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From the Archives: The 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse

From the Archives: The 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse
March 13, 1928: What's left of the St. Francis Dam as seen from the air at a point just below the dam. This photo was published on Page 1 of the March 14, 1928, Los Angeles Times. (Harry C. Anderson / Los Angeles Times)

The March 12, 1928, collapse of the St. Francis Dam north of Los Angeles is, in terms of loss of life, the second-greatest disaster in California history. The worst was the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Estimates of deaths from the St. Francis Dam collapse vary from about 400 to more than 600.

Graphic on the St. Francis Dam collapse published in the March 14, 1928, Los Angeles Times.
Artist's depiction of the St. Francis Dam collapse published in the March 14, 1928, Los Angeles Times. Charles H. Owens / ProQuest
Photo of St. Francis Dam before its collapse. Construction of the dam began in 1924 and finished in
The St. Francis Dam before its collapse. Construction of the dam began in 1924 and finished in 1926. Los Angeles Times
Circa 1926 photo of officials at the site of the new St. Francis Dam. Dam builder William Mulholland
Circa 1926 photo of officials at the site of the new St. Francis Dam. Dam builder William Mulholland, pointing, with water officials, from left, Fred Fischer, R.F. Del Valle, Janus Baker and Dr. John Haynes. George Watson / Los Angeles Times

In 2003, for the 75th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam collapse, Los Angeles Times writer Cecilia Rasmussen wrote this article, "An Avalanche of Water Left Death and Ruin in Its Wake." From Rasmussen's article:

From the day the St. Francis Dam opened in 1926, it leaked. The folks in the farm towns downstream used to joke that they'd see you later "if the dam don't break."

Built by William Mulholland, known as the father of Los Angeles' municipal water system, the 1,300-foot span of concrete in San Francisquito Canyon held more than 12 billion gallons — a year's supply for the entire city about 50 miles to the south. …

The dam wasn't even 2 years old when it sprang new, muddy leaks on the morning of March 12, 1928. The dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger, summoned Mulholland and Mulholland's chief assistant, Harvey Van Norman, who inspected the dam and vouched for its safety.

Twelve hours later, Harnischfeger and his 6-year-old son, Coder, were among the first to die — followed by more than 450 others. …

It was three minutes before midnight when the dam broke, freeing a 10-story-high avalanche of water to sweep 54 miles west to the ocean. It would take 5½ hours to get there, but no official warning would be sounded for considerably more than an hour after the rupture.

Water engulfed whole towns, dozens of ranches, an Edison construction camp, the Harry Carey Indian reservation and trading post, and DWP Powerhouse No. 2. It swept into Castaic Junction and along the Santa Clara River bed to Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy and, finally, the sea.

It demolished 1,200 houses, washed out 10 bridges and knocked out power lines. Bodies would wash ashore as far south as San Diego.

March 1928: Remaining section of St. Francis Dam with crumbled sections at base.
March 1928: Remaining section of St. Francis Dam with crumbled sections at base. Los Angeles Times
 
March 13, 1928: Flooded area of Santa Paula following the failure of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 13, 1928: Aerial photo of Santa Paula portions of the city were inundated by water following t
March 13, 1928: Aerial view of Santa Paula after it was inundated by the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Harry C. Anderson / Los Angeles Times

One of the first photographers on scene was The Times' George Watson. Years later, in an interview for the Watson Family Photographic Archive, he described his experience.

About a week before the collapse, Watson explained he photographed the dam while en route to visit his brother in Hughes Lake.

Then on the night of March 12, 1928, Watson was dispatched to Castaic. "There was an operator on The Times called Lucille," Watson saud. "She was a pretty wide-awake gal. She knew where every Times employee was, any time of day or night. She could get anybody on the phone. And she called me about a quarter to 12 that night."

"And she says, 'George, I think there's going to be trouble up on the San Francisquito dam.' She says, 'I've been calling the operators all over the little towns, and I can't get through. I think there's something going on,' she says." (The St. Francis Dam was sometimes referred to by the canyon name.)

Watson said he dashed out to Castaic, getting there about 1 a.m. "Water was still going out," said Watson. "We could hear people yelling, out in the stream.

But because "it was so darn dark," Watson had to wait till dawn to take photos.

"We sat around there till dawn, and [Harvey] Van Norman, chief engineer for Bill Mulholland, came up with a truck and said he'd take us up to the dam," said Watson. "So we got in this truck and went up there. We could barely see it. I put my camera on a tripod, opened up my lens wide to f4.5 and gave it 2-3 seconds exposure."

"I got pictures of the water still going out," said Watson. "Then I made some more closeups."

Watson said he stayed at the dam site for two more days, sending his film back to Los Angeles. He said rocks and pieces of the dam "washed down the valley for half a mile" and were "twice as big as a two-story house."

A version of the post was previously published on March 12, 2013.

March. 13, 1928: View of Main Highway Bridge one and onee-half miles from Castaic. Only the supports
March 13, 1928: Only the supports of the Main Highway Bridge outside Castaic survived after the St. Francis Dam collapsed. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 13, 1928: Debris littering main highway near Castaic following the collapse of the St. Francis
March 13, 1928: Debris littering main highway near Castaic following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times
March 13, 1928: Relief workers carrying remains of victim of St. Francis Dam collapse. This photo wa
March 13, 1928: Workers carry the remains of a victim of the St. Francis Dam collapse. Los Angeles Times
March 13, 1928: Flood twisted railroad track at Castaic on the Santa Paula-Montalvo branch of Southe
March 13, 1928: Railroad tracks at Castaic were left sagging and twisted after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA
March 14. 1928: Crowd gathers outside temporary morgue seeking to identify victims. The first search
March 14. 1928: Crowds gather outside a temporary morgue set up for victims of the St. Francis Dam collapse. Los Angeles Times
March 14, 1928: Telephone operator Louise Gipe at Santa Paula warned area residents of the failure o
March 14, 1928: Telephone operator Louise Gipe at Santa Paula warned area residents of the failure of the dam. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928, Los Angeles Times. Pacific & Atlantic Photos
March 14, 1928: Remains of homes in Santa Paula following the collapse of St. Francis Dam. This phot
March 14, 1928: Remains of homes in Santa Paula following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times
March 1928: Lawrence Boyd was one of a family of seven who were saved following the St. Francis Dam
March 14, 1928: Lawrence Boyd was one of a family of seven who were saved following the St. Francis Dam collapse. Los Angeles Times
March 14, 1928: Turbine Housings are all that is left of Power House No. 2 - destroyed by flood wate
March 14, 1928: Turbine housings are all that is left of Power House No. 2 of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times
March 1928: Emergency morgue with bodies of victims of the flood that followed the failure of the Sa
March 1928: Victims were taken to a temporary morgue. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 1928: Phones in use at emergency telephone station seeking news of flood after collapse of St
March 14, 1928: Residents try to reach loved ones at an emergency phone station afterthe collapse of St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times
Mar. 14,1928: Red Cross worker helps outfit destitute children after collapse of St. Francis Dam. Th
March 14, 1928: A Red Cross worker helps find shoes for children forced from the homes by the collapse of St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times
March 1928: View of a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane in the path of the flood resulting from the failu
March 1928: A Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane that was swept away by the flood resulting from the failure of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 1928: Funeral procession proceeds across flood plain following the St. Francis Dam disaster.
March 1928: Funeral procession proceeds across floodplain following the St. Francis Dam disaster. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
Seven coffins containing victims of March 13, 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse prepared for burial in S
Coffins of seven victims of the dam collapsed are prepared for burial in Santa Clara Valley. Los Angeles Times Archive /UCLA
March 1928: Children sleeping in dormitory after the failure of the Saint Francis Dam an flood that
March 1928: Children left homeless by the dam collapse sleep in dormitory. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 1928: Child survivors at a relief camp after the failure of the Saint Francis Dam and resultin
March 1928: Child survivors at a relief camp after the failure of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 1928: Two women and a child in a relief camp for flood victims following the failure of the Sa
March 1928: Two women and a child in a relief camp for flood victims following the failure of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 1928: Damaged piano in a orchard following the flood caused by the failure of the Saint Franci
March 1928: A battered piano was found in an orchard following the flood caused by the failure of the St. Francis Dam. Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA
March 15, 1928: A large section of concrete block from St. Francis Dam sits about three-fourths a mi
March 15, 1928: A giant piece of concrete from the St. Francis Dam that was carried about three-quarters of a mile downstream dwarfs a man standing at lower right. Los Angeles Times
March 1928: Clearing away debris near Santa Paula following the St. Francis Dam disaster. This photo
March 25, 1928: Clearing away debris near Santa Paula following the St. Francis Dam disaster. Los Angeles Times
April 1928: Thirty-five automobiles were recoved at Power House No. 2. Nine survivors have claimed t
April 1928: Thirty-five automobiles belonging to employees were recovered at Power House No. 2. This photo was published in the April 5, 1928, Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times

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