The Failure of the St. Francis Dam — 1928

There’s something humbling about standing in a place where history was made.  I’ve had that experience a few times, but nothing has ever compared to standing in San Francisquito Canyon in the exact spot where the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed at three minutes to midnight on March 12, 1928.

San Francisquito Canyon is located near Santa Clarita, California.  It’s about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, and the St. Francis Dam was part of the Los Aqueduct system built by William Mulholland. As a child, I picnicked with my parents in this crooked canyon. It was a lazy place, and I mostly remember the bugs and moss on the rocks, the summer heat and just having fun. As an adult, I went back after reading a book called Rivers in the Desert by Margaret Leslie Davis. With the help of pictures and a map, my husband and I found the concrete remains of the dam. It was a humbling moment.

The man most responsible for bringing water to Los Angeles was William Mulholland. The aqueduct was started in 1908 and completed in 1913. In 1924, construction began on the St. Francis Dam and a giant holding basin north of the city.  It was completed in 1926 and the long process of filling it began. There were warning signs early on. As the dam was filled, cracks appeared in the massive concrete wall. Mulholland and his assistant deemed them to be expected in a structure the size of the St. Francis, and the water continued to rise, flooding the canyon behind the dam for miles. On March 8, 1928, the dam reached full capacity. It failed less than five days later.

No one saw the dam break, but a motorcyclist who had just ridden past it reported a rumbling and the sound of crashing rocks. He thought it was an earthquake or a landslide, events that are common to the area. What happened next is just beyond  belief . . . A wall of water 125 feet high went crashing down the canyon. It killed the dam keeper and his family who lived a quarter-mile downstream, then it destroyed a pumping station and flooded parts of what is now Valenica, California.  The water turned west to the Santa Clara riverbed, flooded Castaic Junction and hit Santa Paula in Ventura County. 

When the water reached the Pacific Ocean, it had traveled 54 miles.  The floodwaters were two miles wide and traveling at about 8 miles an hour. Approximately 450 people were killed, and bodies were recovered years later from the ocean as far away as the coast of Mexico.

Such a tragedy . . . Seeing those concrete blocks, weathered by time but still recognizable put flesh and blood on that piece of history.  I’m thinking about it today in part because of the flooding we’re seeing on the Mississippi River.  It’s a different kind of flooding–slow and anticipated–but homes are still being lost, and people are being displaced.  And then there’s the tsunami that hit Japan. I can’t begin to imagine and the size and force of that kind of catastrope.  I have to wonder . . . Fifty years from now, how will it all be remembered?

Other historic memories come to my mind . . . I’ve visited Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, walked through a Civil War battlefield and visited Arlington Cemetery.  What about you?  What historic places have you visited? Which one made the strongest impression?

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24 thoughts on “The Failure of the St. Francis Dam — 1928”

  1. Hi Vicki,

    WOW, this is something I had never heard of before. I guess the tragedies that happen here in Oklahoma are usually more weather-related than anything–I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    When I was growing up, we went on a vacation every year, or every other year, up until I was about 12 or so. We always stopped at historic places along the way. Oddly enough the one that stays with me from those days is Vicksburg Battlefield/Cemetery. I was young when we went there, but I remember feeling “something” beside me. Being a child, I had strayed a little way from my dad, but when I felt that presence, you can bet I recognized it was something “different.” I went running back to him, and I remember how he kept saying “What’s wrong?” Of course, I couldn’t explain then. Today, my favorite historic site is Geronimo’s grave. That cemetery is at Ft. Sill. He is buried in the POW cemetery along with his family and many of his warriors. There are other people buried there too, not just Geronimo’s group, but it’s kind of off the beaten path, and I never go without some kind of gift for the grave. People leave everything there from buttons to packages of cigarettes, baggies of sage, money, etc.

    Very interesting post, Vicki. I learned something today!

  2. Hi Cheryl, I’ve been to Fort Sill. My son graduated from Army basic a few years ago, and that’s where he was. I wish we’d visited Geronoimo’s grave. So much history, and so little time when a person’s traveling. I’d love to have an entire summer to travel all over the American west.

  3. Very moving post, Vicki. Omaha Beach in Normandy, where the D-Day landing took place comes to mind. I was there years ago. Incredible to imagine what that must have been like at the time.
    Cheryl P, I would love to visit Geronimo’s grave. Such a mystique about that man. My hair would probably stand on end.

  4. My husband an I years ago made a trip to Hawaii,an went to Pearl Harbor,,,omg,we went to the Arizona memorial,,literally my heart sank,,knowing that there were still men “buried”in the water below,,,an that some of them probably lived for days,weeks afterward an were forgotten,,,the war came first an they didnt think anyone had survived,my husbands cousin was in the service an took us to the airforce base an we saw all the bullet holes still in some of the buildings,it gave you just a glimpse of what happened that day,,,very serene

  5. Hello Vicki, What I said to Elizabeth fits with Pearl Harbor, too. There are moments that changed the world, and then they change us when we visit and think about the cost. Pearl Harbor was one of those moments. I’ve never visited Hawaii, but if I do, that’s a place I want to visit.

  6. Interesting post, Vicki. I’ve never heard about this tragedy.

    The site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn always brings goosebumps to my arms. Arlington Cemetery chokes me up every time as does Gettysburg.

    I’m fortunate to work at the Washington Navy Yard in DC, which is the site in the War of 1812 where sailors set fire to the yard to keep the British from getting to the munition stores. And I can look out my window at the Tingey House, the only surviving building from that time, and the current residence of the Chief of Naval Operations. And just a block away is the Commandant’s office where Abraham Lincoln used to come daily during the Civil War and visit with the Commandant of that time, Dahlgren.

  7. Great post and question, Victoria! The three places that have made the strongest impression on my spirit were Fort Laramie, President Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL and Vicksburg, MS. And I agree totally with Cheryl – I felt as if I was walking among ghosts in all these places. My prayers are with Vicksburg as it deals with the Mississippi flooding now.

  8. Hi Vicki, I can’t even imagine the terror of a bursting dam. I’ve been to the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, Tower of London, the North Bridge in Concord MA where the shot heard round the world was fired in 1775, Dunkirk, France…and am off to Gettysburg and Arlington in the fall. I too get chills knowing the same air and ground surrounds me.

    I think the strongest impression came from visiting Ground Zero in NYC. I bawled my eyes out. One of the children killed when the Boston plane crashed into the tower has the same name as our daughter. It was overwhelming.

    Great post.

  9. This was an interesting post to read. This was something I never heard about before. I haven’t been to many historic places. I have been to the Carnton Plantation in Franklin, TN. The Carnton Plantation gives daily tours of the beautifully restored mansion, ornamental gardens, and the largest privately owned Confederate cemetery in the country. Also the plantation home became a makeshift field hospital during the fierce Battle of Franklin, which during the tour of it they even point out the blood stains on the floors.

  10. Hi Kirsten! The best thing about living in Washington DC is the history. It’s everywhere. The worst is the traffic. When we first moved there, we visited all the sites. I got goosebumps in the Capitol. Arlington Cemetery is a very special place.

  11. Hello Tanya, I was wondering if anyone had been to Ground Zero. It’s hallowed ground. My husband made a trip to NYC shortly after 9-11, and he has a vivid memory of not seeing the towers where they should have been. We were living in northern VA at the time of the attack. It’s a memory that will never fade.

  12. Hi Becky W, Civil War history is so immediate. We can stand in battlefields, and like you said, even see blood stains. It makes the sacrifice of others very real.

  13. Wow Vicki, I’d never heard of this particular disaster. Very interesting. (And it answers the question of why Mulholland seems to be a common street name in California)

  14. I’d never heard of it before, either, Vicki — and I live close to this area. Intensely interesting. I, too, am touched by happened in the mid-west — it’s where I grew up.

    Great blog.

  15. I’ve been in the Catacombs in Rome and various Historical places in Europe…they are hard to avoid when visiting there. But back home in the States I’ve been to Gettysburg, PA which was most impressive. I’ve been to the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ and visited the Territorial Prison in Yuma, AZ where the bad guys were sent in the days of the Old West. Boy I would not have wanted to be in a cell there in the summertime in 100 degree temperatures…. that would have made a believer outta me!

  16. Hi Karen, the St. Francis Dam is a forgotten piece of Southern California history. I’d never heard of it until I read that book about Mulholland, and I’d been in that very canyon. It ended Mulholland’s career, in part because hubris contributed to the failure. Twice he added height to the dam to increase capacity. What made it actually fail was weak rock on the sides.

  17. Hello Jackie. The Catacombs would be amazing . . . talk about feeling the past come alive ! I can’t imagine what being there would be like. The Arizona Territorial Prison reminded me of another historical place I’ve been . . . Alcatraz Island. Hmmm…. sounds like a future blog.

  18. Wow, especially in light of the news tonight, this post had a lot of impact and really got me thinking.

    As a child who grew up in DC, I have been to Ford’s Theatre, Arlington, Civil War battlefields a plenty, all the homes of the first presidents. I don’t take those opportunities I had growing up for granted. And now my nephew is in college studying to be a Civil War battlefield park ranger!

    My sister was working across from the Pentagon on the day it was attacked. Later, she ran in the Marine Corp marathon and EVERYONE was crying as they went past that partially destroyed building.

    For me, the eternal flame at President Kennedy’s grave still gives me chills just thinking about it.

    Peace, Julie

  19. Hi Julie, We lived in northern VA / Wash DC for 13 years. We saw a lot, but not everything. The White House tour was one of my favorites. So is Arlington. Good luck to your nephew! What a cool gig!

    The events of 9-11 must be very vivid for your sister. I saw the smoke from the Pentagon as I drove home. Left work early to get my son who was at GMU at the time. The world changed that day.

  20. We have been to Arlington Cemetery many times. My husband’s father is buried there. All military cemeteries give the same feel with the ordered rows of like stones.

    The place that gave me the closest feel of touching history is Fort Ticonderoga in Northern New York State. The most memorable night was in the late 1970’s. We went to the Highland Games evening program. The fort was still being restored, but the walls, much of the inner buildings, and the inner parade grounds were in good shape. The evening program was a “concert” by a Canadian pipe and drum band. We sat in bleachers around the edge of the parade ground inside the fort walls. The area was lit by torches, the night sky clear and full of stars with bats flying around. The band started playing outside the fort, marched through the entry tunnel, and performed. The sound of the band, the torchlight, the smell of the leather of the bagpipes all combined to make you believe in was the mid-1700s. There wasn’t a sound from the audience until it was finished. Later that night around the campfire,we could hear pipers playing around their own campfires in the distance. It was an incredible experience. Even now 30+ years later, I can close my eyes and be there.

    A few years ago, we were back for a Revolutionary War Reenactment. We were there at night again. We went out into a large field for a skirmish. How on earth they could see who they were shooting at is beyond me. The only thing you could see were the musket flashes. We walked through the encampment lit only by candles and campfires. They had 6 cannons and fired them in different types of volleys. The following day we went back for the battle reenactment. It too was a good experience, but I doubt anything will ever match the first one.

  21. Wonderful piece, Victoria. Is there no historical marker nearby? I take it that a replacement dam was never built.

    I love visiting historical sites too. Appomattox comes to mind…the small drawing room where Lee and Grant came to those final terms in gentlemanly fashion…the dirt road alongside which the Confederate troops solemnly stacked their weapons.

    Last summer I stood at the site of “Nero’s Circus” in Vatican City where hosts of Christians including St. Peter were crucified. Truly humbling!

    Thanks for sharing this story.

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