The St. Francis Dam Disaster

A Night to Remember

Bibliographic Note:
A primary source for this documentary will be my book, Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of the American 20th Century and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, Bloomsbury Press, January 2016.
Measured by loss of life, the collapse of the St. Francis dam, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, is the deadliest American civil engineering failure of the 20th Century.  In California it ranks second to the natural catastrophe of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.  Despite this, the St. Francis story is a surprisingly little known and widely misunderstood landmark of American history. It has never been fully explored on television, but fictionalized hints are found in the classic film noir, Chinatown, where memories of catastrophe known as the Vanderlip Dam disaster, leads to murder.  The true story is even more intriguing.

It began at approximately 11:57 PM on March 12, 1928 when a 208 feet-high wall of concrete suddenly shuddered, cracked and broke apart.  12.5 billion gallons water burst through gaping cracks and crumbling concrete.  Within minutes, a towering surge, of mud, trees and debris rumbled down a narrow canyon.  Directly below the dam was a power plant surrounded by a community of workers and their families.  Only three would survive.  Ahead in the night lay a construction camp and isolated Southern California farms, ranches and entire towns.  Most of their inhabitants were sound asleep.  Many would die.

When the flood waters reached the Pacific Ocean, five and half hours and 54 miles later, more than 450 people were dead -- including many  Mexican-Americans who lived directly in the flood path.  As much as $25 million worth of livestock and property had been washed away.

Aside from the devastating loss of life and property, the collapse of the St. Francis dam brought a tragic end to the career of William Mulholland.  The legendary "Chief" of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Mulholland was responsible for the construction of the dam, as well as the Owens River Aqueduct.  Without Mulholland's controversial and transformative aqueduct,  Los Angeles wouldn't be the major American and international city it is today.

This is a story of grand visions, violence, political power and intrigue, interweaving engineering detail with accounts of personal tragedy and heroism.  The events of the St. Francis Dam disaster are also a technological detective story.  Why did the dam collapse?  Who was responsible?  What happened during the aftermath? Could it have been avoided?  What lessons are there to be learned today?  Many such questions about the collapse are still debated, more than seven decades later.

"The St. Francis Dam Disaster" will draw upon rare, and some never seen publicly photographs and film footage.  We will also illustrate our story with dramatic recreations, and mostly dramatically,  photo-realistic 3-D computer animation, based on actual engineering models and state-of-the-art computer engineering analysis.  Tying it together will be on screen commentary from contemporary historians and dramatic new interviews with surviving eyewitnesses.