"Floodpath attempts to rescue the disaster from obscurity . . . The author captures many heartbreaking stories of survivors . . . The effect is powerful." --The Wall Street Journal
Just before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, a twenty-story-high concrete structure just fifty miles north of Los Angeles, suddenly collapsed, releasing a devastating flood that roared fifty-four miles to the Pacific Ocean, destroying everything in its path. It was a horrific catastrophe, yet one which today is virtually forgotten.
With research gathered over more than two decades, award-winning writer and filmmaker Jon Wilkman revisits the deluge that claimed nearly five hundred lives. A key figure is William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer who created an unprecedented water system, allowing Los Angeles to become America's second largest city, and who was also responsible for the design and construction of the St. Francis Dam.
Driven by eyewitness accounts and combining urban history with a life-and-death drama and a technological detective story, Floodpath grippingly reanimates the reality behind L.A. noir fictions like the classic film Chinatown. In an era of climate change, increasing demand on water resources, and a neglected American infrastructure, the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam has never been more relevant.
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The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
By Jon Wilkman
Bloomsbury Publishing PlcCopyright © 2015 Jon Wilkman
All rights reserved.
Early on the morning of Monday, March 12, 1928, Tony Harnischfeger left the two-bedroom bungalow where he lived with his girlfriend, Leona Johnson, and his six-year-old son, Coder. He walked along a concrete water channel that followed the creek bed of San Francisquito Canyon. Rugged and isolated, the brush-covered terrain showed signs of recent excavation. It was shaved clean in places, with dirt roads cut into sheer hillsides. The weather was blustery and overcast and there was talk of rain.
Looming ahead was a 208-foot-high concrete wall spanned by rows of steep ledges, like steps in a giant's staircase. It was the St. Francis Dam. At the base of the barrier there was a shallow pond. From there, the water channel approached under a narrow footbridge and passed along the canyon floor. The St. Francis Dam was imposing, but Harnischfeger wasn't intimidated — or tried not to be. It was his job to keep an eye on this man-made monster.
Far above, Tony could see a railing running along the arched crest. High to his left was the beginning of another barrier that extended west like a great arm, lolling on the ridgeline until it tapered out of sight. Twenty feet tall, the concrete appendage was a 588-foot-long "wing dike," which added additional width and height and increased the capacity of an unseen reservoir. Nearly three miles long and two hundred feet deep, the water in this man-made lake pressed tons of dead weight against the St. Francis Dam and challenged the barrier to hold it back.
Ascending the center of the main structure were five drainage outlets, cut like buttonholes, one above the other. Serving as giant spigots, they could be opened to release water from the reservoir, allowing it to flow down the face of the dam and into the collection pool and concrete channel. This Monday morning the reservoir was only inches below capacity. Wind-blown overflow washed through the spillway chutes and seeped down the steep stairsteps, leaving dark streaks.
Harnischfeger's visit was a regular inspection routine. But this morning, near the edge where the dam pressed against the western canyon wall, he noticed something that didn't look right. Tony had seen leaks before, and they made him anxious, but this one was more ominous. The seepage appeared to be muddy: if true, it was a frightening development. A muddy leak could mean the foundation of the St. Francis Dam was dissolving. If the foundation failed, 12.4 billion gallons of water would burst into San Francisquito Canyon, unleashing a flood-path that could extend for miles.
Concerned by what he'd seen, Harnischfeger placed an eight a.m. phone call to his bosses, fifty miles away at the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply (BWWS). The Bureau was the builder, owner, and operator of the St. Francis Dam. Tony's report was passed to the Bureau's manager and chief engineer, William Mulholland.
At age seventy-two, Mulholland was a legendary figure. To his staff he was Mr. Mulholland, or the Chief. But newspaper writers, old friends, and even average citizens referred to him as Bill, expressing an informality that was appropriate for his rough-hewn appearance and working-class roots. The Chief favored old-fashioned three-piece suits, winged collars, and broad-brimmed hats. Ash smudges sometimes dusted his well-worn vest, evidence of an ever-present cigar.
After fifty years on the job, Bill Mulholland was a man who had faced more than his share of emergencies, and he didn't scare easily. He'd overseen the St. Francis Dam from the beginning, and regularly visited the site he'd chosen for it. He'd been there the week before. In response to Harnischfeger's anxious telephone call, Mulholland decided to investigate the situation firsthand. As he often did, he asked his long-time friend and assistant engineer, Harvey Van Norman, a lanky, pipe-smoking Texan, to join him.
Leaving bureau headquarters at 201 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, Mulholland and Van Norman headed north in a Marmon sedan, driven by city chauffeur George Vejar. A short distance away, they could see the new $5 million Los Angeles City Hall — an off-white tower surrounded by freshly planted grass. A source of civic pride, to some it looked like an enormous cake decoration. At twenty-eight stories, the building was by far the town's tallest. Replacing a Romanesque brick-and-stone structure that would have been at home in Chicago or New York, the new City Hall ignored East Coast influences, and even California's Spanish and Mexican past. Instead it was an eclectic "modern American design," suggesting the ancient Mesopotamian empires of Assyria and Babylonia, adding to L.A.'s image as an oasis in the western desert. Utilizing a sophisticated steel framework, the building was cushioned against the threat of earthquakes. It was an acknowledgment that Los Angeles was built on uncertain ground, but also an embodiment of a very American future, supported by the latest technology.
Weaving through herds of automobiles and the clattering trolleys of downtown traffic, Mulholland's chauffeur-driven sedan made its way to the southeastern expanses of the San Fernando Valley. Twenty years before, the Valley was mostly a stretch of treeless, dust-blown land and intermittent wheat fields. Now there were citrus and walnut orchards, signs of flourishing agriculture, and Southern California's oldest source of economic power. More recently, the groves of orange and lemon trees shared the landscape with subdivisions. Blocks of tract homes infilled former agricultural communities named Tropico, Lankershim, Van Nuys, Chatsworth, and Zelzah, suburbs of one of the fastest-growing cities in the history of the United States, and perhaps the world.
As the Marmon sedan approached the old Mission San Fernando, founded by Franciscan fathers in 1797, the men from the Water Bureau passed a new housing development, the community of Mulholland, named in honor of the Chief. Looking beyond the whitewashed adobe walls and red tile roof of the old Franciscan Mission, Mulholland and Van Norman could see a great concrete gateway built into the slope of a nearby hill. It looked like a gaping mouth, outpouring a stream of water that tumbled down a spillway and into the nearby San Fernando Reservoir. It was the Cascades, marking the end of the 233-mile-long Owens River Aqueduct. If there was a monument to William Mulholland's life and achievements, it was the Cascades.
The road ascended the northern foothills of the San Fernando Valley, following the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The water men were driving through land that had once been the heart of an enormous Spanish rancho — an eighteenth-century grant from the King of Spain to the venerable Del Valle family. In 1928, R.F. Del Valle, a lawyer, state political figure, and member of one of the old families known as Californios, was chairman of the City Water Commission and a Mulholland friend and admirer. Del Valle's family once owned the rancho that included San Francisquito Canyon.
In a few minutes, the Marmon arrived at the town of Newhall, founded in 1876 by Henry Mayo Newhall, a man who, like many early Anglo Californians, made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and other mining operations. After the U.S. conquest of California, with the help of American laws and lawyers, men like Newhall acquired formerly Californio land and superseded the influence of Spanish and Mexican dons. The Yankees turned Los Angeles into an American city, driven by agriculture, tourism, regional commerce, and most of all real estate.
If Los Angeles was well-known for anything besides sunshine, it was the "dream factories" of Hollywood. Even Newhall, with a population of six hundred, twenty-five miles from any film studio, provided a ready-made back lot for innumerable Westerns. In 1927, one of the Silent Era's most popular cowboy stars, William S. Hart, built his home here in an impressive Spanish-style "ranch house."
Farther up the road was another railroad town, Saugus. Only 250 people lived here, but thousands of tourists driving on U.S. Highway 99, known as the Ridge Route, passed through or stopped for food and fuel. In many ways, Los Angeles was a city of visitors and new arrivals — created by Americans and others from elsewhere who were restless and on the move, in search of the pleasures and promise of a fresh start.
On this March Monday morning, traffic in Saugus was probably sparse, but by 1928 downtown Los Angeles was already the world's capital of cars, with stop-and-go congestion to prove it. Automobiles and industry needed oil and gas. Auto-driven Los Angeles was not just one of America's most prominent consumers of petroleum products; the city and surrounding region were sprawled across the fifth-largest oil field in the world, another major source of local prosperity.
As the water men continued north, evidence of this was around them — oil derricks and nodding pumps, the source of not only fuel for Mulholland's Marmon but energy that allowed Los Angeles to grow, almost spontaneously, in all directions, creating a high-speed city with boundaries determined by how fast you could get there, rather than by how far you had to travel.
Chauffeur Vejar barely slowed his car as he passed a turn to State Highway 126, which headed west toward the Pacific Ocean, forty-seven miles away. This two-lane country road paralleled a shallow stream flowing past citrus and walnut groves, oil fields, and the small towns of the Santa Clara River Valley. It was a route that offered more evidence of Southern California's agricultural and oil riches, but on the morning of March 12, Mulholland and Van Norman had no interest in side trips.
Los Angeles needed water to survive, but the city required electricity to prosper. As William Mulholland's Aqueduct quenched the thirst of an exploding metropolis, it generated electricity. From his car, the Chief could let his gaze follow wires leading to an electrical transmission station owned by Southern California Edison, an old and staunch private competitor to L.A.'s publicly owned Bureau of Power and Light (BPL). Nearby, BPL's own lines carried electricity created by hydroelectric power plants driven by the onrush of the Owens River Aqueduct.
Just beyond Saugus, Vejar slowed to turn off the paved highway. He steered the Marmon along a well-maintained dirt road toward low rolling hills that surrounded the opening into San Francisquito Canyon. Mulholland and Van Norman knew this route well. They'd traveled it together for more than twenty years. They lived in the canyon for months while the Aqueduct was under construction. To their left they could see evidence of another source of L.A.'s appeal and influence — tourism. It was an "Indian Trading Post" run by Hollywood cowboy Harry Carey, friend of director John Ford and a mentor to a former USC football player and bit-part actor named Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne. At Carey's Trading Post, a band of Navajos, hundreds of miles from their Arizona reservation, sold "native art" and entertained travelers who were lured from the Ridge Route by roadside billboards.
Leaving behind the tourism-and-Hollywood aura of the Carey spread, Mulholland and Van Norman were driven deeper into San Francisquito Canyon. They followed the sandy, rock-strewn bed of San Francisquito Creek, occasionally crossing small bridges as the stream meandered through clusters of sycamore, sagebrush, and cottonwood trees. At times the canyon opened into a broad plain and then narrowed like a vise, lined by high walls with sharp turns, obscuring what lay ahead.
In 1928, San Francisquito Canyon was literally off the map for most Angelenos, and might have been on the moon for America at large. But more than once the narrow pathway provided a lifeline. The canyon was not only a route for the Owens River Aqueduct and BPL power lines; it saved Los Angeles from isolated obscurity in 1858 when the narrow mountain pass was chosen by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company coming from St. Louis, the first regular land-based transportation link between the West Coast and the rest of America. Later, in 1868, the steep hillsides of San Francisquito Canyon were wired with telegraph lines, establishing a nearly instantaneous connection to the outside world.
Six horses pulled the Butterfield stagecoaches. Seventy years later, Mulholland's Marmon had eighty-seven horsepower under the hood, but traveling on the unpaved San Francisquito road still took time. The men from Los Angeles passed small ranches owned by the Raggio and Ruiz families, longtime canyon residents, and drove by the one-room San Francisquito School, where local children took lessons from forty-five-year-old widow Cecelia Small.
After a couple of miles, the road took a sharp left turn. Abruptly, the modern world reappeared. Chauffeur Vejar slowed the sedan as the car approached a clearing. A large concrete building sat beneath the steep canyon wall. Finished in 1920, it was Los Angeles Powerhouse 2. Above the powerhouse, two parallel pipes dropped precipitously 485 feet from the crest of the canyon. Called penstocks, they were twin steel straws rushing water from the Owens River Aqueduct down to two two-hundred-ton turbines that were humming loudly inside the power-house, generating electricity for the factories, house lights, home appliances, and neon signs of Los Angeles. Across the road, on a leveled hill, surrounded by a grove of trees, a two-story bungalow served as the clubhouse for Bureau of Power and Light employees, most of whom lived with their families a hundred yards or so upstream in a small gathering of cottages.
After passing the powerhouse, it was only a mile and a half to the St. Francis Dam, where Mulholland's Marmon rolled to a stop after climbing to the top of a narrow dirt construction road beside the structure's west abutment. Tony Harnischfeger was waiting. Only a short distance away, the leak he'd called about was still seeping. While Vejar carefully backed the Marmon down to the canyon floor, Mulholland and his assistant engineer examined the source of the outflow. Twenty-three years younger, and more agile than his boss, Van Norman climbed over for a closer look. He called back that the seepage appeared to be running clear. From his vantage point, Mulholland agreed that the flow was clear. After further investigation, they discovered the leaking water became muddy when it mixed with dirt lower down.
The Chief, Van Norman, and Harnischfeger returned to the canyon floor. Heading to the east abutment, they crossed the concrete foot-bridge that spanned the collection pond and drainage channel and examined another leak, seeping through a crack discovered some time before. Again, the flow appeared to run clear. When cracks showed up on the face of the dam, Mulholland considered them normal. "When concrete dries, it contracts, creating cracks," he explained later. Like those that "you will see in curbs on the street any place."
After a two-hour investigation, the Water Bureau bosses concluded that the foundation of the St. Francis Dam was safe. Mulholland was proud of what the DWP stood for and accomplished. Electricity wasn't the Chief 's responsibility, but a second BPL powerhouse was nearly three miles beyond the St. Francis Dam. Together, the two electrical generating stations in San Francisquito Canyon provided 90 percent of L.A.'s electricity.
The St. Francis Reservoir, which was filled by the Owens River Aqueduct, was two hundred feet deep and covered six hundred acres, making it the largest lake in Southern California. Just before it was filled to capacity, the Water and Power Department employee newsletter boasted: "In addition to its utilitarian features, the new lake thus created will constitute a scenic gem amid our mountain vastness that will, without doubt, prove in time as a great attraction to both tourist and resident alike."
Around 12:30 in the afternoon, Mulholland and Van Norman said good-bye to Tony Harnischfeger, returned to their car, and began the trip to Los Angeles. On the way, they stopped briefly at Powerhouse 2. Van Norman instructed a workforce supervisor to shut off water entering the St. Francis Reservoir and to open gates to release flow into the channel below the dam.
Excerpted from Floodpath by Jon Wilkman. Copyright © 2015 Jon Wilkman. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Monday 10
2 The Chief and the City of the Angels 19
3 "There It Is, Take It" 38
4 Holding Back the Future 54
5 A Monster in the Dark 77
6 No Time for Nightmares 100
7 The Dead Zone 115
8 Sympathy, Anger, and Amends 138
9 Arguing Over the Ruins 155
10 Los Angeles on Trial 171
11 Rewinding Time 192
12 Hasty Conclusions and High Dams 210
13 Paying the Price and Moving On 221
14 Unfinished Business and Historical Amnesia 232
15 Charley's Obsession and Computer Time Machines 247
16 After the Fall 267
Selected Bibliography 283
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
FLOODPATH is an excellent book about the St. Francis Dam disaster and Jon Wilkman has presented all the facts without bias. He has included photographs and engineering diagrams which are of interest to everyone. This is a must read for anyone who is interested in the historical aspect of this disaster of March 1928.