Wednesday, March 12, 2008

80 years ago, today...

A Test of Integrity - Trailer

About 35 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles, near the present junction of San Fernando/Bouquet Canyon Road and Soledad Canyon Road, or more basically, up the road from the Newhall Ranch Development, is a place called San Francisquito Canyon. It carves through the foothills north of Saugus and east of Castaic, and despite the nearby development, is dotted with small ranches as it enters the Angeles National Forest.

As you drive up the road, and the canyon narrows and deepens, you come to a spot where the creek is blocked by a choking of large concrete masses. They form a bridge of rubble across the canyon from one wall to another, and are gigantic, simply monolithic in their scale. Where the creek has cut through, in places to fifty feet below the upper ruins, you can walk and wade through, sometimes underneath the rubble, among shattered concrete and twisted, rusting rebar. To the casual observer, glimpsing them from the road at 35 miles per hour while negotiating the sharp curve in the road at that spot*, they look like nothing more than possibly rock quarry waste, blasted from the mountainsides sometime long ago, and left to become overgrown in the riverbed. Many are shocked to learn that they are passing amid what was once one of the largest and most beautiful concrete gravity arch dams in the world.

The St. Francis Dam was begun in late 1924, and completed in 1926. It was administered by the DWP's embryonic predecessor, the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, for the purposes of water reclaimation, aqueduct and supply buffering, and the generation of hydroelectric power for the distant City of Los Angeles. It was William Mulholland's baby, a jewel in the liquid glitter of the new Aqueduct, and a burr under the saddles of farmers in both Owens and Santa Clara Valleys whose water was being drained or reserved from their aquifers to feed it.

Some of the Owens Valley's remaining residents had become indignant over the City's taking water which they felt was rightfully theirs (but for which the City had actually paid handsomely). They had tried legal recourse, to no avail, and President Theodore Roosevelt had refused to side with them from the start of the whole aqueduct thing back in 1908. So, with nothing to lose, they started bombing the Aqueduct in 1924.
Integrity - Bill, Van, & Matthews

This was one of the catylists in the descision to build the dam in San Francisquito Canyon; so it would be within close access of L.A., be harder for Owens Valley saboteurs to reach, and be below the San Andreas Fault in case a rupture along the fault should break the Aqueduct. The St. Francis Reservoir held 38,168 acre feet at full capacity; enough to water Los Angeles for over a year, possibly two.

Added to the Owens Valley people's rage, was indignancy from the farmers in the Santa Clara Valley, downstream from the dam, over the fact that their water tables began to dry up shortly after the dam's valves were closed and water stopped being released into San Francisquito Creek. They had no problem with the Aqueduct itself, what bothered them was that the dam impounded the watershed from about 37.5 square miles of drainage area which fed San Francisquito Creek. Water that they would have used for irrigation was now going for use by the ever-growing City of Los Angeles, that hydroglutton to the south, behind a dam which, as far as the Santa Clara Valley folks believed, leaked.
Of course, there was nothing wrong with the dam per se, but these folks in the valley didn't know enough about engineering (as don't most people) to properly assess the condition of a massive concrete dam at any point in it's life. But, it certainly didn't help at all to have Power & Light guys, either when they visited the Saugus Cafe, or when locals visited them at the dam, ribbing them and making them nervous with cracks like, "Yeah, if the dam's still there by Wednesday, we'll go out fishing on the reservoir." That kinda stuff just didn't help things for Mulholland or the Department one bit, especially since they were only joking.

St. Francis Dam was, as built, 205 feet high above the streambed, and about 700 feet long from atop the parapet. The dam was a monolithic, heavy gravity dam, with a pronounced arch. It was exposed, poured concrete and was shaped with a stairstepped downstream face. While it was about 155 feet wide at the base, it was only 16 feet wide at the road that ran atop the parapet. In the center of the causeway (the road on top) was a small concrete building which housed the five water release valves that opened into the five pipes that pierced through the dam in a vertical line from near the top to down just above the streambed level. Sometimes, water was seen being released from any one of these pipes. In addition, the dam's top was built with eleven spillway slots which ran from near the center of the dam and along to the east abutment. These slits were just that: no mechanics or gates, just eleven open slots that water would spill over and down the bare face of the dam when the lake (or "pool") level reached the parapet, as it was on the day on March 12, 1928.
The dam also featured a unique "wing dike," a long concrete wall about 20 feet high, that came to the same level as the main dam, and ran for 550 feet along the ridge immediately adjoining the dam's West abutment. You see, initially, the St. Francis Dam was planned and approved at 185 feet high, however during her construction, her height was raised twice, adding a total of about 20 feet to her cross section. Unfortunately, they neglected to add a corresponding extension to her downstream base, or "toe." As a result, she was about 11% taller than she was designed to be, and her center of gravity ended-up well forward, and downstream of where it needed to be. It was almost as if the great structure was leaning forward, from an engineering standpoint.

The left plan is from the builder's blueprints. This right plan is taken from the actual structure. The area in yellow is the "chopped toe" which was never built.

In addition to that, she was also built using concrete that was too light and porous for the load it was expected to bear. The concrete was also filled with improperly-washed aggregate gravel (which had been mined right out of the streambed), and as such, was far weaker than anyone suspected.
St. Francis Reservior itself was nearly 200 feet deep at the upstream face of the dam, and stretched back upstream for several miles, and contained 12 billion gallons of water. It was a breathtaking, welcoming lake whose cold, deep blue-green waters branched into two canyons behind the dam. The ridge separating the two canyons (one of which was the main San Francisquito Canyon) formed a picturesque island in the middle of the lake. On the southeast wall of the canyon ran San Francisquito Canyon Road, a narrow dirt trail which meandered along the floor of the gorge until it came to within about a mile of the dam. From there, it climbed up the slope of the southeast wall until it was just slightly higher than the crest of the dam, passing the dam on the east abutment and continuing upstream alongside the reservior in the general direction of Powerplant #1, about four miles beyond.
AN HOUR OF CHAOSTo this day no one is completely sure exactly how The Big Event was triggered. Most experts have ruled out Owens Valley sabotage, however, in favor of a more natural approach. Of all the professional researchers who have covered this subject, Dr. J. David Rogers has published what are likely the most extensive findings and research to date. Dr. Rogers suggests that the left abutment of the dam rested on an unstable foundation; an ancient paleolandslide, only one of many which make up the slope that runs the length of the canyon. But none of that mattered to the people downstream on that quiet midnight in 1928 when, all of a sudden, the world ended. At two-and-a-half minutes to Midnight, March 12, 1928, the 200-foot high concrete dam, a graceful, colossal curved ediface with a stair-step face, was straining under the load of a reservoir that was already topping the spillways. Along the east abutment (the slope along the dam's east, or left, footing) the laminated mica schist of the hillside loosened, or delaminated, and a good-sized slab of slope slid down like an avalanche into the lake and onto the dam. This may have happened as a result of "piping," which Dr. Rogers feels was the case. In this situation, it is suggested that the ground beneath the dam along that east slope (the groin of the dam) was washing away, making a wider and wider hole under the dam in a very short time, say a few hours at most. Eventually, the hole got big enough that the dam fell into the gap, breaking it's back and starting the failure. Charles Outland, one of the earliest experts on the disaster, has suggested in his book Man Made Disaster, that the slope itself was weakening and finally slid down and forward, knocking into the back of the dam like a bulldozer blade, and starting the failure. Whatever the cause, at 11:57 PM, the ground under the St. Francis Dam began to move. On the slope above the left abutment (which was now attacking the dam) was an H-framed power pole carrying Edison electricity to Palmdale. The slide brought it down, severing the Edison Company lines, and a second later the Antelope Valley went dark. The same slide caused the entire eastern third of the dam's concrete wall to fracture into seven massive chunks, and untold smaller debris, and sent a four-foot wave surging it's way across the lake. The entire failure would take only a few minutes more. First, a small chunk of the upper east tip sheared off of the main structure and fell into the streambed below. It was quickly followed by the next chunk, #5, a truly huge piece comprising about 15% of the main structure.

As this great chunk slid and tumbled down the now-moving slope of the east abutment (which was rapidly becoming the east landslide) one of its' jagged corners scraped along the dam's stairstep face, spalling off huge sections of the wall. The thudding of this great chunk, and the landslide that moved it, were so powerful that the ground for over a mile trembled, and was recorded on early seismographs miles away. And when the abutment began to crumble, the structure's arch effect was lost. With that lack of support in mind, we consider the west, or right, abutment. While that same sliding schist which composed the east abutment extended clear under the dam and up the other side of the canyon, it met another type of rock partway up, a reddish, muddy granitic conglomerate. Of course, where the two layers of rock met was a small fault, which happened to run right under the west half of the dam itself, and was wide enough to allow water to leak through.

And so, due to this percolation and crack leakage, which had persisted since the dam was built and had been an ongoing source of concern for folks downstream, the entire west side was now nice and lubricated. All it needed was time. When the landslide came down, shoving Chunk #5 ahead of it, it flowed over and into the very gap it had created in the dam. As a result, the water was held back by a slope of debris and mud. This actually gave the structure a few minutes of dignity, but the water was, of course, more powerful, and simply scoured the debris away within a few moments. By that time, it had reached a good-sized flow, but what happened next is what really helped the flood. As the debris cleared the gap in the abutment, the waterfall became bigger and deeper, taking away everything around the slope until there was nothing left. The remaining two-thirds of the dam started to slide down the west abutment's own slippery slope, as if trying to move itself into the gap created by those first fallen sections. This meant that the dam was now, basically, a free-standing wall, and since the whole west half was cracked in several places it was easy for the water, which weighed 50 million tons, to just blow most of that side of the dam out of its' bed and downriver. That was when the real tidal wave began. With both east and west ends now gone, the remainder of the dam was nothing more than a big, square block of concrete fractured up the middle and impeding the lake's rush out the doors. It wasn't long before the block's east half toppled sideways and back into three chunks, and down into the waterfall that was undermining it. This left a single 200-foot tall, bedraggled tower of concrete standing alone within the middle of the onslaught, refusing to succumb to the violent forces surging around it.

There was actually one witness to this event... sort of. A Bureau of Power & Light carpenter named Ace Hopewell was heading to Powerplant #1, which is upstream of the dam by about 5 miles. He had just passed Powerplant #2, a mile-and-a-half below the dam, about 5 minutes before the failure. Although it was dark, and he didn't see the actual collapse of the structure itself, he sensed the strange rumbling sound from just down the canyon behind him. Stopping his motorcycle on the dirt access road above, he walked to the edge of the cliff, lit-up a lung-rocket, and looked down toward the dark water. Listening and smoking, he clearly heard the sound of a big landslide back toward the dam, and he remembered the sudden jolt on the road right behind the dam itself, like part of the road had dropped a few inches, and realized he had ridden right on top of the landslide just moments before it gave way. As he watched, a low line of foam surged it's way across the lake like a bow wave from a big ship passing through port waters too fast. Figuring he was witnessing one of the numerous landslides that plague the hills in that area, he stubbed-out the cigarrette, re-mounted his sidecar-equipped motorcycle, and headed up the road with no idea just how lucky he'd really been. If he'd looked back, he might've seen the flashing glow from the sudden, random arc of power lines falling.
Meanwhile, up at Powerplant #1, operator Ray Silvey was just putting-in a routine, stroke-of-midnight phone call to Powerhouse #2 to check the loads and shop-talk with his downstream counterpart, Lou Burns. Unfortunately, Ray's call never connected. At that very moment, Powerplant #2, it's penstocks and generators, and the homes and school supporting them, were being hit by a 120-foot deep wave. Powerplant #2 was centrally located within the middle of a very deep, very tight series of gooseneck turns in the canyon itself. These allowed the water and debris flowing down the canyon to pile-up, becoming deeper and more pressurized. The megaton wave, plowing through at about 20 miles-per-hour, overwhelmed the 65-foot high concrete powerhouse and swept it away as though it were powder.
Right then, for a few moments, the lights in Los Angeles flickered out.
The wave did not travel at breakneck speeds, overrunning people and cars with no escape, like in the movies. Rather, it moved at an average velocity of 12 to 18 miles-per-hour, due to its thick mixture of about 50% water, 30% mud, stone, and silt, and the remainder a deadly puree of assorted trash, giant boulders and chunks of concrete, foliage, tree branches, pulverized animals and humans, buildings, lumber, railroad ties, and miles of loose, snaking barbed wire. The rocky debris from the initial slide, along with the scouring action of the wave on the rock walls near the dam, accounted for about 500,000 cubic yards of earth suspended in the water. Schoolteacher Lillian Curtis, one of only three survivors out of 123 residents of Powerplant #2's community, described the wave as, "liquid mud." In fact, the water was so dense initially, that giant chunks of the dam, some weighing over 10,000 tons, rolled and surfed along in the wash with considerable bouyancy, coming to rest in a debris field more than half-a-mile downstream. Among the main reasons there were so many fatalities was the late hour, and in the 1920's there just weren't the sophisticated, 24-hour communications networks in place which we take for granted today. To put it frankly, anyone who actually knew what was going on in the first hour-or-so of the flood, was likely in the flood themselves, and concerned only with survival. As the wave swept through the valley and its towns, it pulled down most of the phone and power lines with it. By the time witnesses realized what was happening, there was no longer any way to contact and warn anyone downstream. And by the time the victims in the first 30 miles of the floodpath had come fully awake, they were already swimming, drowning, or being mauled to death in the roiling, debris-laden flood. Some of them would be carried as far as 50 miles west, to the Pacific, to be swept into the sea. A few eventually washed ashore at San Diego, 200 miles to the south. Over 900 various structures would be totally destroyed in the flooding, which would also wipe out nearly 24,000 acres of ripening crops, mostly citrus, and 8 miles worth of S.P.'s Santa Paula Branch between their Coast Route near the sea at Montalvo and the Valley Line inland at Saugus. By the time the muddy, choking waters had receded, the City of Los Angeles would hand over more than $5,000,000. in claims.


Since the beginning of the Environmental Movement in the late '60's, it has been popular to vilify William Mulholland for his role in taking water from the Owens Valley and bringing it to Los Angeles. Such is understandable in times like ours today; we are much more aware of the uses and limitations of our environment, and it would be virtually impossible in the U.S. today to do what Mulholland accomplished a century ago. But, with that century's gap in mind, we must remember that back then, this was not considered the massive insult to the environment that we consider it. This was regarded by many as Progress, and was a classic example of the spirit of American Ingenuity during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution. And at that time, Bill Mulholland was a legendary figure in Los Angeles, and had been for decades. He was the water department's Chief Engineer & General Manager, and had built the Big Ditch (their name for the L.A. Aqueduct) 233 miles long, over mountains, across canyons, all through scortching, barren, inhospitable desert. He brought to Los Angeles and her people, the water that would be their lifeblood. The water that would take L.A.'s population from 250,000 to over 14 million, including the County areas.Integrity - Mulholland builds the Aqueduct!
Integrity - Campfire scene
Integrity - Aqueduct Opening

For an uneducated man, he was a genius and a hero. In Los Angeles, he was a star. With the failure of his St. Francis Dam, his Department's masterpiece rivalled only by the Hollywood Dam (or Mulholland Dam), Mulholland was vilified virtually overnight. As if having people in the Owens Valley who wanted to kill him wasn't bad enough, now the folks in the Santa Clara Valley wanted to join them! According to everyone who knew him, Bill Mulholland was a scrupulously honest man. Many today have claimed he knew the dam was going to fail based on leakage, and ignored the warning signs. This kind of accusation brands Mulholland and Van Norman willful mass-murderers, and after having studied as much of the history as possible, as well as having interviewed those who knew both men, I simply cannot find Mulholland at fault, at least in that I believe he was acting from an honest belief in the dam's integrity. He honestly had no idea the dam was about to fail. If he had thought so, "I would've ridden up and down the valley myself, sounding the alarm," he stated in court.


Slowly, the robust, dynamic William Mulholland became a quiet shadow of his former self.

"He would just sit in his chair with his cigar, for hours, and never say a word," grandaughter Catherine Mulholland related to me one afternoon at her home in Chatsworth, on the family's original land. As we sat at her dining table, the warm afternoon sun lit up the spacious kitchen in a golden, almost rusty kind-of way that only happens in the San Fernando Valley. "It was some time after 1AM. The phone in the upstairs hall rang, and my Aunt Rose answered it. It was Van Norman calling to say the dam had gone out. My aunt opened my grandfather's bedroom door, woke him, and quickly told him what Van had just told her. As he came into the hall, he was muttering, 'Please, God, don't let people be killed, don't let people be killed.' "
After a hurried exchange, Mulholland hung-up the earpiece, ordered Rose to wake her brother, Thomas (to act as chauffer), and dressed for the drive to pick up Van on the way to the disaster scene.

During the remaining seven years of his life, Mulholland simply retreated further and further into himself. I've often wondered if he contemplated the massive responsibility he publicly accepted on behalf of the City. Under intense grilling by D.A. Asa Keyes and his associate, a Mr. Dennison, Mulholland stated, "Don't blame anyone else. You just fasten it on me. If there was an error of human judgement, I was the human. I won't try to fasten it on anybody else." Like the proud man of courage and leadership that he was, he took responsibility. And when you consider all that led up to it and beyond down the years; the environmental tragedies of Owens and Mono Lakes; the reduction of the once-verdant Owens Valley to it's, admitedly, original desert state; and of course the immense death and destruction of the dam disaster itself, it's gallingly ironic that it might never have happened that way had human greed not played a vital role in several places. If Mulholland's original plan had been implemented there would have been enough water for L.A. and the Owens Valley; in fact enough in the Valley to irrigate about 80,000 acres of prime farmland. However, a man named Fred Eaton, former mayor of Los Angeles as well as friend and mentor to Mulholland when the would-be engineer was just getting his start, went behind Mulholland's back and preemptively purchased all the land the City would need for the aqueduct route. Eaton was the man who turned-on The Chief to the idea of using the Owens River for an aqueduct in the first place. He had partnered in the very first discussions that hammered-out the Aqueduct Plan in detail.Integrity - Bill & Fred's ride

This plan included a spot called Long Valley on the Rickey Ranch. This valley was situated at the head of the route for the Big Ditch, where Mulholland planned to build the line's upper buffer reservoir. With a dam 165 feet high, Long Valley could hold a whopping 160,000 acre-feet of water. This was enough water to serve the needs of both Los Angeles and the Owens Valley for two years of drought. But, suddenly Fred Eaton held the land. He had borrowed a fortune, and wanted to sell it to the City, but the City wouldn't meet his price. Eaton wanted $2 million dollars. The City offered $750,000. The land's assessed value was only $200,000. The dickering (and bickering) went back and forth for years, but Eaton wouldn't budge, and the City simply waited him out. Meantime, while he waited for Eaton to get real, Mulholland was scouting around for a damsite for the system's lower buffer reservoir in the hills just north of Los Angeles. At one point he gave strong consideration to Big Tujunga Canyon, but the landowners there saw him and the City's deep pockets coming, and the Canyon suddenly became pricey. Finally, he settled on San Francisquito Canyon, which was public land, so it was cheaper; he knew the canyon well, as it had been a large encampment during construction of the Aqueduct. In fact, the aqueduct pipe itself ran conveniently right along the ridge that formed the canyon's southeast wall. It also met one of Mulholland's main criteria: it was south of the San Andreas Fault. In case there should be a rupture of the Aqueduct along the faultline, there'd still be two year's worth of water in the St. Francis Reservoir. Ironically, Eaton's grandiose demands backfired on him. Because he couldn't entice any buyers to pay what he was asking for Long Valley (though the City's $750,000 offer stood) he couldn't pay the mortgage. Eventually, the land was foreclosed-on, Eaton and his family were evicted and virtually penniless, and Los Angeles picked it up for the land's fair market value, around $250,000. Finally, in 1941, Harvey Van Norman, who had been The Chief's devoted assistant and best friend for decades, built the Long Valley dam and Crowley Lake. Sadly, William Mulholland had died six years earlier.

Interview with Robert V. Phillips

The above interview with Mr. Phillips (who was acquainted from childhood with Mulholland, and who worked closely with H.A. Van Norman) was filmed for A Test of Integrity in 1998. (Copyright 2008 Gravity Arch Media)


The story of William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam disaster has been a passion of mine since the mid-1980’s, and yet it started out very differently.
Initially, I simply wanted to know more about the forensic aspects of the disaster itself. However, in doing extremely extensive research over the years, including many visits to the DWP’s Research Library in Downtown L.A., interviewing and sometimes befriending people who were in some way directly connected with these chapters in Los Angeles’ history, such as J. David Rogers, Robert V. Phillips, and Catherine Mulholland, I found out about this man, William Mulholland, and what he did for Los Angeles.
He was a man who was respected, admired, and in some cases, yes, even hated. He was a remarkable man, honest and basically decent, who with the best of intentions did some great things, and made some human mistakes. Don’t get me wrong; I am not an apologist for William Mulholland. On the contrary, I think he had great courage to take on a job that would inevitably benefit some people while angering others. And yet, I hate to think of what California, Los Angeles, and the Owens Valley would be like today were it not for him. Basically, he accomplished, through hard work and a high level of ingenuity and shrewdness, a feat that nobody else was equipped to do at that time in history, not so much in terms of technology but rather in terms of leadership. He had the ability to be the guy in the spotlight that could rally not only the people and resources needed to do an enormous job, but the spirit and enthusiasm required as well.
And, more to the point, he accepted responsibility for something that nobody wants to be responsible for: innocent lives lost under his leadership. He didn’t waffle or prevaricate. He stood up, and was counted among a breed of man that we see all too rarely today, who stand by their word and their work, and refuse to take an easy way out when things get tough.
Southern California is a great place to be, and has given many great contributions to the culture and fabric of our modern global society, from the motion picture industry to the aerospace industry, and so much else as well.
And we have William Mulholland to thank for helping make Southern California what we enjoy today.