St. Francis Dam Disaster: Victims and Heroes.
By Alan Pollack, M.D.
| Heritage Junction Dispatch, March-April 2008
Shortly before midnight on March 12, 1928, carpenter Ace Hopewell was riding his motorcycle up San Francisquito Canyon road on his way to Powerhouse No. 1 of the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light. Hopewell passed by the mighty St. Francis Dam, which was completed just two years earlier by Los Angeles Water Chief William Mulholland and had just been filled to capacity five days prior.
Mulholland had achieved heroic status in Los Angeles when he completed the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Aqueduct in November 1913, a miraculous accomplishment that allowed a small, semi-desert town to grow into the metropolis we know today.
Following the completion of the aqueduct, Mulholland directed the construction of a series of dams in the Los Angeles area with the goal of providing a large reserve of water for the city in the event of a disruption of the aqueduct from events such as earthquakes or sabotage by the angry residents of the Owens Valley, who had been blowing up sections of the aqueduct to protest the means by which Los Angeles had taken water from their valley.
As he rode one mile past the dam, Hopewell suddenly stopped when he heard a landslide-like crashing sound from back in the dam area. It was 11:57:30 p.m. He continued up the canyon to the powerhouse where he learned that the huge dam had ruptured, spilling 12 billion gallons and a 180 foot high wall of water into San Francisquito Canyon.
It turns out, Hopewell was the last living person to see the St. Francis Dam before it ruptured, creating the second largest disaster in California history as an epic flood of water and debris traveled 55 miles through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara River Valley, devastating the towns of Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula, and killing between 450 and 600 people before emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Montalvo between Oxnard and Ventura.
At the base of the dam that night as Hopewell passed by may have been dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger and his wife, Leona Johnson.
Earlier that day, Harnischfeger had placed a frantic call to Mulholland when he noticed muddy water leaking from the Western abutment of the dam. While it was normal for dams to leak to some extent, the mud indicated to Harnischfeger that the base of the dam might be eroding and subject to catastrophe.
Mulholland arrived around 10:30 a.m. with his assistant Chief Harvey Van Norman and inspected the dam. He concluded that the leakage appeared normal and went back to Los Angeles a decision he would regret for the rest of his life.
Later that night, Harnischfeger may have noticed more frightening problems with the dam. He might have been inspecting the dam base as Hopewell passed by. We will never know for sure. After the dam rupture, his wife