The St. Francis Dam Disaster

Recipe for Disaster

Our story begins more than 20 years before the collapse.  Its roots are in the controversial construction of the Owens River Aqueduct.  Historians such as Abraham Hoffman, author of Vision or Villany: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy, will offer insights to this section.  It is also the story of the life and career of William Mulholland, the man who made the 233 mile-long pipeline a reality, one of the great engineering feats of the early 20th Century. 

Mulholland had god-like stature for many Californians, but to the residents of the Owens River Valley he was the devil incarnate.  His aqueduct, they claimed, was stealing their water and "raping" their agricultural valley.  Some fought back with violence, attempting to disrupt the aqueduct with dynamite.  There also were claims that Mulholland's epic engineering feat was some kind of scam to  benefit a few wealthy inside investors, including the owners of the Los Angeles Times, Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler.

As we'll see, the creation of the aqueduct story is more complex and more interesting than it is commonly portrayed -- a good vs. evil morality tale. It is a story that requires an understanding of an America changing from a rural to urban society, private vs. public ownership of municipal utilities, the "greatest good for the greatest number" values of Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism, as well as the freewheeling business practices of the time.  It is clear that limited water resources and Southern California's explosive population growth, exacerbated by booster-driven Los Angeles and the violent resistance of Owens Valley residents, led to the building of the St. Francis Dam, and contributed to its failure.

With uncertain Southern California rainfall and an exploding population, the creation of a series of reservoirs was also a way to assure Los Angeles a steady source of water in case of accidental -- or intentional -- damage to the Owens River Aqueduct.  The St. Francis Dam, constructed in San Francisquito Canyon, between two city-owned power plants, was built in an atmosphere of water resource uncertainty.  It was built quickly, with 20 feet added to its height to increase the capacity of the reservoir without widening the base of the structure.   Only hours after it was filled to capacity for the first time, the dam collapsed.