Events in Water History: The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam

Excerpted from my recent book review of Heavy Ground, by Norris Hundley and Donald Jackson:

For historians of water in the American West, there are few more excruciatingly tragic events than the collapse of the St. Francis dam in southern California in 1928.  One of the greatest human-made disasters in the history of the western United States, the collapse of the dam caused over 400 deaths and millions and millions of dollars of property damage.  Many water histories have noted the event but to date, there has been no book-length treatment that gives it the attention it deserves.  In this carefully-researched new book, the historians Norris Hundley and Donald Jackson admirably rectify this glaring omission in California water history.

The collapse of the St. Francis Dam was not merely an isolated tragic event: rather, it must be understood within the context of its time.  Dams had been a regular feature of water development in California and other parts of the West since the mid-nineteenth century.  Initially, they were relatively modest projects used to store water and regulate flow for ditch systems during the Gold Rush era.  However, they steadily increased in size and scope over time as the state transitioned to irrigated agriculture, power production, and municipal water development.  By the time of the collapse of the St. Francis dam, there was a long, rich history of dam construction in California which included a great deal of accumulated professional expertise in how to make dams safe.  This is one of the great tragedies of the event: it likely could have been avoided.

To understand why it wasn’t, Hundley and Jackson focus attention on the actions and decisions of one man – William Mulholland – who is better known for his earlier efforts, as superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Department, to bring water to southern California from the Owens Valley.  This famous (some say infamous) earlier episode has received a great deal of attention from scholars, journalists, and even film-makers (as immortalized in the movie Chinatown), and it has likely overshadowed Mulholland’s role in the St. Francis dam collapse.

According to the authors, the ingredients for the disaster are to be found in Mulholland himself, and in the position of remarkable power in which he found himself as water czar for Los Angeles.  Mulholland was by all accounts brilliant, imperious, possessed of a prodigious memory, and incredibly single-minded.  It is also important to note that he was apparently completely self-taught, with no formal training in engineering.  At the same time, he enjoyed “almost unfettered control” over the city’s water supply system for the better part of three decades, despite being nominally inferior to city officials, who deferred to his judgment and expertise.  All of this proved to be a lethal combination when the time came to construct the dam.

To make its case, the book adopts the strategy of contextualizing the collapse within the larger long-term effort by Mulholland, on behalf of the city of Los Angeles, to develop the city’s water supply.  This turns out to be important because the seeds for the disaster are to be found in Mulholland’s earlier experience in bringing Owens Valley water to Los Angeles.  As is well known, that earlier project was bitterly contested.  And while it brought encomiums of praise for Mulholland, it also subjected him to heavy criticism from some quarters.  One of the consequences of this was psychological.  According to the authors, it is “likely” that this experience both fostered hubris in Mulholland while making him less likely to listen to others.  When the time came to build the St. Francis Dam, he did not seek out the opinions of outside experts, preferring to rely on his over-inflated opinion of his own abilities.  The collapse of the dam was the result.  In the end, Mulholland paid for his hubris, as the incident triggered the termination of his position as water czar for the city.

The tragic story of the St. Francis dam did not stop with the collapse itself.  In its aftermath, the city of Los Angeles found itself with a public relations nightmare on its hands, prompting the mayor to quickly vow to make reparations for damages.  At the same time, the city attorney was going on record as saying the city would live up to its legal obligations, but it would keep in mind the interests of the city taxpayers.  Two of the most intriguing chapters in the book are chapters five and six, which relate the response of the city to minimize the damage to both its reputation and its finances, and the subsequent investigation into what went wrong.

A number of interesting facts emerge.  First, the city was not merely motivated by altruism and interest in “doing the right thing”.  It feared a political backlash that might damage its ability to develop other sources of water, especially the looming congressional decision on the Boulder Canyon Project Act, which would construct Boulder Dam on the Colorado River.  Given the explosive population and economic growth in southern California, Mulholland and Los Angeles city leaders were already looking past the Owens Valley project and considering the future water needs of the city.

Second, it is not surprising that the city was desperately interested in avoiding litigation, preferring to settle to pay “appropriate” compensation.  What might be surprising to modern-day readers is that the negotiators for residents damaged by the collapse also tried to restrict access by those residents to legal representation.  Indeed, the head negotiator on behalf of the residents referred to lawyers as “shysters” and “parasites” who were not welcome in the county, and he actively discouraged residents from obtaining legal counsel.  Only a handful of residents ever brought legal action against the city.  It turned out that there were operant economic and class differences between the residents of the damaged communities and those on the committees formed to represent them.  Rather than risking prolonged legal battles, the committee members – many of them prominent farmers and business leaders – wanted agricultural business-as-usual restored as quickly as possible.

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Mark Kanazawa

I am Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Northfield, MN