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William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam disaster.

A few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam gave way under the hydrostatic pressure of a full reservoir. During the early morning hours of March 13, some 38,000 acre-feet of water surged down from an elevation of 1,834 feet above the sea. Roiling through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara Valley in southern California, the flood wreaked havoc on the town of Santa Paula and dozens of farms and rural communities. By the time it washed into the Pacific Ocean near Ventura at daybreak some fifty-five miles downriver, more than four hundred people lay dead. Damage to property was in the millions of dollars. Considered the greatest civil-engineering disaster in modern U.S. history, it was the nation's deadliest dam failure ever save for the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, which took nearly 2,200 lives. The St. Francis Darn tragedy engendered great public interest not only because of the deaths and destruction, but also because it involved the failure of a curved-gravity concrete dam, the design type then planned for the massive Hoover (Boulder Canyon) Dam on the Colorado River. The disaster prompted critics to urge reconsideration of that project--which was being vigorously promoted by Los Angeles civic authorities--as well as to call for renewed scrutiny of efforts by the city of Los Angeles (builder/owner of St. Francis Dam) to expand its municipal water-supply system. And it focused attention on William Mulholland, longtime head of the city's Bureau of Water Works and Supply and the official in charge of the failed dam's design and construction. (1)

Despite the absence of a prominent roadside marker located amidst the concrete remains at the dam site, the failure of the St. Francis Dam remains an enduring--almost mythic--story within the history of California and the nation. (2) Part of this tale's fascination derives from the sheer horror of the event. But much of it relates to the disaster's effect upon the reputation of William Mulholland, the engineer credited with building the 233-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct that delivered prodigious quantities of Owens River water from the Sierra Nevada into the southland starting in 1913. For good reason, the aqueduct is viewed as an essential component of the region's hydraulic infrastructure responsible for much of the growth and economic development associated with modern Los Angeles. In addition, the aqueduct is now (and was at the time of its construction) considered by many to comprise an audacious "water grab" allowing control over the Owens River to pass from Inyo County settlers into the hands of Los Angeles. (3)

Not surprisingly, the potent image of an engineer responsible for the city's controversial--yet incredibly important--water supply system being also responsible for a key storage dam that collapsed in horrible tragedy has etched itself into the historical consciousness of Californians and countless others. Those memories have attracted scholars, with two in particular shaping the public's current knowledge of the disaster and influencing its attitudes toward William Mulholland. Drawn first to the subject was Charles F. Outland, author of Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St. Francis Dam, a carefully crafted book. As a teenager living in Santa Paula at the time of the disaster, he witnessed firsthand the tragic aftermath of the flood. This experience later energized him to convey the impact of the disaster on Santa Clara Valley residents with moving, yet tempered eloquence. Though first published over four decades ago in 1963 and then briefly revised and expanded in 1977, Outland's account remains the essential overall history of the tragedy. Arriving later to the topic was J. David Rogers, a geologist whose particular interest was in the mechanics of the dam failure and the physical causes of the collapse. His findings were set out in two articles, one published in 1992 and the other in 1995, and expanded upon in an interview published in 1997 and another longer interview published on the Internet in 2000 and also circulated in a CD format. (4)

Though the purposes and emphases of Outland and Rogers differed, their works generally reinforced one another's findings. The views of the two were not always in harmony, however, and that was nowhere more clear than in their attitudes toward Mulholland's role in the St. Francis disaster. On this point, Outland was straightforward and adamant: "In the final analysis, ... the responsibility was his alone." Rogers was neither so unequivocal nor direct in his judgment, but he nonetheless believed that blame was misdirected. In the matter of the dam's collapse, the culprit was not Mulholland, he insisted, but excusable ignorance. Put another way, the problem lay not with Mulholland but with a "civil engineering community" allegedly lacking the geological and technical knowledge--specifically, lacking "a modern appreciation of uplift theory"--to build a safe dam in San Francisquito Canyon. (5) In adopting this perspective, Rogers pointedly defends Mulholland as a "rugged individualist" and avers that "we should be so lucky as to have any men with just half his character, integrity, imagination and leadership today." (6) In the last several years, Rogers's view of Mulholland's responsibility (or lack thereof) for the disaster has found its way into press coverage and public consciousness.

The Los Angeles Times greeted the publication of Rogers's first article in 1992 with the headline: "The Night the Dam Broke: Geological Look 64 Years Later Clears Mulholland and His Engineering Marvel in Tragedy That Killed 450." A year later Margaret Leslie Davis's Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles described Rogers's "assessment" as an "exoneration" of Mulholland. So, too, did Ruth Pitman's Roadside History of California (1995): "Geological knowledge at the time the dam site was selected simply wasn't sophisticated enough.... Thus, more than fifty years after his death, Mulholland was exonerated." In essential agreement was Kim Weir's Southern California Handbook (1998): "The general condemnation of William Mulholland for the St. Francis Dam disaster went unchallenged until 1992" when Rogers "largely exonerated him." Also picking up on the seeming significance of Rogers's pronouncements was Catherine Mulholland--granddaughter of William Mulholland--whose biography, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000), heralded Rogers as "masterfully" analyzing the disaster and credits him for "the apparent vindication of Mulholland." (7)

In this article, we do not offer a conventional recounting of the origins and aftermath of the disaster. Rather, we analyze key investigations into the cause of the collapse and relate these inquiries to those of Charles Outland in the 1960s and J. David Rogers in the 1990s, especially as they concern Mulholland's ostensible responsibility for the tragedy. In seeking to discern where such responsibility most reasonably resides, we also consider Mulholland's dambuilding practices in light of California's 1917 dam-safety law and within the context of professional civil engineering knowledge and norms of his day. For reasons suggested by Outland and because of additional evidence set out in this essay, we arrive at the judgment that William Mulholland was responsible for the St. Francis Dam failure.


The Los Angeles Aqueduct descends more than 2,500 feet from the intake dam near Independence to its entry into the San Fernando Valley at Sylmar. The biggest part of that drop comes when the aqueduct leaves Fairmount Reservoir and pierces the Sierra Madre escarpment separating the western Mojave Desert (or Antelope Valley) from coastal southern California. The five-mile-long Elizabeth Tunnel draws water from Fairmount Reservoir and feeds into San Francisquito Power Plant No. 1. From there, water flows south through a six-mile-long tunnel in the east canyon wall before dropping down to Power Plant No. 2 along the banks of San Francisquito Creek (from there, other tunnels extend the aqueduct to Sylmar about twenty miles farther south). About one and a half miles upstream from Power Plant No. 2 lies a broad, open area bounded by a narrow gorge at the southern end. This gorge and the flat expanse of land above it--which had been used by Mulholland for an aqueduct construction camp between 1908 and 1913--comprised the site of the St. Francis Dam and Reservoir.

Mulholland's original plan for the aqueduct system did not include a reservoir at the St. Francis site. (8) But by 1922, with the city population three times larger than when the aqueduct was proposed and expected to be four times greater within a year, Mulholland decided that prudence called for additional water storage facilities. In the following year he developed plans for a reservoir and dam in San Francisquito Canyon.

He selected the locale because of its proximity to the aqueduct right-of-way and because it would "provide emergency water supply against low years and against failure of the Owens River Aqueduct." He also claimed the proposed reservoir would enable the capture of "surplus water of the aqueduct used for power during the winter months" that was then "wasted into the Santa Clara and Los Angeles Rivers." (9) The St. Francis site was certainly suitable for storing a large quantity of water but, in other ways, the location was less than ideal. Specifically, water released into the reservoir from the aqueduct below Power Plant No. 1 could not subsequently be used to generate electricity at San Francisquito Power Plant No. 2. Another shortcoming was evidenced in the city's 1911 annual report on the aqueduct's construction, which described the rock along the eastern side of San Francisquito Canyon as "exceedingly rough, and the dip and strike of the slate [schist] such as to threaten slips." (10) Joseph B. Lippincott, Mulholland's chief assistant engineer during aqueduct construction, long remembered the difficult geological character of the east canyon ridge and, after acknowledging he had been "intimately connected with the driving of a series of tunnels for our aqueduct through the range of mountains on which the left or east abutment of the dam rested," later declared: "The rock that we encountered was a broken schist and a good deal of it expanded when it came in contact with the air and was what the tunnel men called 'heavy ground.' We had great difficulty in holding this ground [for the aqueduct tunnel] before it was lined with concrete." (11)

While the east abutment's faulty schist would later reverberate through the story of St. Francis Dam, it was the reduction in hydroelectric power capacity that prompted E. F. Scattergood, the city's chief electrical engineer, to criticize use of the St. Francis site for a major reservoir. (12) Scattergood's objections, however, held no sway over the authority allowed Mulholland by city political leaders to build the dam where and how he saw fit. Reinforcing Mulholland's control over the project was California's 1917 dam-safety law, which exempted municipalities from supervision by the State Engineer when building dams. Thus, when Mulholland chose to build, and subsequently enlarge, a concrete gravity dam at the St. Francis site, he could do so without substantive review by anyone outside his immediate control. (13)

Mulholland attained this authority after inauspicious beginnings. He arrived in Los Angeles as a twenty-two-year-old poor Irish immigrant in 1877. After a failed venture to find gold in Arizona, he returned to Los Angeles the following year and worked as a laborer tending ditches for the Los Angeles City Water Company. The president of the company rode by Mulholland's work site one day, noticed his single-minded attention to his job, and asked him his name and what he was doing. "It's none of your damned business!" growled Mulholland. Instead of responding with anger, the president rewarded him for his dedication by promoting him to foreman--an advancement that led to many others, including eventually superintendent and chief engineer. Unlike many of his peers such as Arthur Powell Davis, John Freeman, and Charles E. Grunsky, who also attained prominence as civil and hydraulic engineers, Mulholland possessed no university training and was essentially self-taught, deriving the core of his hydraulic-engineering knowledge from on-the-job experience. He had a quick mind, a remarkable memory, and, apparently for much of his early career, an appetite to supplement his extensive practical work with knowledge gleaned from technical books and articles covering engineering and geology. (14)

Mulholland had the respect of his superiors from the outset of his tenure as superintendent of the Los Angeles water system. Over the years he reported to a series of supervisory groups whose names and responsibilities changed but whose managerial authority was embedded in the city charter. Following Los Angeles's acquisition in 1902 of the privately owned distribution system and the hiring of Mulholland to continue as superintendent, the Board of Water Commissioners became his boss; then in 1911 the Board of Public Service Commissioners, created in anticipation of there being both a water and power system, succeeded to that role; fourteen years later--while construction of St. Francis Dam was underway--authority passed to the newly formed Board of Water and Power Commissioners. (15)

Mulholland's multiple superiors notwithstanding, he was in control. Practical considerations played a role, and paramount among them was the knowledge he brought to his job. When the city bought out the privately owned Los Angeles Water Company, little about the system and its operation existed on paper. Mulholland compensated for the omission by committing to memory the complex distribution system of pumps, ditches, hydrants, pipes, and valves. When challenged during the purchase negotiations, Mulholland called for a map and proceeded to identify details about the pipes in every city street. Those details were then corroborated by excavations. This impressive show of knowledge and bravado insured his continuation as superintendent--a superintendent whose knowledge automatically translated into power. (16)

Reinforcing Mulholland's control was the absence among the commissioners of engineers with training and practical expertise in the building of water-supply systems. The commissioners tended to be lawyers, businessmen, doctors, investors in real estate, and the like--"citizens [with] ... part-time responsibilities," as Vincent Ostrom has noted, and unable to "undertake ... [or] even assume the initiative in the formulation of policies." (17) Put simply, none of the commissioners possessed the credentials or knowledge to challenge Mulholland even if one of them had sought to do so--which none ever did. Their attitudes were epitomized by R. F. Del Valle, an attorney who served on the Board of Public Service Commissioners and later chaired the Board of Water and Power Commissioners. "Mr. Mulholland," observed Del Valle shortly after the St. Francis failure, "has had charge of the department ever since its inception.... During that time he conceived the construction of the aqueduct, built it, has built nineteen dams for the department, and during that whole time, the board has found that he has used the proper judgment, has been competent, efficient in every manner, and therefore the matter ... as to whom he should consult or what he should do in detail has been left entirely to his judgment, because the board has had the utmost confidence, and has now, in his ability as an engineer." (18)

Members of his staff also ardently admired Mulholland. "The Chief was always resourceful, fearless, and never flustered in a pinch," recalled George Read, head of the water meter division and a member of the city water department's "old guard." Read further gushed, "I know that in being associated with him I learned to think more deeply, to appreciate more fully the wonders of nature, and to see the humorous side of life." Such admiration extended beyond his immediate coterie to the local citizenry. A reporter captured the public's infatuation and faith in Mulholland's judgment with an exaggerated boast: "If Bill Mulholland should say that he is lining the [Owens Valley] aqueduct with green cheese because green cheese is better than concrete, this town would not only believe the guff but take the oath that it was so." (19)

Mulholland had his critics, of course, with Owens Valley residents at the head of any list, but most people of Los Angeles likely agreed with engineer W. W. Hurlbut when he declared that "the public at large realizes ... his untiring efforts in providing the city with the most essential element of its growth--nay, its very life blood." Among his staff, Mulholland's stature was such that, contemporaneously with completion of the St. Francis Dam, Hurlbut could avow in Western Construction News: "Since time immemorial every profession, every line of human pursuit, has had its outstanding character, its shining light, its great leader. In the profession of water works engineering there is an outstanding figure, a leader who ... has proved to be a builder of an empire--an empire of unsurpassed progress in municipal development--William Mulholland." Heady praise, indeed, and praise reflective of a staff little prone to question the wisdom and directives of a larger-than-life (almost super-human) leader. (20)


Still, in choosing the basic design for St. Francis in 1922-1923, the sixty-seven-year-old Mulholland did not prove particularly innovative or technologically adventuresome in opting for a concrete gravity dam. The modern form of such structures originated with French engineers in the 1850s and 1860s who (knowing both the weight of water and the weight of masonry) used mathematical analysis to proportion the dimensions of masonry gravity dams featuring vertical upstream faces. In simplest terms, these designs embodied a basic guiding principle: Place enough material (either stone masonry or concrete) in the dam so that the horizontal water pressure exerted by the reservoir would be insufficient to tip the structure over or push it downstream. This design technique resulted in the development of cross-sectional "profiles" for gravity dams that were triangular in shape and gradually widened in thickness from top to bottom (Note: because the cross-section of masonry gravity dams seemingly mimicked the shape of a human foot, the profile's "toe" was considered to be at the bottom of the downstream face, while the "heel" was at the bottom of the upstream face.) In terms of stability, it is important to appreciate that the amount of material necessary for safety in a gravity dam is directly proportional to the height of water impounded in the reservoir. Specifically, if a gravity dam is increased in height, its thickness must also be increased in order to maintain stability. To raise the height without widening the base is to court disaster. (21)

By at least the 1890s, engineers began to appreciate that water from a reservoir could also seep under a dam and exert pressure upward. This phenomenon of "uplift" (so-called because it tends to lift the dam upward) destabilizes gravity dams by reducing the structure's "effective weight," thereby lessening its ability to resist horizontal water pressure. Uplift can act through bedrock foundations that, in the abstract, are strong enough to bear the weight of the dam, but are fractured or fissured and thus susceptible to seepage and water saturation. (22) The deleterious effect of uplift upon a gravity dam can be countered in various ways: I) excavating foundation "cut-off" trenches that reduce the ability of water to seep under the structure; 2) grouting the foundation (which involves pressurized injection of wet mortar into drilled holes), thereby filling underground fissures and impeding subsurface water flow; 3) draining the foundation and the interior of the dam through use of porous pipes, relief wells, and tunnels to remove seepage; 4) increasing the thickness of the dam's profile (and hence its weight) in order to counter the destabilizing effect of water pushing upward. (23)

Although generally amenable to mathematical analysis, concrete gravity dams require enormous quantities of material to insure stability. As a result, they can be quite expensive. (24) Nonetheless, many engineers consider such dams--if built properly--to be reliable structures. Additionally, they present imposing downstream facades, an attribute that engineers and politicians can value because of belief that it symbolically conveys a sense of both safety and civic achievement. (25)

While material suitable for an earth-fill embankment dam--a type which Mulholland had built numerous times before--was not readily available in San Francisquito Canyon, the precise reasoning that led him to choose a concrete curved-gravity structure for the St. Francis Dam remains uncertain. (26) In the period 1922-1923 Mulholland called for designs for two concrete gravity dams, the first for a site in the Hollywood Hills, about four miles from downtown Los Angeles (initially known as Weid Canyon Dam, then Hollywood Dam, and, finally, Mulholland Dam and Hollywood Reservoir), and the second for San Francisquito Canyon (the St. Francis Dam). The plans were similar, since Mullholland instructed that the Hollywood design be adapted to the St. Francis site. Still, no detailed descriptions of these designs were published in the technical press; in particular, our knowledge of the St. Francis Dam is fragmentary. (27)

In accord with protocol established during construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct, it appears that the initial design for the two dams was delegated to an assistant engineer/draftsman or an "office engineer" who reported to Mulholland. (28) At the Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest that was convened to investigate the collapse of St. Francis Dam, Edgar Bayley, the assistant engineer for Hollywood Dam, described his role in developing a preliminary design ("the cross-sectional transfer profile") for that structure. (29) But Bayley explicitly denied having any experience with concrete gravity dams and emphasized Mulholland's commanding role:

Q. [By the coroner]: How many of this type [concrete gravity] dams have you designed and constructed?

A. [Bayley] I have constructed none, have had nothing to do with the construction of any, except being that the Hollywood Dam complied with the profile we had to work by.

Q. Didn't I understand that you are the man that designed the thing, the Hollywood Dam?

A. No, I just testified that I had to do with the design of the cross section profile of the design, with certain limitations. (30) The dam was designed between Mr. Mulholland and myself. Mr. Mulholland set the radius, picked the site, he picked the abutments. We made one or two little changes upstream to get a radial bond.

Q. Mr. Mulholland visited the site?

A. Picked it, considered it suitable for a dam.

Q. And that would be the place to put a dam, said, "I want you to draw me the plans and specifications for a gravity dam."?

A. No, no specifications were written, it was to be done by the department itself, certain dimensions to follow. (31)

Further underscoring Mulholland's overall authority was William Hurlburt, the office engineer involved with the design of St. Francis Dam.

Q. [By the coroner]: Now who designed the St. Francis Dam? Did you [Hurlbut] design it?

A. I did not.

Q. Did Mr. Mulholland design it?

A. It was designed under his instructions.

Q. Then, am I to understand that Mr. Mulholland designed the St. Francis Dam?

A. It was designed under his instructions. (32)

Not content with Hurlbut's responses, a deputy district attorney took over the questioning and doggedly pursued the nature of the design process, Mulholland's role in it, and the relationship between the designs for the Hollywood and St. Francis dams:

Q. [The deputy district attorney]: Do I get this correct: Is this the information you are trying to give the Coroner: that Mr. Mulholland designed the Hollywood Dam, that is, he said that he wanted a dam over there?

A. [Hurlburt]: He [Mulholland] gave instructions for a [Hollywood] dam to be designed with a gravity type section, according to the best engineering practice and it was assigned to Mr. Bayley to do that.

Q. And Mr. Bayley had prepared the blue prints in accordance with Mr. Mulholland's request for a dam?

A. He prepared studies in connection with that, and, as a result the drawings were made.

Q. And, then, when they wanted the St. Francis Dam, they got out the old drawings of the Hollywood and revamped them under your [Hurlbut's] instructions and sent them up there?

A. They got out the computations and the studies on the Hollywood Dam, and the matter was gone into with Mr. Mulholland and others at that time. (33)

Apparently satisfied, the deputy district attorney and other questioners turned to different issues. But despite a seeming desire to uncover the origins of the St. Francis design, participants in the coroner's inquest failed to investigate a critically important aspect of the dam's history: In what way did the design change during the construction process?

The exact dimensions of the dam built at St. Francis are now difficult to ascertain because of changes made during construction and because the precise nature of these changes was never reliably documented. In the wake of the collapse, Mulholland and his staff distributed a drawing indicating a maximum height of 205 feet (extending from the deepest foundations at 1,630 feet above sea level to 1,835 feet at the spillway crest) and a maximum base width of 175 feet (this contrasted with a published report in 1926 indicating a maximum thickness of i69 feet). (34) A commission appointed by the California governor to investigate the disaster published this drawing in its report. For many years it was accepted as accurately documenting what would have been a very amply proportioned cross-section for the design. However, Charles Outland's subsequent research in the early 1960s revealed that the dam was significantly thinner at the base than the official drawing indicated.

In studying construction photographs, Outland discovered that the dam's base was about twenty feet less thick than indicated in the supposed "as-built" drawings. Moreover, in analyzing a series of pronouncements made by the city describing the size of the reservoir during the years 1923-1925, he discerned that the city had gradually increased the reservoir size. Specifically, in July 1923 the city publicized the size at 30,000 acre-feet, and a year later--shortly before concrete was poured--at 32,000 acre-feet. Then in March 1925 the reservoir capacity was reported as 38,000 acre-feet (equivalent to about 11 billion gallons). In the abstract, raising the dam's height was not necessarily dangerous, but to fully assure safety, the base width would also need to be increased. The photographic evidence revealed that such a compensating increase had not occurred and that, in Outland's words, "the dam had been born with a stub toe." (35) Exactly what transpired on-site during construction of the dam will never be known, but little doubt exists that Mulholland chose to increase the reservoir capacity in a way that did not retain the dam's original height-to-width ratio. In so doing, he reduced the dam's stability and made it more vulnerable to the effect of uplift.

During construction, Mulholland incorporated few features into the design that would mitigate the effect of uplift. Across a distance of about 120 feet in the center of the dam site, he placed ten drainage wells. But for the remainder of the 600-foot long main section of the dam he did not grout the foundation, excavate a cut-off trench, or install a drainage system up the sides of the canyon walls. In concert with the raised height of the design, these omissions would prove to be fatal flaws.

Clearing of the dam site began in the fall of 1923, but the first concrete was not poured until August 1924. Construction proceeded for close to two years until the dam topped out in May 1926. After completion, the reservoir was not immediately filled, although it did come to within three feet of the spillway in May 1927. Nine months later, in February 1928, the water level came to within a foot of the spillway and, on March 7, 1928, the reservoir reached three inches below the spillway crest. It stayed at that elevation until late in the evening of March 12. (36) Then disaster struck.


The collapse of St. Francis Dam prompted the creation of several panels of engineers and geologists (sponsored by the California governor, the Los Angeles County district attorney, the Los Angeles County coroner, and the Los Angeles City Council, among others) to investigate the cause of the disaster. (37) Although the panels were not in unanimous agreement on all points, most quickly--perhaps hastily would be a better term--concluded that the collapse began in the red sandstone conglomerate beneath the western abutment. A new leak on the west abutment (others had been noted earlier) had been discovered on the morning of the day when the dam collapsed. As a result, Mulholland visited the dam less than eighteen hours before the collapse, but pronounced the leak not dangerous and felt no need to warn communities downstream of possible problems. (38)

Following the disaster, the governor's commission--responsible for a widely distributed report--and most other investigators perceived this new leak as comprising the key to understanding the collapse. The commission, it should be noted, believed that "the foundation under the entire dam left very much to be desired," but the west end emerged as the culprit. "The west end," stated the governor's commission, "was founded upon a reddish conglomerate which, even when dry, was of decidedly inferior strength and which, when wet[,] became so soft that most of it lost almost all rock characteristics." The softening of this "reddish conglomerate" undermined the west side. "The rush of water released by failure of the west end caused a heavy scour against the easterly canyon wall ... and caused the failure of that part of the structure." There then "quickly followed ... the collapse of large sections of the dam." The committee engaged by the city council concurred in ascribing the cause of the collapse to "defective foundations," with the failure "apparently" beginning in the "red conglomerate," but nonetheless acknowledged that "the sequence of failure is uncertain." (39)

The governor's commission and the City Council committee reached their conclusions within a week after initiating study of the failure (and less than two weeks after the collapse). Such haste produced no doubts. "With such a formation [the red conglomerate]," concluded the governor's commission, "the ultimate failure of this dam was inevitable, unless water could have been kept from reaching the foundation. Inspection galleries, pressure grouting, drainage wells and deep cut-off walls are commonly used to prevent or remove percolation, but it is improbable that any or all of these devices would have been adequately effective, though they would have ameliorated the conditions and postponed the final failure." As far as the commission was concerned, the poor quality of the foundation material on the west side of the canyon (and "defective foundations" generally) rendered all other issues--including uplift--irrelevant. (40)

On March 21, 1928, Los Angeles County convened a public coroner's inquest into the tragedy in which sixty-six people testified. Most appeared only once but some (including Mulholland) were recalled several times. On April 12 the coroner's jury issued its judgment on the dam's collapse. (41)

"After carefully weighing all the evidence," concluded the jurors, the dam failed for two fundamental reasons: "an error in engineering judgment" and "an error in regard to fundamental policy relating to public safety." The first error consisted of building the dam on defective "rock formations." Compounding these foundation problems was a dam "design ... not suited to [the] inferior foundation conditions"--a design that, among other flaws, did not carry the dam "far enough into the bedrock" and that lacked precautions against uplift, such as "cutoff walls," "pressure grouting of the bedrock," and "inspection tunnels with drainage pipes" (except for "the center section"). The "responsibility" for these lapses in engineering judgment, stated the jurors, "rests upon the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, and the Chief Engineer thereof." (42) As for the error in public policy, the jurors laid that at the feet of "those to whom the Chief Engineer is subservient"--"the Department of Water and Power Commissioners, the legislative bodies of city and state, and to the public at large." If these groups had insisted on "proper safeguards ... making it impossible for excessive responsibility to be delegated to or assumed by any one individual in matters involving great menaces to public safety, it is unlikely that the engineering error would have escaped detection and produced a great disaster." (43)

In their verdict, the jurors opined that the dam likely collapsed first on the red conglomerate/ west side because a "preponderance of expert opinion favors the conclusion." Nonetheless, they expressed ambivalence about this judgment--they had heard testimony that the schist forming the east abutment was "a weak material, badly shattered, very susceptible to seepage of water, and to slippage along the planes of cleavage"--and hesitated to conclude that they fully understood "the exact sequence" of when and how the collapse occurred. (44)

A key reason for the jurors' ambivalence can be traced to the testimony of one of the last witnesses called before them. Halbert P. Gillette, president and editor of the journal Water Works, was decidedly unimpressed with reasoning that blamed the dam's failure on the softened red conglomerate at the western abutment--and he forcefully testified at the coroner's inquest on that point. (45) Soon after the inquest's conclusion he publicly aired his critique of the three seemingly official investigating committees--the governor's commission, the Los Angeles City Council committee, and the Los Angeles district attorney's committee. Declining to criticize Mulholland or the dam design, Gillette lambasted the investigating teams for hasty and faulty research and for concluding that the dam failed first on the west side. He also found no evidence to support the rumor of an explosion bringing the dam down (growing out of earlier dynamitings of the Los Angeles Aqueduct), but he did not discount the possibility of an earthquake playing a role. (46) Based upon his own field work and research (which convinced him that the red conglomerate was hardly as weak as publicly portrayed), he analyzed how the dam's fragments were distributed downstream and also analyzed data from triangulation surveys. Averring that "the schist on the east bank dips into the canyon in such a way that a slide could occur; and no one denies that slides of the schist did occur on such a scale as to destroy the east side of the dam," he convincingly demonstrated that the mechanics of an east abutment/first collapse sequence were the only ones to make sense of post-failure conditions at the site. (47)

Support for Gillette's contention that the schist on the east side failed first came from Charles H. Lee, a San Francisco hydraulic engineer retained as a consultant by the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light. In public lectures and an article published in June 1928 in Western Construction News, Lee concluded that "the immediate cause of failure" was "a slide at the east abutment." Unlike Gillette, however, he claimed that the subsequent collapse of the west abutment was "quite possibl[y] ... a contributing ... cause of failure." He also noted the possibility that these actions were accompanied by "uplift beneath the dam ... being sufficient to produce cracking and failure." Lee dismissed with no comment the likelihood of an explosion or earthquake bringing down the dam. (48)

The most insightful and persuasive investigative reports on the mechanics of the St. Francis Dam collapse came from civil engineers Carl E. Grunsky and his son E. L. Grunsky and Stanford University geologist Bailey Willis. The elder Grunsky had gained prominence serving as the first San Francisco city engineer, a member of the Panama Canal Commission, a consulting engineer for the U.S. Reclamation Service, and in 1922 as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He also studied water-supply issues on behalf of farmers along the Santa Clara River (the major conduit for floodwaters coursing from the collapsed St. Francis Dam). His son, E. L. Grunsky, after acquiring an engineering education, worked with his father as a consulting engineer. Bailey Willis, with degrees in mining and civil engineering as well as "geological studies ... directed primarily to the mechanical problems of rock structures," had accumulated a half century of engineering and geological experience in the United States and South America, including service as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and, most recently, as a professor of geology at Stanford University. Such qualifications (bolstered by the Santa Clara Water Conservancy District's existing professional relationship with Carl Grunsky) prompted the district to hire the Grunskys and Willis to investigate the dam collapse. (49)

Their investigations culminated in two reports (one by the Grunskys and the other by Willis) completed in April 1928. Willis's "conclusions and our own," observed Carl Grunsky, "were reached independently" and "are in substantial agreement." Both reports were subsequently published in Western Construction News, the Grunskys' in May 1928 and Willis's a month later. (50) In retrospect, the Grunskys and Willis demonstrated greater technical knowledge of the dam site and possessed keener analytical skills than any of the other investigators. Their efforts led to the identification of four major factors that, in combination, led to the disaster:

1) Unsuitability of the Foundation: Foundations on both sides of the dam were deemed unsuitable, "but the critical situation developed more rapidly in the east abutment" where "the schist is ... traversed by innumerable minute fissures, into which water would intrude under pressure and by capillary action."

2) Old Landslide: The "east abutment was located on ... the end of an old landslide."

3) Uplift and Collapse: "When it [the old landslide] had become soaked by the water standing in the reservoir against its lower portion, it became active and moved." That movement resulted from "a great hydrostatic force under its [the dam's] foundation surface from end to end," which triggered the collapse of the east abutment.

4) Inadequate Design: "The old slide against which the dam rested at the east ... offered only insecure support to the dam, and this was rendered more precarious by the [dam builders'] adoption of a design which did not include adequate foundation drainage." (51)

Willis, as the geologist on this investigative team, most likely discovered the "old slide" (his report discussed it at the greater length and the Grunskys drew liberally on that discussion as well as on his analysis of the schist in their report). On the other hand, the Grunskys, as civil engineers, took the lead in describing the role played by "uplift," a condition of great concern to prudent dam builders of the era.

The Grunskys expressed surprise that "no measures ... have been noted, which would have reduced percolation into the hillside material under the dam." They also emphasized precautions that could have been implemented to combat uplift, such as "thorough hillside and foundation drainage ... fortified with deep cut-off walls along or near the up-stream face." As a result, "at a full reservoir there was a great hydrostatic force under its [the dam's] foundation surface from end to end, relieved but slightly by a few weep-holes [located in the center of the canyon]. This hydrostatic pressure, the uplifting force of the swelling red sandstone at the west, and the horizontal and uplifting pressure of the slide at the east, lifted the dam ... [and] broke it from its foundation." (52)

In early June 1928, the reports of the Grunskys and Willis were synopsized in the nationally distributed Engineering News-Record under the headline "Sixth Report on St. Francis Dam Offers New Theories." This synopsis noted how the Grunksys had tied the failure of the east abutment to uplift and included Willis's description of the "old slide" on the "lower portion" of that abutment which "became active and moved." Except for an editorial article accompanying the synopsis that attempted unsuccessfully to reconcile the Grunskys/Willis reports with the investigative teams that posited a "red conglomerate/west side" failure mode, little public discussion or debate about the Grunskys/Willis findings subsequently appeared in the engineering press. Instead, the views of the governor's commission and others that ascribed the failure to the western abutment's conglomerate--and more generally to "defective foundations"--largely predominated prior to publication of Outland's book. (53) All of which raises the intriguing question: "Why?"

Given the explanatory power of the east side/ uplift failure hypothesis, why did the investigating committees that quickly posited a "west side first" collapse theory decline to reconcile such findings with the analysis of the Grunskys, Willis, Gillette, and Lee? Outland insightfully answered such a question when he linked the St. Francis failure to the Boulder Canyon Project (or Swing-Johnson) Bill that was due for a vote in Congress in the spring of 1928. As Outland observed: "A worried, water-short southern California looked askance upon a proposed dam that would store seven hundred times more water than the late reservoir in San Francisquito Canyon. If Boulder Dam was to become a reality, this fear would have to be eased and quickly." Congressman Phil Swing, the principal advocate of the dam in Washington, D.C., felt the political heat and counseled the Boulder Dam Association to find ways of advocating the efficacy of high dams "without tying [St. Francis] too closely to [the] Boulder Dam project." And Arizona Governor George W.P. Hunt--a tenacious opponent of Boulder Dam--publicly connected that project with the St. Francis failure. "Governor Hunt knew a good thing when he saw it," observed Outland. "The truth of the matter was that the engineering world had been shaken, far more than it cared to admit, by the sudden catastrophe." (54)

Because of Mulholland's public association with the Boulder Canyon Project--he had testified before Congress in support of Boulder Dam in 1924, had taken a well-publicized trip down the Colorado River in 1925, and had traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 1928 to lobby for the bill--the Bureau of Reclamation had good reason to ease public disquiet concerning the curved gravity dam technology used at St. Francis. (55) Because of its precarious financial situation in the 1920s, the agency had much (besides prestige) riding on congressional approval for the proposed Boulder Dam. (56) Perhaps not coincidently, many engineers in the agency's employ, or closely associated with it as consultants, agreed to help investigate the St. Francis disaster. There was, in particular, A. J. Wiley, chairman of the bureau's Boulder Dam Board of consulting engineers, who served as chairman of the governor's commission and Elwood Mead, bureau commissioner and hence the agency's highest ranking official, who served as chairman of the City Council committee. (57)

The uncertain fate of the Boulder Canyon Project (not resolved until December 1928) most plausibly explains why these engineers--and other proponents of gravity-dam technology--evinced no interest in keeping the St. Francis Dam disaster in the public eye any longer than absolutely necessary. It also explains why they had no interest in modifying their conclusions after the Grunskys, Willis, Gillette, and Lee presented compelling critiques of the "west abutment failed first" theory. Finally, it helps explain why the governor's commission, a mere two weeks after the disaster, took pains to assure the public that "there is nothing in the failure ... to indicate that the accepted theory of gravity dam design is in error ... [or that] such a dam may [not] properly be deemed to be among the most durable of all man-made structures." (58)


Though none of the investigative reports exonerated Mulholland, he was publicly hailed in the engineering press as a "big man" for his seeming forthrightness in accepting responsibility at the Los Angeles County coroner's inquest: "Don't blame anybody else, you just fasten it on me. If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human." (59) That acknowledgement did not come without reservations.

"We overlooked something here," Mulholland testified at the coroner's inquest in March 1928, but he never indicated what it might have been. Twice he seemed on the verge of offering an explanation--"I have a very strong opinion myself as to what was the approximate cause of that failure"; "I have a suspicion, and I don't want to divulge it"--but he backed off when invited by the coroner "to tell us." He may have believed that sabotage--similar to the dynamite attacks carried out against the Los Angeles Aqueduct by Owens Valley vigilantes in 1924, 1926, and 1927--caused the collapse. But, aside from a vague reference to the site being "vulnerable against human ag[g]ression" in his coroner's inquest testimony, there is no evidence to directly support such a supposition. (60) Regardless of what Mulholland may have thought to be the cause of the collapse, his granddaughter later insisted that, "in accepting responsibility, he did not thereby consider himself to blame for something that had occurred beyond his power." (61) But "blame," of course, was precisely the word that he applied to himself. A telling commentary on Mulholland's conception of "blame" emerges from the transcript of the coroner's inquest.

Acknowledging no engineering or geological reason for the St. Francis Dam collapse, Mulholland did conjure the possibility of psychic or supernatural forces. He would not build another dam "in the same place," he told the coroner, because it was haunted by a spirit opposed to human violation of the area. "There is a hoodoo on it." "A hoodoo)" asked the surprised coroner. "Yes," replied Mulholland, "it is vulnerable against human ag[g]ression, and I would not build it there." "You don't mean [to say] that because it [the dam] went out on the morning of the 13th?"

"Perhaps that," answered Mulholland, "but that is an additional hazard. I had not thought of that." (62) The coroner's jury quickly dropped the subject, leaving only conjecture as to what Mulholland meant by "a hoodoo" (and "human aggression," for that matter). But clearly the exchange did little to bolster confidence in his scientific or technical judgments.

No less disconcerting was Mulholland's assertion at the inquest that he had secured an outside inspection of the St. Francis Dam project similar to the state supervision mandated by the 1917 dam-safety law. "You had no inspection of the site by any state authority)" asked the coroner. "Yes sir," countered Mulholland, "the State Engineer [Wilbur F. McClure] examined the site, examined it carefully." This prompted a quizzical response from the coroner: "You are not required to have state inspection?" "No sir," replied Mulholland, "not with us, we are not required to." "Why did you call for state inspection when you didn't require it?" asked the coroner. "I am not a strict caviler about the law," responded Mulholland. "I like to comply as far as I can and go over the mark in conformity to the law, recognize there ought to be state inspection of such things, whether it is a municipality or not." (63)

At this point a member of the coroner's jury interrupted with a question that elicited a response which, even on its face, questioned Mulholland's claim that McClure's inspection had gone "over the mark in conformity to the law": "How much time did Mr. McClure spend?" asked the juror. "Didn't spend but half a day," answered Mulholland, "and he saw all there was to see in half a day, because there wasn't much to see." Moreover, in McClure's company "my men went around there, stumbled around there over the country." (64) The coroner intervened: "He didn't make any geological test?" "Don't know what you call it," replied Mulholland, "[he] looked [at the site] as I did, exposed rock.... I don't really know if he is a geologist or not." "Did he come at your request," asked the coroner, whose question immediately prompted a juror's follow-up question before Mulholland could respond: "With the specific object of examining the dam?" "Precisely," said Mulholland. "I don't like to be stubborn about things, I wouldn't think of telling him it was none of his business, I did insist it was his business." "Did Mr. McClure see the finished work)" asked the juror. "I think he has," answered Mulholland, "pretty sure he has been down here several times while they were working on it." In the midst of these questions and responses, Mulholland made an admission about his policy on consultants that came closer to the mark. "In general, for the last ten or twelve years, I haven't consulted with anybody, or but very few."(65)

Though Mulholland and his questioners speak as if McClure is alive, he had, in fact, been dead almost two years, having passed away in June 1926. Moreover, Mulholland's remarks leave unclear whether he was actually at the dam site during McClure's visit. His reference to the occasion is remarkably vague: "I think there was some little excavation, and my men went around there, stumbled around there over the country, and never had a word to say about it." Nor does the testimony reveal whether Mulholland ever talked with McClure about his visit. (66) Most importantly, Mulholland's description of McClure's actions offers scant support for any assertion that he had called for a "state inspection" going "over the mark in conformity to the law." Particularly untenable is the notion that the State Engineer's half day visit might constitute a substantive review comparable with those undertaken under formal authority of the 1917 dam-safety law.

For example, consider the review given to Littlerock Dam located only thirty-five miles east of the St. Francis site. This reinforced-concrete multiple-arch dam was built by the Littlerock Creek and Palmdale Irrigation Districts in 1922-1924 and--in stark contrast to the privilege afforded the city of Los Angeles--the farmers in these districts could not build their dam until obtaining explicit approval from the State Engineer. The approval process for the Littlerock Dam stretched over four years, beginning in 1918. During that time State Engineer McClure engaged three outside engineers to review plans with his staff. He also called upon the advice of Joseph B. Lippincott, consulting engineer for the bond house that was to finance construction. (67)

McClure approved the plans for Littlerock Dam in May 1922. The following August his representative visited the site and noted that slight adjustments were being made by the contractor. He quickly reported to McClure that the contractor had been told to "suspend operations ... until the changed plans were submitted to the State Department of Engineering and Irrigation for approval and action thereon." In addition, the contractor was informed "that the foundation would have to be cleared, viewed, and passed as satisfactory by a representative of the State Engineer before the actual construction of the dam could commence." (68) Two more site visits took place before McClure granted final design approval on November 4, 1922. Thereafter, a representative of the State Engineer visited the site regularly and reported on construction progress. Formal acceptance of the completed Littlerock Dam was made in a letter from McClure to the Littlerock Creek Irrigation District on June 5, 1924. (69)

Clearly, it would be specious to equate a half day's "stumbling around" at the St. Francis site with the authority exercised by the State Engineer over the Littlerock Dam. Mulholland's venture in obfuscation also contrasts sharply with the more forthright testimony given to the coroner by his chief assistant, Harvey Van Norman. "Do you know of any independent geologists or engineers who were called in consultation with regard to the selection of that site?" asked the coroner. "No, I don't," replied Van Norman." (70)

Instead of targeting Mulholland, post-collapse criticism generally focused on a legal system--specifically, the 1917 dam-safety statute--that allowed him to build St. Francis Dam without substantive outside review. Compounding that loophole was Mulholland's heroic stature among Los Angeles authorities who viewed him, in the words of the coroner's jury, as possessing "infallibility in matters of engineering judgment." With enactment of a new California dam-safety law in 1929 that eliminated the municipal exemption and with Mulholland's seeming willingness to accept responsibility for the disaster, the causes of and responsibility for the St. Francis collapse soon passed beyond the realm of overt debate or thoughtful reflection. (71) Things would not change until publication of Outland's book.


In 1963 Charles F. Outland's Man-Made Disaster brought the tragedy back into the public eye. (72) Neither wild-eyed conspiracy fanatic nor Mulholland-hater, Outland resisted temptation to moralize or render judgment on emotional grounds. Interviewing as many witnesses as he could locate and examining many volumes of published and unpublished materials, he described how the dam came to be built, carefully documented the effect of the flood as it passed through the Santa Clara Valley in the pre-dawn hours of March 13, and analyzed the inquests and investigations that sought to discern the cause of the collapse. While evidence amassed by others, especially Willis and the Grunskys, informed his views, he did not simply parrot their findings. (73) Moreover, unlike the public pronouncements of earlier investigators, he assigned responsibility for its occurrence to more than weak foundations or to a legal system that allowed an individual to design and build a dam without outside review.

Like the Grunskys, Willis, Gillette, and Lee, Outland concluded that the dam collapsed first on the east side. "Ever since completion of the dam," observed Outland, "suspicious eyes had watched a leak on the western abutment, while all the time the real villain lurked seven hundred feet away in the mountain of schist." This was not to say that Outland believed the western abutment was a pillar of stability, for he considered it an "admittedly wet conglomerate" and unsuitable as a dam foundation. The east abutment, however, consisted of faulty schist at the point of contact with the dam and was vulnerable to saturation and the destabilizing effect of uplift. (74) Outland fixated on this schist--the "mountain of schist"--and insisted it was the "real villain." (75)

In actuality, Outland identified two villains--the schist and William Mulholland. Unlike the early investigators who focused on detailing the causes, mechanics, and sequence of the St. Francis Dam failure and said nothing about personal blame, Outland unhesitatingly named Mulholland the key figure in the tragedy: "In the final analysis, ... the responsibility was his alone." (76) That appraisal in part derived from Outland's discovery of a report sent by Mulholland in 1911 to the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. While seeking a route for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Mulholland and Lippincott (as noted earlier in this essay) encountered unstable, fractured schist within the east canyon wall of what would become the future site of St. Francis Dam. That discovery prompted a decision to avoid the faulty rock by locating "the [aqueduct] line ... well back under the mountain" in a tunnel. "No one," stated Outland in Man-Made Disaster, "had seriously questioned the stability of the east abutment except the Chief, himself, at the time the aqueduct was being built many years before." (77) While Mulholland took precautions in 1911 to protect the long-term integrity of the aqueduct as it ran the length of San Francisquito Canyon, no comparable caution was evident when he later built the dam. Outland did not speculate on Mulholland's reason for this--and in later years the "Chief" offered no explanation of his own--but there was no doubt in Outland's mind that Mulholland should have been aware of the danger posed by the faulty schist forming the east canyon wall. "Construction photographs," noted Outland, "clearly record the fractural nature of the schist .... Unfortunately, it was so badly laminated that when stress was applied parallel to these lines of cleavage, it had little resistance to slippage. The east abutment of the dam possessed the strength of a deck of cards that is pushed obliquely on the table." (78)

An examination of construction photographs also played a critical role in Outland's discovery that "the dam had been born with a stub toe" and featured a base thickness about twenty feet less than indicated in design drawings. However, Outland downplayed this discovery by claiming that "Changes in plans after construction has started are nothing new or unique to the engineering profession [and] unforeseen contingencies often require modifications of the original designs." (79) Had the thickness of the base been properly proportioned in relation to the increased height, Outland's sanguinity would have been appropriate. A "stub toe" profile for an enlarged gravity dam, however, represented a far different--and much more dangerous--state of affairs. Although Outland did not appreciate the safety implications of the "stub toe" profile, his perceptive comparison of design drawings and construction photographs comprised a very significant finding that speaks directly to the cause of the St. Francis Dam collapse.


Matters largely rested with Outland's book until 1992 when geologist J. David Rogers published an article in Engineering Geology Practice in Southern California. Three years later he reached a wider audience by republishing that paper in the Southern California Quarterly in an expanded format but one essentially unchanged in its major arguments. Rogers's findings about the dam's collapse--the unsuitability of the site, the destabilizing effect of uplift acting on the structure, and a failure sequence initiated when water saturation reactivated an "ancient" (Willis had termed it an "old") landslide within the schist of the east abutment--echoed those already documented by the Grunskys and Willis. Given his background as a geologist it is not surprising that Rogers drew special attention to the ancient landslide comprising the site's east abutment. And general readers confronting his analysis might easily infer that such a slide would necessarily render any dam at the site to be unstable. But Rogers actually makes no claim supporting this inference. Instead, his contention--which is essentially what Willis had already reported in 1928--is simply that "the dam failure sequence was brought about by the partial reactivation of the paleomegaslide, within the schist comprising the east abutment." (80)

In a 1997 interview published by the Bureau of Reclamation, Rogers explained: "when ground or rock has slid in a landslide, it dilates or increases in volume [and] that increase in volume sets up a whole bunch of cracks, and water can go through those cracks quite easily." Thus, while the broken schist in the east abutment at St. Francis certainly made Mulholland's gravity dam more susceptible to the effect of uplift, it did not automatically or inevitably precipitate failure. Rogers specifically notes that "we know now there's over 100 major dams in the United States that have also been built against [ancient landslides]" and acknowledges that "they haven't failed yet ... [because] the thing keeping those dams in place is the inherent redundancies of their design[s]." (81) In essence, Rogers affirms that if gravity dams erected atop ancient landslides are conservatively designed--that is, with "inherent redundancies," such as properly proportioned profiles, extensive drainage systems, cut-off walls, grouting, and similar measures--failure is hardly a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, this affirmation is not something that is widely appreciated in the public arena where, instead, notions of Mulholland's supposed "exoneration" have gained far greater currency.

While Rogers praised Man-Made Disaster as a "definitive work," he differs with his predecessor in three important particulars, two of which consisted of criticisms of Mulholland not made by Outland. (82) The first instance was Rogers's censure of Mulholland for his "omission of any outside consultants to review the dam's design," a lapse that Rogers considered a "weak link in Mulholland's design process." (83) Rogers's second criticism of Mulholland dealt with raising the dam's height--accompanied by no compensating change in thickness--after construction commenced. Outland had discovered this while studying construction photographs, but he did not relate such alterations to structural safety. Rogers picked up on this omission, correctly pointing out that, in accord with standard gravity-dam theory dating to the mid-nineteenth century, raising the height was "potentially dangerous ... in a gravity dam ... that derives its stability through simple dead weight to resist the force imposed by the reservoir water.... Simply put," stated Rogers, "it is dangerous to attempt the heightening of a concrete gravity dam simply by increasing the crest height without a corresponding enlargement of the dam's base." Rogers's diagnosis was on target and he acknowledged that the maximum base width was only about 148 feet and not the 169 feet or 175 feet reported by the city in the 1920s. (84) Nonetheless, he neglected to stress how this egregious lapse in engineering judgment helped to explain the dam's collapse.

While Rogers acknowledged shortcomings of Mulholland that Outland had not perceived, he failed to consider fully: (1) how the St. Francis design compared with gravity-dam design as practiced in the teens and 1920s, especially in regard to measures taken to counter uplift; and (2) Mulholland's experience as a dam builder and the significance of his decision to proceed without outside review. These lacunae are of more than passing interest in the context of Rogers's third difference with Outland: Who, if anyone, was responsible? Outland had unhesitatingly concluded that the "responsibility" was Mulholland's "alone." Rogers not only made no such pronouncement but also roundly criticized the governor's commission--though, strangely, not Outland--for "assigning blame to an individual (Mulholland) in lieu of an organization or profession." To Rogers, fault lay in the ignorance of a profession, not with particular members of that profession. "Mulholland and his Bureau's engineers," stated Rogers, belonged to a "civil engineering community" that "did not completely appreciate or understand the concepts of effective stress and uplift, precepts just then beginning to gain recognition and acceptance." In short, the evidence that had proved compelling to Outland was, according to Rogers, trumped by "larger culprits": the absence of "a proper appreciation of uplift theory" and the need for "incorporation of solid engineering geologic input." (85)

Rogers's criticisms of Mulholland seem altogether appropriate, even if lacking in conviction and a clear appreciation of their larger significance. But Rogers's failure to address Mulholland's knowledge of the scientific civil-engineering practices and literature of his day and his neglect of Mulholland's dam-building record represent serious omissions. They become all the more weighty in light of evidence that Rogers's assertions about uplift are not supported by the historical record.


At St. Francis, Mulholland placed ten drainage wells in the dam's foundation at the center of the canyon. In testimony offered at the coroner's inquest, Mulholland indicated that these drainage wells had been located in the streambed of San Francisquito Creek where "the rock was fissured."

Q. [By a Juror]: Was this darn [St. Francis] under-drained practically for its entire distance?

A. [Mulholland]: No, it was only where the rock was fissured, that is, those igneous rocks are always more or less jointed a little bit, and we find it usually and always expedient to drain them out so there will not be any up-pressure, taking that much pressure of the dam away. So we lead them out. Those drains are provided in every dam I have ever built.

Q. At what intervals were these bleeders put in?

A. About every fifteen or twenty or twenty-five feet.

Q. Practically almost to the top of the dam, as you went along?

A. No, the west end was a homogenous ground. There was no drain necessary in those. It was much tighter. It was about as hard as the other but tighter and more compact. The rocks--the fractured rocks, all the hard rocks in this country are more or less fractured and you can go to the mountains here and look at the granites on every hill side and you will see them fissured and fractured more or less, but they will carry water without doubt, but the prudent thing is to drain them out.

Q. But the points of under drainage was [sic] put in where the rock was seen to be fractured?

A. Yes. (86)

In essence, Mulholland acknowledged the possibility of uplift acting through the fractured schist. But--while professing that "the prudent thing is to drain them out" and that it is "always expedient to drain them out so there will not be any up-pressure'--he confined his attention only to the dam's center section. He ignored the possibility that, as the level of the reservoir rose, water would extend up the east canyon wall and then seep into the fractured schist foundation. Beyond placing drainage wells in the center section, Mulholland did little to counter the possibility of uplift acting on the St. Francis Dam. As essentially all engineers who investigated the disaster acknowledged, the canyon walls had not been drained, no inspection/drainage tunnel had been placed in the dam's interior, there had been no grouting, and the structure lacked a cut-off trench extending across the site. (87) Moreover, as Outland discerned, Mulholland had raised the dam's height but without widening the base. With this latter action, he exacerbated the destabilizing effect of uplift and necessarily increased the potential for disaster.

Rogers avers that "many engineers were just beginning to appreciate the destabilizing effects of uplift pressures in the late 1920s" and promotes the impression that uplift represented an esoteric, little-appreciated phenomenon when St. Francis Dam was built. (88) If the date given by Rogers had been 1910, such a perspective could be defended. However, for a decade prior to construction of St. Francis Darn, uplift had engendered widespread concern. The extent of this concern--and action taken in actual construction--warrants close attention because the effect of uplift on the stability of St. Francis Darn speaks directly to why more than 400 people perished in the early hours of March 13, 1928.

In the mid-nineteenth century uplift was not accommodated into gravity-darn design protocols. (89) Nonetheless, dam builders soon began to recognize the dangers posed by uplift and to develop measures to counter its effect. Most notably, concern about uplift prompted British engineers building Liverpool's Vrynwy Dam (a gravity structure completed in 1892) to incorporate drainage wells into its design, an action publicized in British engineering journals. (90) Not all civil engineers in the late nineteenth century--most prominently, Edward Wegmann, U.S. author of The Design and Construction of Dams (1888 and several subsequent editions)--paid heed to uplift. Thus, in 1904 Edward Godfrey could complain in Engineering News that "I find nothing in [books] on dams mentioning this floating tendency of the water which percolates under dams." (91) Four years later Godfrey reiterated his complaint, a critique obviated in 1910 when Charles E. Morrison and Orrin L. Brodie's High Masonry Dam Design directly criticized Wegmann for failing to account for uplift in gravity dam designs. As part of this, they asserted that "Present practice requires [that uplift] ... be considered where a structure of great responsibility is proposed...." (92)

Apprehension about uplift intensified following the collapse of a concrete gravity dam in Austin, Pennsylvania, on September 30, 1911. Located about two miles upstream from town, the Austin Dam failed catastrophically, taking at least seventy-eight lives. (93) The calamity attracted great public attention and galvanized the American dam-building community to take action against the potentially disastrous effects of uplift. A leader in this effort was John R. Freeman, a prominent New England-based engineer who, in 1906, had served on the board of consulting engineers who reviewed Mulholland's plans for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. (94) A prominent advocate of gravity-dam technology, Freeman rushed to the site of the Austin tragedy and reported in Engineering News: "the cause that probably led to the failure of the Austin PA dam," he declared, was "the penetration of water-pressure into and underneath the mass of the dam, together with the secondary effect of lessening the stability of the dam against sliding." Freeman implored engineers to understand that "uplift pressures may possibly occur under or within any masonry dam and should always be accounted for." (95) At the time, Freeman was helping oversee construction of New York City's Ashokan (also known as Olive Bridge) and Kensico dams, two projects that--as Engineering News described Kensico Dam in April 1912--countered "upward water pressure" with foundation pressure-grouting and an extensive drainage system. (96)

Also taking the Austin failure very seriously was Arthur Powell Davis, chief engineer (later director) of the U.S. Reclamation Service, who believed that the failure of Austin Dam "was caused by an upward pressure on the base of the dam." After visiting the disaster site, Davis expressed concern about the possible effect of uplift on the service's Elephant Butte Dam, a concrete gravity structure more than two hundred-feet high to be built across the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico. (97) The agency soon approved a design for Elephant Butte that included extensive grouting, placement of a drainage system along the length of the dam, and a deep cut-off trench. The service's close attention to the Elephant Butte foundation was documented in engineering journals and Davis's 1917 book, Irrigation Works Constructed by the United States Government, which described a "variety of precautions ... adopted to prevent percolation under the [Elephant Butte] dam, and to relieve any upward pressure that might develop there." (98) For the service's 354-foot high concrete gravity Arrowrock Dam built in 1913-1915 near Boise, Idaho, Davis could similarly report: "In order to prevent leakage in the foundation of the [Arrowrock] dam, a line of holes was drilled into the foundation just below the upstream face of the dam to depths of 30 to 40 feet. They were grouted under pressure ... [and] another line of holes was drilled to serve as drainage holes to relieve any leakage under the dam. These were continued upward into the masonry and emerged into a large tunnel running the entire length of the dam. The success of the Arrowrock drainage system was described in 1930 by C. E. Grunsky, who pointedly related it to the St. Francis collapse: "My visit to this dam [Arrowrock] was made at a time when the reservoir was filled. The functioning of the weepholes was noticeable. In some cases the flow from the gooseneck outlet pipes amounted to several thousand gallons per day. If there were no drainage of the foundation there would be great likelihood of a large uplifting force such as that which, at the St. Francis Dam, contributed to its failure." (99)

After the agency became the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923, concern about uplift continued. For example, Black Canyon Dam in southern Idaho, a 184-foot high concrete gravity structure completed in 1924, featured two rows of grout holes "drilled into the bedrock along the upstream edge of the dam along its entire length.... [A] row of drainage holes was drilled 8 feet downstream from the second row of grout holes.... The water from them is carried to a tile drain embedded in the concrete parallel with the axis of the dam." In case anyone missed the point, Engineering News-Record declared: "The purpose of this drainage system is to collect and lead off any water that might accumulate and to prevent an upward pressure under the dam." (100) After leaving the Reclamation Service in 1923, Davis became chief engineer of Oakland's East Bay Municipal Utility District where his concern about uplift became manifest in the Llana Plancha (later Pardee) Dam. This concrete curved-gravity structure featured foundation grouting and an extensive drainage system running up both canyon walls. Construction started in 1927 and the design was illustrated in Engineering News-Record the same week that the St. Francis Dam collapsed. (101)

Freeman, Davis, and the Reclamation Service were hardly alone in drawing attention to the perils of uplift in the aftermath of the Austin Dam failure. In 1912, C. L. Harrison brought together the views of twenty engineers on the subject in a Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers article where, as Harrison summarized: "Each of the twenty discussions presented on the subject recognizes the existence of uplift." (102) The next year, Engineering News described field tests in Germany that confirmed the existence of uplift pressures. This prompted Edward Godfrey to proclaim: "the results of these experiments further emphasizes [sic] what the author has said before: It is a crime to design a dam without considering upward pressure." (103)

Authors of technical books also addressed the perils of uplift and Chester W. Smith's The Construction of Masonry Dams (1915) included a ten-page section describing how cut-off trenches, foundation grouting, and drainage systems could ameliorate the effects of uplift. (104) The 1916 edition of Morrison and Brodie's High Masonry Dam Design (retitled Masonry Dam Design Including High Masonry Dams) began with a fifteen-page discussion of uplift that described "several ways in which upward pressure may be cared for," including use of a foundation cutoff trench, "adding a sufficient section to the dam to offset the upward pressure, and ... providing drainage wells and galleries to intercept all entering water." (105) A year later, William Creager's Masonry Dams (1917) emphasized the need to counter uplift in the aptly titled chapter, "Requirements for Stability of Gravity Dams." In addition, references to uplift appeared throughout the book. (106) "The methods of design described [in Masonry Dams] and the assumptions recommended," Creager advised readers, "represent present conservative practice, and correspond to a proper degree of safety for the average enterprise, and where considerable damage to property and loss of human life would result if failure occurred." (107)

By 1916-1917, serious concern about uplift on the part of American dam engineers was neither obscure nor unusual. Equally to the point, in the early 1920s, Mulholland's placement of drainage wells only in the center section of St. Francis Dam did not reflect standard practice in California for large concrete gravity dams. Earlier, in 1916, when Hiram Savage developed plans for two municipally owned concrete gravity dams near San Diego, he followed the lead set by the Reclamation Service. His designs for Lower Otay Dam (completed in 1917) and Barrett Dam (1922) called for grouting and drainage wells along the length of the structures and for a cut-off trench (containing a "continuous 12-[inch] sub drain") to run the length of both dams. (108) In northern California, the Scott Dam (also known as Snow Mountain Dam), built by the Snow Mountain Power Company across the Eel River in 1922, featured "grouting below the cut-off wall" as well as a network of under-drains to "carry off seepage water.... The drains under the dam consist of porous concrete tile.... Lines were laid parallel with the axis of the dam and on 15-ft. centers under the entire structure." (109) In California's Central Valley in the mid-1920s, the Merced Irrigation District constructed Exchequer Dam, a large concrete-curved gravity structure that featured a cut-off wall and an extensive drainage system running up both canyon walls. (110)

San Francisco, the only municipality in California that compared in size and wealth with Los Angeles (and a city that also benefited from the dam safety law's "municipal exemption"), began construction in 1919 on a large water supply dam in the Sierra Nevada. The concrete curved-gravity Hetch Hetchy Dam (later renamed O'Shaughnessy Dam after the project's chief engineer) featured an extensive drainage system consisting of 1,600 porous concrete blocks and a cut-off trench running up both canyon walls. The dam reached an initial height of about 330 feet in 1923 (it was extended to 430 feet in 1938) and, as detailed by Engineering News-Record in 1922, "the porous concrete blocks are placed in the bottom of the cut-off trench for its full length, and also in vertical tiers." (111) The Hetch Hetchy Dam's extensive drainage system--designed and implemented before 1924--clearly bore scant resemblance to Mulholland's minimal effort to counter uplift at St. Francis Dam.

Contemporary measures, like those taken at Hetch Hetchy/O'Shaughnessy and at other gravity dams in California to provide for drainage up the canyon walls of a dam site, did not escape attention at the coroner's inquest. The issue prompted frank comments in the testimony of M. H. Slocum, the construction supervisor at Exchequer and Scott dams and a participant in the foundation preparation and early concrete placement at Hetch Hetchy.

Q. [By the Coroner]: In your opinion, how could undermining of the foundation [of St. Francis Dam] have been prevented?

A. [Slocum]: On other work of such a character with which I have been connected, it has been done by putting in drainage holes, connected up to a drainage gallery which intercepts the water practically at the upstream base, taking away the uplift and letting it run off downstream without any pressure.

Q. [By a Juror]: Is it common practice to run the drainage lines you are speaking of pretty well up the sides of the hills?

A. Drainage galleries in Exchequer, Hetch-Hetchy, [and] Snow Mountain run to all intents and purposes to the top of the dams, clear to the top.

Q. Have you ever seen or heard of a dam which you considered to be a safe and properly designed dam, which didn't provide some means of draining up the sides?

A. I have been to a great many dams, and to my memory I can't remember of any that haven't had drainage, drainage galleries in them of the gravity type, not of strict arch type, this [St. Francis] was a gravity type. (112)

Additional evidence could be cited to demonstrate the awareness of America's dam-building engineering community, prior to the St. Francis disaster, of the threat posed by uplift and of the extensive measures taken to offset its effect. (113) But the material presented here justifies the observation in 1927 of noted engineer Fred Noetzli: "conservative engineering requires that gravity dams be designed for uplift." It also underscores that such conservatism was hardly an anomaly by the 1920s. (114) Why Mulholland ignored the tocsin sounded by numerous engineers--both in print and in practice--over the dangers of uplift remains a mystery. After all, he was supposedly a voracious, self-schooled devotee of technical information. (115) But labeling the rationale for his actions as somehow mysterious does not excuse them. Many American clam builders of the teens and 1920s understood the importance of countering uplift with measures that went far beyond the meager steps taken at St. Francis Dam. Mulholland stood apart from his contemporaries on this crucial issue of safety and the results proved tragic.


William Mulholland was often admired for his ability to meet complex challenges, but he was not inclined to seek the counsel of his peers. His go-it-alone approach at St. Francis did not accord with the common practice of dam builders and the organizations financing construction to consult with outside experts. When, for example, John Freeman set out in 1909 to design Big Bend Dam in northern California for the Great Western Power Company, he secured the services of Arthur Powell Davis and Mulholland as consultants on the project. Two years later, the same company engaged the highly respected engineers James Schuyler and Alfred Noble to review John gastwood's design for the nearby Big Meadows Dam. (116) Similarly, in 1916-1917, while planning construction of the municipally owned Lower Otay and Barrett dams in San Diego County, Hiram Savage sought the advice of well-known dam engineer A. J. Wiley. (117)

Outside of California between 1907 and 1916, New York City relied upon a panel of engineering consultants to help design the Catskill water supply system (including the Ashokan/Olive Bridge Dam); the Miami Conservancy District (a model for the Tennessee Valley Authority) engaged a group of consulting engineers in 1913 to review designs for flood-control dams in central Ohio; (118) and the Reclamation Service (later Bureau) initiated a policy in 1903 requiring dam designs and other projects to be reviewed by "engineering boards." (119) In April 1928, the bureau rushed to remind the public and fellow engineers of this policy: "The recent unfortunate failure of the St. Francis Dam in California," announced the bureau in Engineering News-Record, justifies "special mention of the extensive geological and engineering investigations that preceded the approval of the site and designs for the Owyhee Dam" that included three geologists and three engineers not on the bureau staff. (120)

Significantly, Mulholland himself had on at least one occasion recognized the value of outside review. In 1912 he requested Arthur P. Davis to visit the Lower San Fernando Dam site. His reason for doing so is telling, because the explanation could apply with equal force to later dams for which he sought no outside review. "I requested or rather suggested to the Board of Public Service Commissioners," Mulholland told Davis, "that an engineer be employed to examine the proposed San Fernando Dam [site] when it is stripped in order to clear them of any charge that might be brought in the future of having proceeded with the work without competent advice." Here, Mulholland advocated a principle that he thereafter largely ignored. (121)

There were other reasons for Mulholland to have recognized the desirability for seeking outside review of his dam projects. In 1918 his work had attracted public scrutiny after the partial collapse of the earthfill Calaveras Dam. That incident involved a major section of hydraulic fill that "slipped" upstream into the reservoir and required a major reconstruction effort to rectify. Mulholland had supervised the dam's construction starting in 1913 as a consulting engineer for San Francisco's privately owned Spring Valley Water Company. The failure was especially embarrassing since Calaveras was an earthen-hydraulic fill dam, a type that Mulholland had significant experience in building. Indeed, Rogers--apparently unaware of the Calaveras fiasco--places Mulholland among the "founding fathers" of this construction technique. (122) Michael M. O'Shaughnessy, the engineer responsible for San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy project, visited the Calaveras site in 1913, soon complaining to John Freeman about Mulholland's "sloppy" and "slipshod and crude" construction methods. Even more pointedly, O'Shaughnessy opined that Mulholland and his assistant were "so intensely conceited that they imagine all they might do should be immune from criticism." (123)

Prior to the St. Francis failure, Mulholland also ignored sharp professional criticism from Frederick Finkle, an engineer who, a few years before, had publicly rebuked him for using faulty cement in the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Even discounting the fact that it emanated from an earlier detractor of his work, this critique should have given Mulholland pause. In 1924, Finkle visited the St. Francis site at the request of the Santa Monica Anti-Annexation Committee and soon criticized "defects of design and foundation materials" as well as "unfavorable" geological conditions. The latter was supported by tests revealing the propensity of the red conglomerate to dissolve when submerged in water. Finkle also described the structure's base as "insufficient" and "not in accordance with sound engineering practice." His eerily prescient apprehensions--"I would hesitate to recommend a concrete dam on such a foundation"--found their way into the local press along with his prediction: "This dam, if kept full for any length of time, ... will unquestionably fail." (124) Finkle's warning came prior to the dam's construction but, perhaps because Mulholland dismissed Finkle as some kind of biased naysayer, he ignored it and made no effort to seek significant, independent review of the St. Francis project.

Rogers acknowledges that Mulholland's "omission of any outside consultants to review the [St. Francis] dam's design" was a "weak link in [his] design process." But he fails to see any connection between the dam's collapse and that "weak link." Moreover, he neglects Mulholland's inexperience in building concrete dams. O'Shaughnessy did not miss the connection and seven months after the St. Francis failure, he bluntly told California State Engineer Edward Hyatt: "Los Angeles made an error in committing its policies of high concrete dam construction to one man, whose previous experience had been confined to building low head, hydraulic filled dams.... This was no justification for entrusting him with the design and construction of a high head masonry dam, hence they [Los Angeles] are now paying the bill." (125)

Rogers, in a published interview, also confounds his own judgments about Mulholland's competence by reversing course and indicting "the Chief" for flaws that he (Rogers) had previously rejected or ignored. Mulholland's "Achilles heel," states Rogers in the 2000 interview, was "his thriftiness," his ability "to build enormous projects at a fraction of the cost [that] any other public agency was able to achieve," a practice that explains "why his services were sought by so many." His parsimony, explains Rogers, "led to many aspects of dam design that were omitted from St. Francis, which might have saved the dam from failing. These included items such as seepage cut-offs, foundation keyways, grout curtains, additional uplift relief, expansion joints, inspection gallery, geologic evaluations, and any manner of external consulting, outside his own BWWS [Bureau of Water Works and Supply] staff." (126)

Such criticism stands in contrast to Rogers's contentions in his two articles that Mulholland and the dam-building profession "did not completely appreciate or understand the concepts of effective stress and uplift, precepts just then beginning to gain recognition and acceptance." (127) Which way would Rogers have it--that the St. Francis Dam disaster was due to Mulholland's parsimony, which led him to omit technologies for countering uplift; or that it was due to his ignorance of those technologies and their value as "inherent redundancies" (to borrow Rogers's phrasing) in countering uplift? (128) While we appreciate Rogers's descriptions of the mechanics of the dam's collapse--as we do the analyses of the Grunskys, Willis, Outland, and others whose earlier findings he affirmed--his ventures into the historical interpretation of Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam disaster possess far less cogency.


Unlike Outland's dispassionate, yet moving, account in Man-Made Disaster, Rogers specifically sought to rescue Mulholland's reputation and correct what he perceived as injustices done to the "Chief" in the wake of the dam's collapse. He expressed that goal candidly in his Southern California Quarterly article under the heading "Requiem for Mulholland":
 we should be so lucky as to have any men
 with just half his character, integrity, imagination
 and leadership today. Big Bill Mulholland
 was the kind of rugged individualist that
 [sic] made great things happen, but his style
 of standing on principle would never be
 seen as "politically correct" in the style of
 today's committee-sitting, bean counting,
 lawyer-consulting, image-conscious compromisers.
 Mulholland would sooner "give birth
 to a porcupine backwards" than to have to
 work inside air conditioned buildings sitting
 in padded chairs with people of compromising
 principle. (129)

In this article we offer a distinct counterpoint to Rogers's perspective. We also take issue with any notion that Mulholland's conduct in raising the height of St. Francis Dam without increasing the base's thickness--or his failure to design the dam in accord with the same appreciation for uplift as practiced by his contemporaries--can in any way be countenanced as somehow "standing on principle."

Significantly, evidence suggests that Mulholland actually was treated rather gently following the dam's collapse. Not kindly disposed toward him, of course, were residents of the Santa Clara Valley as dramatically reflected in the sign erected by one woman in her front yard: "KILL MULHOLLAND!" Moreover, his granddaughter has recalled that "threats were made against his life, and he lived with an armed guard around his home." But his professional colleagues did not publicly pillory him. The Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners rejected demands for his immediate dismissal and he stayed on as Chief Engineer for several months until resigning in November 1928. Even then, the city retained him as a consultant at a salary of $500 a month, a post he held till his death seven years later. (130)

Public honors continued to come his way and city officials in April 1928 invited him as a guest of honor at a luncheon celebrating the new Los Angeles City Hall. He declined, but invitations continued to arrive, including one (not accepted) to the White House ceremony in December 1928 where President Calvin Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act into law. An invitation that he did accept came in 1933 from the Los Angeles Water and Power Commission, which honored him "for producing a supply of water in the City of Los Angeles adequate for the uses of a population calculated on an unprecedentedly rapid basis of increase." There were also tributes, like that in 1933 from Western Construction News, which honored him "as a man of history and the maker of Los Angeles." They continued even after his death in praise-filled obituaries and other accolades, some making no mention of the St. Francis Dam collapse. Despite the honors coming during the years prior to his death in 1935, Mulholland withdrew from the public and fell into melancholy. He apparently anguished over the devastation wrought by the St. Francis flood and took little solace from those who remembered him as a "big man" and a person of "sterling quality" for accepting responsibility for the disaster. (131)

Many prominent engineers avoided public comments that might cast aspersions on or disturb the "Chief," but their private thoughts could be less than supportive. Consider what Arthur P. Davis wrote to John Freeman following a visit to the dam site on March 19, 1928. Emphasizing that his comments were to be held in confidence, Davis observed that conditions "all pointed to the vital necessity of preventing any percolation into the foundation" and he bemoaned the lack of a "deep cut-off trench," "deep grouting," and "adequate drainage wells." Making specific reference to the Elephant Butte, Ashokan/Olive Bridge, and Arrowrock dams, he went so far as to say that, "had provisions existed [at St. Francis], as established by recent practice ... [at] many other existing dams, the accident might have been avoided." (132)

J. B. Lippincott wrote to Freeman in March 1928 about the disaster, prefacing his remarks with the admission: "I have been very careful to avoid discussing this in any public way because of my old friendship and respect for Mr. Mulholland." But this public reticence did not prevent him from acknowledging the problematic character of the "broken schist" encountered in San Francisquito Canyon during construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. "The foundations on which the dam was built were not good," he admitted, adding: "It is my understanding that the dam had little of anything under it in the way of a drainage system." (133) In reply, Freeman confessed that he, too, was avoiding public discussion of the disaster: "I have been careful ... to say nothing [to newspaper reporters] regarding the Los Angeles dam which could come back to hurt Mulholland." He followed this disclosure with candid criticism of Mulholland for his habit of not consulting independent experts: "[he] does not appreciate the benefit of calling in men from outside to get their better prospective [sic] and their independent point of view." (134) To another colleague, Freeman reinforced the point: "This [St. Francis Dam] site plainly required many precautions that were ignored, and while I have the highest personal regard for my good old friend William Mulholland, I can but feel that he trusted too much to his own individual knowledge, particularly for a man who had no scientific education." (135)


The St. Francis disaster quickly spawned a new California dam-safety law that eliminated the municipal exemption. After 1929, all the state's non-federal dams came under the authority of the Department of Public Works and the administrative oversight of the State Engineer (later assumed by the Division of Safety of Dams). (136) Many people believe that the 1929 law created regulatory mechanisms responsible for saving thousands of lives. A case in point was the near-collapse of Mulholland's Lower San Fernando Dam during the 1971 San Fernando Valley earthquake. "If it had not been for the [storage] restrictions imposed by the Division of Safety of Dams," states engineer Irving Sherman, "the water level in the reservoir might have been ten feet higher than what it actually was--in which case the [hydraulic-fill earthen] dam would have been overtopped and at least partially washed away." Instead, "the 80,000 people downstream ... were temporarily evacuated until after the danger had passed." (137)

But regulation is a double-edged sword, and the development of innovative dam technologies was not necessarily advanced by the 1929 law. While gravity-dam design may have escaped stagnation, the new law proved enormously burdensome to hoped-for advances in multiple-arch dam technology and, in California, did much to eliminate the technology from the realm of acceptable design. (138) Of course, the sad truth is that the St. Francis Dam design did not draw upon any innovative advances in dam technology that might somehow have unwittingly fostered failure. Far from it, for in terms of large-scale concrete gravity dams of the 1920s, Mulholland's St. Francis design was, to borrow a phrase from architectural history, a retardaire structure. It suffered not from creative innovation but from an egregious lack thereof.

More than any other person, Mulholland shaped Los Angeles's water policy and laid the foundation for the modern city. When he resigned in 1928 the city's oil, motion picture, real estate, and tourist industries were booming; the Department of Water and Power had become the most powerful municipal agency in the United States; and Los Angeles was in the vanguard of a host of southern California cities embarking on a new phase of water-seeking that would reach to the Colorado River. But such achievement had not come without great human, psychic, and economic costs--among them the collapse of a dam in the remote reaches of the upper Santa Clara Valley that took more than 400 lives.

Despite equivocations, denial of dangers that he knew--or reasonably should have known--existed, pretense to scientific knowledge regarding gravity-dam technology that he possessed neither through experience nor education, and invocations of "hoodoos," William Mulholland understood the great privilege that had been afforded him to build the St. Francis Dam where and how he chose. Because of this privilege--and the decisions that he made--William Mulholland bears responsibility for the St. Francis Dam disaster. (139)


(1) Charles Outland, Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St. Francis Dam (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1977), 51-150, 249; J. David Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster: Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam," Southern California Quarterly 77 (Spring/ Summer 1995): 89, passim; David G. McCullough, The Johnstown Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968).

(2) At the rebuilt Power Plant No. 2, about a mile and a half below the dam site, there was, until recently, only a small bronze plaque commemorating the disaster. It sat off the road behind a chain-link fence and beyond notice of bypassing motorists. Now joining that plaque is a larger and more noticeable wooden sign, but, like the plaque, it is behind the fence at the power plant rather than at the dam site.

(3) Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1981); William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water--A History, rev ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 141-171.

(4) J. David Rogers, "Reassessment of the St. Francis Dam Failure," in Bernard W. Pipkin and Richard J. Proctor, eds., Engineering Geology Practice in Southern California (Belmont, CA: Association of Engineering Geologists, Southern California Section, Special Publication No. 4, 1992), 639-666; Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 1-109. For the 1997 interview, see Ann Lucius, "Cause of Dam Failure Discovered ... Almost 70 Years Later," Water Operation and Maintenance Bulletin (June 1997): 33-36 (a copy of this Bureau of Reclamation-sponsored publication is in the Water Resources Center Archives, Berkeley). For the interview in 2000, see L.A. Grim Society Interview with J. David Rogers about the St. Francis Dam (Feb. 2000) included on a CD supplied by Rogers to numerous individuals, including the authors, who have deposited it in the Water Resources Center Archives, Berkeley. The interview- (with a slightly different title) is also available on the Grim Society's web site (, but there is no guarantee that it will remain there. Moreover, the contents of the interview on the web site are more difficult to cite than the contents on the CD. Both versions lack pagination, but the interview on the CD is more user friendly because numbers have been assigned to each of the questions put to Rogers and his responses. Also included on the CD are sundry images, photos, drawings, and other materials assembled by Rogers on the St. Francis Dam disaster.

(5) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 237 ("In the final analysis ..."); Rogers, "Reassessment of the St. Francis Dam Failure," 639 ("a modern ..."), 663; Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 82; Grim Society Interview, answer to question 20 ("civil engineering community").

(5) Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 88 ("rugged individualist"; "we should be so lucky ...").

(7) Los Angeles Times, Oct. 25, 1992 ("The Night ..."); Margaret Leslie Davis, Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 264 ("exoneration"); Ruth Pittman, Roadside History of California (Missoula, MT: Mountain West Publishing Co., 1995), 233 ("geological knowledge ..."); Kim Weir, Southern California Handbook (Chico, CA: Moon Publications, 1998), 230 ("The general condemnation of ..."); Catherine Mulholland, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (Berkeley: University Press of California, 2000), 382, note 4 ("masterly"; "apparent vindication ..."). See also Lucius, "Cause of Dam Failure Discovered," 33-36; Kermit Pattison, "Why Did the Dam Burst?" Invention and Technology 13 (Summer 1998): 23-31; Paul H. Rippens, "The Night of the Flood: The Failure of the St. Francis Dam," The Branding Iron: The Westerners, Los Angeles Corral (No. 212, Summer 1998): r, 3-7. Also reflecting Rogers's influence was a February, 2003, article by Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University: "many of the design features of St. Francis Dam ... were in accordance with standard engineering practice of the time." Unlike Rogers, however, Petroski does not absolve Mulholland of responsibility for the dam's failure. He accuses him of hubris and inattention to the structure's faulty foundation: "William Mulholland and his staff had evidently so gained confidence in their mastery of the great hydraulic forces pent tip behind the successful dams they had built that they began to build them with less and less attention to detail...." Henry Petroski, "St. Francis Dam," American Scientist 91 (March-April 2003): 116 ("many of the design features ..."), 117 ("William Mulholland and his staff ...").

(8) No mention of a San Francisquito Canyon reservoir is made in Allan Kelly, Historical Sketch of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (Los Angeles: Times-Mirror Printing and Binding House, 1913) or Los Angeles Department of Public Service, Complete Report on the Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (Los Angeles: Department of Public Service of the City of Los Angeles, 1916). Both mention the possibility of large reservoirs at Long Valley and Tinemaha (about six miles north of the intake). Kelly, Historical Sketch, 29-30; Los Angeles Department of Public Service, Complete Report, 25, 273-274.

(9) Los Angeles Board of Public Service Commissioners, Ezra Scattergood, "Respecting St. Francis Reservoir" (Aug. 31, 1933), 2 ("provide emergency water supply ...") in A. J. Mullen to John R. Haynes, Feb. 21, 1934, William Mulholland Collection, Historical Records Program, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Archives: Twenty-first Annual Report, 1922, 6, 8-9; Los Angeles Board of Public Service Commissioners, Twenty-second Annual Report for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1923 (Los Angeles: Board of Public Service Commissioners, 1923), 5-9, 23-25, 24 ("surplus water ...").

(10) Kahrl, Water and Power, 245-262, 311-312, 340-347; Hoffman, Vision or Villainy, 172-173, 260-261; Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Bureau of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of the Los Angeles Aqueduct to the Board of Public Works (Los Angeles: Department of Public Works, 1910, 42 ("exceedingly rough ...").

(11) Joseph B. Lippincott to John R. Freeman, March 29, 1928, box 54, John R. Freeman Papers (MC51), Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.

(12) Scattergood's August 31, 1933, memo, "Respecting St. Francis Reservoir," notes that he "strenuously opposed the construction of the St. Francis Reservoir for two reasons: (a) Because ... damage [to the city] each time the reservoir was filled exceeded $100,000.00 represented by added costs of power purchased from the Southern California Edison Company on account of" taking the water away from the San Francisquito Power Plant No. 2. (b) Because ... construction of a reservoir above Power Plant No. 1 either in the Boquet Canyon ... or in Elizabeth Lake Canyon ... would [have] ... added to the security and reliability of San Francisquito Power Plants Nos. 1 and 2 instead of being a detriment to power as was the St. Francis Reservoir." Memo attached to A. J. Mullen to John R. Haynes, Feb. 21, 1934, William Mulholland Collection.

(13) Calif. Statutes, chap. 337, sec. 2 (1917): 517-518. Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," p. 23, reports that, prior to the selection of the St. Francis site, Mulholland sought to use a site in Big Tujunga Canyon but dropped the idea because of the expense in obtaining control over the reservoir area. The St. Francis site is on public land in Angeles National Forest and a permit for its use as a municipal reservoir cost relatively little.

(14) Robert W. Matson, William Mulholland: A Forgotten Forefather (Stockton, CA: Pacific Center for Western Studies, University of the Pacific, 1976), 7; J. B. Lippincott, "William Mulholland--Engineer, Pioneer, Raconteur," Civil Engineering 2 (Feb.-March 1940: 106: Catherine Mulholland, William Mulholland, 28; Harvey A. Van Norman, "William Mulholland," American Society of Civil Engineers Transactions 101 (1936): 1605.

(15) Vincent Ostrom, Water & Politics: A Study of Water Policies and Administration in the Development of Los Angeles (Los Angeles: Haynes Foundation, 1953), 91-100. Because of special circumstances created by construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Mulholland, beginning in 1906, also reported to a special advisory committee within Board of Public Works on his role as chief engineer of the aqueduct.

(16) Lippincott' "William Mulholland," 161.

(17) "Transcript of Testimony and Verdict of the Coroner's Jury in the Inquest over Victims of St. Francis Dam Disaster" (hereafter Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest), 615-616, Book 26902, box 13, folder 2, Richard Courtney Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; Ostrom, Water & Politics, 98-99.

(18) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 615.

(19) Lippincott, "William Mulholland," 106-107 (George Read quotes); W. W. Hurlbut, "The Man and the Engineer," Western Construction News 1 (April 25, 1926): 44 ("an outstanding figure ..."); Matson, William Mulholland, 2 ("If Bill Mulholland should say ...").

(20) Hurlbut, "The Man and the Engineer," 44 ("the public at large realizes ..."; "Since time immemorial ...").

(21) As engineers would phrase it, the resultant force (or vector) created by adding the horizontal water pressure to the vertical weight of masonry must intersect the "middle third" of the base to ensure safety in a gravity dam. if the weight of the dam is reduced (or the height of the darn is increased without widening the base), this resultant force will necessarily fall closer to the downstream face. The closer it comes to the downstream face, the greater the dam's instability. For a good discussion of nineteenth-century gravity-dam design, see N.A.F. Smith, A History of Dams (Secaucus, NI: Citadel Press, 1972), 195-206: and Smith, "The Failure of the Bouzey Dam in 1895." Construction History 10 (1994), 47-65.

(22) Describing Liverpool's 136-foot-high Vyrnwy Dam, completed in 1892, Smith, A History of Dams, notes that "concern about the effects of water percolating through a dam [explains] ... why it was fitted with a network of drainage tunnels, apparently the first dam to feature such equipment" (p. 206).

(23) Early publications that discuss ways to mitigate the effect of uplift include C. L. Harrison, "Provision for Uplift and Icethrust in Masonry Dams," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 65 (1912): 142-225; and Charles E. Morrison and Orrin L. Brodie, Masonry Dam Design Including High Masonry Dams (New York: John Wiley, 1916), 1-15.

(24) For an insightful critique of the gravity dam design, see George Holmes Moore, "Neglected First Principles of Masonry Dam Design," Engineering News 70 (Sept. 4, 1913): 442-445.

(25) Frederick H. Newell, first Director of the U.S. Reclamation Service, expressed such a perspective: "We [the Reclamation Service] have been inclined to adhere to the older, more conservative type of solid dam, largely perhaps because of the desire to have them appear so and recognized by the public as in accord with established practice." F. H. Newell to A. H. Dimock, April 16, 1912, entry 3, file: "Discussion Related to Dams," Denver Federal Records Center, Record Group 115 (Reclamation Service).

(26) For the Hollywood and St. Francis designs, Rogers speculates that "concrete was likely chosen over earth because of the relative paucity of the clayey material within the abutment materials, basic requisites for any earthfill embankment." Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 24.

(27) For Mulholland's decision that the Hollywood plans be adapted to the St. Francis site, see Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 332-334. Brief descriptions of the construction of Weid Canyon Dam appear in "Air and Water Jet Cleans Concrete Surface for Next Pour," Engineering News-Record 93 (Aug. 28, 1924): 351; and "Truck Hauls Plums Directly Onto Dam," Engineering News-Record 93 (Oct. 23, 1924): 680. See also Los Angeles Board of Public Service Commissioners, Twenty-second Annual Report for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1923 (Los Angeles, 1923), 9. One-paragraph notices of the St. Francis Dam's construction appear in "Los Angeles Building New Dam in San Francisquito Canyon," Engineering News-Record 94 (March 19, 1925): 497; and "St. Francis Dam Added to Los Angeles Water System," Engineering News-Record 96 (May 6, 1926): 743.

(28) See Los Angeles Department of Public Service, Complete Report on the Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 250, for the organization of aqueduct construction.

(29) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 220 ("the cross sectional transfer profile ..."). In the Inquest transcript, Bayley's name is sometimes incorrectly spelled "Bailey"). Bayley likely used as a guide Charles E. Morrison and Orrin L. Brodie, Masonry Dam Design, Including High Masonry Dams (New York: John Wiley, 1916) and William Creager, Masonry Dams (New York: John Wiley, 1917). For evidence that the city drew upon formulas presented in Morrison and Brodie's book when developing the St. Francis design, see Report of the Commission Appointed by Governor C.C. Young to Investi-gate the Causes Leading to the Failure of the St. Francis Dam near Saugus, California (Sacramento, CA: State Printing Office, 1918), 31.

(30) At times Bayley's testimony on who was responsible for aspects of the design process is confusing and contradictory. For example, after first stating that Mulholland prepared the stress diagrams for Hollywood Dam, Bayley later testified that he was responsible for them (Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 239, 346). On another occasion, he testified that it was his "understand[ing]" but "I don't know it as a fact" that William Wilkinson, a draftsman with the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, prepared the designs for St. Francis Dam. Later, William Hurlburt, office engineer for the design of St. Francis Dam, testified that those "drawings, the tracings, and computations" were made by Stevens--no first name was given. (Ibid., 219, 332). Neither Wilkinson nor Stevens was called to testify.

(31) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 225 (all quotes).

(32) Ibid., 334.

(33) Ibid., 336-337.

(34) "St. Francis Dam Added to Los Angeles Water System," Engineering News-Record 96 (May 6, 1916): 743.

(35) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 29-30, 230 ("the dam had been born with a stub toe"). A height of 205 feet with a storage capacity of 38,000 acre-feet is provided in "Los Angeles Building New Dam in San Francisquito Canyon," Engineering News-Record 94 (March 19, 1925): 497. For a chronology of the reservoir's enlargement, see typewritten transcript, "Re St. Francis Dam Disaster: Official Action Taken by the Board of Public Service Commissioners and the Board of Water and Power Commissioners of the City of Los Angeles Relative to the Saint Francis Reservoir," Outland Collection, Ventura County Museum of History and Art, Ventura, CA On a related issue, it should be noted that, in November 1914, Owens Valley ranchers took control of the Alabama Gates and began releasing water out of the aqueduct before it could flow south to Los Angeles. This disruption of the city's water supply caused much anguish for Mulholland and the Bureau of Public Service. It may simply be coincidence that the seizing of the Alabama Gates was followed a few months later by the announcement of an enlarged St. Francis reservoir. Still, the whole point of the St. Francis reservoir was to provide water storage at a point close to the city and far removed from the Owens Valley. It would make sense that the Alabama Gates incident would prompt Mulholland to find a way to increase storage capacity near the city. Whether this was the reason for raising the dam height after construction had commenced cannot be ascertained with certainty. Kahrl, Water and Power, 292-294.

(36) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 30-36, 46, 49, and 51.

(37) Other investigations were sponsored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, and the Santa Clara Water Conservation District.

(38) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 69, 66-68, 193-194 passim.

(39) Report of the Commission Appointed by Governor C.C. Young, 16 ("the foundation under the ..."; "The west end ..."; "The rush of water ..."; "quickly followed ..."); Elwood Mead, Louis C. Hill, and Lansing H. Beach, Report of the Committee Appointed by the City Council of Los Angeles to Investigate and Report the Cause of the Failure of the St. Francis Dam (Los Angeles: March 31, 1918), 20 ("red conglomerate"; "the sequence of failure ..."); 24 ("defective foundations"), Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, file WPO1-80:1, Historical Records Program, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Also in essential agreement was the investigation sponsored by the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners: Robert T. Hill, C. F. Tolman, and D. W. Murphy, Report on the Failure of the St. Francis Dam on March 12, 1928 (Los Angeles: April 12, 1928), ibid., file WPO1-80:2.

(40) Report of the Commission Appointed by Governor C.C. Young, 16 ("With such a formation ..."), 18 ("defective foundations"); "Engineering Committee of the City Council," 735-736.

(41) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, "Verdict of Coroner's Jury," 1-11. The "Verdict of Coroner's Jury" is a separately paginated section (pp. 1-11).

(42) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, "Verdict of Coroner's Jury," see pp. 2 and 5 for the quotations.

(43) Ibid., see pp. 2-3 and 10-11 for the quotations.

(44) Ibid., see pp. 5, 10-11 for quotations.

(45) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 750-753.

(46) Halbert P. Gillette, "Three Unreliable Reports on the St. Francis Dam Failure," Water Works 67 (May 1928): 177-178; Gillette, "Some Lessons Taught by the St. Francis Dam Failure," ibid., 178-179; and Gillette, "The Cause of the St. Francis Dam Failure," ibid., 181-186.

(47) Gillette, "The Cause of the St. Francis Dam Failure," 182 ("the schist on the east bank ...").

(48) Charles H. Lee, "Theories of the Cause and Sequence of Failure of the St. Francis Dam," Western Construction News 3 (June 25, 1928): 405-408, 407 ("quite possibl[y] ..."); 408 ("the immediate cause ..."); ibid. (May 25, 1928): 343; Charles H. Lee, "Discussion" (May 25, 1928), Charles H. Lee Papers, file MS/76/1 98L14C, Water Resources Center Archives, University of California, Berkeley. For Lee's retention as a consulting engineer by the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light, see Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 655.

(49) "Carl Ewald Grunsky," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 100 (1935): 1591-1595; C.E. and E.L. Grunsky, "St. Francis Dam Failure at Midnight, March 12-13, 1918," Western Construction News 3 (May 25, 1928): 314-320; Bailey Willis, "Report on the Geology of St. Francis Damsite, Los Angles County, California," Western Construction News 3 (June 25, 1928): 409-413, 409 ("geological studies ..."); Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 16 ("brilliant engineer").

(50) Grunsky and Grunsky, "St. Francis Dam Failure," 314-320, 314 ("independently"; "which are in ..."); Willis, "Report on the Geology of St. Francis Damsite," 409-413.

(51) Grunsky and Grunsky, "St. Francis Dam Failure," 319 ("a great hydrostatic force under ..."); 310 ("At the west end ..."; "The old slide ..."); Willis, "Report on the Geology of St. Francis Damsite," 410 ("the schist ... is traversed ..."; "When it [the old landslide] ..."); 412 ("The east abutment was located ..."); 413 ("but the critical situation ...").

(52) Grunsky and Grunsky, "St. Francis Dam Failure," 316 ("no measures ..."; "thorough hillside ..."), 319 ("at a full reservoir ...").

(53) "Sixth Report on St. Francis Dam Offers New Theories," Engineering News-Record 100 (June 7, 1928): 895 ("old slide"; "lower portion"; "became active ..."); "Sliding versus Scouring," Engineering News-Record 100 (June 7, 1928): 879; C. E. Grunsky and E. L. Grunsky, "The Grunsky Report on the Failure of the St. Francis Dam," Engineering News-Record 101 (July 26, 1928): 144; Report of the Commission Appointed by Governor C.C. Young, 18 ("defective foundations"); "Essential Facts Concerning the Failure of the St. Francis Dam: Report of the Committee of the Board of Directors," Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers (Oct. 1929): 2147-2163. This latter article blandly concluded that "some of the [investigating] reports express the belief that the break-up started at the west abutment, others at the east, and others reach no conclusion on this point" (p. 2163). C. S. Walters, Dam Geology (London: Butterworth, 1962), 48-49, echoes the governor's commission in reporting that the conglomerate on the west (right) abutment caused the failure because "the hillside on the right bank disintegrated."

(54) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 193 ("A worried water-short ..."), 194 ("Governor Hunt knew ..."); Beverley Bowen Moeller, Phil Swing and Boulder Dam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), 111 (without tying too close ...").

(55) Mulholland's association with Boulder Dam is noted in Mulholland, William Mulholland, 279-284, 305,316-317.

(56) The bureau's financial problems are described in Brian Q. Cannon, "We Are Now Entering a New Era: Federal Reclamation and the Fact Finding Commission of 1923-1924," Pacific Historical Review 66 (May 1997): 185-211.

(57) Other members of these investigating panels included Louis C. Hill and D. C. Henny (both consultants on the Boulder Dam Board), Frederick L. Ransome (consulting geologist for Boulder Dam), and Raymond F. Walter (the Bureau's Chief Engineer). U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Boulder Canyon Project Final Reports, Part IV--Design and Construction, Boulder Dam (Denver: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1941), iv.

(58) Report of the Commission Appointed by Governor C.C. Young, 16 ("such a dam ..."); 18 ("there is nothing ...").

(59) "William Mulholland Still a Big Man," Western Construction News 3 (April 10, 1928): 223; Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest), 378 ("Don't blame anybody else ...").

(60) Richard Wright, chief criminal deputy, Los Angeles County, headed an investigation of the "rumors, suspicions that dynamite might have caused the destruction of St. Francis Dam." Among those rumors was one triggered about a year earlier when "an officer received a telephone message from some unknown party stating that there were men on the way from Inyo County for the purpose of dynamiting St. Francis Dam." Wright uncovered no credible evidence to support that rumor or any others. Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 546 ("rumors, suspicions ..."); 546-547 ("an officer received ...").

(61) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 16 ("We overlooked ..."); 23 ("I have a suspicion ..."); 25 ("Vulnerable against ..."); 376-377 ("I have a very strong opinion ..."), 377 ("tell us"); Catherine Mulholland, William Mulholland, 328 ("In accepting ...").

(62) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 25 (all quotes).

(63) Ibid., 379, 380 (all quotes).

(64) Ibid., 379 ("my men ..."); 380 ("How much ..."; "Didn't spend ..."; "over the mark ...").

(65) Ibid., 621-623 (all quotes).

(66) "Wilbur Fisk McClure," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 91 (1927): 1106-1109; Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 379 ("I think there was ..."). Exactly when McClure made his half-day visit to the dam site is uncertain, but it likely occurred in December 1924 when he was working to help resolve a conflict between Owens Valley ranchers and the city resulting from the takeover of the Alabama Gates. Kahrl, Water and Power, 294.

(67) The approval process for Littlerock Dam is described in Donald C. Jackson's, Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 198-205. The most commonly used name for this structure is Littlerock Dam. At times, it is also referred to as Palmdale Dam, Littlerock Creek Dam, and Littlerock Dam.

(68) "Memorandum Inspection Trip of Little Rock-Palmdale Irrigation District by A. F. McConnell, August 7, 1922." A subheading on the memo indicates that: "Order for Inspection Trip Given by Mr. McClure and transmitted by Mr. Bailey [McClure's Deputy Engineer]." Memo in the Littlerock Dam file, Division of Safety of Dams, California Department of Water Resources.

(69) "Little Rock Creek Dam. Test on Cement Specimen No. 9238. Test by Raymond G. Osborne, Los Angeles, September 22, 1922"; "Little Rock Creek Dam, E.C. Eaton, November 27, 1922"; Little Rock Creek Dam, Memorandums of Trips on December 14th and 21st, 1922, E.C. Eaton, 12/24/22"; "Little Rock Dam, E.C. Eaton, September 11, 1923"; and "Little Rock Dam, E.C. Eaton, January 22nd, 1924" (all memos in Littlerock Dam file, Division of Safety of Dams); W.F. McClure to Littlerock Creek Irrigation District, June 5, 1924, Littlerock Creek Irrigation District files, Littlerock, California; Jackson, Building the Ultimate Dam, 306-307, note 75.

(70) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 87-88.

(71) "Verdict of the Coroner's Jury," Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, pp. 1-11, 9; 100 (May 10, 1928): 734-735, 735 ("infallibility in matters ..."); Calif. Statutes, chap. 337, sec. 2 (1917): 517-518, chap. 766 (1929): 1505-1514. For a discussion of California's 1929 dam-safety law, see A.H. Markwart and M.C. Hinderlider, "Public Supervision of Dams: A Symposium," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 98 (1933): 828-887.

(72) For an appreciation of Outland, see Abraham Hoffman, "Charles F. Outland, Local Historian," Southern California Quarterly 77 (Spring/Summer, 1995): 165-180.

(73) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), chaps. 12-13; Grunsky and Grunsky, "St. Francis Dam Failure," 314-323; Willis, "Report on the Geology of St. Francis Damsite," 409-413. While Outland agreed with the Grunskys that uplift contributed to the dam's failure, he believed that it somehow followed, rather than precipitated, the collapse of the east abutment.

(74) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 232 ("admittedly ..."), 235 ("Ever since ...").

(75) Ibid., 224, 235 ("mountain of schist"; "real villain"). Outland wrote that the east abutment gave way in a "huge slide action with a mighty lateral thrust" that produced "sharp tilting of the dam's center section" (p. 224), which, in turn, broke the "western wing of the dam ... and rocked it to the east" (p. 232).

(76) Ibid., 237 ("In the final analysis ...").

(77) Ibid., 34-37, 237 ("No one ..."); Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Bureau of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of the Los Angeles Aqueduct to the Board of Public Works (Los Angeles: Department of Public Works, 1911), 42 ("the [aqueduct] line ...").

(78) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 201-202 ("Construction photographs ...").

(79) Ibid., 29, 30 ("Changes in plans ..."), 230 ("the dam had been born with a stub toe").

(80) Rogers, "Reassessment of the St. Francis Dam Failure," 639 ("the dam failure sequence ...").

(81) Lucius, "Cause of Dam Failure Discovered ... Almost 70 Years Later," 34 ("when the ground ..."; "we know now ..."; "the thing keeping ...").

(82) Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 90 ("definitive work ...").

(83) Rogers, "Reassessment of the St. Francis Dam Failure," 639, 663 ("omission of any ..."; "weak link ..."); Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 82 ("omission of any ..."; "weak link ...").

(84) Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 27-28 ("potentially dangerous ..."). Rogers indicates a maximum base width for the dam of 148 feet on p. 29. See also Rogers, "Reassessment of the St. Francis Dam Failure," 639; Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 29-30, 201.

(85) Outland, Man-Made Disaster (1977), 237 ("responsibility"; "alone"); Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 81-82 ("Mulholland and his ..."; "did not completely appreciate ..."), 86 ("assigning blaine ..."), 89 ("larger culprits"; "a proper appreciation ..."; "incorporation of ..."); Rogers, "Reassessment of the St. Francis Dam Failure," 633, 639; Grim Society Interview, answer to question 20 ("civil engineering community").

(86) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 28-29.

(87) To reach the dam's final height, it was necessary to build a dike (or "wing wall section") atop the ridge forming the west abutment. This approximately ten-foot-high dike involved the excavation of a shallow trench, but the dike--which played no role in the disaster--was completely separate from the main curved-gravity structure. A small concrete "cut-off wall" was built across the streambed at the dam's upstream face in order to facilitate dewatering and clearing of the foundation. This wall, however, was not a trench that extended down into the foundation; it also did not extend up either canyon wall.

(88) Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 30.

(89) Mid-nineteenth century gravity-dam design is described by Norman A. F. Smith, "The Failure of the Bouzey Dam in 1895," Construction History to (1994), 47-65.

(90) I. Davidson, "George Deacon (1843-1909) and the Vrynwy Works," Transactions of the Newcomen Society 59 (1987-1988): 81-95, discusses how uplift figured into the design of Vrynwy Dam. Early theorizing on uplift by German professors Lieckfeldt, Keil, and Link is noted in Serge Leliavsky. Uplift in Gravity Dams (London: Constable & Co., 1958), 2-7. In the United States, a prominent article cautioned engineers in 1895 that upward pressure is not "an imaginary or remote danger." See John D. Van Buren, "Notes on High Masonry Dams," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 24 (1895): 493-520.

(91) Edward Godfrey, "The Failure of the Reservoir Wall at Winston," Engineering News 50 (Dec. 3, 1904): 672.

(92) Edward Godfrey, "Failure of the Hot Spring Dam," Engineering News 58 (July 11, 1908): 55; Charles E. Morrison and Orrin L. Brodie, High Masonry Dam Design (New York: John Wiley, 1910), 1-3, states that "no account is made [by Wegmann] of the condition of uplift due to water penetrating the mass of masonry, nor of the ice thrust acting horizontally.... Present practice requires, however, that these two factors be considered where a structure of great responsibility is proposed...."

(93) "The Failure of a Concrete Dam at Austin, Pa. on Sept. 30, 1911," Engineering News 66 (Oct. 5, 1911): 419-422; Marie Kathern Nuschke, The Dam That Could Not Break (Coudersport, PA: The Potter Enterprise, 1960) lists seventy-eight victims by name (p. 40).

(94) For biographical information, see "John Ripley Freeman," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 98 (1933): 1471-1476.

(95) John R. Freeman, "Some Thoughts Suggested by the Recent Austin Dam Failure Regarding Text Books on Hydraulic Engineering and Dam Design in General," Engineering News 66 (Oct. 19, 1911): 462-463, 462 ("the cause that probably led ..."; "uplift pressures may possibly occur ...").

(96) Alfred D. Flinn, "The New Kensico Dam," 772-779, 773 ("upward water pressure . ..."); Wegmann, Design and Construction of Dams (seventh ed., 1922), 431-433. Freeman served as consulting engineer for the Catskill Aqueduct system from 1906 until his death in 1932.

(97) Arthur P. Davis to L. C. Hill, Oct. 11, 1912 ("was caused by ..."), entry 3, box 793, Rio Grande Project, General Administration and Projects 1902-1919, Record Group 115, Federal Records Center, Denver.

(98) E. H. Baldwin, "Excavation for Foundation of Elephant Butte Dam," Engineering News 73 (Jan. 14, 1915): 49-55; Baldwin, "Grouting the Foundation of the Elephant Butte Dam," Engineering News-Record 78 (June 8, 1917): 625-628; Arthur P. Davis, Irrigation Works Constructed by the United States Government (New York: John Wiley, 1917), 243-245.

(99) Davis, Irrigation Works, 117; C. E. Grunsky, "Comments on a Few Dams and Reservoirs" The Military Engineer 23 (Nov.-Dec. 1930): 529.

(100) Walter Ward, "Building Black Canyon Irrigation Dam in Western Idaho," Engineering News-Record 93 (Nov. 20, 1924): 818-823, 818 ("drilled into the bedrock ..."; "the purpose of this ...").

(101) F. W. Hanna, "Designing a High Storage Dam for the Mokelumne Project," Engineering News-Record 100 (March 15, 1928): 444-446.

(102) Harrison, "Provision for Uplift and Ice-thrust in Masonry Dams," 142-225, 221 ("Each of the twenty ...").

(103) C. R. Weidner, "Experiments on Uplift Pressure in Masonry Dams," Engineering News 70 (July 31, 1913): 202-205; Letter from Edward Godfrey, Engineering News 70 (Aug. 21, 1913): 371.

(104) Chester W. Smith, The Construction of Masonry Dams (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1915), 100-109.

(105) Morrison and Brodie, Masonry Dam Design including High Masonry Dams, 8-9 ("There are several ways ...; "in the foundation ...").

(106) William Creager, Masonry Dams (New York: John Wiley, 1917), 12, 13, 16-18, 25-33, 46, 48-59, 61, 63, 68, 69, 79-98, 98-104, 117-119, 120-130, 135, 172.

(107) Ibid., vii ("the methods of design described ...").

(108) "Arched Gravity Danes to Be Built at Lower Otay and Barrett Dam Sites," Engineering News 74 (Aug. 12, 1916): 195-196, 195 ("continuous 12-[inch] sub drain ...").

(109) "Concrete Dam on Eel River Built on Shale Foundation," Engineering News-Record 86 (May 5, 1921): 750-754, 750 ("grouting below the cut-off wall ..."; "carry off seepage water ..."). B. C. Conduit designed Scott Dam.

(110) "Exchequer Dam Construction Plant Built in Narrow Canyon," Engineering News-Record 94 (May 28, 1925): 880-884. Designs "were prepared under the direction of A. J. Wiley ..." (p. 884). A photograph of Exchequer Dam showing drainage pipes extending rip the canyon walls is in folder 79, Charles Derleth Papers, Water Resources Center Archives, Berkeley.

(111) "Plant and Program on the Hetch Hetchy Dam," Engineering News-Record 89 (Sept. 21, 1922): 464-468,467 ("the [3' x 3' x 3'] porous concrete blocks ..."). The extensive drainage system devised for O'Shaughnessy Dam is documented in "Drainage System Showing Galleries, Wells, and Contraction Joints-Sheet No. 3," signed by Michael M. O'Shaughnessy in May 1919. A copy of this drawing is in folder 88, Charles Derleth Papers.

(112) Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 487-488.

(113) Ezra B. Whitman, "The New Loch Raven Dam at Baltimore, Md.," Engineering News 72 (Aug. 13, 1914): 331-337; "Upward Water Pressure Test Pipes Constructed in Concrete Dam," Engineering News-Record 82 (May 15, 1919): 954; "New Dam will Double Water Supply of Portland, Ore.," ibid. 98 (May, 26, 1927): 842-846; B. E. Torpen, "The Bull Run Storage Dam for Portland, Ore.," ibid. 103 (Aug. 8, 1929): 204-208. Construction of the 200-foot high, curved-gravity Bull Run Dane started in May 1927. Along with grouting and a large drainage system, "a cut-off trench ... excavated 6 feet below the finished foundation extend[ed] the entire length of the dam." Ibid., 204.

(114) Fred A. Noetzli, "Types of Storage Dams and Their Adaptation to Western Conditions," Modern irrigation: The Magazine of Applied Hydraulics 3 (June 1927): 21 ("Conservative engineering requires ..."). Research into how uplift acts on dams continued for decades after the St. Francis collapse. But the issue was never whether or not uplift existed or posed a threat. Rather, concern focused on theoretical means of precisely calculating uplift pressure in relation to: (a) the horizontal cross section of the dam or foundation (that is, the "area factor") and (b) how various technologies, such as cut-off trenches, grouting, drainage wells, etc. reduced uplift pressure (that is, the "intensity factor"). See, for example, Julian Hinds, "Upward Pressures Under Dams: Experiments by the United States Bureau of Reclamation," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 93 (2929): 1527-1582; D. C. Henny, "Stability of Straight Concrete Gravity Dams," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 99 (1934): 1041-1123; Arthur Casagrande, "Seepage Through Dams," Journal of the New England Water Works Association 51 (June 1937): 131-170; H. de B. Parsons, "Hydrostatic Uplift in Pervious Soils," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 93 (1929): 1317- 1366; E. W. Lane, "Security from Under-Seepage on Earth Foundations," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 100 (1935): 1235-1351; L. F. Harza, "Uplift and Seepage under Dams on Sand," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 100 (1935): 1352-1406; Ivan E. Houk and Kenneth B. Kenner, "Masonry Dams--A Symposium: Basic Design Assumptions," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 106 (1941): 1115-1130; Serge Leliavsky, "Experiments of Effective Uplift Area in Gravity Dams," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 112 (1947): 444-487; L. F. Harza "The Significance of Pore Pressure in Hydraulic Structures," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 114 (1949): 193-289. In the latter article Harza claimed that "by deductive reasoning it is shown that under and within any concrete structure ... hydro- static uplift acts over the entire horizontal area, instead of over one half or two thirds as commonly assumed" (p. 193). With this, he makes clear that the theoretical magnitude of the area that uplift acts on--and not the existence of uplift--comprised the issue in question.

(115) See Kahrl, Water and Power, 21.

(116) Jackson, Building the Ultimate Dam, 112, 114-115.

(117) A.J. Wiley to H.N. Savage, June 9, 1917, folder 32:1, Hiram N. Savage Papers, Water Resources Center Archives, Berkeley.

(118) Wegmann, Design and Construction of Dams (7th ed., 1922), 433.

(119) Arthur E. Morgan, The Miami Conservancy District (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1950, 152-153, 161-174; U.S. Reclamation Service, Third Annual Report of the Reclamation Service, 1903-04 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1905), 41.

(120) Savage, "Design of the Owyhee Irrigation Dam," 663 ("The recent ..."). This article identifies the outside consultants as "Dr. F. L. Ransome, professor of economic geology at the California Institute of Technology, Dr. Warren D. Smith, professor of geology at the University of Oregon, and Kirk Bryan of the U.S. Geological Survey. Three consulting engineers, A.J. Wiley of Boise, D.C. Henny of Portland, and Charles D. Paul of Dayton, also passed on the site and reviewed the designs and estimates" (p. 663).

(121) William Mulholland to Arthur Powell Davis, Feb. 5, 1912, ("I requested ..."), file WM OF-3-13, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Archives.

(122) Allen Hazen and Leonard Metcalf, "Middle Section of Upstream Side of Calaveras Dam Slips into Reservoir," Engineering News-Record (April 4, 1918): 679-681; "Failure of Part of Calaveras Dam," Western Engineering 9 (May 1918): 173-174; Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 23 ("founding fathers").

(123) Michael M. O'Shaughnessy to John R. Freeman, Oct. 14, 1913, reprinted in O'Shaughnessy, Hetch Hetchy: Its Origin and History (San Francisco: The Author, 1934), 68-69 (O'Shaughnessy quotes).

(124) F.C. Finkle to John R. Haynes, Aug. 12, 1931, folder: L.A. Dept. of Water & Power, Consulting Engineer-Frederick Finkle, box 118, Collection 1241, John R. Haynes Collection, Department of Special Collections, Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles. Taking fourteen foundation samples and "immers[ing] a portion of each sample in a jar filled with water," Finkle noted that "some of them stood up for 10 days, but others dissolved in less than 24 hours. All of them are completely disintegrated into silt, pebbles and grit at this time." The quotations come from a newspaper clipping enclosed with Finkle's letter and the clipping includes a September 4, 1924, report from Finkle to the Santa Monica Anti-Annexation Committee. The headline on the clipping is: "SANTA MONICA WARNED OF WEAKNESS OF ST. FRANCIS DAM." See also Finkle, "Los Angeles Aqueduct Mistakes," Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas 34 (Jan. 9, 1915): 27-28; Gervaise Purcell, W.H. Sanders, F.C. Finkle, and Chester B. Loomis, Report of Municipally Manufactured Cements, Los Angeles Aqueduct (Philadelphia, [1912]).

(125) Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 82 ("weak link ..."); Michael M. O'Shaughnessy to Edward Hyatt, Oct. 3, 1918 ("Los Angeles made an error ..."), file: Supervision of Dams, 1928, Public Utility Commission Records, California State Archives, Sacramento

(126) Grim Society Interview, answer to question 23 ("Achilles heel"; "his thriftiness"; "to build enormous ..."; "led to many aspects ...").

(127) Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 82 ("did not completely ...").

(128) Lucius' "Cause of Dam Failure Discovered ... Almost 70 Years Later," 34 ("inherent redundancies").

(129) Rogers, "A Man, a Dam and a Disaster," 88.

(130) Outland, Man-Made disaster (1977), 167 ("KILL MULHOLLAND!"); Catherine Mulholland, William Mulholland, 326 ("threats were made ..."), 317. His resignation from the Bureau of Water Works and Supply is noted in "Mulholland Retires After 50-Year Service at Los Angeles," Engineering News-Record 101 (Nov. 22, 1928): 785.

(131) Los Angeles Times, April 26-29, 1928; Catherine Mulholland, William Mulholland, 241-143, 330 ("for producing ..."); Davis, Rivers in the Desert, 245-246; "William Mulholland--Maker of Los Angeles," Western Construction News 8 (Aug. 1933): 330 ("as a man of history ..."); "William Mulholland Still a Big Man," Western Construction News 3 (April 10, 1928): 223; "Two Prominent Engineers Die," Western Construction News 10 (Aug. 1935): 240 ("sterling quality"); Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest, 378 ("don't blame anybody else ..."). For tributes following his death that did not mention St. Francis Dam, see Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 101 (1936): 1604-1608; Civil Engineering 9 (March 1939): 199.

(132) Arthur P. Davis to John Freeman, March 28, 1928; Arthur P. Davis, "Inspection Report of St. Francis Dam, March 19, 1928," 3 ("the laminated condition ..."; "in other words ..."). The letter and report are both in box 54, John R. Freeman Papers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

(133) Joseph B. Lippincott to John R. Freeman, March 26, 1928, Box 54, Freeman Papers. Lippincott's supposed involvement in a post-disaster investigation is mentioned in Outland's Man-Made Disaster (1977), 193, but he did not participate in any reports previously noted in this article. The authors have not located any report that he helped to research or write.

(134) John R. Freeman to Joseph B. Lippincott, April 4, 1928, Box 54, Freeman Papers.

(135) John R. Freeman to Caleb Saville, March 29, 1928, ibid.

(136) Calif. Statutes, chap. 766 (1929): 1505-1514.

(137) A.H. Markwart and M.C. Hinderlider, "Public Supervision of Dams: A Symposium," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 98 (1933): 828-887; Chuck B. Wong, California Division of Safety of Dams, to Norris Hundley, July 15, 2002; Irving Sherman to Jon Wilkman, Norris Hundley, and others, Nov. 14, 2001 ("If it had not been ..."), copy in the possession of the authors.

(138) The stultifying effect of the 1929 law on multiple-arch dam design is described in Jackson, Building the Ultimate Dam, 240-242. N. J. Schnitter, "The Evolution of the Arch Dam--Part Two," Water Power and Dam Construction 28 (Nov. 1976): 19-21, observes that in California "the number of new arch dams as well their proportion in relation to the other types decreased sharply in the 1930s" (p. 19).

(139) Hundley, Great Thirst (2001),

Donald C. Jackson is Associate Professor of History at Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania. Author of the books Great American Bridges and Dams and Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West, he has also contributed essays on "Dams", and on "Water Policy in the American West" published in the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia.

Norris Hundley, jr., is Professor of American History at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of numerous articles and eleven books, the latest being The Great Thirst: Californians and Water--A History (Rev. ed., Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).
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Title Annotation:Privilege And Responsibility
Author:Jackson, Donald C.; Hundley, Norris, Jr.
Publication:California History
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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