St. Francis Dam Failure

The bold, black headlines echo down through the years, staring up from the fading, crumbling newspapers that carried the tale of death and destruction to their readers.

The second worst disaster in California history began on March 12, 1928, near midnight, in the remote San Francisquito Canyon area of Saugus. The St. Francis Dam failed at 11:57:30, a time pegged to the loss of electricity from the Southern California Edison transmission lines to Lancaster. The lines were located 90 feet above the dam's eastern abutment.
The dam's reservoir of 12.5 billion gallons of water poured down the narrow canyon, initially in a 140-foot-high wall of water, and swept nearly 500 men, women and children to their deaths. In California history, only the 1906 San Francisco earthquake killed more people. It was a disaster of epic proportions, one that remains largely unpublicized and unknown, today. As the flood carved out a path to the sea, it lay waste to Castaic Junction, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, more than 50 miles away, near Ventura.

Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed. There were no eyewitnesses to the dam's collapse, but a motorcyclist named Ace Hopewell rode past the dam and reported feeling a rumbling and the sound of "crashing, falling blocks," after riding about a half-mile (800 m) upstream. He assumed this was either an earthquake or another one of the landslides common to the area, not realizing he was the last person to have seen the St. Francis Dam intact, and survive.

Dam keeper Harnischfeger and his family were, most likely, the first casualties caught in the floodwave, also called dam break wave, which was at least 125 ft (38 m) high when it hit their cottage in San Francisquito Canyon, approximately 1/4 mile (400 m) downstream from the dam. Thirty minutes before the collapse a motorist passing by the dam also reported seeing lights in the canyon below the dam —the dam itself did not have lights—suggesting Harnischfeger may have been inspecting the dam immediately prior to its failure. The body of Leona Johnson, who lived with the Harnischfegers and has been often and mistakenly reported to be Harnischfeger's wife, was found fully clothed and wedged between two blocks of concrete near the broken base of the dam. Neither his body or that of his six-year-old son, Coder, were ever found.

As the dam collapsed, twelve billion U.S. gallons (45 billion liters) of water surged down San Francisquito Canyon in a dam break wave, demolishing the heavy concrete walls of Power Station Number Two (a hydroelectric power plant), and destroying everything else in its path. The flood traveled south down San Francisquito Canyon, flooding parts of present-day Valencia and Newhall. The deluge then turned west into the Santa Clara River bed, flooding the towns of Castaic Junction, Fillmore, and Bardsdale. The flood continued west through Santa Paula in Ventura County, emptying its victims and debris into the Pacific Ocean at Montalvo, 54 miles (87 km) from the reservoir and dam site. When it reached the ocean at 5:30 a.m., the flood was almost two miles (3 km) wide, traveling at a speed of 5 miles (8 km) per hour. Bodies of victims were recovered from the Pacific Ocean, some as far south as the Mexican border.

Telephone operators in Fillmore (notably Louise Gipe) and two motorcycle policemen in Santa Paula notified people in their homes of the danger, until the rising floodwaters forced their retreat.