March 12 and 13 mark the 85th anniversary of one of the worst manmade disasters in California history, second only to the San Francisco earthquake.
Engineer William Mulholland’s St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon failed on Monday, March 12, 1928 at 11:57 p.m. A 140-foot wall of water poured into the canyon, killing an estimated 500 people and causing damage that at the time was valued at $13 million.
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Construction on the dam began in 1924, and it was completed in 1926, standing at 205 feet tall. Only two years later, the monstrous feat of engineering failed, sending 12 billion gallons of water plunging toward residents and workers.
It was the nail in the coffin for Mulholland’s reputation.
“Nobody questioned his word, and he decided to put the dam there,” said E.J. Stephens, local historian, tour guide and coauthor of “Legendary Locals of the Santa Clarita Valley.”
“They didn’t choose the best site. They didn’t use the best materials, and it came crashing down just a few hours after he said it was fine. It was leaking at the time, and some of the dam keepers were alarmed, but Mulholland said, ‘It’s fine; all dams do that.’”
Despite the tragedy caused by the disaster, Stephens pointed out that it is largely unknown to SCV residents. Every day hundreds of people drive by San Francisquito Canyon Road, a mere 7 miles from the original dam site and don’t even know it’s there.
“A good reason for that is the DWP (Department of Water and Power) wanted to erase that story from history,” he said. “They went a long way towards destroying the wreckage. Partly, they said, for safety, but also partly to just remove that story from history, and they’ve actually done a very good job.”
But people like Stephens and local organizations like the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society are working to make sure that is no longer the case. Stephens, his wife Kim and SCVHS President Alan Pollack are currently working on a book of “then and now” pictures of historical sites in our valley. The St. Francis Dam will be featured prominently.
For local residents interested in learning more about the disaster and viewing the site, the SCVHS is hosting lecture and bus tour on Saturday, March 16, starting at 11 a.m. Bus tickets are $35 per person. Though the event is currently sold out, the SCVHS is encouraging people to put their name on a waiting list, with a good possibility of getting a seat. For more information, call 661-254-1275.
Original newspaper articles about the St. Francis Dam disaster can be found at here.
SCVHistory.com contributed to this report.
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- Tuesday, Wednesday Mark 85th Anniversary of the St. Francis Dam Failure
- Source: Santa Clarita News
- Allison Pari