Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

54. Disaster at 185 Feet

Owens Lake, sucked dry by William Mulholland for the City of Los Angeles. Click image for more.

By 1924 the gentle farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley were furious with the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and especially with its general manager, William Mulholland.

The great aqueduct, which brought life, prosperity and growth to the Los Angeles basin, meant only destruction to the residents of Lone Pine and Bishop. They watched as water tables dropped; Owens Lake was transformed into a wasteland; and crops withered under a merciless sun. They watched for a while, that is. Then they acted.

Masked men seized DWP employees and escorted them out of the area. There were shots in the night and, in time, wholesale dynamiting of the water delivery system. Mulholland armed his men, and a regular war in the best tradition of the Wild West broke out. The Chief decided it would be wise to build a dam near his city, just in case there was an interruption of service.

So the forces of the DWP again descended upon the peaceful Santa Clara River Valley, this time to build a reservoir in San Francisquito Canyon. Begun in August, 1924, the concrete St. Francis Dam rose to a height of 185 feet with a series of step-like offsets running up the front of it.

Owens Valley water arrived on March 1, 1926, and two months later the dam was completed. The reservoir gradually covered three hundred acres with 38,168 acre-feet of water.

Almost immediately there was apprehension over leakage from the dam. A wing dike was built over the schist formation that formed the western abutment. Finally, on March 12, 1928, dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger became so alarmed that he put in an emergency call to his supervisors in Los Angeles.

Mulholland and Harvey Van Norman arrived at the site around 10:30 in the morning, inspected the dam, said everything was in order and went home — even though the downstream side was soaking wet.

That night, at precisely 11:57, half of the St. Francis Dam suddenly collapsed, hurling a wall of water down the canyon at eighteen miles per hour. The massive concrete-and-steel Powerhouse Number 2 was swept away without a trace.

The ground shook with the force of an earthquake while the moonlit night was filled with a roaring sound variously described as that of a rumbling freight train or onrushing tornado.

When it struck the Santa Clara River bed, this glistening deluge veered westward and, lumbering across the plain like some prehistoric beast, carried away everything in its path.

At Kemp, a railroad siding just beyond Castaic Junction, one hundred and fifty Edison Company employees were sleeping in their tents. Security officer Ed Lock looked up from his rounds to see flashes of light rising into the eastern sky. He had no way to know that these were transmission lines being downed by the flood.

Then came the roar, and before he knew it the terrified man was staring at an avalanche of water towering 130 feet into the sky. Racing madly to awaken the construction camp, Lock was overtaken and drowned along with eighty-four of his fellow employees.

On downstream went the relentless tide, inflicting death and destruction clear to Ventura where, at 5:25 a.m., a mound of mud and debris finally oozed into the sea. Behind it was a fifty-four mile long swath of uprooted trees, damaged or destroyed homes and at least 450 dead.

It was the second-worst disaster in the state's history, second only to the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. The St. Francis Dam brought down the mighty Mulholland, who retired and became a consultant on the Colorado River project.

Among the many stories of pathos and heroics that night, one is especially poignant. A morgue was set up in Newhall, inside Lloyd Houghton's Hap-A-Lan dance hall, where Ye Olde Courthouse stands today. Into it wandered the great Western star, William S. Hart. Overcome with grief at the sight of a small boy lying cold and stiff on a slab, Hart dressed him with his own trembling hands in a little cowboy suit. The aging actor then led a procession back up the canyon, carrying the unnamed boy's broken body to the Ruiz family cemetery.

The Hap-A-Lan dance hall, once a joyous place in the hearts of Newhall residents, was torn down a short time later.

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