St. Francis Dam Disaster

In 1926, the St. Francis Dam began providing water to the growing city of Los Angeles, but the glory of the engineering feat was short-lived. On March 12, 1928, the dam burst, releasing billions of gallons of water, wiping many small towns off the map.

St. Francis Damo

At the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles moved from a small village to an emerging metropolis, and William Mulholland, chief engineer and general manager of the Department of Water, quickly realized that the Los Angeles River could never meet the water demand of the drought-prone region. Won't do . He proposed an aqueduct to transport water from Lake Owens, about 200 miles away, and a series of reservoirs near the town, the last of which was the St. Francis Dam. Construction of the dam, which was the largest arch-supported dam in the world and held more than 12 billion gallons of water, was completed on May 4, 1926.

View of a dam looking north with water in its reservoir in February 1927.

St. Francis Dam Collapsed

About two years later, dam keepers noticed a large leak on the west bank that was spewing muddy water, a sign that the foundation of the dam was being washed away. He called on Mulholland, who blamed the dirty water on a nearby housing development, and that seemed to have come to an end. Just before midnight, however, the dam broke. Anyone who could give a direct account of the moment, including the keeper, his girlfriend, and their young son, were immediately killed, but nearby residents reported hearing and feeling a rumble, which they It is believed to be one of many regular earthquakes in the area.

An investigation later determined that the unstable ground and surrounding rock formations where the dam was built were at fault for the disaster. The investigation absolved Mulholland of any blame, although he stated that "the construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the judgment of one person," but Mulholland tendered his resignation anyway. He took full responsibility for the disaster and even asked the investigation to hold him fully accountable. State and national lawmakers soon passed legislation to prevent another such dam failure.

Meanwhile, the true extent of the disaster became clear by sunrise on March 13. The strong water broke power lines, wiped out all the buildings in its path, and cleared the valley of its vegetation. Initial reports cited 200 deaths, but later the number more than doubled. Months after the accident, the official death toll was recorded as 385, yet more victims were discovered in the decades following the disaster. Many were found washed up in the Pacific Ocean and/or on the coasts of Mexico. Over the years, the actual death toll of the St. Francis Dam disaster was updated to at least 431, but we may never know exactly how many people died as a result of the severe flooding.

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