St. Francis Dam


The St. Francis Dam, located in the San Francisquito Canyon in Santa Clarita, CA, was completed in June 1926. It rose 200 feet and had a capacity of 38,000 acre-feet of water. Its construction was overseen by William Mulholland, Chief Engineer for Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply. In 1928, dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger contacted Mulholland with fears that the dam foundation was eroding due to the dirty water runoff that he noted. After inspecting the dam, Mulholland declared it safe. This decision would forever haunt him, for only a few hours later the dam suffered catastrophic failure. A few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928 the St. Francis Dam breeched and thousands of lives were forever changed. In a little over an hour, 12.39 billion gallons of water rushed down the San Francisquito Canyon through the Santa Clara River Valley and Castaic Junction then onto Ventura County, running through Piru, Fillmore, Saticoy, and Santa Paula before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. The wall of water and mud traveled for five and half hours leaving behind a 54 mile flood zone of devastation. In addition to the towns it traveled through, it also destroyed Power Plant No. 2, the adjacent workers community, and the Edison company temporary construction camp. The death toll ranges from 400 to 600. Over a thousand homes were lost or damaged and over 7,000 acres of farmland were ruined. The theories for the failure are many, from placing the dam near a fault line, soil composition, design changes or flaws, to sabotage. Regardless of why the dam failed, the outcome was devastating. The John Spoor Broome Library has digitized photos owned by the E.P. Foster Library depicting St. Francis Dam, from its construction to the devastation left in its wake.

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