Revisiting California History: The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam

 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?

DON”T FORGET!  Filly Renee Ryan is giving away a $15.00 Starbucks card…..My personal favorite!  Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing!


+ posts

29 thoughts on “Revisiting California History: The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam”

  1. Interesting post. I have visited Gettysburg a long time ago. So sad to think about all those people who died there.

  2. When I was in 6th grade we went to Boston. I vividly remember visiting the Old North Church and Paul Revere’s home. I remember the cobblestone streets. The wooden boxes people sat in at church. I remember lots of wood in the house and church. This was most impressive as you here so much about Paul Revere .

    In Plymouth, Wisconsin, I’ve visited Old Wade House- a travel way station.

    In Stuart, Florida, Gilbert’s House of Refuge with it’s lighthouse which saved many sailors as they traveled along the Atlantic coastline.

    In Montana, we saw the battlefield where Custer’s Last Stand occurred.

    I’ve also seen Mt Rushmore, Jackson Square in New Orleans, and Hoover Dam.

  3. The biggest I remember is when hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi ! We went to Biloxi every year for a car show. Our club always rented the same small motel. After Katrina hit we carried a camper full of supplies to the family that owned the motel. When we got down there , there were no words at the sight we found! The motel was nothing but a slab of concrete! Nothing was left! Tom the owner had ride the storm out in the top of a huge oak tree. His family had left before the storm. He must have had a angel with him that night because I will never understand how he made it. The motel was on the coast! How did he survive, only god knows!

  4. Hello Laurie G! What a terrific list . . . I’m envious. I’ve been to Hoover Dam and Boston. In Boston the cobblestone streets and Old North Church made history live for me.

  5. When I lived in South Carolina I visited many historical sites. South Carolina is so rich in history there are so many sites to see. I have visited the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site and got to visit the Kershaw Cornwallis House, the Camden Battlefield and the Quaker Cemetery just to name a few.

    Also, I have been to President Calvin Coolidge’s Historic Site in Plymouth, VT.

  6. Hello Katie J! What a wonderful list . . . Sometimes the lesser known places have the most intriguing details. I’m thinking of the Calvin Coolidge site. Very cool!

  7. Gettysburg. I’ve visited a number of Civil War sites but, for me, Gettysburg has the strongest impact. At least it’s protected, unlike other battle fields.

  8. Your post was fascinating. I have visited a few historic sites when I visited Boston many years ago and was enthralled with the history of this lovely city.

  9. Great post, Vicki!!! I grew up around St. Augustine so I loved visiting the Old Fort and the Old Jail. The cells were so dank and small. Ummm…just realized my fascination with incarceration through the ages. What does that say about me?

  10. Your post reawakened memories of a trip that we took when I was younger and enjoyed greatly. The old Mission in California.

  11. Interesting history lesson! One I had not heard of. I loved visiting the Missions in Texas,especialy the Alamo.

  12. Great post Vicki! I enjoyed learning about historic areas. these are so interesting and I love trips that give me more perspective on history. The pueblos in NM are spectacular.

  13. Great post. I haven’t visited many historical sites but it fascinates me to see all the artifacts and learn about the past.

  14. I have never been there before but I love learning about any history I can!There is a small fort where I grew up In WA and it was always my favorite. I love knowing the so much happened in a place befor i got there. It’s neat to think about for every step i place on a piece of history that thousands before me stepped in the same spot!

  15. Hi Liz! There’s nothing like those moments when history comes to life, especially at a place like Gettysburg.

    Hello Anne! Being from Los Angeles, I was amazed by Boston. Narrow streets? L.A. doesn’t have them, except for a few like Olvera Street. Our world has changed so much. It’s bigger, faster, wider… I’m not sure it’s better!

  16. Hi Renee! I totally get being into prisons! If I do another western series, it’s going to be centered around the Wyoming Territorial Prison. One of my favorite tours was of Alcatraz. I still shudder thinking about the solitary confinement cell.

  17. Hi Diane, I grew up a few miles from the San Fernando Mission. I didn’t appreciate it nearly enough. But I do now!

    Hello Connie! I wonder how the missions in Texas compare to the missions in California? Lots of stories to tell, I’m sure!

    Hi Ellie! My dream trip would be having two months to wander from Arizona to New Mexico, up through Colorado and Wyoming to Montana. There’s so much to see and learn.

  18. Hello Crystal GB . . . Sometimes the smallest artifact tells the most poignant story, like a bullet hole in an old military uniform. You just have to wonder about the man who wore it and the people who loved him.

    Hi Cori! That fort in Washington sounds like a fascinating place. Stories to be told for sure!

  19. hi Vicki, I know this area, too. SO sad. Two historic places that have touched my heart completely, through and through, are Gettysburg and Alder Creek, where George Donner and his family tried to the survive the winter of all winters in 1846. Yet it was heroism I felt, too, not just tragedy.

    We are taking a driving trip through Colorado in the fall and have earmarked tons of historical places to visit. I can’t wait!

    Love the post.

  20. Good Morning Victoria, I live in the Owens Valley where all that water came from! And they are still pumping into the aquaduct. The residents in our valley are not too fond of the LADWP. At one time, they even had a party to blow up the aquaduct. That was in the early days of the water flow. Wasn’t the movie Chinatown, made about this particular dam? Anyway, the whole story of Los Angeles and their water woes is quite a story in itself. Mr Mulhulland didn’t make too many friends,up here, and is still talked about now.
    Great post. Sorry to put a downer on it.

  21. Wow, what destructive power… historical areas… I have not been to too many… but I have been to West Point in NY years ago… I remember seeing some old cannons, etc… it amazed me to see something so old and wondering what was seen and done around the area long ago…

  22. Hi Mary J, There’s a dark side to the Los Angeles water story–greed, no respect for nature, all sorts of tragic things. I saw Chinatown years ago–time to see it again!

    Hello Colleen, West Point would be a solid place to visit. It’s old, honorable and steeped in tradition.

  23. I live in Pittsburgh and we have Ft. Duquesne which was involved in the French and Indian War. I went to Washinton D.C. twice with each of my two girls and loved every minute of it. And then there was Hoover Dam – very impressive.

  24. I haven’t visited a lot of historical places. I have been to the Perryville Battlefield. I was raised it High Bridge which has the first and highest expansion railroad bridge across the river if that counts. I am sure there were other places but I just didn’t think about them as being historical while I was there.

  25. Vicki, this is an awesome post. I have visited some Civil War battlefields and the cemeteries at Ft. Sill–where Geronimo and Quanah Parker are buried, among others. Last summer I visited an old plantation house that had been turned into a field hospital in Franklin TN during the Civil War. I have a blog post coming up about that. That feeling of such awe, standing in those historic places, just gives me chills.

  26. Victoria, thank you for an interesting post. I had never heard of this incident. I find it hard to believe it isn’t considered a significant event. A dam that large failing so soon after completion as well as the loss of life should have been mentioned somewhere. We lived in the Sacramento area for 2 years and I don’t remember anything about it in what the girls studies in school.

    We spend our vacations visiting historical sites and national & state parks. We have visited quite a few and are going to see more this summer. One special one is near where I grew up. Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York has a long and interesting history. It was occupied by the English, the French, and the Revolutionary forces and saw action during the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. We have been there many times. One of the first as a family was during Highland games. They held a night time concert by a pipe and drum band in the parade grounds. It was a cloudless night with lots of stars. The area was lit by torchlight. The band marched in up the ramp outside the fort and through the entrance tunnel. You could hear the pipes as they approached. Inside, the sound of the pipes and drums echoed off the walls and you could smell the leather of the pipes. It truly felt like the clock had been turned back over 200 years. Later that night at our campground, we were sitting around a fire in the dark and could hear pipes being played in different parts of the campground. It was a most magical experience.

Comments are closed.