Everyone knows about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It may be America’s most famous disaster ever. People all over the world know about it, the way they know about Pompeii.
I thought this was worth mentioning, something to ponder as you drive along I-5 and see the roller coasters rising from Magic Mountain. From several miles east of you all the way to the ocean was once engulfed in a terrible disaster, the second deadliest in California history and one of America’s worst engineering failures.
March 12 is the 85th anniversary of this forgotten disaster. It is almost unknown outside the immediate area; there are no big museum exhibits, no guided history tours, and almost nothing left to show that it happened. Only a few books or other media have been devoted to it. As in all disasters, folks vanish and no one knows what became of them, but this one took at least 600 lives.
On other forums, I’ve talked about the Los Angeles Aqueduct and what it did to the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada. In the 19-teens, there were no environmental impact reports or studies of upstream consequences. The Owens River was diverted to supply the city, and multi-generation families of farmers and ranchers from Mammoth to Lone Pine were left hanging with their land and livelihoods dried up. Owens Lake, where small boats once sailed, is now a mostly dry alkali lakebed that supplies industrial minerals but no water.
The overall water project had another impact, years after. The city also built dams on waterways closer in. One was the St. Francis Dam, on San Francisquito Creek east of the town of Saugus. It held almost 40,000 acre feet of water. An acre foot is nearly 326,000,000 gallons. In plain-speak, the dam’s volume was about 1/3 the capacity of Lake Tahoe, enough to cover 25% more land than San Francisco to a foot deep. It was in the hills and delivered water by gravity, with no need for pumps. It was only two years old when for reasons that we may never fully know, it went. In hindsight, people recalled ominous signs in the hours before; in fact, the aqueduct engineer and water department director, William Mulholland, knew of the concerns and inspected the dam that afternoon. But this was a catastrophic failure, not a slow crumble. No one knows how long the collapse took; it was just before midnight when most decent folks who weren’t at work were asleep. The time has been estimated by power failures around the aqueduct infrastructure.
From the dam to the coast at Ventura was 55 miles, along the Santa Clara River. The initial force carried one 5-ton dam section nearly a mile down the canyon. It took 5½ hours for the wave to reach the Pacific, scouring away everything in its path. It was up to 60 feet high; at Santa Paula, 40 miles downstream, it was still 25 feet high. People, buildings, animals, roads, railroad tracks, farmland all went; powerhouses were also wiped out, blacking out much of Southern California. The water slowed as the land leveled, but it devastated present-day Saugus, Newhall, Valencia, Magic Mountain, I-5. Hwy 126, Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula. Victims buried by 75 feet or more of deposited debris and soil kept turning up into the 1990s.
Engineer Mulholland, who had declared the dam safe a few hours earlier, saw his career and life go down the drain, literally. A few years ago, scattered dam fragments could be seen in San Francisquito Canyon. I explored some of them in the 1990s, on trips to the area when I worked for a firm based in Valencia. Some powerhouses were rebuilt and are still there; at one of them is a state historical marker. These are out of the way, along quiet country roads. Part of the road may have been changed, making it still harder to find the remains.
Why are so few bits of this huge dam left for history seekers to find? How come visitors don’t hear about it? Where are the memorials to the victims? Look at the big deal San Francisco makes of 1906 and anything left from it, and the observances every anniversary more than a century later. I can only surmise. Eventually, the dam ruins were dynamited, bulldozed, and gotten rid of. It was almost as if the city of Los Angeles wanted this tragedy and any signs of it to go away. One of the few books about it may suggest an answer to my questions: “Manmade Disaster.” Everyone wants to glorify and memorialize acts of nature and how we smart and resilient humans recover from them; no one wants to acknowledge the mistakes of humans and how we don’t always learn from them and aren’t as smart as we often believe we are.