(Photo above left) About 30 ft. of the north approach to the Willard Bridge was washed out. The oil companies needed to get their crews back and forth across the river so they ran a steel cable from the north end of the bridge cross the stream and anchored it to firm ground. A large hanging drum was rolled along the cable to carry oil workers across the river. (Right) Santa Paulans look through debris and try to assess the damage caused by the flood. (Photos Courtesy of John Nichols and Sespe.com)

L.A. as Subject: ‘Invigorated debate’ over missing St. Francis Dam records

October 02, 2009
Third in a series of articles exploring the St. Francis Dam Disaster
Santa Paula News
By Peggy Kelly Santa Paula TimesOne wouldn’t expect an L.A. as Subject Archives Forum’s general membership meeting to involve passionate debate.Under the prestigious and well-heeled umbrella of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, members of the organization (known as the shortened LA As Subject) who hold documented history dear were in for a surprise when it was reported at the October 2008 meeting that an important piece of the past was missing.According to meeting minutes, “an invigorated debate,” which one would assume to be gentle LA As Subject-speak for all hell breaking loose, “over proper archiving” took place. Specifically, the Los Angeles DWP (Department of Water & Power) purportedly destroyed many records, including information about the descendants of the St. Francis Dam disaster. This was brought up by an audience member who was very upset over the matter, which started the discussion.“Related to LA As Subject, this reminded us how we need to be more forward with historic preservation of archival sources,” a poke in the eye from the archive folks. The notes concluded, “It was brought up that LAPL [Los Angeles Public Library] had, or still does, have a branch in DWP and that we may want to inquire what type of collection they have.”Loyola Marymount University had an October conference centered on “Water and Politics in Southern California,” the probable target of the missing records referenced in the LA As Subject meeting notes, especially since listed as a conference presenter was Dr. Paul Soifer, Consulting Historian, Department of Water and Power Historical Records Program. Sofier’s presentation was titled: “The Aqueduct, St. Francis, and Mulholland: The Records at DWP.”Good luck stalwart members of LA As Subject; the St. Francis, as in St. Francis Dam and then Saint Francis Dam Disaster, is no longer, and probably hasn’t been for more than 80 years, the subject of detailed records kept by the DWP. In fact, for generations the DWP and the City of Los Angeles have been trying to forget the whole St. Francis Dam thing.“In addition,” notes the October LA As Subject meeting minutes, “the Berkeley Water Department has a very open relationship with the general public, something that should be modeled in Los Angeles.” Ah, but then again, Berkeley didn’t have the March 12-13, 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster, a 12-billion gallon flow of water over more than 56 miles started when the structure collapsed, nay, more likely exploded out from the walls of the usually serene San Francisquito Canyon.There’s an extensive back story to the St. Francis Dam, thrown up in record time to provide a year’s worth of water storage to thirsty Los Angeles. A drought and then pesky attempts to disrupt the flow of water from the Aqueduct - crowned in 1913 - by disgruntled Owens Valley farmers created a municipal stampede to get the dam built.
About a dozen years later, once the growers’ lake had dried to the consistency of talcum powder, they tried to blow up William Mulholland’s San Fernando-creating stream of cool water, a move that created that bit of panic.Construction on the St. Francis Dam started in March 1925 and a scant year later the Los Angeles Times, whose owners had greatly profited from the development made possible by the Aqueduct, was touting the near completion of the dam and published the first photos of the structure. Already, the St. Francis Dam had an unholy connection to the month of March.In Ventura County, the then Oxnard Daily Courier reported in July 1926, “the eighteen month period required to complete the pour,” a timeframe earlier reported by the Times as a year with the date of pour completion given by the Times as March 20, 1926, “is considered by engineers to be something of a record in dam construction.” Then it was time for the fill, and as the skies above the Golden State had reversed the drought into record rain, the dam was declared in March 1928 to be up to its brim with 12-billion-plus gallons of water.The dam that had been built in what could be record time set another record of sorts when it blew out days later, a few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928. Probably 1,000 people lost their lives, including half the student body of Saugus Elementary School, who just disappeared in the floodwaters. The flood widened and slowed in the Santa Clara River Valley and the water absorbed more and more debris before finally spilling into the Pacific Ocean.The cost of the St. Francis Dam was $1.25 million, although no one could ever locate a real budget. It was 205 feet high - pushed up twice to store more and more water without strengthening done to its toe - and 1,225 feet wide at its crest.About 175,000 cubic yards of concrete were used to build the St. Francis, material that could have been the basis of a lawsuit centered on criminal negligence, that is according to the civil engineering professor who bothered to have them tested, almost eight decades later.Thomas M. McMullen used the disaster as the cautionary tale and stark contrast comparison for his Master of Science thesis on the construction of Hoover Dam, but only after brief mentions of the doomed St. Francis started cropping up in his research.Author’s Note: Writing about the St. Francis Dam Disaster is complex, reviewing scores of records, analyzing thousands of threads of myth and fact as well as delicately trying to separate same, among other efforts. It is also at times an emotional experience and, more often, a frustrating effort. The next segment of this series will concentrate solely on the interview of the (incredibly patient) Thomas M. McMullen, who has been more understanding than the author deserves.

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