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The St. Francis Dam dam failed on March 12, 1928, killing 400 people.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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In over their heads

In 1928, a catastrophic dam collapse killed hundreds, ruined William Mulholland’s career—and for decades afterward, kept Hollywood residents on edge

When it rains in Los Angeles, it floods. In this city of sunny skies and low humidity, a bit of rain can push LA’s infrastructure to the breaking point. But the most devastating flood Los Angeles County has ever seen was not caused by a rainstorm.

The horror began with a trickle. On March 12, 1928, William Mulholland, Los Angeles demigod and chief engineer of the Bureau of Water and Supply, was called out to the imposing St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, near present-day Valencia. Dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger was concerned about a muddy leak he had discovered in the curved concrete structure.

Mulholland and his deputy, H.A. Van Norman, examined the leak, proclaimed it safe, and went back to Los Angeles. Less than 12 hours later, the dam—which held a year’s supply of water for Los Angeles—gave out.

Harnischfeger, along with his son, girlfriend, and more than 400 others, was swept to his death as a wall of water roughly 100 feet tall coursed through the Santa Clarita Valley before spilling into the ocean, south of Ventura.

As news of the tragedy reached Hollywood, residents looked up and shuddered. There stood the Mulholland Dam, now commonly known as the Hollywood Reservoir or Lake Hollywood. It stood 200 feet high and 1,000 feet wide—and its design mirrored St. Francis’s.

The terror that what happened in San Francisquito Canyon would happen again, this time in Hollywood, would consume citizens of the famous neighborhood. For decades, Hollywood residents would see the Mulholland Dam as a “sword of Damocles” hanging over their heads.

William Mulholland on the witness stand at the coroner’s inquest into the St. Francis Dam Disaster.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The Mulholland Dam’s location in Weid Canyon, in the hills below Mount Hollywood, had long been considered an ideal place for a dam. As far back as 1912, Mulholland and his cohorts believed “the location and elevation of this reservoir is so situated as to be able to furnish a gravity supply to the fast-growing hill section of Hollywood,” write Norris Hundley Jr. and Donald Jackson in Heavy Ground: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster.

In 1922, LA’s Public Service Department announced it had purchased Weid Canyon. Mulholland and his team began drawing up plans for a magnificent gravity-type arched concrete dam.

It would be a first for the self-taught Mulholland, as all of his other dams were traditional dirt embankments. It would also be a declaration that Los Angeles—with public works equal or greater to all other important cities—had arrived.

But the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce immediately called out the dam’s potential threat, condemning the project as “dangerous to life and property,” and asking that it be postponed until county officials could look into it.

There were fears that a break or earthquake would cause thousands of acre-feet of water to flood into Hollywood, leveling the entire area. Protests, court proceedings, and petitions, however, failed to stop the project.

Mulholland and the Board of Public Service Commissioners were adamant that Weid Canyon was the only feasible site available for the much-needed water supply. He also downplayed the dam’s potential threat and dismissed residents’ fears as uninformed.

“The Weid Canyon Dam, as it will be constructed by the Water Bureau, will be strong enough to hold its reservoir filled with molten lead,” he said. “If the proposed Weid Canyon dam should break or weaken in the slightest detail it would establish a world’s record since there has never been a recorded instance of a dam of that mighty type failing in any degree.”

And so, construction of the massive dam began. Some 200 men worked steadily under H.L. Jacques, superintendent of construction. On March 23, 1924, the Los Angeles Times reported:

Today, in the hills of Hollywood is being formed a beautiful mountain lake, reflecting the same magnificent blue of the California skies, placed in a setting of beautiful hills, its surroundings every bit as attractive as when in its native element… Lake Hollywood is rapidly becoming a reality. Day and night the concrete has been poured into the form of the dam at the mouth of Weid Canyon, and today more than 75 feet of the nearly 200 feet of this structure has been completed.

This “work of art,” with its impressive stepped concrete wall, was finished in December and immediately put to use. Water was pumped into the new reservoir via a tunnel under the hills of Hollywood, which connected with a large main under Ventura Boulevard. As with all Mulholland projects, the dam was lauded for its relative cheapness. It had cost roughly $1.25 million, on average $4 to $6 per cubic yard, less than most dams of its size.

On March 17, 1925, the completed dam was renamed in honor of Mulholland. In a ceremony attended by dignitaries and filmland luminaries, including a canine movie star named Strongheart, Mulholland was feted as a genius before he took the floor himself.

“My associates are in the habit of twitting me on the appearance of all the work I have done elsewhere. They say it looks like an old woman’s apron-an object of utility, but not of beauty,” he said jovially. “But in this job, I think I may take a little pardonable pride.”

As he spoke, construction on the St. Francis Dam was underway in San Francisquito Canyon, roughly 40 miles away.

So successful had the construction of the Mulholland Dam been that Mulholland and his team virtually copied it for their second stab at a concrete gravity dam. At the inquest held after the dam’s catastrophic failure, it was difficult to tell where one began and the other ended.

“That same general design that was used on the Hollywood Dam was used on the St. Francis, under the Chief Engineer’s direction,” Mulholland employee W.W. Hurlburt explained at the inquest, seemingly unwilling to give the specifics of who was actually the dam’s true designer.

St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon near Saugus was completed in 1926. It failed two years later in 1928. The center section—nicknamed “The Tombstone”—was the only remaining portion.
Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

With the catastrophic failure of the St. Francis, which had just reached full capacity on March 7, Los Angeles’s belief that Mulholland was an unimpeachable genius was shattered. Hollywood residents who had long been suspicious of the dam towering above their city felt vindicated—and terrified. Led again by the Chamber of Commerce and local councilmen, Hollywood demanded that the dam be immediately removed.

Although the St. Francis failure was long placed on structural problems alone, it is now known that the dam sat on an ancient landslide, and that a combination of poor construction and a shift in land led to the fatal collapse.

The city had a crisis on its hands. Guards were deployed to keep watch over the city’s remaining 29 reservoirs and dams. The intake into the Mulholland Dam was immediately turned off, lowering the water level.

The District Attorney, City Council, and Board of Water and Power all commissioned committees of experts and engineers to study the site. Diamond drills were sunk into the canyon and the dam itself to test the rock formation and the dam’s stability.

That summer, the numerous engineers’ reports came back—in uniform support of the Mulholland Dam. Not only had the Mulholland Dam been built on more stable ground than the St. Francis, but removal would be a fire hazard and cause a water-crisis in the city.

“No reasonable human being could ask for assurance based on more carefully collected evidence under more competent supervision,” the Los Angeles Times editorialized. “The dam is grounded on seventy proven feet of solid sandstone with indications that this sandstone extends 400 feet deep. The engineers declare; ‘the dam is well designed, it is well built, and the concrete is of ample strength to resist all the stresses to which it is exposed… it is our judgment, therefore, that this dam is a safe and permanent structure.’”

The Mulholland Dam, known today as the Hollywood Reservoir, is a lovely lake to walk or run around.
By Vivi1 / Shutterstock
The Mulholland Dam has never failed. It’s considered structurally safe by city engineers.
By Philip Pilosian / Shutterstock

Hollywood residents were unimpressed and continued to call for the dam’s removal. Spearheading the fight was retired film executive David Horsley, who founded the Hollywood Dam News, which reported on dam failures with sensational headlines: “Another Dam Goes Flooye” it blared in all capital letters in October 1928, when a dam near Oakland failed.

In 1930, another, more nuanced engineer’s report found that “the base of the Mulholland Dam was not wide enough to resist uplift pressure if the reservoir was filled to capacity.”

To remedy this, the water level of the dam was permanently lowered, eventually cutting the dam’s total water retention in half.

“While this preemptive action significantly decreased storage capacity, it also reduced the maximum hydrostatic pressure that could be exerted against the dam, thus enhancing its stability,” Hundley and Jackson explain.

But that did not assuage Hollywood’s fears, and studies continued, as did the recommendations. One panel recommended that a fill of rocks and earth be built up against the face of the dam and then planted with foliage—both obscuring the dam from the citizens below in Hollywood, and stabilizing it in the event of an earthquake.

No further action was taken, and a year later, a Hollywood delegation was again petitioning Mayor John Clinton Porter, asking for the dam to be moved. In August 1931, after over a dozen overall positive surveys, Hollywood residents finally got a report that they believed confirmed their worst fears.

Two of three consulting engineers reporting to the Board of Water and Power commissioners said the dam was “deficiently constructed on geological faults,” with insufficient drainage, no allowance made in the design for uplift or earthquake stresses, and made with inferior concrete. The third expert, however, disagreed and said the dam was perfectly safe.

Hollywood residents felt they had the bargaining chip they needed. After a conference with Hollywood residents in September, the Department of Water and Power commissioner adopted a resolution to remove the dam, providing that the new plan did not subject “people in other sections of the city to any actual increased hazard.”

In response, chief engineer H.A. Van Norman, Mulholland’s successor, proposed the earth-fill solution that had been suggested in 1930.

The designs for Mulholland Dam, pictured here in 1929 (with the Hollywoodland sign visible in the background), and St. Francis Dam were very similar.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

In December 1933, Van Norman’s plan was victorious. Earth was piled up against the dam’s iconic stepped wall, covering it from view and paying lip-service to resident’s fears. The Los Angeles Times reported:

The great bank of earth and rock is referred to as a “psychological dam,” the purpose being to satisfy the requests of citizens who have expressed the desire that such a fill be placed in front of the dam as a safety barrier. Department engineers themselves reiterate their views that the main dam itself is entirely adequate. The fill now being placed will contain 290,000 cubic yards of rock and earth...When completed, the fill will be terraced and planted with trees and shrubs, completely concealing the upper portion of the masonry for purposes of beauty-and another concession to psychology.

But this attempt to appease Hollywood residents did not have its desired effect on everybody. In 1934, members of the august and socially powerful Hollywood Women’s Club, comprised of the city’s leaders and pioneering residents, found themselves in an internal feud over the dam’s continued existence.

The chair of the club’s dam committee, identified in news reports as Mrs. Fred Watson was particularly incensed by U.S. reclamation engineer Louis Hill, who had been invited to report on the integrity of the dam. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Mr. Hill began reading a “resume of seventeen reports” signed by as many engineering experts, endorsing the safety of the present dam. It was technical and rather long, so Mrs. Wright interrupted to ask how much more of it there was. Mrs. C.C. Perry wanted question time right then- and seized on some phrases of Mr. Hill’s to hang sarcastic queries on. Then as Mr. Hill began explaining, voices from the floor began heckling him. Order was restored, while it was agreed Mr. Hill should read one more report.

Then up rose Mrs. Watson. She cited the tragedy of St. Francis Dam and warned against “too much faith in experts.”

Even though the dam had become “the most peer-reviewed dam in American history,” and was now monitored by the state, this sentiment was echoed by many other women. So intense was the majority’s anger over the dam, that Mrs. Loren B. Curtis, who was running for club president, was forced to tamp down her support for Mulholland’s conflicted monument. Citing the city’s construction of the earth barrier, she proclaimed:

The small dam has been built and to the best of my knowledge the water in the large reservoir has not been raised above the elevation agreed on. Apparently, the water department is carrying out its part of the program and, as long as it does so, I feel our beloved Hollywood is safe. Psychologically, however, the dam is, and always will be a menace to Hollywood and it would be well to have it removed entirely.

As the elderly Mulholland was slowly fading away, a depressed, dimmed man since the St. Francis disaster, his remaining concrete dam was being slammed by Mrs. Watson in a formal club report.

Mulholland had been forced to retire in 1928, and while he continued to occasionally work as a consultant on various projects, these repetitive reports continued to damage his reputation.

“The report declared that H.A. Van Norman, chief engineer of the Bureau of Water and Supply, and William Mulholland stood on the St. Francis Dam twelve hours before it collapsed and pronounced it safe,” the Los Angeles Times reported on the resolution. “The contention continues that Mr. Norman’s and Mr. Mulholland’s approval of the Mulholland Dam likewise is faulty. According to Mrs. Watson’s statement, the club has lost faith in the ‘official’ judgment and the $18,000 a year salary for Mr. Norman also is criticized.”

As long as the dam remained, Mrs. Watson warned that a “sword of Damocles” hung over Los Angeles. She railed:

If our city officials and influential citizens were as interested in safeguarding human life as they are in the fascinating game of politics and the greed for gold, some way would be found to provide an adequate water supply for Hollywood without the maintenance of the dam as a reservoir.

But her protests fell on increasingly disinterested ears. William Mulholland died in July 1935, and with him it seems the debate over the dam. A year before, the Hollywood Women’s Club had tabled a resolution calling for the dam’s removal. What did it matter, one woman pointed out at a particularly contentious meeting, if they formally condemned the dam? It would still be there.

And it is still there, out of sight and out of mind, now known mostly as a lovely lake to walk or run around and catch a glimpse of a certain eco-friendly celebrity on his three-wheeled bike. Despite all fears, it has never failed, and is considered structurally safe by city engineers.

Expert consensus now holds that its sister dam buckled due to a perfect storm of factors, including its placement on an undetectable (at the time) ancient landslide and Mulholland’s inability to tailor the dam’s design to San Francisquito Canyon, relying too heavily on plans drawn up for the Mulholland Dam. Its collapse was a combination of geography and man’s folly.

And so, the Mulholland Dam remains, as does the Mulholland Memorial Fountain and Mulholland Drive. Mulholland’s legacy has been remarkably rehabilitated, as the story of Saint Francis and its sister dam have been washed away from the city’s memory by the passing of time.

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