The collapse of the St. Francis Dam on March 12-13, 1928 had a major impact on the Santa Clara River Valley. It resulted in the second highest death toll in California history due to a natural disaster. Plans are under way for a regional wide commemorative events in March 2018, the 90th anniversary of the event. Communities throughout the flood path will hold public activities to honor the dead, commemorate the survivors, and reflect on the response and resiliency of the communities along the flood path.
Please watch this site for updates.
Here is a look at the commemorative events of the 80th anniversary:
Santa Paula Event to Honor Heroes of Disaster
Press Release, 2003
St. Francis Dam Memorial Project
And the Santa Paula Historical Society
P.O. Box 842
Santa Paula, CA 93061
Contact person: John Nichols (805) 525-7804
For Immediate Release
The public is cordially invited to the unveiling of “The Warning,” a monumental forged steel sculpture by Eric J. Richards that will honor the spirit of heroism and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam Disaster. The sculpture depicts two police officers riding a Harley Davidson and an Indian motorcycle in the act of warning the sleeping citizens to fell to high ground as devastating floodwaters swept through parts of Santa Paula on March 12, 1928 [sic].
The unveiling will take place in the new Railroad Plaza on the corner of 10th and Santa Barbara Street in Santa Paula on Sunday, March 16 at 2 p.m. There will be a program at the gazebo, the dedication of a memorial tree, the unveiling and a reception at the historic Depot. Survivors of the disaster will be arriving in town for the ceremony aboard the Fillmore & Western Railway Company historic trains.
The St. Francis Dam Memorial Project, spearheaded by the Santa Paula Historical Society, commissioned the sculpture. It is hoped that eventually there will be additional pieces of public art to honor the spirit of heroism that arose during and after the disastrous flood.
Many stories of heroism and courage have been told and retold over the past 75 years. This monument honors all of the acts of heroism that occurred and, along with the companion memorial tree, is a fitting memorial to the victims on the 75th anniversary.
Shortly before 1:30 a.m. on March 13, 1928 and urgent message of imminent disaster reached the night operator Louise Gipe in Santa Paula and was quickly relayed to police officers Thornton Edwards and Stanley Baker, city officials and then homes in the lower portions of town. Among the many heroic acts that evening were the actions of these two motorcycle officers who rode through the night to warn the sleeping citizens in the low lying areas of Santa Paula that a torrent of water was about to inundate their homes. Their heroic efforts saved hundreds of lives. Their wild ride that night was stopped at 3:05 a.m. when the 30 ft. high wall of water swept through Santa Paula on its way to the ocean. The monument depicts that specific moment in time.
While the wild motorcycle ride was occurring Louise Gipe and the rest of the “Hello Girls” bravely stayed at their post knowing only that the wall of water was over 100 feet high when it left the dam. They had no way of knowing how high the floodwaters would be by the time they reached Santa Paula. They only knew that their neighbors must be warned.
All was confusion in Santa Paula as whistles blew, sirens screamed and horns honked. Fire Chief Sam Primmer also rode madly around town on his motorcycle calling to sleeping residents to abandon their homes and head for higher ground. Many heard and yawned, looked at the cloudless sky, thought it was a prank and went back to sleep. They did not live to regret it.
Sam Primmer’s 17-year-old son, Charles, broadcast all day on his ham radio set to lighten the telephone switchboard load. Lou Baumgartner of the American Red Cross broadcast his appeals for help over Primmer’s set.
Nick Baxter of Santa Paula, a disabled veteran of World War I, made the first rescue before daybreak when he plunged into the chilly water at Harvard and Barkla Streets and rescued Soledad Luna, an 11-year-old girl who was lodged in a walnut tree. His record for that first day of the disaster was three lives and three bodies.
These are just a few of the many acts of heroism that the monument honors. Donations to the project can be made to the Santa Paula Community Fund (memo to SFD Project) and mailed to SFD Memorial c/o Santa Clara Valley Bank, 901 E. Main Street, Santa Paula, CA 93060
St. Francis Dam (California, 1928)
Description & Background
Located approximately forty miles northwest of Los Angeles, California, St. Francis Dam was a curved concrete gravity dam constructed between 1924 and 1926 to provide a storage reservoir for the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. It was only the second concrete dam of nine dams built by the Los Angeles Bureau of Waterworks & Supply starting in 1921. While the dam’s upstream face exhibited a nearly vertical profile, the downstream side was equipped with a stair step design that resulted in base and crest thicknesses of 175 and 16 feet, respectively. The main structure reached a height of 205 feet and spanned 700 feet along its curvilinear crest. The design and construction of the St. Francis Dam was executed solely by the Los Angeles Bureau of Waterworks & Supply under the supervision of the organization’s chief engineer William Mulholland. The 1928 failure of the dam which resulted in the deaths of over 400 civilians was attributed to a series of human errors and poor engineering judgment. Due to the tremendous loss of life and property damage estimated to be $7 million, some consider the failure of the St. Francis Dam to be the “worst American civil engineering disaster of the 20th century.”
William Mulholland was a “self-taught” engineer who had achieved national recognition and admiration between 1906 and 1913 when he orchestrated the design and construction of the Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct, the longest water conveyance system at the time. In addition, during his time as a supervising engineer, Mulholland had overseen the completion of numerous embankment dams. Mulholland’s experience in concrete dam design, however, was lacking. Prior to the design and construction of the St. Francis Dam, he had only participated in the design of one other concrete gravity dam. Mulholland Dam, which was named in his honor, is a curved concrete gravity dam of similar height, constructed between 1923 and 1925. Although his experience resided primarily in the design of embankment dams, Mulholland proposed that a concrete gravity dam would be the proper structure for the canyon terrain across which St. Francis would be built.
Multiple instances of poor judgment by Mulholland and several of his subordinates significantly contributed to the cause of the failure of St. Francis Dam. Plans for the dam were based upon those previously prepared by Mulholland for the Mulholland Dam with little regard for site-specific investigations. When these plans were finalized and after construction began, the height of the dam was raised by ten feet on two separate occasions to provide additional reservoir storage needed to sustain the growing community surrounding the dam. Although these modifications increased the dam’s height by twenty feet, no changes were made to its base width. As a result, the intended safety margin for structural stability decreased significantly. Mulholland’s team recognized this effect, however the engineering analysis, acquiring of additional materials, and extended construction time to properly mitigate the height increase were considered to be too costly to the project and to those stakeholders who were financially invested in the completion and operation of the dam.
St. Francis Dam failed at midnight on March 12-13, 1928 only twelve hours after its last inspection by Mulholland. For a considerable period leading up to the last inspection, leaking cracks were observed within the main dam and at its abutments which were dismissed as conditions typical of the dam type.
When investigating the cause of failure, it was clear that the proposed St. Francis Dam design was not reviewed by any independent party. It was also clear that it was designed to prevent small foundation stresses only and not accommodate full uplift. It is estimated that the design exhibited a safety factor less than one while Mulholland claimed it was designed using a safety factor of four. Although opinions vary, more recent and more thorough investigations assign the ultimate failure mode to weakening of the left abutment foundation rock due to the saturated condition created by the reservoir which essentially re-activated a large landslide that combined with a destabilizing uplift force on the main dam caused failure to initiate at the dam’s left end. In quick succession, as catastrophic failure was occurring at the left end, the maximum height section tilted and rotated which destabilized the right end of the main dam causing catastrophic failure at the right end as well.
In the aftermath of the failure, Mulholland took full responsibility for the accident during a hearing stating, “Don’t blame anyone else, you know you can just fasten it on me. If there was human error, I was the human” and he “only envied those who were killed.” He ended his career by stepping down as head of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Waterworks & Supply shortly after the failure.