The fallen of the St. Francis Dam on march 12, 1928, is, in terms of loss that life, the second-greatest disaster in California history. The very first was the san Francisco earthquake and fire that 1906. The death toll native the collapse different from about 400 to much more than 600.

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Here’s a primer on how the disaster unfolded from coverage in The Times:

From the day the St. Francis Dam opened in 1926, that leaked. The people in the farm communities downstream supplied to joke the they’d see you later on “if the dam nothing break.”


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Built by william Mulholland, recognized as the father of Los Angeles’ municipal water system, the 1,300-foot expectancy of concrete in san Francisquito Canyon held much more than 12 billion gallons — a year’s supply for the entire city around 50 mile to the south. …

The dam wasn’t even 2 year old once it sprang new, muddy leaks on the morning of march 12, 1928. The dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger, summoned Mulholland and also Mulholland’s chef assistant, Harvey van Norman, that inspected the dam and also vouched for its safety.

Twelve hrs later, Harnischfeger and also his 6-year-old son, Coder, were amongst the very first to die — adhered to by an ext than 450 others. …


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An aerial photo of Santa Paula after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam.
(Harry C. Anderson / Los Angeles Times)
It was 3 minutes prior to midnight as soon as the dam broke, freeing a 10-story-high avalanche that water to sweep 54 miles west to the ocean. It would certainly take 5 1/2 hrs to acquire there, yet no official warning would be sounded for considerably much more than an hour after ~ the rupture.

Water engulfed entirety towns, dozens of ranches, an Edison building camp, the harry Carey Indian reservation and also trading post, and also DWP Powerhouse No. 2. It swept right into Castaic Junction and also along the Santa Clara river bed to Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy and, finally, the sea.

It demolished 1,200 houses, washed the end 10 bridges and also knocked out strength lines. Bodies would certainly wash ashore as far south as mountain Diego.

One the the first photographers top top scene was the Times’ George Watson. Years later in an interview for the Watson family Photographic Archive, he explained his experience.

Watson explained that he had actually photographed the dam about a week prior to the collapse, en course to visit his brothers in Hughes Lake.

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Then ~ above the night of march 12-13, 1928, Watson was dispatched to Castaic. “There to be an operator ~ above The Times referred to as Lucille,” says Watson. “She was a quite wide-awake gal. She knew where every time employee was, anytime of job or night. She might get everyone on the phone. And she called me around a quarter to 12 that night.”

“And she says, ‘George, ns think yes sir going come be trouble up on the mountain Francisquito dam.’ She says, ‘I’ve to be calling the operators almost everywhere the small towns, and also I can’t acquire through. I think yes sir something walk on,’ she says.” (The St. Francis Dam was occasionally referred come by the canyon name.)

Watson stated he dashed the end to Castaic, acquiring there around 1 a.m. “Water to be still walking out,” Watson said. “We can hear people yelling, out in the stream.”

But due to the fact that “it was so suturing dark,” Watson had to wait till dawn to take it photos.

“We sat about there till dawn, and valve Norman, chief engineer for bill Mulholland, came up v a truck and also said that take us up come the dam,” Watson said. “So we got in this truck and went increase there. We might barely watch it. I put my camera on a tripod, opened up mine lens wide to f4.5 and gave the 2-3 secs exposure.”

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

Watson said he continued to be at the St. Francis Dam site for two an ext days, sending his film ago to Los Angeles. He said rocks and also pieces that the dam “washed under the sink for fifty percent a mile” and were “twice as large as a two-story house.”