Where The Dam Collapsed: Exploring The Ruins of the St. Francis Dam

Just before Christmas, I was driving up north of LA when I happened to notice something odd on the map I was following…

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A marker for the “St. Francis Dam disaster site.”

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Pictured below is the St. Francis Dam, located in the remote San Francisquito Canyon. On March 12, 1928, the dam catastrophically failed, flooding all the way to the Pacific 54 miles away and causing well over 400 deaths.

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I had no idea the ruins could still be visited, and decided to hike in to see what remained. I had a bit of trouble figuring out where to start – it appears that the original access road, visible from the current main thruway, has since been closed off and abandoned.

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I continued up the main road a ways and found the intersection, now gated off.

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I hopped the gate and started down the cracked pavement…

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The walk alone was worth the detour. I’ve always loved the post-apocalyptic feel of abandoned roads, and this one had it in spades, from weeds punching through the tarmac…

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…to old street signs being overtaken by foliage…

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…to areas where the street was barely visible:

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Along the way, I noticed some amusing graffiti left by the local kids. Loved these in particular, first…

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And then, a short ways further:

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After walking for about five minutes more, a vista suddenly opened up as I entered the canyon…

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…and off to the side, I began to spot large chunks of concrete strewn about.

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Then, after continuing down further, I finally arrived at the remains of the dam:

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Though it doesn’t look like much at first, this line of concrete embedded firmly in the ground…

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…was once the base of this:

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Here’s an aerial view of the ruins today…

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…and with a bit of squinting, you can pretty easily match up the concrete scar to where the dam once was:

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Rising 195 feet up from the canyon floor, the St. Francis Dam was built in 1926 to store 12.5 billion gallons of water. As the reservoir began filling over subsequent months, cracks and leaks were discovered, but nothing that seemed particularly out of the ordinary.

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Then, on March 12, 1928, dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger noticed a new crack during his inspection rounds. This one particularly unnerved him, as the water flowing through was brown – a sign that the foundation of the dam might be eroding. He immediately contacted William Mulholland, Los Angeles’ water tsar, who came out with assistant chief engineer Harvey Van Norman…and deemed it safe.

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When the dam collapsed later that night, Harnischfeger and his six-year-old son were among the first to die as the 140-foot wall of water slammed into their cottage downstream. Below, the remains of the dam following the collapse, a single piece nicknamed the “tombstone.”

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Today, chunks of concrete are strewn everywhere, steel reinforcement splaying out like severed veins:

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There’s something almost pathetically futile in the way the strands seem to be grasping at air.

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Below, another chunk. The largest piece, a 10,000 ton remnant, was found washed 3/4ths of a mile away:

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More unidentifiable remains:

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And what of the reservoir? Here it is after its 12.5 billion gallons were drained…

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And the same site today, now a veritable forest (note the mountain tops for comparison):

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Most fittingly, a peaceful brook now runs right through the deepest portion of the ruins and continues west:

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Standing at the site, there’s something almost haunting in seeing how predestined the path of the water was.

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The wave would have initially followed the canyon to the southwest…

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…spreading debris as it traveled…

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…some of which still appears to remain to this day:

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Now a mile and a half from the dam and moving at 18 miles an hour…

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…the wave of water then destroyed hydroelectric plant Powerhouse No. 2, killing 64 workers and causing power outages in Los Angeles (since rebuilt).

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Here’s the original powerhouse…

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Just north, a small memorial has been placed for the disaster…

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…featuring a plaque…

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…a worker cart…

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…and a piece of the original dam:

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From there, the water would wind its way through the valley…

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…and continue on to the ocean, leaving devastation in its wake:

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In recent years, efforts have been made to declare the site a federally-recognized memorial and monument. Today, it’s an eerie reminder of how quickly nature reclaims and erases.

-SCOUT

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7 comments

  1. Surely this is the dam disaster which figures in a famous California Noir work. Was it Chinatown?

  2. Born in So Cal, I never heard of the disaster until I heard the Frank Black song about it.

  3. Janice Delaney Stearns

    Was Mr. Mulholland ever held accountable? Is this the story of Chinatown?

  4. I watched a video on the same subject a while back. You may be interested in the aerial footage.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5erVH-zk7Uk

    I am a long-time reader, first-time commenter. Thanks for such an interesting blog.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to put together these fascinating, in-depth and easy to read posts. Always interesting! I hope you’re doing well in LA!

  6. Great write-up and pictures on this historic event. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the quick action of my great grandmother, Lillian Curtis, who, along with my grandfather (3 years old at the time), were two of only a handful of survivors of the immediate destruction of the dam. Living in the valley less than 2 miles from the dam, they heard the collapse and the rushing water. My great grandmother climbed out of a window with her son in her arms, and her husband Lyman went back into the house to get their two little daughters. Lillian began climbing a small hill next to their house, and when she turned back around to see her husband, the house was gone, along with Lyman and their two girls. Absolutely incredible story that I’ve heard my relatives tell many times, and I still get chills. Here’s a picture of the three kids (my grandfather in the middle): http://www.scvhistory.com/pico/id2801.htm
    And just a little more detail on the moments before and after the dam burst: http://www.scvhistory.com/pico/pollack0308victims.htm
    Thanks for writing this, Nick. Long time reader, first time commenting. Keep up the good work, and Happy New Year.