparison to the magnificent rock formations guarding them, became even more a part of the natural landscape.But remnants of the disaster for a time were picked over. With the walls of the canyons gouged out from the furious waters released by the St. Francis Dam, free gold - ironically also known as float - was what people were looking for, the disaster a blessing in disguise to destitute men of the Great Depression who made the equivalent of 25 cents to 50 cents an hour shaking out the flecks.The concrete remnants of the dam remained easy to miss unless one cared enough to look really hard, but other than macabre souvenir hunters, diminished considerably over time as references to the disaster itself were smothered by silence, it seemed no one really did. That is until the early 2000s, when a man researching the construction of the Hoover Dam - the basis of his University of Maryland Master of Science/Civil Engineering thesis - read oblique references to the St. Francis Dam Disaster, and his curiosity was piqued.

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