Framework

Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

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

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

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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

PHOTOGRAPH BY: George Watson / Los Angeles Times

March 13, 1928: Remaining section of St. Francis Dam with debris at base. This photo was published in the March 14, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: George Watson / Los Angeles Times

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Harry C. Anderson / Los Angeles Times

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

March 14. 1928: Crowd gathers outside temporary morgue seeking to identify victims. The first search of water devastated area had been completed following collapse of St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928 Los Angeles Times. A Times artist lightened several of the crowd members in the porch to improve reproduction in 1928.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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

March 1928: Lawrence Boyd was one of a family of seven who were saved following the St. Francis Dam collapse. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 14,1928: Red Cross worker helps outfit destitute children after collapse of St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 1928: photo of people at emergency telephone station seeking news of flood after collapse of St Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 14, 1928: Telephone operator Louise Gipe at Santa Paula warned area residents of the failure of St. Francis Dam. This photo was published in the March 15, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Pacific & Atlantic Photos

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

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: George Watson / Los Angeles Times

March 1928: Actresses Barbara Winthrop, Bessie Barriscale and Ruth King, members of the play "Women Go On Forever," wash dishes at Red Cross camp in stricken area following the St. Francis Dam disaster. All proceeds from the play's performance of Mar. 20, 1928 at the Hollywood Music Box Theater were donated to the Times Flood Relief fund. This photo was published in the March 20, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J.C. Milligan

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

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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. This photo was published in the April 5, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

April 1928: Mexican-American survivors of the St. Francis Dam disaster pose for Times photographer at the Red Cross Camp in Santa Paula. This photo was published in the April 8, 1928 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 1928: Funeral procession proceeds across flood plain following the St. Francis Dam disaster.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

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

PHOTOGRAPH BY: George Watson / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

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The March 12, 1928, collapse of the St. Francis Dam is, in terms of loss of life, the second-greatest disaster in California history. The first was the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Loss of life estimates from the St. Francis Dam collapse vary from about 400 to more than 600.

In 2003, for the 75th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam collapse, Los Angeles Times writer Cecilia Rasmussen wrote this article, “An Avalanche of Water Left Death and Ruin in Its Wake.” From Rasmussen’s article:

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. …

The dam wasn’t even 2 years old when it sprang new, muddy leaks on the morning of March 12, 1928. The dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger, summoned Mulholland and Mulholland’s chief assistant, Harvey Van Norman, who inspected the dam and vouched for its safety.

Twelve hours later, Harnischfeger and his 6-year-old son, Coder, were among the first to die — followed by more than 450 others. …

It was three minutes before midnight 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.

One of the first photographers on scene was the Times’ George Watson. Years later in an interview for the Watson Family Photographic Archive, he described his experience.

About a week before the collapse, Watson explained he photographed the dam while en route to visit his brother in Hughes Lake.

Then on the night of March 12-13, 1928, Watson was dispatched to Castaic. “There was an operator on The Times called Lucille,” says Watson. “She was a pretty wide-awake gal. She knew where every Times employee was, anytime of day or night. She could get anybody on the phone. And she called me about a quarter to 12 that night.”

“And she says, ‘George, I think there’s going to be trouble up on the San Francisquito dam.’ She says, ‘I’ve been calling the operators all over the little towns, and I can’t get through. I think there’s something going on,’ she says.” (The St. Francis Dam was sometimes referred to by the canyon name.)

Watson said he dashed out to Castaic, getting there about 1 o’clock in the morning. “Water was still going out,” said Watson. “We could hear people yelling, out in the stream.”

But because “it was so darn dark,” Watson had to wait till dawn to take photos.

“We sat around there till dawn, and [Harvey] Van Norman, chief engineer for Bill Mulholland, came up with a truck and said he’d take us up to the dam,” said Watson. “So we got in this truck and went up there. We could barely see it. I put my camera on a tripod, opened up my lens wide to f4.5 and gave it 2-3 seconds exposure.”

“I got pictures of the water still going out,” said Watson. “Then I made some more close-ups.”

Watson said he stayed at the St. Francis Dam site for two more days, sending his film back to Los Angeles. He said rocks and pieces of the dam “washed down the valley for half a mile” and were “twice as big as a two-story house.”

For more, check out Rasmussen’s 2003 article, “An Avalanche of Water Left Death and Ruin in Its Wake.”

TECH NOTES:

This photo gallery originally had few photo credits. I wish to thank the Watson Family Photographic Archive for helping identify several images taken by George Watson when he worked at the Los Angeles Times.

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