Little Bits of History

Water, Water Everywhere

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 12, 2014
Remnants of the St. Francis Dam

Remnants of the St. Francis Dam

March 12, 1928: The St. Francis Dam fails. Construction for the dam began in 1924 and it was completed and started to fill in 1926. The main portion of the dam spanned 700 feet and the wing dike was 588 feet. Built by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (then called the Bureau of Water Works and Supply), it supplied the Los Angeles area with water and power. It was located in the San Francisquito Canyon about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles and about 10 miles north of Santa Clarita. William Mulholland was the chief engineer.

Mulholland was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1855 and after working at sea for four years, he arrived in the Los Angeles area in 1877. He worked his way from well digger to engineer, studying at night after a hard day’s work. He was considered a brilliant student. Los Angeles was a tiny community when Mulholland got off the ship but by 1910 the population was almost 320,000. Water and power were essential commodities. Mulholland oversaw the design and construction of many large, successful projects and this dam was one of these.

The St. Francis was similar to the Mulholland Dam where construction began a year earlier. The downstream face of the dam was stepped with each step a constant five feet but the width of each was varied. Near the streambed (geographic elevation 1,645 feet) it was 5.5 feet thick while at the top (elevation 1,815 feet) it was 1.45 feet thick. The height was 175 feet above the stream bed and it would have the capacity of 30,000 acre-feet. Water began to fill on March 1, 1926 and it rose steadily and uneventfully. There were some minor cracks in the face of the damn, but it was deemed to be amazingly dry as there was little seepage.

Water was pulled off during fighting in the area when part of the water supply was damaged, but after it settled down, the water again began to fill. There were few cracks and they were deemed within standards. On this day, at two minutes before midnight, the entire dam gave way and a wall of water about 140 feet high began a destructive journey to the ocean. About 12.4 billion gallons of water took only 5 hours and 27 minutes to travel 54 miles. Along the way untold numbers of people were killed. It is estimated today to be around 600 deaths which does not include an unknowable number of migrant farmers who were located in the valley. It is considered to be one of the worst civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake being the worst.

You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there. – Edwin Louis Cole

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it. – Lao Tzu

When you’re drowning, you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream. – John Lennon

By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation. – Edmund Burke

Also on this day: Fireside Chats – In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his first Fireside Chat.
Cookie Monster – In 1912, the Girl Scouts of America was founded.
Thing Go Better with Coke – In 1894, Coke was invented.
Attempted Murder in Oz – In 1868, an attempt was made on Prince Alfred’s life.

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