Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
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Just before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, a twenty-story-high concrete structure just fifty miles north of Los Angeles, suddenly collapsed, releasing a devastating flood that roared fifty-four miles to the Pacific Ocean, destroying everything in its path. It was a horrific catastrophe, yet one which today is virtually forgotten.
With research gathered over more than two decades, award-winning writer and filmmaker Jon Wilkman revisits the deluge that claimed nearly five hundred lives. A key figure is William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer who created an unprecedented water system, allowing Los Angeles to become America's second-largest city, and who was also responsible for the design and construction of the St. Francis Dam.
Driven by eyewitness accounts and combining urban history with a life-and-death drama and a technological detective story, Floodpath grippingly reanimates the reality behind L.A. noir fictions such as the classic film Chinatown. In an era of climate change, increasing demand on water resources, and a neglected American infrastructure, the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam has never been more relevant.
1928. 14Interview with Matt Basolo by Ann Stansell and Julee Licon (2013). 15Interview by Don Reed based on research by Don Ray (1978). 16Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1929. 17Moorpark Enterprise, July 15, 1928. 18Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1929. 19Charles F. Outland, Man-Made Disaster, 130. 20Interview by Don Reed based on research by Don Ray. 21Transcript of Ventura Coroner’s Report (March 15, 1928). 22Ibid. 23Fillmore Herald, March 16, 1928. 24Ventura Star, March 14, 1928.
Mulholland toward the St. Francis Dam. In Los Angeles, socialists had been defeated, but not silenced. In 1912, they instigated a “Citizens Committee” and demanded an independent investigation of the entire Owens Valley project. Behind the scenes, private utilities encouraged the probe. Aside from accusations that the entire enterprise was hatched for the sole purpose of enriching General Otis and his insider friends, critics questioned whether the city even needed that much water, and if so,
family rivalry got in the way. The brothers’ uncle, George Watterson, along with attorney Leicester C. Hall and rancher Bill Symons, gained control of a major upstream irrigation ditch. When the three men announced they were willing to cut a deal with the city, they were denounced as traitors.32 The Watterson brothers’ leadership enjoyed widespread support, but as other neighbors decided to sell, holdouts felt angry, betrayed, and increasingly helpless. Los Angeles was mostly interested in land
of water and noises and shrieks … [the flood] was about a half mile wide,” he remembered. It only took seconds to reduce the Bardsdale Bridge to a mud-soaked pile of debris and twisted steel. Pieces were scattered for miles downstream. Pipelines had been broken and the stench of petroleum filled the air. Officers Hearn and Randsdell arrived too late to save thirty-five-year-old Motoye Miyagi, who operated a nursery near where Sespe Creek entered the Santa Clara River. Miyagi was one of the few
body in the sand. All that was sticking out was fingers. And when they dug it out, it was standing straight up and down. It was buried in silt that deep.”52 One newspaper article described a grisly encounter with a young mother with loose flesh between her fingers, “all that was left of the baby she clutched until its death.”53 Another article warned that “ghouls” were at work, scavenging the dead for valuables, especially around the SCE camp at Kemp. An Edison supervisor reported that “we found