The St. Francis Dam Disaster


This section of our documentary will draw upon the large cache of photographs housed at the Ventura Museum of History and Art and the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, along with official reports from the aftermath.  The collapse of the St. Francis Disaster resulted in a second man-made furor.  Angry Ventura County townspeople turned their wrath on big city Los Angeles, and especially magisterial William Mulholland.

At first, "the Chief" seemed to suggest that the collapse could have been another act of sabotage from opponents of the Owens Valley Aqueduct.  A mass of dead fish appeared to indicate a large explosion and their were reports of men claiming responsibility for the destruction.  But a hastily gathered State Commission issued a report concluding that the St. Francis failed because it was built in a geologically unstable site.  They concluded that the City of Los Angeles was not  criminally negligent, but critics claimed that Mulholland could or should have known that the geology of San Francisquito Canyon was not adequate to support a large concrete dam.  But today, debate continues.

While claims and counterclaims shot back and forth, Mulholland seemed stunned by what had happened.  A rare photograph shows him at the site two days after the collapse, the image of a broken man.  "I envy the dead," he said.  As we'll hear in an interview with his grand daughter and biographer, Catherine Mulholland, none of the explanations for the collapse satisfied him.  "There was a hoodoo about the place," he said.  But as many as 12 investigations followed. 

Los Angeles quickly agreed to pay for damages. Finally, after a year controversy and rebuilding in the Santa Clara River Valley, William Mulholland, once one of the most powerful and respected men in America, resigned in disgrace.