Vintage: St. Francis Dam collapse (1928)

Vintage: St. Francis Dam collapse (1928)


From the day the St. Francis Dam opened in 1926, it leaked. The folks in the farm towns downstream used to joke that they’d see you later “if the dam don’t break.”

Built by William Mulholland, known as the father of Los Angeles’ municipal water system, the 1,300-foot span of concrete in San Francisquito Canyon held more than 12 billion gallons — a year’s supply for the entire city about 50 miles to the south.

When the dam broke, freeing a 10-story-high avalanche of water to sweep 54 miles west to the ocean. It would take 5 1/2 hours to get there, but no official warning would be sounded for considerably more than an hour after the rupture.

Water engulfed whole towns, dozens of ranches, an Edison construction camp, the Harry Carey Indian reservation and trading post, and DWP Powerhouse No. 2. It swept into Castaic Junction and along the Santa Clara River bed to Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy and, finally, the sea.

It demolished 1,200 houses, washed out 10 bridges and knocked out power lines. Bodies would wash ashore as far south as San Diego.

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March 13, 1928: Aerial photo of the wrecked St. Francis Dam taken at a point just below the structure. This photo was published on the front page of the March 14, 1928, Los Angeles Times. PHOTOGRAPH BY: Harry C. Anderson / Los Angeles Times

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Photo of St. Francis Dam before its collapse. Construction of the dam began in 1924 and finished in 1926. The dam failed right before midnight on March 12, 1928. This photo was published in the March 14, 1928 Los Angeles Times

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March 13, 1928: View of Main Highway Bridge one and one-half miles from Castaic. Only the supports survived the flood waters following the St. Francis Dam collapse. This photo was published in the March 14, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

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March 13, 1928: Debris littering main highway near Castaic following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 14, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

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March 1928: Remaining section of St. Francis Dam with crumbled sections at base.

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March 13, 1928: Aerial photo of City of Santa Paula following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. This photo was published on page one of the March 14. 1928 Los Angeles Times.

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March 13, 1928: Flood twisted railroad track at Castaic on the Santa Paula-Montalvo branch of Southern Pacific following collapse of St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 14, 1928 Los Angeles Times. PHOTOGRAPH BY: George Watson / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

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March 14, 1928: Remains of homes in Santa Paula following the collapse of St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928 Los Angeles Times. PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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March 14, 1928: Turbine Housings are all that is left of Power House No. 2 – destroyed by flood waters following the collapse of St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928 Los Angeles Times. PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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March 13, 1928: Relief workers carrying remains of victim of St. Francis Dam collapse. This photo was published in the March 14, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

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March 15, 1928: A large section of concrete block from St. Francis Dam sits about three-fourths a mile from where the dam collapsed. A man standing in lower right of block gives idea of size.

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March 25, 1928: Workers replace gas mains below construction of temporary bridge for main highway following the collapse of St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 26, 1928 Los Angeles Times. PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

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March 1928: Clearing away debris near Santa Paula following the St. Francis Dam disaster. This photo was published in the March 26, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

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April 1928: Thirty-five automobiles were recovered at Power House No. 2. Nine survivors have claimed their cars. All were owned by power plant employees. PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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March 1928: Funeral procession proceeds across flood plain following the St. Francis Dam disaster. PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

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Seven coffins containing victims of March 12, 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse prepared for burial in Santa Clara Valley.

via LA Times


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