Wednesday, March 12, 2008

March 12

After the St. Francis Dam failed eighty years ago today, William Mulholland -- the most famous water engineer in American history -- tearfully declared that “The only ones I envy about this thing are the ones who are dead.”

There were hundreds of them -- some buried beneath 20 feet of mud and detritus in Santa Clara Valley, North of Los Angeles, others pushed into the Pacific Ocean. As more than 12 million gallons of water poured from the ruptured dam, the towns of Castaic Junction, Piru, Bardsdale, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy were overrun as the water coursed in a two-mile-wide stream, crushing its way 50 miles to the sea.

The dam, whose construction had begun four years earlier, seemed destined to equal the majesty of the Los Angeles Aqueduct -- Mulholland’s greatest triumph, which helped spur the rapid development of Southern California in ways that were ultimately disastrous for the region’s ecology. Before the project was completed, however, numerous cracks had begun to appear in the massive concrete wall, which towered 195 feet and held back nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water. Mulholland dismissed evidence of the dam’s weakness. When new faults appeared earlier in the day on March 12, the engineer personally inspected the site and declared it sound. Three minutes before midnight, the St. Francis dam failed catastrophically, breaking into several pieces and killing the damkeeper and his entire family before having its way with the test of the valley.

The Fillmore American -- based in one of the destroyed towns -- reported bitterly several days later:
Just as the ominous thirteenth of March, 1928, was being born, Death, mounted on a wave of swirling waters, seventy feet high, and beginning at a crumbling dam high up in San Francisquito canyon, rode in devastating wrath to the sea. Sweeping through the most fertile valley in the Southland. And in his wake he left death, and devastation, and ruin, where a short hour before his passing people slept in peace, security and happiness.

The story of the breaking dam has greeted your eyes from scores of newspapers pages before this one reaches you. How the big $2,500,000 dam, built on the insecure foundation of a great city's greed for what did not belong to it, crumbled as the result of faulty designing and hasty construction. Engineer [Carl] Grunsky was right. That great dam built in the center of the canyon, with light-flung wings to the soft earth sides of the mountains, was an ‘old woman's apron.' And the strings broke and the result was a hell of swirling waters that took life after life, until its fury was stayed in the waters of the sea.
The final death doll from the flood was never accurately surveyed, though the best contemporary estimates suggest as many as 600 may have perished. Some bodies washed up ashore in Mexico. Others were never found. The last known victim of the St. Francis flood was discovered in 1992 in Newhall.

Following the disaster, William Mulholland retired and secluded himself from public life until his death eight years later.