Walking the Flood Path of the St. Francis Dam Disaster

On March 11, I joined about 100 people on the soggy San Francisquito Creek trail to trek towards the site of the St. Francis Dam. As many know, this dam collapsed just before midnight on March 12, 1928. With the exception of the last few Covid years, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society hosts an annual lecture and tour to commemorate the anniversary of the disaster. On that night 95 years ago, over 12 billion gallons of water raged through the Santa Clara River valley, killing about/over 400 people (exact number is unknown) as it made its way into the Pacific Ocean.

Though familiar with this disaster that caused California’s second largest loss of life, I’ve always wanted to better understand the site’s geography by walking the flood path. And now, phrases likes paleo-landslide, Pelona Schist, and Sespe Formation sandstone are now part of my St. Francis Dam vernacular. The lecture and tour provided a great opportunity to dive into the technical and heartbreaking details of March 12–13, 1928.

Below are just few of many details that were shared on Saturday:

  • The first casualties were Tony Harnischfeger (the dam keeper), his girlfriend Leona, and his son Coder (from his estranged wife). Leona’s body was found fully clothed, crushed between two huge blocks while Tony and Coder’s bodies were never recovered. It was Harnishfeger who called Mulholland to warn him about a possible problem with the dam. Mulholland and his assistant checked the site that day but did not raise any alarms.
  • The exact time of the dam failure — 11:57:30 pm — is known because employees at Powerhouse No. 1 and those at Los Angeles receiving stations noted a sharp drop in voltage at that exact time. In fact, the city lights in Los Angeles flickered at the time.
  • Once motorcycle officers Thornton Edwards and Stanley Baker received word from the “hello girls” working the switchboard in Santa Paula, they raced through the area to warn sleeping neighbors about the impending flood. Statues in Santa Paula memorialize the heroic efforts of these Paul Reveres of the St. Francis Dam.
  • The Hap-A-Lan Dance Hall was both a community space and dance hall before it was transformed into a makeshift morgue. Not surprisingly, the building was demolished shortly after. The 1932 building that housed the Masonic Lodge and county courthouse still stands on the corner of Market and Railroad.
  • LA DWP almost threw out the 1920s St. Francis Dam Claims Records filed on behalf of lost loved ones. Thanks to the research efforts of Anne Stansell and CSUN’s Forgotten Casualties project, this bureaucratic archive has not only been saved, but is being digitally preserved.

An impressive amount of information can be found on the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society site. The organization has done a tremendous job in compiling online resources related to the past, present and future related to this disaster. And by future, I mean the national memorial currently in the planning stages.

One interesting note. During a presentation, a speaker mentioned the present-day safety of Los Angeles dams, casually dropping the fact she was told by an engineer that two dams in the region received “F” grades. During the Q&A, the audience was first and foremost interested in the names of those two dams.

One was the Whittier Narrows Dam (I can’t remember the other). The quality of this San Gabriel Valley dam has been in the news since the Oroville Spillway almost flooded in 2017. And in January 2023, KCRW’s Greater LA program revisited the dam and its flood risk. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “found that the dam’s foundation was at risk of erosion, and a major storm could trigger its gates to open prematurely, which could release more than 20 times what the downstream channel can safely contain. The dam could also overtop.”

While there is currently an engineering plan in place to improve the Whittier Narrows Dam, it’s still a little disconcerting considering our current rainy weather pattern. The fact that, in this 2016 podcast, D.C. Jackson (dam expert and co-author of the book “Heavy Ground”) spoke about the wet winter of 1927–1928 doesn’t help assuage those concerns. As he explained, “In that period, Los Angeles suffered too much water…”

So while city and state engineers have a much-needed eye on the eroding Southern California coast, hopefully, they have the other eye set on our aging dams.

Top photo is taken of our tour group (you can’t tell, but that’s me in the grey sweatshirt 🙂 courtesy of Zena Taher of KHTS News.

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