By Joan Trossman Bien
The dazzling career of William Mulholland ended 85 years ago this week when his final engineering project, the ill-fated St. Francis Dam, leaked and then blew apart, unleashing one of the worst disasters in California history in terms of lives lost, second only to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
The St. Francis Dam leaked on the very day it opened in 1926. It was Mulholland’s nineteenth dam and held a spectacular amount of water, more than 12 billion gallons, enough to supply Los Angeles for an entire year. This was Mulholland’s water insurance policy. His most daring achievement, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, brought water from the Owens Valley down the state to the burgeoning City of Angels. But, still, the water supply was not secure. The aqueduct crossed a rift zone in the San Andreas Fault which could rupture the pipeline, and, because Mulholland had basically stolen the water it was transporting, furious farmers who had been ruined wanted to return the favor to the engineer through sabotage.
Some 50 miles away from the city, Mulholland planned, engineered, and built the massive dam. He was in charge of it all and, although a brilliant engineer and leader, he had never been formally trained. When he altered the dimensions of the dam partway through its construction, making it taller but not thicker, he had turned the corner from master to ersatz magician. Ultimately, the risky calculation did not bring down the dam but that information was not known until 1995.
The story of the loss of 450 to 600 lives in just a few hours in the black of a moonless night in Ventura County has been largely ignored. The hubris of Mulholland was emblematic of the way Los Angeles devoured whatever it needed, regardless of the consequences to those who were deemed to be getting in the way of progress. The dam was built in Santa Clarita but the flood carved out death and utter destruction through the poor Mexican farming communities in Ventura County..
A leak appeared in the dam on March 12, 1928. Mulholland personally drove out to inspect it and declared the dam was safe. Some twelve hours later, at three minutes to midnight, it burst. A ten-story high wall of water exploded and scraped clean everything and everyone along its five and half hour journey to the ocean 54 miles to the west. Bodies were recovered as far south as the Mexican border.
The first public warning was not sounded until 1:20 AM, trapping many of the victims. Instead, neighbors were racing to alert neighbors, some of whom just did not believe it. There had been a saying in the area that folks would see you later “if the dam don’t break.” Families who hesitated were separated and lost. One little girl who ran outside of her house despite her mother’s admonishment was found nine miles downstream alive in a pile of debris. Her mother died.
There were heroes. Telephone operators in Fillmore stuck it out as they frantically alerted each family to get to high ground. Those operators were known as the “Hello Girls” and they saved countless lives while risking their own.
One California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, Thornton Edwards, set out with siren wailing as the flood hit Fillmore, warning people in Santa Paula of the imminent disaster. That was 42 miles away from the dam and he was given credit for saving hundreds of lives. He was given a medal, nicknamed “Paul Revere of Santa Paula” and was hired as the chief of police.
However, long after a statue was built to honor Edwards, information was revealed that Edwards had abused his authority and was fired by the mayor of Santa Paula. The statue was reworked to be generic and was simply renamed “The Warning.”
A panel investigated the collapse and blame was placed directly on Mulholland’s shoulders within twelve days of the catastrophe. Mulholland accepted the responsibility and died not long afterwards a broken man. The panel declared that an engineering project such as a huge dam “should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent.”
In 1995, a new book by a geologic engineer revealed the underlying cause of the dam collapse. It had been unknowingly anchored on one side to an ancient landslide. The invisible debris shifted and shoved its contents into the dam “like a bulldozer blade.”
For decades, the lesson learned had been that one man’s ego could never be adequately responsible for the safety of thousands, no matter how skilled he may be. Good lesson. Oversight is a skill we are still trying to perfect, and we have learned that vigilance in every step is the only safeguard that works.
But there is a deeper lesson here and it has little to do with Mulholland. He was a man of his times, a modern conqueror who, in his quest for doing great things for a great society, took no prisoners. It was the model of the bold and brilliant American single-handedly carved this country out of a wilderness.
But in that pursuit, everyone forgot about common sense. Los Angeles was and is a place of earthquakes. It is a desert. Drought is the normal state. Water is a precious commodity. There was not enough water then and there is not enough water now to support everyone and everything in Los Angeles. Growth was king, and officials would do whatever it took and now will do whatever it takes to guarantee the water supply.
Los Angeles refused then as it refuses now to recognize how quickly the water can disappear. We build as if the supply is infinite, we ignore the fragile nature of our water rights. This year, we have had fewer than five inches of rain in one of the driest seasons on record. Our average is only 14 inches. But for the considerable snowpack and vast reservoirs, almost exclusively to the north, we would be counting our water by the drops, not by the acre-foot.
We have failed to recognize and plan for the need to control growth to match the water supply. It won’t matter if massive swaths of suburban homes are built in the future if there is not enough water available in the future to make those houses habitable.
Joan Trossman Bien has been writing news most of her professional life. She started writing as an intern at KNX Newsradio and wrote as a freelancer at nearly every television station in Los Angeles. She graduated from law school in 2004. At present, she is a regular writer for cover features at the Ventura County Reporter and Pasadena Weekly. She enjoys writing about an array of topics including health care, politics, women’s issues, and social justice. Bien lives with her journalist husband in Ventura County. They have one grown daughter who is also a journalist. Bien hales from Glencoe, Ill., a small suburb outside Chicago.
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