The St. Francis Dam Disaster

Re-Imagining a Nightmare

To tell the story of the night the dam collapsed and the events that followed, we will rely on new interviews and voice-over testimony spoken by actors and drawn from actual reports, including dramatic testimony from the Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest.  To illustrate this section, we will make use of dramatic recreations.

It wasn't long after the dam was completed that watchman Tony Harnischfeger noted water leaking through the stepped concrete face of the St. Francis Dam.  He, his girlfriend Leona Johnson and Tony's six year-old son Coder, lived in a small cabin at the base of the structure.  As the seepage continued, the dam keepr the called Los Angeles Water Department headquarters, and was repeatedly reassured.  But the leak seemed to get worse.  He kept calling.

During the dam's construction there had been persistent rumors that the structure was poorly anchored to its site and that inadequate concrete was being used.  It was rumored that when cracks continued to appear, the dam keeper was worried enough to cut steps up the nearby hillside in case he needed to get out fast.

Finally, his anxious calls got results.  William Mulholland himself, "the Chief," came for a personal inspection with his assistant, Harvey Van Norman.  After a close examination, Mulholland declared that such seepage was normal and confirmed that the leaking water wasn't muddy..  Despite Harnischfeger's misgivings, the Chief felt he ought to know.  He'd built 19 dams during his illustrious career. 

Two hours later, Mulholland and Van Norman returned to headquarters, apparently unconcerned.  The date was Monday, March 12, 1928.  Only hours later, the St. Francis Dam cracked open and collapsed. The mangled bodies of Tony Harnischfeger's girlfriend Leona and his young son were eventually recovered from a sea of mud. The dam keeper himself  was never found.  Harnishfeger's story is only one of the dramatic incidents and intriguing mysteries that make the St. Francis catastrophe so fascinating.

 On the night of March 12 the first sign of trouble is found in the eerie testimony of Ace Hopewell.  Close to midnight Hopewell, a power plant employee, was riding his motorcycle along the road above the St. Francis  reservoir.   He stopped for a smoke and heard a distant rumble coming from behind him.  Hopewell thought nothing of it and drove on.  Shortly afterward a flicker of lights was noticed by nearby Edison Electric powerhouse operators.  At the same time employees at the Department of Water and Power powerhouse above the dam noticed "a bump on the line."  The "bump" was power lines snapping as the St. Francis dam collapsed.

Starting as a churning 185-foot wall of mud and debris, the floodwaters rumbled along at an estimated 18 miles an hour.  Near the power plant below the dam site, Lillian Curtis woke  to what she thought was a tornado.  Calling to warn her husband and two daughters, she picked up her 3 year-old son and ran for a nearby hillside.  Waist-high water surging around she clawed and crawled her way to safety.  Holding her son as the flood roared past, she was kept warm by the family dog who had survived with them.  Lillian would never see her husband and their two daughters again.

In less than an hour nothing was left of the 12.5 billion gallons in the St. Francis Reservoir except a shimmering mud flat. An entire lake, one of the largest in California, had disappeared.

Farther down the canyon, near the present site of today's Magic Mountain amusement park, a crew of Southern California Edison construction workers were sleeping in tents beside the Santa Clara River.  The floodtide was on them before they could escape.  87 died.  The only ones to survive were those who had buttoned their tents shut.  Sealed off, they floated to the surface.

As evidence the flood spread, night telephone operators in small towns like Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru learned of the impending disaster.  Ignoring the danger, operator Louise Gipe stayed on duty, calling downstream and rousing local law enforcement officers, including Highway Patrolman Thornton Edwards.  Neither Gipe nor Edwards had ever heard of the St. Francis dam. Now all they knew was that they had to spread the alarm.  And fast.

Racing his motorcycle on deserted country roads ahead of the approaching deluge, Edwards spread the news, earning the nickname "The Paul Revere of the St. Francis Flood."

When daylight arrived, survivors gathered along the route of destruction in shock as they surveyed the loss.  The Valley's Mexican-American population, many of whom lived directly in the flood path, were hit especially hard.