Santa Paula Times

St. Francis Dam Disaster: Old photo, new study clash with landslide theory

March 19, 2010
Fifth in a series of articles exploring the St. Francis Dam Disaster
Santa Paula News

In October 2006, a grainy photo surfaced showing two workers on top of the St. Francis Dam. 

Sitting in a mortar box beside them is a half-bag of cement, wooden hoe and the tip of a garden hose whose other end is being run down the front of the water filled structure. 

Hetta Laurena Carter, who took the photo as an 18-year-old enjoying a picnic with friends, said it was what her concrete contractor father would refer to as “sloppy cement.”

The workers, said Carter, were attempting to fill a crack in the face of the dam. 

Historian Keith Buttelman and Leon Worden, then-editor of Newhall-based The Signal newspaper, were interviewing Carter for SCVTV Newsmakers of the Week. The cable show concentrates on the Los Angeles County community of the Santa Clarita Valley - home to the dam - located immediately east of Ventura County’s Santa Clara River Valley.

Carter said she took the photo in February 1928, just a few weeks before the March 12 minutes before midnight dam collapse. It’s a believable claim as shown behind the workers is the almost filled to the brim dam with the waters that later would surge more than 56 miles before spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

In 1928 pictures didn’t lie, no computers or their programs to manipulate images, colors or even add or take away photographed components. Photographs indeed were worth a 1,000 words in 1928, not the 1,000 doubts that today’s pictorial images can evoke.

In the interview Buttelman noted the general curiosity of the photo and questioned the lack of reference to the repair work it showed during the Los Angeles’ coroner’s inquest into the disaster.

In 2004, about two years prior to Carter’s televised interview, “The St. Francis Dam Collapse and the impact on the construction of the Hoover Dam,” Thomas McMullen’s Master of Science thesis, was published.

The work had started as a concentrated study of the construction of Hoover Dam, and before he began his research McMullen, working towards his Masters degree in civil engineering, had never heard of the St. Francis Dam. 

Obscure references to the disaster in research materials nagged at McMullen and then captured his full attention. He enlarged his research and his thesis became the story of two dams and one man, William Mulholland.

Now the Director of the University of Maryland CMPS/College of Computer, Math and Physical Science, McMullen believes not only did the inferior concrete and the do-it-quick-and-cheap construction bring about the disaster, but also that Mulholland suspected - at least subliminally -early on his dam might be doomed.

When told of Carter’s interview and the photograph of the two men and their materials and equipment, McMullen didn’t hesitate.

“That would be the grouting,” although McMullen would think the repair would have been attempted using a power pump before the dam filled.

“Obviously, with the water it would lose its ability to set up properly.”

Mulholland had also previously ordered that cracks - which appeared when the dam was at about 60 percent capacity - be filled with oakum, a tar and root based product, “Very good for sealing joints and pipes and then caulk them. This,” said McMullen, “is a difficult fix especially when he did not have the ability to lower the level of the dam. I’m sure Mulholland would have loved,” to drain the dam, fix it and then let it refill.

McMullen believes Mulholland would have been outwardly confident he could repair the St. Francis.

“When Mulholland built the Aqueduct a clog totally inverted the pipe, made it concave. He started adding pressure slowly,” and caulked the massive pipe when it was again rounded to relay rushing waters.

“He was very good in his own way in coming with devices,” to fix problems quickly and cheaply.

“I’m sure,” said McMullen, “Mulholland was confident he could fix anything.”

Oakum is an ancient fix, first used to seal gaps between the planks forming a wooden ship’s hull, its then mixture of hemp or jute fibers - think unraveled old rope - soaked in tar. When stuffed into the gaps oakum worked well on keeping out the water a ship gently floated on.  

But, on the face of a dam with pressure from about 12-billion gallons of water behind it, “There is no way oakum would work; it was obviously an attempt by Mulholland,” to fix the dam by any method.

And, “It’s an interesting indication of how Mulholland was trying what is basically a plumbing fix on a dam, it does show he was concerned. If someone is going out trying to find ways to fix things totally against the norm you’ll find somebody fairly desperate.”

McMullen spent several days at the dam site, now just rubble after the City of Los Angeles and its Water & Power Department destroyed what was known as the Tombstone in May 1929, the middle section of the dam left standing when its east and west abutments disintegrated. Several months following the disaster a youth fell from the Tombstone, dying on impact at the inadequate toe of the dam 195-feet below.

“I think the blowing up of the dam,” and the jackhammering of remnants strewn through the canyon, “was interesting ... the city didn’t want any publicity, didn’t want anyone to bring it up again. It was in their best interest,” that the true story of the St. Francis Dam Disaster itself be buried and its very existence forgotten.

McMullen said he gained much knowledge from writing his thesis, including reading about the circa 1910 Olive Bridge Dam, which was built to the highest standards, some of which defenders of Mulholland claimed did not exist at the time the St. Francis was undertaken.

Some have even claimed that Mulholland was unaware that the concrete would have to be cured, cooled down, material already hot during August pours.

“It’s incomprehensible to me that Mulholland wouldn’t know, I’m sure he had knowledge of heat generation. But I’m also sure at the time,” Mulholland did not consider that the thick, uneven pours lacking concentration joints and grouting would prove catastrophic. 

“There was no consistency,” to the materials, sections or pours - perhaps even to the reasoning - that created the St. Francis Dam.

Mulholland and the Department of Water & Power, said McMullen, could have been found criminally negligent for the construction of the St. Francis Dam, done in secret at record speed due to fears that the water supply to Los Angeles could be disrupted by the failure of the Aqueduct, the apex of the self-taught engineer’s career.

That fear of failure specifically was fastened on sabotaging Owens Valley farmers, whose own water supply was drained once the Aqueduct started to flow in 1913. 

By 1928 Owens Lake was dry, its consistency much like the talcum powder feel of concrete remnants of the St. Francis Dam and generations later still a disgraceful chapter in the history of the City of Angels. 

When it comes to the St. Francis Dam Disaster Mulholland, according to McMullen, took the fall for the city that spent generations thereafter defending him ... and themselves.

The man was an anomaly: “Mulholland had that incredible idea for the Aqueduct pipe and not only did he save money but he got it going again in weeks instead of a year. It’s that Peter Principle ... I’m not saying he was incompetent but there was no way out of his problem,” with the dam.

McMullen remains surprised at the construction level of the St. Francis Dam and dismisses many of the excuses used for its collapse.

Hoover Dam, also built in a remote location, still has cooling pipes in place curing the concrete: “This was not a century later, this was merely a decade later,” when Mulholland did not allow the inferior concrete of the St. Francis to even attempt to setup.

But with the St. Francis Dam, “I assume since there was no real budget and they wanted the dam built as cheaply as possible and they were just dredging the creeks with no plan. They weren’t worried about the size of the aggregate, and you just can’t take these things out of a streambed for construction use. They didn’t have the ability to sort it on site and there was no concrete plant,” in the canyon.

“Those things were so glaringly missing that you have to blame the person building the dam, and of course Mulholland took responsibility for it,” to save face -pocketbook and perhaps prosecution - of the Department of Water & Power. 

Although an obviously grief-stricken Mulholland told the coroner’s inquest he would take the blame, during this same testimony and later he darkly referred to unspecified aspects of “hoodoo” concerning the St. Francis Dam Disaster.

Was it bad luck, evil Owens’ Valley ranchers, or Mulholland’s water and power bosses?

McMullen believes the latter are ultimately responsible for the collapse of the St. Francis Dam.

“It just wasn’t Mulholland, they didn’t allow him to spend the time or allow him the resources ... it would have been very expensive though” to build it right.

The St. Francis Dam Disaster could have been avoided: “First of all, if they had spend the money for the proper process,” it would have been found that the spot was far from the perfect place.

In fact, San Francisquito Canyon was even noted by Mulholland in a much earlier report as not desirable for dam construction, but later Los Angeles had it so that was that.

McMullen believes even with a landslide - and one must ponder if the collapse of the dam triggered a slide rather than the other way around - if the quality of concrete and the work itself had been better there could have been no such sudden disaster. 

“The dam was just so filled with fractures it just broke apart, it was a catastrophic flood. If the concrete had been of better quality, in my opinion it would not have fallen apart as it did.”

And, he added, “I did think about whether or not the dam would have collapsed at all if the quality of the concrete and the work was better.”

According to a report published April 1929 in the Newhall Signal & Saugus Enterprise, a huge pit was being excavated for the final resting place of the Tombstone, that 195-foot towering reminder of the disaster, once the carefully placed dynamite was ignited. 

They shouldn’t have bothered: when in May the prep work was done and the charge fired, “ ... there was a dull report, the big mass quivered, rose slightly, and sunk into a mass of small fragments right where it stood.”

Although unstated in the Newhall Signal, the demise of the Tombstone must have startled onlookers as much as it is startling to consider today. 

Needless to say the incident led to the Signal’s speculation that rumors - which had surfaced even during construction - that the concrete of the great dam was flawed had to be true.  

Among those killed in the disaster was half the student body of Saugus School, and the hometown Signal thundered that after the Tombstone - with the encouragement of dynamite charges - almost pulverized itself, “only a pile of concrete marks the spot of one of the most disgraceful fiascoes of modern engineering.”

Mulholland’s strongest champion, the Los Angeles Times, whose owner Harry Chandler had been made even richer by Aqueduct supplied water that made possible his San Fernando Valley development, had a different take.

The dynamited Tombstone “tipped” into the pit, noted one of three subtitles in the Times’ story, the “Wrecking begun by nature” - a reinforcement of the long-held no human involved landslide theory - “finished by man.”

More than 80 years later, McMullen said it is “Incredible but true that most people don’t know about it, but it’s a tribute to the civic leaders that dynamited the dam,” annihilating memory, concrete and any evidence of why it failed.

The story of the St. Francis Dam Disaster was soon forgotten, the tragedy suppressed by those who would rather others didn’t remember what probably was a criminal act that resulted in the deaths of hundreds - maybe a thousand of more - and swept incomprehensible damage and misery throughout the Santa Clara River Valley.

To this day some don’t even want to link Mulholland and failure in the same sentence, even if just speculatively.

“But you have to learn from the past,” said McMullen, who while initially searching for the dam site saw a teenage boy riding a bicycle and asked him where the St. Francis was.

“I was about two miles away from the dam site and this boy said he had no idea what I was talking about. I was shocked that he didn’t know about it, that people didn’t know about it.”

Eighty-two years later remnants of the St. Francis Dam Disaster are hard to find. Fragments of its 175,000 cubic yards of concrete now rest along the streambed, are nestled beneath dirt or hidden among thick brush ... wrecking begun by man finished by nature. 

After completing his research - which included dismal results on the quality of blind-tested dam concrete - and thesis, McMullen found that ultimately, “I feel for Mulholland. When he realized there was a problem he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was a planning error, a construction error,” overlooked, never told to or outright dismissed by his employers desperate for an alternate source of water.

“You have to blame them more than Mulholland, they blessed everything he did. And when it got to the point where he said ‘What can I do?’ he did the best he could ... and it still went to hell.

“That,” said McMullen, “is the shame of it.”