St. Francis: Haste and Consequence

Uploaded: , Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014

By Darryl Manzer

darrylmanzer021014Being a native of the Santa Clarita Valley, I can never understand how folks get lost in our hills. If you have water and it isn’t dark, just head down the hill and you’ll run into a road or highway, eventually. Our hills aren’t that high, and being nearly treeless, you can see forever. Just take care and slowly work your way down.

It is always best if your cell battery is fully charged and with you, along with water … lots of water. You can survive a long time without food. In our dry climate, the lack of water can kill you quickly.

Funny I should mention water. Today is the anniversary of the failure of the St. Francis Dam in 1928.

Eighty-six years ago today, the dam built in San Francisquito Canyon failed just before midnight. At least 431 people died between the dam location and the ocean near Ventura. There was too much water being held by a dam that was built in the wrong spot and in the wrong way.

Some might say the concrete was inferior. I’ve seen and touched pieces of that concrete. I’ve made better at home. The patios and sidewalks I’ve mixed and poured still look great.

I don’t really blame Mr. Mulholland, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles city water supply. Had it not been for some rich developers, the rush for water might have been a little less frantic. But there was a whole city being developed, and those farmers and ranchers in the San Fernando Valley needed water.

Sure, the design was flawed, but it was built quickly. It also was a source of electrical power. More for those farmers … well, for the future folks who would live in that lesser valley south of us.

In fact, some of the first folks to know there was a problem with the St. Francis Dam were men at the electrical substation in Saugus. A transformer exploded as the transmission lines were grounded up near the dam when the 120-foot-high wall of water washed the towers away.

The Chief. Click for info.

The Chief. Click for info.

Even back in 1923 when the St. Francis Dam was being considered, it was because of a possible drought. Los Angeles wanted a steady supply of water. Another reason was that the folks up in the Owens Valley had blown up parts of the big pipe between there and the Cascades you seen near the I-5 and SR-14 split. I think earthquakes were an additional concern.

The rush to survey, design and build the St. Francis Dam was extremely short by any standard, let alone today’s. There was no environmental impact report. It wasn’t much debated. Bonds were sold, and construction started. Three years later it was completed. Two after that, it collapsed. Gone. Washed away.

For years, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had little to say about the dam. The people who died were nearly forgotten. The damage done was slowly washed away or covered up. The remains of the dam were blasted into a gazillion pieces so that only a pile of broken concrete can be seen. A small marker near Power House No. 2 is a memorial to those who lost their lives.

Most of the history and information about the dam and the failure is locked away in the DWP files in downtown L.A. Pictures abound of both the “before” and “after” results of the dam.

Now it is becoming a little more known, thanks to some folks wanting finally to get a proper memorial for those who died. There are sites on Facebook, too. Have a look.

You can always look at a favorite site of mine: SCVHistory.com. It abounds with St. Francis Dam stories and pictures.

You can also go look at the physical site yourself. Maybe you want to hike the hills above the site. Maybe you want to look at the remains of the dam at the bottom of San Francisquito Canyon.

Just remember. If you’re going to hike up there, take water and go with a friend. Charge your cell, too. Walk slowly downhill if you think you’re lost. You will find a road. You will be OK.

And say a prayer for those who were washed away 86 years ago today. Some were never found. It is a fitting and proper act to do … this day in SCV history.

 

Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at dmanzer@scvhistory.com and his commentaries, published on Tuesdays and Sundays, are archived at DManzer.com. Watch his walking tour of Mentryville [here].

 

7 Comments for : St. Francis: Haste and Consequence


  1. Loren Elmore Loren Elmore says:

    Darryl, I don’t think an environmental study would have done any thing, but a soil study would, and it was done, and it said the soil there was not stable, but Mr. Mulhalland ignored them, almost any one can go there and see that the soil is just clay, with no rock, the west abutment hill looks weak and to add the five or ten foot wall on top of that hill to add to the hight of the dam looks like it was just asking for trouble, but it was the east abutment that failed, as for the concrete, it looked OK to me ( I’ve been pouring it all my life) accept I thought the amount of aggregate ( 3/4 gravel) seemed very low in chunks that I saw, but the big thing that notice is that there is hardly any re-bar! There is some around in the chunks but hardly what you would think would be in them ! Just my thoughts, has any one else noticed the lack of re-bar?

  2. Awww Thanks Edward Corrington for this!! I love history!!!

  3. Awww Thanks Edward Corrington for this!! I love history!!!

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