The Paregien Digest – Issue 316 – December 5, 2015
Stan Paregien, Editor
The 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster:
The Story & A Song
by Stan Paregien Sr.
The St. Francis Dam was built between 1924 and 1926 in the San Francisquito Canyon up in the Sierra Pelona Mountains about 10 miles north of what today is Santa Clarita, California (the site is about 40 north of downtown Los Angeles). It was built both as an additional source of water for Los Angeles and as a way to control occasional flooding downstream in the Santa Clara Valley. The dam itself was a gravity dam made of concrete in was a curved fashion.
William Mulholland was both the General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the “Chief Engineer” (though he had no engineering degree; he taught himself by reading engineering and geology books). He was directly responsible for the construction and maintenance of the dam.
The modern map, above, shows the historic location of the St. Francis Dam in the center of the map. [“St Francis Dam area terrain relief 1” by Kbh3rd – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons ]
It was Mulholland himself who chose the site for the dam, and that was the moment the disaster began. That area was known to be unstable. The original plan for the dam was for it to be 175 feet high with a capacity of 30,000 acres of water. In 1925, after the first concrete had been poured, Mr. Mulholland approved a change to a height of 185 feet and a reservoir capacity of 38,000. All this with very little structural change.
The dam was completed on May 4, 1926 and steadily filled the reservoir behind it. Some cracks and leaks were noted into 1927, but they were considered normal and in some cases attempts were made to seal them. But in the spring of 1928, heavy rains pushed the dam toward its capacity . . . and, significantly, it began to really leak. Lots of leaks.
Staff and concerned citizens finally demanded that Mulholland come up and inspect the dam himself. He did so on March 11, 1928. He declared it was safe and such leaks were normal and that crews would fix them in the coming days. All was well.
It just over 24 hours later, at exactly 11:57 p.m. on March 12th, when the mountainside on the left end of the dam collapsed and brought down the dam. A wall of water—estimated at 12.4 billion gallons and at least 120 feet high–roared down the canyon at 18 mph, carrying, most of the structure of dam far down into the canyon below. When the flood entered the Santa Clara Valley, it careened to the right and followed the Santa Clara River bed west toward the Pacific ocean at a height of about 55 feet and a speed of 12 mph. It was 54 miles from the dam to the mouth of the Pacific Ocean.
Many small communities and larger towns lay in the path of the raging wall of water. There were no warning systems in place. It wiped out the village of Castaic Junction, where Highway 126 and present-day Interstate 5 intersect.
Some five miles downstream the deluge hit the spot where my father worked and where we lived in the mid-1950s. My father, Harold Paregien, was a farm laborer in the walnut orchards for the farming division of the Newhall Land and Farming Company. We lived in an old farm house which someone told us had survived the flood, but I have no verification of that.
The house stood at the eastern end of “the flats” which ran a mile or so to the west. The house was about a hundred yards or so east of the Los Angeles County and Ventura County line, and on the south side of the railroad track (between the track and a 25 foot bluff overlooking the normally placid Santa Clara River).
About a half-mile west of our house, the mountains on each side crowded the riverbed. In the attached photo, below, please note a “notch” in the low mountain ridge about 1/2 of the way from the left side. Highway 126 ran through there and many called that notch “The Blue Cut.” That ridge of the mountain formed a natural bottleneck for the flood and backed up the murky flood waters to a considerable depth. Simultaneously, it created a gigantic whirlpool before shooting out the pass like a high pressure fire hose. It was there in the west flats in Ventura County that a terrible loss of life took place. It normally would have been deserted, with our farm house to the east and another farm house perched high on the hill (notch) just to the northwest on Highway 126. The farmer who lived there worked for the orange orchard division of Newhall Land and Farming Company.
The Southern California Edison electric company had rented a spot of Newhall Land & Farming Company’s land or a temporary tent city set up on the far west flats. Some 150 men were building a new electric line project through the valley. They were sleeping when, with only a few shouts of warning, the awful wall of water—estimated at 20 feet high–engulfed them. Most survived, but 84 died horrible deaths. The rumor was that the company’s cash box containing hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars, was buried somewhere downstream.
When it reached the orange orchards a mile or so down on the south side of the river bed, Newhall Land & Farming Company executives believed the wave of water was at least 60 feet high to reach up as far as it did. The flood continued west on past tiny Piru and doing major damage to the community of Bardsdale and the town of Fillmore (the latter being where I graduated from high school in 1959).
At about 1:30 a.m. on what by then was March 13, 1928, the lonely telephone operator on duty at the Santa Paula switchboard received an urgent call. It was from an area manager telling her that the St. Francis Dam had collapsed and a deadly wall of water was rushing her way down the Santa Clara Valley. That local operator, Louise Gipe, notified the police and then called the on-duty telephone operator in Saticoy, just to the west of Santa Paula, alerting them to the immediate danger. Both operators called and awoke as many residents as they could, especially in the lower areas nearer the river.
There in Santa Paula, two motorcycle officers for the California Highway Patrol, got the warning. They roared down to the areas near the river, knocked on doors and yelled the message to evacuate toward higher ground right then. Those brave men, officers Thornton Edwards and Stanley Baker, were able to alert scores and scores of sleeping residents to the danger and those folks passed the message on to many of their neighbors. Thus, the officers effectually saved hundreds of people from certain death. In recognition of their bravery, a statue was erected 2003 in Santa Paula in honor of them and to their memory.
Photo by Stan Paregien Sr.
The flood waters ravaged Santa Paula and parts of Ventura before dumping many bodies and tons of mangled houses and trees into the ocean. The inland tsunami reached the Pacific Ocean at about 5:30 a.m. on the morning of March 13, 1928. It had taken 5 1/2 hours for the leading edge of the massive, raging wall of water to travel from the dam site to the Pacific Ocean 54 miles away. The wall spewed into the ocean near the tiny community of Montalvo an awful cocktail that was two miles wide and full of human and animal remains, mangled metal, splintered wood, sewage, asbestos products, insecticides, solvents, oil and gasoline, and much, much more.
Early estimates of the deaths from the flood were widely inaccurate. Over time the best guesses were that somewhere between 400 and 600 people died. That truth was hard to come by since there were a number of undocumented farm workers who died in the flood. There were people who went missing and whose bodies were never recovered. There were scores of relief agencies, such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, and military groups recovering bodies along the 54 mile path of destruction. There were scores of funeral homes assisting in trying to identify and document a large number of badly damaged bodies. And bodies from the flood were found as far south as the coast of northern Mexico. Making the number of deaths even more fluid is the fact that periodically additional victims were found in the ruble, not just for years but for decades. The last flood victim discovered was in 1994, buried in the sand and mud along the Santa Clara River.
However, a graduate student named Ann Stansell in 2014 concluded her investigation and documentation of the known flood victims. The student at California State University (Northridge) wrote her master’s thesis on the subject and spent nearly three years searching death certificates, newspapers, funeral home records, family documents, etc., to catalog those who died.
Ms. Stansell’s investigation concluded that the authorities actually recovered 306 bodies, but only 240 of them were ever identified. There were another 125 people who went missing and were never found. Of those 125 missing people, family members made death claims on only 79 of those. So the proven dead (306) and the still missing (125) totals up to 431 people.
In addition, Ms. Stansell tabulated in a spreadsheet format the available date on 306 victims. That includes their name, age, town of residence, location at the time of the flood, nearest relative, and which funeral home handled each body. In many cases, she also provides a photo of the victim (often with other members of the family). All of this, of course, helps to make these large death numbers more real and manageable.
Some of her may be found online at the web site for the Santa Clarita (Calif.) Historical Society at: http://www.scvhistory.com/scvhistory/ – annstansell_damvictims022214.htm .
The loss of life was horrific and heart-wrenching. But don’t forget the physical damages. Train tracks and train bridges, highway bridges and paved roads were destroyed. Powerline poles, transformer boxes and transmission lines were knocked down. Irrigation and farm equipment were completely ruined. Whole dairies and small businesses and hundreds upon hundreds of individual homes were washed away or mangled beyond recognition. Horses, cattle, pets of all descriptions were killed or injured. Cars and school buses and commercial trucks were buried in muck. Large parts of groves of walnut trees, orange trees and lemon trees simply vanished. Church buildings, retail stores, mom and pop restaurants, warehouses, bars and barbershops either smashed to small pieces, swept off their foundations or so badly water-logged they were not only immediately unusable but ultimately unfixable. It was a 54 mile long crisis of an unbelievable magnitude of misery. The figure for property damages, even in 1928 dollars, must have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Let’s see how that played out for one company, the huge Newhall Land & Farming Company based in Newhall (now Santa Clarita), Calif. This is just a summary of the various farm lands that the flood ruined. The flood destroyed 1,000 acres of alfalfa. It destroyed 600 acres of dry land farming. It ruined 400 acres where an orange orchard once grew. It destroyed 80 acres where a pecan tree orchard was located. That totals a whopping 2,080 acres of farm land taken out of production, much of it permanently.
Several investigations took place right after the flood, as there was great public concern about whether the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River—a project hundreds of times larger than the St. Francis—was another dangerous thing. In the end, even after modern studies, the main culprit seems to have been Mulholland’s misjudgment about the location of the dam and the stability of the earth beneath and adjacent to the dam. The official coroner’s inquiry was a judgement not only against William Mulholland but against the system itself as they concluded: “The construction of a municipal dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent.”
Some people were so angry they posted signs in their yards which read, “Kill Mulholland.” To his credit, William Mulholland accepted the blame for the disaster. Part of his testimony was this: “Don’t blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, and I won’t try to fasten it on anyone else. On an occasion like this, I envy the dead.”
Although Mulholland was demonized by the public in general, his career was not over. He did lose his job with the city of Los Angeles, where his right-hand man, Harvey Van Norman became the Chief Engineer. Mulholland kept a fairly low profile, but he was able to work as a consultant on many other engineering projects—including the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
In 1995, an geological engineering professor at the University of Missouri (at Rolla) wrote his analysis of what went wrong with the St. Francis Dam.
First of all, Dr. J. David Rogers concluded that, yes indeed, Mulholland chose the wrong spot for a dam. Dr. Rogers said that the problem, contrary to the earliest investigations, was with the eastern abutment (mountain) where the concrete dam was anchored rather than the western abutment. The problem with that eastern anchor is that it was made up of a rock formation called “Pelona schist.” It was an unstable and somewhat porous , spongy material. So as the dam was filled, that rock actually absorbed water and weakened, much like some composite flooring commonly found in manufactured homes will upon contact with water become a mushy sawdust with little or no strength to support anything.
Second, Dr. Rogers said that Mulholland also made a fatal mistake when he arbitrarily raised the height of the dam by 10 feet without modifying the base of the dam from the original blueprints. That put way too much pressure on the abutment and on the dam itself.
Third, Mulholland did not include in the blueprints for the St. Francis Dam any sufficient provisions to counteract the factor called “hydraulic uplift.” This phenomenon, commonly known by professional engineers of the 1910s and later, actually results in the force of the water behind a dam “lifting” it slightly and tilting it forward (or downstream). The only place Mulholland did that was in the very center of the dam where he installed ten uplift relief walls at the base. That one section was the only part of the dam left standing, standing like a gravestone or a monument to human arrogance and/or ignorance.
So Dr. Rogers concluded that those three mistakes, together, made a failure of the structure almost inevitable. And in 2004, a study by Donald C. Jackson (an Associate Professor of History at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania) and by Norris Hundley Jr. (Professor of American History at the University of California at Los Angeles) pointed to Mulholland’s lack of appreciation for the devastating effect of hydraulic uplift. They concluded, “William Mulholland understood the great privilege that had been afforded him to build the St. Francis Dam where and how he chose. Because of this privilege—and the decisions that he made—William Mulholland bears responsibility for the St. Francis Dam disaster.”
The failure of the St. Francis Dam still stands as the 2nd most deadly disaster in the entire history of California, only outranked by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. There is one big distinction, however. The 1928 dam break is still number one in terms of a man-made disaster. And that event eventually resulted in revising and tightening laws related to building dams, and it resulted in establishing strict educational requirements and certifications for those who want to hold themselves out to the public as engineers.
Blasotti, Tony. “St. Francis Dam disaster: a receipe for failure, tragedy and heroism.“ Article found on the online version of the Ventura County Star newspaper, dated March , 2006. Found at:
Has a nice bio of police officer Thornton Edwards and a couple of photos from his work in the movies. http://www.b-westerns.com/villan71.htm
Evans, Diane (an engineer). “Deadly Flooding in the San Francisquito”.
Master, Shannon. “St. Francis Dam disaster: Mulholland’s Tragic Mistake.” March 22, 2009. The Signal (newspaper), Santa Clarita, Calif. http://www.the-signal.com/news/archive/10939/
Newhall, A.M and George A. Newhall, Jr. “Report on St. Francis Dam Flood For The Newhall Land & Farming Company.” March 24, 1928.
Nichols, John. Images of America: St. Francis Dam Disaster. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2002. [He is a resident of Santa Paula, Ca]
Norris, Michele. “The St. Francis Dam Disaster, The Second-worst Disaster in California History.” NPR Radio Broadcast on March 12, 2003. She interviews the daughter of the dam’s Chief Engineer (Wm. Mulholland) and a woman who was 13 when her parents and brother were lost in the flood and she was swept 9 miles downstream before being rescued. About 10 minutes long. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1190341
Rock, Frank. Video interview with a resident of the area who has studied the flood for many years. This is a very well done video. About 30 minutes long.
Rogers, J. David. “Lessons Learned from the St. Francis Dam Disaster.” Geo-Strata. March/April, 2006. [Found online at: http://web.mst.edu/~rogersda/st_francis_dam/lessons_learned_from_the_st_francis_dam_failure(geostrata_mar-apr_2006).pdf
Rogers, J. David and Kevin James. “Mapping the St. Francis Dam Outburst Flood With GIS.” PowerPoint presentation with 29 slides. [ Found online at: http://web.mst.edu/~rogersda/st_francis_dam/ ]
“St. Francis Dam.” Wikipedia.
St. Francis Dam Disaster (YouTube)
Ventura County Star. This newspaper which serves the entire county has produced a fantastic video experience of the flood. Be sure to watch this video at : http://web.vcstar.com/video/08/damflyover0308/damflyover0308.html
Wilkman, Jon. “The St. Francis Dam Disaster”
[ Found online at: http://www.wilkman.com/SFD/SFD%204.htm ]
The St. Francis Dam Disaster Blues
aka Sweetie Pie Blues
by Stan Paregien Sr
Copyrighted Jan. 27, 2010 by Stan Paregien Sr. All rights reserved. Play similar to “Blues Stay Away From Me” ( Recorded by The Delmore Brothers. Words and music by Alton Delmore, Rabon Delmore, Henry Glover & Wayne Raney.) Watch and listen to Stan singing his song at www.youtube.com/watch?v=q65NBvP7hmg ]
[D] We called him Sweetie Pie just as long as I recall.
[G] Yes, we called him Sweetie Pie as long as I re- [D] call.
Never heard nobody [A7] say Sweetie Pie’s real name.
It was plain ol’ Sweetie Pie, that’s [D] all.
Now as a kid I was told Sweetie Pie’s sad tale.
[G] Yes, most everybody knew ’bout his sad [D] tale.
His parents were killed [A7] in that flood of 1928,
When the St. Francis Dam did [D] fail.
Mr. Mulholland built a dam across a big canyon,
[G] Some five miles northeast of Saugus [D] town.
He built it to send water [A7] to Los Angeles,
But on March 12th that dam crashed on [D] down.
Oh, Mr. Mulholland, you done Sweetie Pie wrong.
[G] Yes, Mr. Mulholland, you done every body [D] wrong.
You killed 431 people and [A7] that’s why we grieve
Through the words of this little ol’ [D] song.
Oh Mr. Mulholland, you were the engineering man.
[G] Yes, Mr. Mulholland, you were the engineering [D] man.
But you chose the [A7] wrong danged location;
That’s when the St. Francis Dam disaster be- [D] gan.
That 12-story wall of water swept everything away.
[G] Yes, that giant wall of water swept everything a- [D] way.
The raging current buried hundreds [A7] there in the mud,
And others were washed into the Pacific that [D] day.
Well, Sweetie Pie searched for his parents so dear.
[G] Yes, searched from Piru to Fillmore for those so [D] dear.
He lived in that riverbed [A7] and looked and looked,
Never findin’ a trace of ’em year after [D] year.
I once saw ol’ Sweetie Pie near the river so still.
[G] Yes, along that Santa Clara River so small and [D] still.
I was kinda scared of the [A7] strange actin’ old man,
But he just ignored me and walked up the [D] hill.
Hey, Sweetie Pie, listen up wherever you may be.
[G] Hundreds of other families still share your [D] pain.
And we think about those [A7] 500 innocent victims
Of the St. Francis flood each time we hear it [D] rain.
Now there’s just one more thing before I say goodbye,
[G] Yes, there’s just one more thing before I up and [D] scram.
Don’t ever buy yourself a house [A7] that is downstream
From any ol’ damned government [D] dam.
[Close the song by whistling the chorus.]
Song written and copyrighted at Edmond, Oklahoma on Jan. 27, 2010.
All rights are reserved.
This entire manuscript, from the essay to the song above, is copyrighted by Stan Paregien Sr. All rights are reserved. However, permission to perform or recite the song is hereby given for personal or non-profit use. Any commercial use of the song or the essay requires the express written permission of the author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org