In 1926, the St. Francis Dam started supplying water to the expanding metropolis of Los Angeles, but the engineering marvel’s splendor lasted just a few years. The dam broke on March 12, 1928, releasing billions of gallons of water that wiped out many tiny villages.
St. Francis Dam
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Los Angeles grew from a tiny hamlet to a thriving city, and Department of Water chief engineer and general manager William Mulholland soon recognized that the Los Angeles River would never be able to meet the region’s water demands.
He planned an aqueduct to carry water from Owens Lake, about 200 miles distant, and a succession of reservoirs around the city, the most recent of which would be St. Francis Dam. On May 4, 1926, the dam was finished. It was the world’s biggest arch-supported dam, holding more than 12 billion gallons of water.
Collapse of the Dam
Almost two years later, the dam keeper discovered a huge leak in the west abutment, spouting muddy water, indicating that the dam’s foundation was washing away. He contacted Mulholland, who placed the responsibility for the filthy water squarely on the shoulders of the adjacent housing complex, and that seemed to be the end of the matter.
However, just before midnight, the dam burst. Anyone who might have provided a personal description of the event, including the keeper, his fiancée, and his small kid, were immediately killed, although surrounding neighbors reported hearing and feeling a rumbling, they thought was one of the area’s many natural earthquakes.
A study subsequently revealed that the dam’s collapse was caused by the unstable ground and adjacent rock formations. Mulholland accepted his resignation despite the fact that the inquiry absolved him of responsibility, noting that “the building and management of a major dam should never be entrusted to the exclusive judgment of one man.”
He accepted all responsibility for the tragedy and even requested that the inquiry hold him fully responsible. State and federal legislators quickly enacted laws to avoid another dam collapse of this magnitude.
Meanwhile, by March 13, dawn, the full scale of the catastrophe became apparent. The surging flood destroyed power lines, swept away all structures in its path, and stripped the valley of vegetation. Initial reports said that 200 people died, but the figure has now more than doubled.
Months after the tragedy, the official death toll was 385; however, more fatalities were found decades later. Numerous bodies were washed into the Pacific Ocean and/or discovered on Mexico’s beaches.
The actual death toll from the St. Francis Dam catastrophe has been increased to at least 431 throughout the years, but we may never know exactly how many died in the horrifying torrent of water.