Award-winning documentary filmmaker Wilkman (Los Angeles: A Pictorial Celebration, 2008, etc.) offers a well-researched account of a little-remembered California tragedy.
On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, located in the San Francisquito Canyon, some 50 miles north of Los Angeles, cracked apart and collapsed, releasing more than 12 billion gallons of water. Nearly 500 people were killed. Wilkman tells the dramatic story in the context of the rapidly growing city, whose ceaseless need for water had until then been met by the legendary, self-trained civil engineer William Mulholland (1855-1935), who managed the city’s water system for 50 years. An iconic, sometimes arrogant figure, Mulholland had supervised the building of the Owens River Aqueduct (1913), which gave rise to modern LA. At 72, he created yet another expansion of the city’s water system with construction of the St. Francis Dam, which he deemed safe. Drawing on archives and interviews with survivors, Wilkman re-creates the disaster, its huge flow of “rocks, mud, debris, and mangled bodies,” and the stories of victims stripped naked by the flooding waters. One 13-year-old rode the flood for nine miles and wound up stranded in a tree. The author also details the ensuing search-and-recovery efforts as well as the many investigations into the disaster’s suspected causes, which ranged from landslides to deliberate dynamiting. His explanations of dam design and construction methods will seem like too much information to many general readers, but the narrative never drags for long. In the end, the dam’s failure was attributed to the poor quality of underlying rock. A coroner’s jury refused to indict Mulholland, who accepted blame for the disaster and retired, a broken man, later that year. The author notes how Mulholland was never really exonerated in public memory or by historians.
Will appeal especially to anyone interested in Mulholland and western water issues.