Floodpath: The Deadliest Man Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles


An Amazon Book of the Month

"Jon Wilkman retells the harrowing story of the St. Francis Dam break of 1928 with ardent imagination and scholarly insight.  Every page is riveting. The amount of primary research Wilkman undertook is staggering. It's impossible to understand California in the twentieth century without reading this landmark book."
Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University and author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"Taking the lives of more than four hundred Californians, the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928 constitutes a cautionary coda in the creation of metropolitan Los Angeles through water engineering.  In this future classic of California historiography, veteran filmmaker and historian Jon Wilkman, vividly presents the full story of the technical and human failures involved.  Even more, Wilkman probes how this catastrophe -- after evasion and denial -- guided Los Angeles to new maturity."
Kevin Starr, University Professor and Professor of History, and Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California.

"The St. Francis Dam collapse ranks second only to the San Francisco earthquake in the annals of California disasters, and first in the nation as a disaster of human engineering.  Jon Wilkman brilliantly and dramatrically captures the background and scale of the tragedy.  His book is must-reading for anyone interested in the human consequences of the unrestrained quest for water and electricity in 20th Century America."
Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.

"Popular knowledge of early Los Angeles's struggle for water owes much to the film, Chinatown, but documentary filmmaker and writer Wilkman shows that the real story of L.A.'s water is as fascinating -- and devastating -- as the fictionalized version.  In 1928, the St. Francis Dam, which held more than 51 tons of water for Los Angeles, failed, resulting in a 54-mile-long flood path and leaving almost 500 dead. True to its title, this book maintains a focus on the flood itself, but with ample historical context and discussion of the sociopolitical effects up to the present.  Wilkman's goal is to tell the truth about this largely forgotten episode, and he succeeds by studying the personal stories of those who were affected, the investigation into the collapse, and the various theories as to why the dam failed.  His extensive research reveals the effects that institutional racism had on victim compensation and care in the flood's aftermath, and supplies details down to the occasional meal description.  More than just the story of one of the greatest tragedies in the 20th century, Wilkman's book is also a commentary on developing safe technologies in the face of climate change."
Publishers Weekly

"The St. Francis dam failure was one of the pivotal events in U.S. history that forced policymakers to consider how public safety and environmental impacts would fit into national growth and the insatiable need for water.  Mr. Wilkman reminds us in compelling detail about the importance of learning from the past."
Lori C. Spragens, Executive Director, Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

"Documentary filmmaker Jon Wilkman gracefully combines engineering explanations and a who's who of turn-of-the-century Los Angeles elites with a riveting account of what is called the deadliest man-made disaster in America during the twentieth century.  The man at the center of the story, no nonsense William Mulholland, rose from a ditch digger to become the man in charge of meeting the thirsty city's growing need for water in the face of litigation and even downright violence. While Wilkman recounts Mulholland's career and the context surrounding the construction of the dam, he hits his stride with a detailed narrative of its violent collapse, a disaster that unleashed a firestorm of criticism and questions only partially answered by an emotional coroner's inquest.  While the massive disaster may have been largely forgotten, its foundation in both hubris and opportunism remains relevant today.

"Jon Wilkman's fine book dramatically explores the little-known story of a major American disaster.  It is a fascinating technological detective story and a compelling human drama, including the impact of a powerful engineer's overconfidence and the loss of hundreds of innocent lives."
Mark E. Baker, P.E., Dam Safety Officer, National Park Service

"Jon Wilkman has chosen to tackle a historical topic that remains controversial to this day -- the collapse of the St. Francis Dam on March 12, 1928, which cost hundreds of people their lives and resulted in millions of dollars of damages.  At the center of the discussion is the dam's creator, William Mulholland, who throughout his life, had been cast in the roles of both hero and villain for his part in the California Water Wars.  Wilkman demonstrates a balanced perspective on Mulholland's lifetime of labor, acknowledging both the good and bad that the man's actions wrought.  Moreover, the author ties the events of the St. Francis Dam to the contemporary American experience -- with a high demand for water in a severe drought, combined with the aging and failing infrastructure of dams, waterworks, and energy grids.  Wilkman convincingly argues that the United States is primed for another such disaster.
Library Journal, Crystal Goldman, University of California, San Diego

"Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Jon Wilkman, offers a well-researched account of a little-remembered California tragedy.  He tells the dramatic story in the context of the rapidly growing city, whose ceaseless need for water had until then been met by the legendary, self-trained civil engineer William Mulholland (1855-1935), who managed the city's water system for 50 years.  An iconic, sometimes arrogant figure, Mulholland had supervised the building of the Owens River Aqueduct (1913), which gave rise to modern L.A.  At 72, he created yet another expansion of the city's water system with construction of the St. Francis Dam, which he deemed safe.  Drawing on archives and interviews with survivors, Wilkman re-creates the disaster, its huge flow of "rocks, mud, debris, and mangled bodies," and the stories of victims stripped naked by the flooding waters.  The author also details the ensuing search-and-recovery efforts as well as the many investigations into the disaster's suspected causes, which range from landslides to deliberate dynamiting.  A coroner's jury refused to indict Mulholland, who accepted blame for the disaster and retired, a broken man.
Kirkus Reviews