St. Francis Dam Collapses
March 12, 1928 - At 3 minutes before midnight the St. Francis Dam collapsed and unleashed a 125-foot wall of water that would claim at least 600 lives.
The dam was built by William Mulholland, the legendary engineer of the Los Angeles aqueduct. His construction turned a canyon north of Los Angeles into a massive reservoir with over 47 million cubic meters of water.
Mulholland had inspected the dam the morning before it failed. The roadway near the dam's east abutment was sagging and several cracks had appeared on the face of the dam. After a close examination, Mulholland judged the dam to be safe.
Late that night, a man named Ace Hopewell rode his motorcycle across the dam seconds before it washed away. He felt a rumbling and heard the crashing of falling rocks but he dismissed it as an earthquake. Another motorist reported seeing lights near the base of the dam just prior to its collapse. The light was probably coming from dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger's lantern. His body and that of his 6-year-old son were never found.
A flood of 12 billion gallons (a year's supply of water for L.A. in those days) crashed through the canyon and swept away everything in its path. The towns of Fillmore and Santa Paula were flooded as thousands of homes were engulfed in the deluge. Thanks to the heroics of motorcycle policemen, Thornton Edwards and Stanley Baker, many lives were saved as they rode ahead of the water and warned residents to seek higher ground.
The crashing water and tons of debris traveled 54 miles before dumping into the ocean. Bodies would be found as far south as Mexico. The complete death toll has never been determined since many of the people killed were undocumented workers living in camps along the flood's path. One victim's skeleton was found as recently as 1992.
The catastrophe ruined William Mulholland, and in the official inquest that followed he accepted full responsibility. He said, "Don't blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, and I won't try to fasten it on anyone else."
The dam was never rebuilt.