Hiram Johnson, U.S. Senator 1917-1945
The Great State of Arizona gave it the old college try, but there was no stopping California's bull-headed maverick Republican governor-turned-U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson when he set his mind to something. The man who had given Californians the power to make and break legislation and to recall politicians at the ballot box teamed up in 1928 with his GOP Senate colleague from the Imperial Valley, Phil Swing, to push through the Swing-Johnson Act, authorizing the Boulder Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border. Los Angeles had its Owens River water; San Bernardino and San Diego would divert water from the Colorado River, by golly, and get the feds to pay for it.
The first hearings on the act, H.R. 5773, were held Jan. 6, 1928. Arizona saw it as an illegal confiscation of its water and fought the bill, as did lawmakers from other parts of the country who considered it a waste of money that would benefit only California.
Then on March 12-13, L.A.'s St. Francis Dam in Saugus failed. Arizona Gov. George W.P. Hunt on March 28 directed Arizona legislator Guy L. Jones to trek to L.A. to gather ammunition and quash rumors that the dam had been dynamited. Jones compiled a competent report (this report) on the whys and wherefores of the dam disaster and itemized the findings of L.A. District Attorney Asa Keyes' fact-finding panel. The upshot: "The dam was constructed without a sufficiently thorough examination and understanding of the foundation materials upon which the dam was constructed," and it "should not have been constructed at this location."
Arizona commissioners used Jones' report in congressional hearings on the Swing-Johnson Act. "No other conclusion could be reached," the commissioners reported, "than that the utmost care must be exercised in ascertaining the safety of a damsite before selecting it for water storage. This Congress has thus far failed to do in the case of the Boulder Canyon damsite."
Arizona's protestations seemed to fall on deaf ears, and some would say the St. Francis Dam Disaster was officially swept under the rug, forgotten, ignored, buried. The House of Representatives passed the Swing-Johnson Act May 25. The Senate passed an amended version Dec. 14, the House concurred Dec. 18, and lame-duck President Calvin Coolidge signed it into law on Dec. 21.
Arizona sued the United States, California, and certain other states on grounds the legislation violated Arizona's sovereignty and water rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Arizona May 18, 1931. The dam went into construction that same year and was completed in 1936. It was officially renamed Hoover Dam in 1947.
St. Francis Dam historian J. David Rogers adds: "St. Francis was built of mass concrete, as was Hoover a decade later, but that's about all the two structures had in common. Hoover was designed and constructed with so much more care, it's as though the two dams were built in different centuries. That said, there is no question that the failure of St. Francis resulted in far greater scrutiny of the Boulder Canyon Project than would otherwise have occurred, and we have Arizona to thank, in some measure, for that additional scrutiny."
God Prosper the Commonwealth of Arizona
San Francisquito Canyon Dam Disaster
Report to His Excellency
Gov. George W. P. Hunt
By Guy L. Jones
Member of Arizona Legislature
Geo W P Hunt
March 28, 1928.
Dear Mr. Jones:
There has recently occurred in California a
great disaster in the breaking of the St, Francis
Dam. Many lives were lost and there has been a
great deal of conjecture and many theories as to
the cause advanced, — some even going so far as to
say it was done by dynamite.
I wish if possible you could go over there and
make an investigation. You might be able to find out
the real status of the case.
We have built several dams in our state; so far
we have never had any trouble, but the breaking of this
dam has caused a great deal of uneasiness in our valleys.
Our dams have most of them been built under government
supervision and have stood the test of time; but there
are other dams being contemplated. I feel we will have
to, in the course of time, construct a great many dams
in Arizona, and we never want to have a disaster if it
can possible be avoided.
If you can get any light on this subject, I will
appreciate it very much.
Yours very sincerely,
/s/ Geo W P Hunt
Hon. Guy L. Jones,
Member House of Representatives,
The facts presented in this report were
gathered during an examination of the
reservoir and dam after the disaster; by
conversations on the ground with eminent
geologists; by listening to testimony presented to juries and boards of inquiry; by
examination of reports ordered made by
competent authority; by conversations
with survivors; and by an inspection of
damaged property through the length of
the Santa Clara Valley.
(Original captions) Page 4: The dam while filling four months before the disaster, showing the tremendous
strength of the solid concrete, gravity type, arched upstream dam. (Click each to enlarge.)
ON SHIFT IN THE POWER HOUSE
Louis Burns, operator at Los Angeles Municipal Bureau
of Power and Light, plant No. 2, in San Francisquito Canyon
on the Owens Valley aqueduct, chuckled to himself as he
hung up the telephone receiver, knowing that he too, would
have his day off, come Wednesday of next week. That was
a good dig he had just given Silvuy; a man could not help
feeling a little sheepish when he came on shift after vacation,
especially on the midnight shift. He walked over to the
chart and made the entry and turned to sit down, when the
lights flashed, a blue stream cracked across the front of the
switchboard. Burns jumped for the switch to cut No. 2 out
of series, dimly conscious of a tremendous roar above the
hum of the two 15,000 K.W. turbines which supply power
and light to the City of Los Angeles. He thought he heard
his helper shout. The windows gave straight inward, then
the walls, roof and floor seemed to meet each other in a
gigantic convulsion and it was all over. A ninety-foot wall
of water, carrying rocks, trees, detrital, swept over the top
of the power house. The San Francisquito Dam had broken.
"How did you know that it was 11:47, Mr. Silvuy?"
asked E. J. Dennison, Deputy District Attorney, Los Angeles
County, of the witness.
"I was the operator on duty at power plant No. 1," was
the answer. "I went on duty at 11:30 o'clock. I called up
Burns, as usual, on coming on shift for the midnight check;
we balanced loads."
"But how did you know it was 11:47?"
"The face of the clock was directly in front of me as
I talked into the telephone. With my wife, I returned from
my day off to Los Angeles and drove up the Canyoh from
Saugus. We passed Newhall about 9:00 P.M. It was about
10:00 P.M. when we passed power plant No. 2, and then
drove up the hill to the lake road, passing the dam at 10:15.
We did not cross the dam but continued along the road that
follows around the lake to power plant No. 1. I went on
shift at 11:30 and at 11:47 was talking with Burns."
Of the thirteen men and their families employed in the
operation of the power plant No. 2 who lived in the neat
little settlement up a draw nearby, the school teacher and
the ranchers and their families from the dam down to
Carey's ranch, five miles north of Saugus, there is one single
survivor. He was a light sleeper; was continually predicting
the dam's failure; was laughed at for his pains. He said he
heard his dog bark; heard a noise; jumped out of bed into
his shoes, with a yell of warning, and climbed with all his
might up the canyon side. He was just high enough to turn
and see the black calamity pass beneath him.
HISTORY OF THE PROJECT
The San Francisquito reservoir was first projected in
1922. Two ranches in private ownership in the canyon comprised
most of the area, the balance of which was unoccupied public
land acquired by the city of Los Angeles upon
application to the Federal Government. The Canyon lies
forty-five miles north of Los Angeles, among the California
hills, to the left of the road to Mojave, and about sixty-five
miles from the sea, near Oxnard. The drainage area of the
Canyon's watershed is 37 square miles and the surface area
of the reservoir, when filled, was three and a half miles long
by varying width. The aqueduct from the Owens Valley
came out through the mountain above the site of the
reservoir and was passed down through an iron conduit to
power house No. 1 near head of Canyon where it again
entered the mountain above the level of the reservoir, and
through a tunnel of five miles, passed the east side of the
reservoir to a point one and a half miles below the site
chosen for the dam. Here it again came out of the rocky
ridge and through two large iron tubes passed directly down
the side of the ridge at an acute angle into the turbine races
of power house No. 2 in the bottom of the San Francisquito
Canyon. The penstock under power house No. 2 directed
the water again into a tunnel, coming out on the other side
of the ridge, at an elevation, as the Saugus siphon. From
there, it flows through tunnels and exposed pipe to the San
Fernando power plant and reservoir, at the head of the San
Fernando Valley, above Van Nuys and Lankershim.
The reservoir was designed to contain thirty-eight
thousand acre feet of water and at the time of the failure of the
dam was nearly full.
This reservoir differs in relation to the Owens Valley
from our subsidiary reservoirs in the Salt River System, at
Mormon Flat and Horse Mesa; this reservoir was not in series
with the power generating units. It was filled by diverting
at power house No. 1 a portion of the water from Owens
Valley after that water had passed through the turbine at
power plant No. 1. The other part of the water then
continued directly through the aqueduct and through the lower
power stations, No. 2 and San Fernando. The portion for
the San Francisquito reservoir went into this lake. It would
not be impossible, however, to have constructed works to
utilize this water when released for the aqueduct again. The
reservoir was merely an auxiliary water storage device and
in an emergency contained sufficient water to supply the
needs of the city of Los Angeles for three months.
The topography reveals a high range with very steep
sides on the east of the reservoir with low, irregular hills on
the west. It made a beautiful clear lake. The dam was of
the gravity type, arched upstream and keyed into the east
bank, on the west running up the slope of the end of the hill,
augmented by a low wall across the top of the first hill and
a saddle, in order to increase the surface area of the
reservoir. Farther west, the ground rose several hundred feet
above the high water contour. The dam was 205 ft. high,
176 ft. wide at the bottom, 1225 ft. length at crest,
lengthened 200 feet by a retaining wall. From upstream face to
downstream toe, the dam was 165 feet thick, at bed rock,
with steps up the downstream face with five-foot risers
lengthening in tread from top to bottom. The elevation of
stream bed was 1630 ft. above sea level. 175,000 yds. of
concrete was used, with 1-12/100 barrels cement to the cubic
yard. The aggregate was made of stream bed gravel and
sand, containing coarse rock run through a six-inch grizzly.
The surfaces were floated and rendered impervious to water
and the average crushing strength of five samples of the
broken concrete was 1758 pounds per square inch. No
reinforcing bars were used, nor did good engineering practice
demand their employment in a concrete, gravity-type dam of
this size. Five thirty-inch diameter drainage pipes were
placed at the foot of the dam, controlled by gates from
above. The work was begun in March, 1924, and finished
in June, 1926, and the reservoir was being filled for the first
time. It contained 36,000 acre feet when the dam failed.
Page 8: Standing section looking downstream. View taken from reservoir bed. At left,
sections of east wing can be seen lying upstream from face of standing section. At
right, what appears to be fracture at base is profile of bedrock where west slope
The east wall of the Canyon into which the dam was
anchored consists of quartz mica schist with a strike north
55 degrees west or diagonally across the base of the dam.
The schist crosses the stream bed and a main fault with a
change of dip, and continues up the west bank 65 ft. above
the stream bed at the dam site, to the contact with the sespe
conglomerate. The anchor-way face was at right angles to
the thrust of the dam in place. The west bank is conglomerate
in contact with a metamorphosed sandstone and dark
basic shale. Two clearly defined faults existed in the west
bank, the largest of which was exactly where the west bank
began to rise. The cleavage planes under the west side of
the dam between the conglomerate, the sandstone, and the
mica schist, are very mixed up. Igneous rock thrust into the
formations confuses the situation. It is a typical case of the
Franciscan sespe familiar to California geologists. Over this
was laid the red clay of the California hills to a depth of
four feet. The foundation of the dam was prepared by using
a hydraulic giant and washing down all loose dirt to a depth
of five feet exposing bed rock, and then with drill and pick
clearing the surface of all loose rock until a firm foundation
"Did you employ any geologists to study the formation
under the site chosen for the dam?" Mr. Mulholland was
asked during the course of the inquiry.
"No," he replied.
"Are you a geologist yourself?"
"Well, I don't claim to be, but a man learns something
about rock who has drilled fifty-three miles of tunnels
through these hills. I have built nineteen dams in my time;
I have been consulted in the building of nineteen more.
Hind sight is always better than foresight. We thought we
had the bed rock when we built this dam. We have never
had a failure yet and we have never heard the slightest
criticism of the site chosen for this dam. There isn't a square
mile of Southern California where there are not prominent
As the dam began filling with water, the altered
sandstone and the conglomerate on the west bank became
saturated with water and the inthrusts of decomposed mica
schists began to soften. Where the water percolated into
the cleavage planes as the surface of the reservoir rose, and
greater pressure continued being exerted through the
hydrostatic head, these forces met the bottom of the dam, and
created stresses for which the dam was not designed. The
conglomerate, which when dry, was hard, softened. In places
it was like slick mud. A piece of the altered sandstone and
quartz mica schist, thoroughly saturated, broke in the hand.
Page 9: View of standing section looking across site of dam from east,
showing how the downstream toe was broken off.
In the center of the stream bed stands a section of the
dam 205 ft. high, 75 ft. wide at the bottom, 86 ft. wide at the
top. The present position of its top is 7/10 of a foot down
stream, and the piece has been revolved upon its axis 8/10
of an inch at the corner of its down stream toe. The
cleavage upon both sides is sharp. To the east of it are piled
several sections, one of which has fallen a few feet upstream
from the face of the standing section. Nine pieces from the
west side are observable at intervals for one-half mile down
stream. The largest of these pieces — 85 feet long by 50 feet
thick by 65 feet wide — as large as a six-room house — weight
10,000 tons — lies 1500 feet down stream; at 2500 feet, a
piece nearly half this size. These are partly buried in the
gravel and detrital with which the stream bed is filled. The
back portion of the standing section has been sheered [sic]
vertically, suggesting that the standing section, by the force of
the collapse, was rocked backward on its down stream toe
by the force of the crash; this suspicion is further
strengthened by the presence under its upstream toe of a
water-soaked wooden ladder which might have been sucked under,
while the section tottered down stream, and1 was bitten and
crushed to the thickness of paper as the standing section
rocked forward again.
Clinging to the concrete on the under side of broken
bed rock sections of the dam, are areas of the mica schist,
proving that the cleavage was through the rock and that the
bond between the concrete and the rock was stronger than
the rock itself.
Page 12: Their minds still fresh with the tales of flood disaster from the lips of survivors, the
members of Coroner Frank Nance's inquest jury were taken to the scene of the
A great deal of discussion among the geologists and
engineers has followed the identification of the great
segments of the dam as they lie half buried in the detrital down
the stream. From their position and size, opposite theories
are supported from the same set of facts.
More than a full day's discussion followed an analysis
of the recording instrument's record of the float gauge's
movements for the 23½ hours preceding the collapse of the
dam. Microscopic and microphotographic studies have been
made of this record by eminent engineers, conclusions being
reached by one group that the west side of the dam broke
first; and by the other group that the east side broke first.
During the last three and a half hours, the water level at
the face of the dam is shown to have fallen seven-thirty
seconds of an inch, and the conclusion is drawn that 74 second
feet of water was disappearing under the dam foundations,
some 9,000,000 cu. ft.; while the inferential testimony is that
the men who would be watching for it down stream,
observed that no water was escaping. By this is meant that
the caretaker, whose duty it was to be on the lookout for
leaks, went home after inspection and went to bed in the
camp down stream, below the dam, at 11:30, and that the
operator at power house No. 2, who talked with Mr. Silvuy
at 11:47, and who, fifteen minutes before, had walked across
the bridge over the sluiceway as he was going on shift, had
noticed no unusual change in the water in the sluiceway
such as 74 sect, feet would cause. At least, he failed to
mention it when reporting conditions and checking loads with
the operator at the power house No. 1. Of course, every
person who was in actual position to observe, was lost in the
Page 14: A view of standing section, looking upstream the following morning. The line which looks like a horizontal crack is
not a crack thiough the structure, but is the top line of fragments lying behind the standing section.
No less than seven inquiries into the cause of the dam's
failure have been undertaken by official bodies. District
Attorney's office of Los Angeles County, the State Railroad
Commission, the Governor of California, through a board of
five engineers, the coroner's jury of Ventura County, the
City Council of Los Angeles, and the Mayor's Commission
of Santa Paula, are six of them.
The members of the Fact Finding Commission,
appointed to investigate the failure of the dam for District
Attorney Asa Keyes' office of Los Angeles County, were:
Edward L. Mayberry, Walter G. Clark, Col. Charles T.
Leeds, engineers; Prof. Allen T. Sedgwick, Louis Z. Johnson,
The engineers appointed by the City Council of the City
of Los Angeles, were:
Dr. Elwood Mead, former director of the Reclamation
Service; Louis C. Hill, consulting engineer, and former
Reclamation Service supervising engineer, who built the Roosevelt
Dam; Maj. Gen. Lansing H. Beach, U.S. A[rmy] (retired),
former Chief, Corps of Engineers.
The Board of Supervisors of Los Angeles County secured
their report from the consulting engineers permanently
employed by the Board. They are:
J.B. Lippincott, former engineer of the Reclamation
Service, who resigned to come to Southern California and
start the building of the Los Angeles aqueduct, 20 years ago;
D.C. Henny; and J.W. Reagan, former chief engineer of
the Los Angeles County Flood Control District.
Gov. C. C. Young appointed for the State's investigating
body the following well-known authorities from a list
proposed to him by American Society of Civil Engineers:
A.J. Wiley, Chairman, Consulting engr., Boise, Idaho.
Geo. D. Louderback, Prof, of Geology, University of
Calif., Berkeley, Calif.
F.L. Ransome, Prof, of Economic Geology, Calif.
Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.
F.E. Bonner, Dist. Engr., U. S. Forest Service, and Calif.
Representative on Federal Power Commission, San Francisco,
H.T. Cory, Consulting Engineer, Los Angeles, Calif.
F.H. Fowler, Consulting Engineer, San Francisco, Calif.
Page 16: Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light building that was carried away when the St. Francis dam broke and released
12 billion gallons of water. (Webmaster's note: That is incorrect. This is Power House No. 1, which was not carried away, inasmuch as it sat upstream from the dam.
Power House No. 2 was lost.)
The most eminent engineers and geologists have been
employed. The reports and testimony are voluminous,
making some 2,000 pages of printed record of fact, conclusion,
recommendation. Four theories are advanced for the cause
of the dam's failure.
1. Seismographic disturbance.
3. Percolation and saturation under dam through
4. Natural surface landslide.
1. SEISMOGRAPHIC DISTURBANCE. A very careful
check and re-survey by C.F. Homberg, engineer of the
Bureau of Power and Light, who made the original
triangulation, shows the dislocation of one of the points in that
survey on the top of the west hill. This survey, checked and
rechecked, shows that the point, which was an iron pipe,
in the cement retaining wall at the west end of the parapet,
placed at a distance of 1200 feet from the center of the
dam, has moved 7/10 of an inch eastward, or toward the
opposite canyon wall. A closed survey and check by two
level parties from one U.S.G.S. bench mark to another,
shows that this point has risen 3¼ inches. From this, it is
concluded that a seismographic disturbance pushed the west
hill and the west side of the dam upward, and, pressing
across the Canyon, crushed the dam in its vise-like grip,
shattering it into the dozen immense fragments which are
counted down stream. This theory is strengthened by the
spauling off of the section of steps lying against the down
stream face of the standing section, in the center of the
Against this, however, is the evidence of the
seismograph instrument at Santa Barbara, only 80 miles distant;
the instrument at Stanford University and the famous
instrument at Georgetown University at Washington, D.C.,
where the evidence is all negative; no seismographic
disturbance was recorded.
Page 17: Another view of the power plant No. 2 at the site one and one-half
miles down the canyon below the dam the morning after the dam
failure. The stream of water spouting above the turbine comes from the pressure in the twin aqueduct tubes which led from the top of the
canyon wall 200 feet above.
2. DYNAMITE. A rope and a piece of paper, with
diagram and directions, formed the basis of this suspicion.
A newspaper story describing a piece of concrete being
broken between fingers by Coroner Nance, and an explosive
expert of El Paso, made a chain. Coroner Nance, who did
not see the story, stated later it was stone, not concrete, he
"Mr. Mulholland never made any concrete that will
break in a man's finger," testified Mr. Z. Cushing, who, for
four years, experted explosives during the building of the
aqueduct for both the Bureau and the E.I. Dupont De
Nemours Powder Company. "That's the result of an explo-
The piece of concrete discovered farthest down stream
is identified as a piece from the base of the dam eighty feet
down from the top eastern corner at a depth of fifty feet
under water. Mr. Frank Rieber, testifying before the
District Attorney's inquiry as a geologist and physicist,
specializing in the application of the laws of physics to the earth's
crust, identified this piece, and from its position drew the
conclusion that it was the first piece to go. From the position
on the upstream face and its shape, showing that it reached
through the entire structure, some powerful external force
must have expelled it. The hanging rope, found
subsequently, led to an inquiry of the size of the charge needed
to start the structure to fail. Mr. Cushing thought that 50
pounds of low velocity gelatin for a minimum, and certainly
not more than 250 for a maximum, would have been needed.
"Would that not have made a terrific noise, which
would have been heard?" asked a member of the jury.
"At a depth of 50 feet under water, it would scarcely
have been heard at all," he replied.
"Every fish which we found, either in pools above the
dam or below the dam, was dead when we made our
examination," testified Professor Shark of the State Fish
Hatcheries' Department. "We were called a week after the failure
of the dam by the Bureau of Power and Light."
"Do you know from your own experience that a charge
of dynamite exploded in water will kill fish?" he was asked.
"That is all," finished the attorney for the Bureau.
Professor Bailey Willis, world famous geologist and
seismographic expert of Stanford University, was pointing
out to the writer as they sat together on the fallen debris, a
crack in the structure. "Did you hear that dynamite theory?"
he asked. "You see this? Oakum caulking in the crack.
That's the piece of rope they found."
3. PERCOLATION AND SATURATION of rock
under dam through seepage. The entire hillside on the west
bank became softened through the percolation of the water
into the structure of the altered sandstone and into the
structure of the conglomerate. So wide a crack as one-quarter
inch filled with recently deposited gypsum or quartz mica
sediment can be easily identified in the bare surface at a
depth of 20 feet below the foundation upon which the
concrete of the west wing was laid. From the faulting between
the sandstone and the mica schist at the west edge of the
stream bed to the bottom of the mud or red clay with which
the hill was overlaid, the entire west wing of the dam
permitted the penetration of water thoroughly through the hill.
Streams of small size were known to exist on the back side
of the dam. These discharged, however, clear water on the
afternoon before the dam's failure. One of these was
discharging a stream "as large as a man's leg." Mr.
Mulholland and Mr. Van Normand [sic], assistant chief engineer, both
examined this at noon of the day before. It was clear and
they were satisfied that no new or dangerous alteration was
taking place under the west wing of the dam. The theory
upon which the "Fact Finding Board," consisting of the
well-known geologists, E.L. Mayberry, Allen E. Sedgewick and
Louis Z. Johnson, the engineers W.S. Clark and Charles T.
Leeds, proceeded was that the softest of this west hillside
where the conglomerate under the action of water had
become little better than a soft mud strata, sustaining its
aggregate of desert pebbles, permitted the passage of a very
small and rapidly increasing volume of water as a
consequence of the pressure of the 80-foot head in the reservoir.
This rapidly increasing flow removed the foundation material
of the west wing of the dam; a tremendous gouge left the
wing in suspense. The weight of the concrete in cantilever
shape then collapsed the wing, the water drove it down the
hillside and down the canyon, its bending movement shifting
the standing section down stream and breaking it off from
the east wing. The east wing then collapsed through three
major vertical cracks. A part of the force of the water by
this time lost down stream, the large segments fell into the
river bed against the base of the standing section, where
they now lie. The force of the escaping water under the
west side struck diagonally across the channel against the
base of the east wall, undercutting the schist and producing
a very large slide behind what had been the abutment of the
east wing of the dam.
4. NATURAL SURFACE LANDSLIDE. Natural slides
had been occurring under the water in the reservoir in the
mica schist along the east wall up to a quarter of a mile
above the dam. They are easily discernible in the bed of the
now dry reservoir. Both the strike and dip of the mica
schist on the east side favored this action. As the water
softened the rock toward the bottom of the ridge, these small
slides were occurring during the last year, in all probability.
The theory is now advanced that the cause of failure of the
dam was that the lip on the down stream edge of the
abutment, where the east wing of the dam impinged upon the
schist cliff towering over the east side of the canyon, just
slid down, giving the east wing the opportunity to slip off
the shoulder against which it lay. It then, yielding to the
pressure from the west, tilted the standing section to the
east, broke it off from the west wing and caused the
subsequent collapse of the west wing.
The slide, or remaining evidence of the slide, are plain
to be seen.
The objection to this theory is that the great pieces into
which the east wing broke, now lie at the foot of the
standing section, partly in front thereof; while the equally large
pieces of the west side are found from a quarter to a half
mile down stream.
The cost of building the dam was $1,250,000. The
entire valuation of the aqueduct system is approximately
$125,000,000, making the dam and reservoir equal one
per cent of total value of the system. The water stored
was one-fourth of the year's use in Los Angeles. Six per cent
interest on the valuation would make the value of water and
power to Los Angeles, at $7,500,000 a year. A quarter of
a year's storage, which the reservoir contained at time of
the collapse would have a value of $1,875,000. Its electric
power revenue through one subsequent use, might be a half
a million dollars more, so that $3,625,000 might be a very
conservative estimate of the economic loss due to the dam's
failure. Interruption of water service, there was none. The
rebuilding of the power plant No. 2, and the repair of a
short portion of the aqueduct may amount to $200,000; to
this may be added the loss of revenue from power plant
No. 2 until the plant is rebuilt.
Property loss and damage, and personal injury and loss
of life, are placed at the stupendous total of $12,000,000
and 451 lives.
DESTRUCTION IN THE SANTA CLARA VALLEY
From the record of the gauge recording device on the
dam and the records of the interruptions of service in the
power houses above and below, the dam crashed at 11:57
P.M., March 12th, and swept away the power plant a mile
and a half below at 12:02 A.M., five minutes later. The
rate of progress of the wall of water down the canyon was
26 feet per second, or 18 miles per hour. It reached the sea,
66 miles distant, five and three-quarters hours later. Down
stream from the power house, it reached:
The Carey Ranch 7 — miles distant at 12:30 A.M.
Saugus — 9 miles distant at 1:05 A.M.
Castiac [sic] Junction — 5 miles distant at 1:28 A.M.
Piru — 12 miles distant at 2:18 A.M.
Fillmore — 8 miles distant at 2:55 A.M.
Santa Paula — 10 miles distant at 3:45 A.M.
Saticoy — 9 miles distant at 4:30 P.M.
The Sea — 6 miles distant at 5:45 A.M.
At Santa Paula, the stream was twenty-three feet deep;
at Saticoy twelve feet. As the river widened still farther,
it reached the sea relatively slowly at a depth of about
The destruction at Newhall was to the land of the
Newhall Ranch, which was overflowed, covered with sand,
through which arroyos were cut and edges of banks broken
off and washed away.
While the destruction of life in the canyon was nearly
100% of all people living between the dam and the Carey
Ranch, this total did not equal the number of lives lost
farther down and among the men in the Southern California
Edison Company's construction camp, where the Newhall
Creek joins the Santa Clara River between Saugus and Castiac [sic].
Ninety-one men lost their lives out of a total of 174
names on the pay roll in that division. Asleep on their camp
cots and without warning, finding their tents falling about
them and the water rushing across the floor where the camp
was located on the edge of the steep arroyo, they rushed
outside in the dark to find themselves staggering and
overwhelmed and swept off into the deep pool which an eddy
was filling at the edge of their camp. One survivor said that
he owed his life to a tent pole which, in the darkness and
confusion, he had seized. All of his tent mates were lost.
The destruction to highways, bridges and railway was
greatest at this point. Steel spans were carried hundreds of
feet down stream; pile bridging was rooted out; concrete
retaining walls and piers toppled over. The State highway
running north to Bakersfield was 18 inches to 4 feet deep
with sand, uprooted trees and brush, a distance of three and
a half miles. Ten miles of the Southern Pacific branch line
between Castiac Junction and Piru, as well as eight miles
of the State highway, were washed away or covered several
feet deep with sand and driftwood. A gas station and two
houses at the former point disappeared entirely. At the last
place down stream where loss of life was recorded, Santa
Paula, eighteen people in the lower section of town lost their
lives. The river bottom here was a mile wide. In Los
Angeles County, the loss of life was largest and the property
damage, as calculated in the loss of the dam and the water,
was probably the greatest. But in Ventura County the
number of people affected, the number of properties injured and
destroyed, and the general interruption to business was felt
For the purpose of arriving at an estimate of the
damage and for fixing a basis of settlement, which the city of
Los Angeles quickly offered to do, twenty-three agricultural
extension service workers were detailed by the University
and by Governor Young for a survey, under the direction of
the Horticultural Commission of Ventura County.
They find in their report that 190 properties have been
damaged in varying degrees and that the total acres of ranch
lands injured is 10,658. These are divided as follows:
Oranges — 915 acres
Lemons — 85 acres
Walnuts — 464 acres
Apricots — 256 acres
Pasture land — 5,274 acres
Vegetables — 326 acres
Bean land — 832 acres
Citrus land not planted — 36 acres
Alfalfa — 1,421 acres
Beets — 435 acres
Barley — 450 acres
In varying degrees of injury, 75 houses in the lower
portion of Santa Paula now stand deserted. Some have been
lifted and turned on their lots, some have been carried a
block or more away from their foundations. According to
Mr. C. C. Teague, a prominent lemon grower of Santa Paula,
the families in the disaster, aided by the Red Cross, were
One of the intangible considerations which will also
affect the property damage situation is called "river
hazard." By this is meant changes in the river channel, due to
the flood and to the deposition of sand in the river bed. At
some places water is now running over land that was
formerly farmed, and some places there is no water where
there was water before. Water for irrigation in the Santa
Clara Valley is developed by surface seepage and pumping
from the gravel beds. Changes will be found to have been
made in the source or location of water which maintains the
orange orchards from the underground storage in the gravel
beds. No discussion of damage will be complete until this
serious item of source of water supply has been thoroughly
Likewise, in Ventura County, under the direction of
Coroner Reardon, Deputy Attorney Hollingsworth presented
his evidence before a jury consisting of L.H. Dunning, Oliver
L. Reardon, F.T. Parrott, W.G. Moore, J. Lon Hall, Earl
Foolweather, Willard Smith, L.D. Eaton, J.H. Shrive,
George W. Caldwell, all men of earnest determination to
get to the root of the matter. There was heat in the
discussion and some sections of public opinion are not satisfied that
the builders of the dam should go unpunished. Dr. W.D.
Mott, former State Senator from the Santa Clara Valley
district, in a heated reply to Governor Young, upon the occasion
of his appointment of a commission of inquiry, stated: "The
responsibility is that of a selfish city which took the water
belonging to us." The water referred to was the normal
flow in the San Francisquito Canyon and the flood waters
which, in rain storms, were collected on that watershed.
As a fact, however, no measurements of either the
normal flow nor the flood waters had ever been made so that
when a temporary agreement was reached a year ago by
which the Bureau of Power and Light was to release a head
of 300 miner's inches all the time, public opinion in Santa
Clara Valley was satisfied.
No one can doubt the high character, of the men
employed on the Fact-Finding Commission, nor doubt the
interest, intelligence and particular adaptability of the jury to
listen to all the testimony about the failure of the St. Francis
Dam, which was impanelled by Los Angeles County Coroner,
Frank Nance. They are engineers, contractors, geologists,
business men, whose services in professional employment are
measured by a rate of $100 a day; they are giving their
services for nothing. They are:
Oliver Bowen, Engr.-Contr., 1144 So. Grand.
C.D. Walz, Mech. Engr., 1144 So. Grand.
Harry G. Holabird, Appraiser, 621 So. Hope.
Capt. B. Noice, Struct. Engr., 1325 Washington BIdg.
I.C. Harris, Contr., 606 So. Hill.
Sterling C. Lines, Engr. Finance, 621 So. Hope.
W.H. Eaton, Jr., Build. Contr., 1317½ So. Van Ness.
Z.N. Nelson, Engr. Bldg. Const., Scofield Twaits Eng.
Corp., 1100 Pacific Finance Bldg.
Ralph Ware, Insurance, 552 Roosevelt Bldg.
Conflicting statements were published. Wide circulation
was given the statement of Stanley Dunham, construction
engineer and superintendent when the dam was built, who
said that only an external force could have crashed the dam.
Only thirty-six gallons of seepage in twenty-four hours, a
negligible amount, had been escaping, the smallest quantity
ever checked by him. The dam was dry. The foundations
were rock on one side and conglomerate on the other,
checked by a diamond drill. Test holes were also filled with
The first report of the cause of the failure of the dam
attributed to Mr. Mulholland and his Chief Assistant
Engineer, Mr. Van Norman, was quoted as the giving away of
the mountain on the west side of the canyon. This was not
part of the dam itself, but was a 1500-foot dyke, or
secondary dam, which acted as an abutment or anchorage for the
main central portion or arch which still stands. As the west
side dyke gave way, water poured through into the canyon.
Mr. Van Norman said: "The rush of the water weakened
the dam, and the east mountain side next crumpled, followed
by a break on the east mountain anchorage. Water poured
through this opening. The two breaks caused rivers of
water to pour through the canyon. The reservoir was then
emptied of its 36,000 acre feet within a few hours."
It is small wonder that the public mind continues
confused about the causes of the disaster when it is fed with
statements of this kind.
Page 27: This picture was taken two blocks from the center portion of Santa Paula.
Santa Paula is fifty miles down the
Santa Clara River below the dam site.
While the rules of evidence were used as a guide in
admitting testimony before the boards studying the causes of
failure of the dam, the purpose of the inquirers was to get
at the facts and to hear the opinions of every qualified
witness. An observer present during the hearings felt that no
sooner was one reasonable point established than testimony
was introduced for the purpose of discrediting the fact
brought forward. This was done by the attorneys for the
Bureau of Power and Light. The consequence was that while
the Bureau brought forward no theory or explanation of its
own, it constantly maneuvered to befuddle the jury or
investigating board, which, of course, was reflected in the
newspapers. Undoubtedly, there will be no finding of
criminal responsibility and no criminal prosecution; at the same
time, the facts brought out, and the verdict of the Coroner's
jury will be an important issue in the next political campaign.
The dam was the last word in engineering design, built
and designed under the personal direction of William
Mulholland, and constructed by city engineers. It was a gravity
type concrete, arched upstream, similar to the Elephant
Butte Dam in New Mexico, built by the U.S. Reclamation
It is fair to quote here the conclusions reached by District
Attorney Asa Keyes' "Fact Finding Commission," the names
of whose members are given on page 13. This conclusion
is as follows:
1. The failure of the dam was due to defective
foundation material, some of which, while reasonably hard when
dry, became soft and yielding when saturated with water.
2. The defective foundation material referred to herein
as conglomerate became softened by absorption and
percolation of water from the reservoir and was by hydro-static
pressure pushed out from under the dam structure,
permitting a current of water at high velocity to pass under this
sector of the dam. This current, by eroding the soft
foundation material, quickly extended the opening under this
portion of the structure to such an extent that a part of the
westerly sector of the dam collapsed through lack of support.
3. Following failure in the westerly sector, the
escaping water swirled across the downstream toe of the dam to
the easterly side of the canyon, cutting away the easterly
wall of the canyon below the easterly abutment, causing a
slide which broke the already weakened bond between the
easterly sector and the side wall of the canyon, allowing the
easterly sector of the dam to collapse.
4. A portion of the easterly sector of the dam fell and
now lies upstream from the original face of this sector,
indicating that this portion failed after the water level had
dropped enough to materially relieve the pressure from the
5. The top of the central sector of the dam now
standing is approximately 7/10ths of a foot downstream from its
original position. The present angle of the upstream face
indicates that in addition to moving downstream, this sector
of the dam has rotated a slight degree, carrying the
westward side to the southeast.
6. Examination of the foundation material supporting
the sector of the dam now standing, shows a fracture in the
schist upon which this sector rests, indicating that the break
which permitted the downstream movement, occurred in the
foundation materials and not in the concrete of which the
dam was constructed.
7. The condition of the foundation under the central
sector and the foundation materials now attached to blocks
of concrete carried downstream, indicate that the bond
between the concrete and the foundation was stronger than the
cohesion of the cleavage planes of the foundation materials.
8. The gauge indicates the collapse of the dam
occurred between 11:30 and 11:50 P.M. The movement of
the gauge after 11:30 is so rapid that it cannot be accepted
as an indication of the water level in the lake, but merely
as an indication of the water level at the face of the dam.
9. It is the conclusion of this Commission that the dam
was constructed without a sufficiently thorough examination
and understanding of the foundation materials upon which
the dam was constructed.
10. It is the conclusion of this Commission that failure
of the dam was due to the incompetent geological formations
upon which the dam was constructed.
11. It is the conclusion of this Commission that the
dam as designed should not have been constructed at this
12. It is the conclusion of this Commission that due to
local conditions it is not economically feasible to erect a safe
dam at this location.
Your Commission feels that this investigation would be
incomplete without urging strong measures to prevent a
repetition of such a disaster.
Your Commission, therefore, recommends:
1st. That all dams within the Los Angeles District be
examined and reported on by a competent Board of
Engineers and Geologists.
2nd. That any dam or dams found to be defective in
any way be corrected in accord with the recommendations
of the Board.
3rd. That the State Legislature be petitioned to enact
legislation which will require a State permit for the
construction of any dam for the impounding of water within the
State of California.
4th. That the Governor be empowered to appoint a
Board, composed of properly qualified Engineers and
Geologists, to in future pass upon the design, foundation,
conditions and construction of all dams constructed within the
State of California, and that no Permit for the construction
of any dam be issued unless the design, foundation and
conditions be approved by this Board.
5th. That this Board be required to employ a
competent superintendent or superintendents of construction, to
supervise the work at all time during the construction, to see
that the construction proceedings are in accordance with the
design and conditions approved by the Board.
6th. That the Board appointed by the Governor
receive compensation only for the specific project on which it
is called to pass judgment.
7th. That an applicant for a Permit to construct a dam
be called upon to pay into the State Treasury a sum
sufficient to compensate the members of the Board, and
superintendent or superintendents of construction, for their services
and expenses incurred in connection therewith.
8th. That the Board and superintendent or
superintendents of construction draw their compensation from the
9th. That Federal, State, County or City employes,
drawing regular salaries from these divisions, shall not be
eligible to appointment on this Board.
GOV. G. W. P. HUNT, CHAIRMAN
SEN. MULFORD WINSOR, SECRETARY
SEN THOMAS KIMBALL
SEN. A.H. FAVOUR
Colorado River Commission of Arizona
July 15, 1928.
Hon. Guy L. Jones,
1844 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, Arizona.
Dear Mr. Jones:
Your report on the failure of the San
Francisquito Canyon Dam (California),
which occurred on the night of March 11-12 [sic],
1928, was forwarded by Governor Hunt,
together with the nineteen photographs and
seven engineering drawings accompanying it,
to the Commission, for use in the hearings
which we secured before members of the
Senate and House while we were endeavoring
to defeat the passage of the Swing-Johnson
No other conclusion could be reached,
after examination of the findings of the
various committees appointed by authorities
in California, than that the utmost care
must be exercised in ascertaining the safety
of a damsite before selecting it for water
storage. This Congress has thus far failed
to do in the case of the Boulder Canyon
damsite. It must be done before a dam is
built at that location.
The Commission considers your work
very creditable and your interest most
praiseworthy. We welcome any assistance
from loyal Arizonans, but especially so when
it takes the form of information, supported
by facts and figures.
COLORADO RIVER COMMISSION OF ARIZONA,
Very truly yours,
By Mulford Winsor,