Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"I Envy the Dead"

To complete the saga of the gifted water-engineer William Mulholland. . .

In 1926 an additional water storage reservoir and electrical power facility in the Los Angeles system was added, the site chosen by Mulholland.  The new dam was christened the St. Francis Dam, and it was located in San Francisquito Canyon (near Saugus CA) not far from where I grew up.  Only, by then the dam had not been in existence for decades.  The St. Francis Dam had failed in 1928, a scant 2 years after its completion.  It was a catastrophe that has never been surpassed in California, in terms of number of lives lost in a man-made disaster.

the completed dam and filled reservoir

Multiple problems contributed to the failure of the dam, most importantly its placement against unstable rock and a fault line.  Water leakage occurred through cracks in the concrete.  Repeated inspections called for minor repairs but the experts were not alarmed by what they saw.  Pipes were installed to divert spillage from leaks in and around the concrete.

Downstream from the dam, farmers and powerhouse employees became concerned, then nervous, as anyone would, knowing 12 billion gallons of water was precariously perched not far above ones head.  On March 12, 1928 an additional leak was discovered by the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger.  He called for the experts and that afternoon William Mulholland and Harvey Van Norman arrived from Los Angeles for an inspection.  They found about 20 gallons per second rushing from the latest leak.  Yikes, I say.  They expressed that repairs could be done in the future.

But there would be no future.  Less than 12 hours later--at just about midnight--the dam failed.  Its collapse unleashed a torrent that few would escape that night.  A mile below the dam, Powerhouse #2 was wiped off the face of the earth, and along with it, nearly 70 people, all employees and their families.  Harnischfeger, the dam keeper, and his son Coder were never seen again.  Churning over farms and fields down the canyon, the towering, thundering deluge followed the Santa Clara River bed 54 miles west to the sea.  Along the way it drowned whole families, buckled railroad tracks, wiped out structures, agriculture, livestock, cars whose drivers were unfortunate to be on the road that night, and it carried away a work camp full of men sound asleep in tents on the riverbank (84 of them drowned).

fallen dam sections

The Tombstone
what remained of the dam (looking downstream from where the reservoir used to be)

Heros were abroad that terrible night.  A switchboard operator 40 miles downstream got the frightful news and stayed at her position until the last possible moment, phoning the alarm to families in the path of the water.  She also alerted the police.  Two motorcycle policemen traveled east with their sirens blaring, towards the oncoming water, to shout warnings to citizens they aroused from their beds. Hundreds of lives were saved.

Victims and debris were washed out to sea, and others were buried by deep layers of mud.  Over the years bodies attributed to this disaster were occasionally recovered, including one as recently as the 1990s.  About 450 bodies were recovered.  It is thought that about 500 were killed.

the disaster was news around the country; this is a New London CT newspaper, March 13 1928

Strange stories circulated after the disaster, and even when I was a teen in the late 60s.  About 5 people had separately passed the dam that night. Some heard eerie sounds--tumbling rocks and moving earth--others heard nothing.  The dam keeper's girlfriend's fully-clothed corpse was found wedged in concrete just below the dam.  How did she get there?   Was she on top of the dam when it collapsed?   Remember, the keeper and his son were never found.  Weeks before the collapse one downstream resident had taken to sleeping in his barn on high ground because he knew the dam was going to fail; that night he heard the thunder of the water from his safe refuge.  Other folks expressed premonitions of disaster.  One woman rode the flood down the canyon on a board from her demolished house.  There is the mystery of a ladder found wedged in a portion of the dam.  Survivors were found in the tops of trees.  Supposedly one survivor was found stuck in muck up to his neck.  Weird.  The dead were dug from the mud over a period of many years.  Tomorrow I'll write about the haunted graveyard of some of the victims.

What about William Mulholland, the creator and engineer of this major disaster?   How did he react to the shock and devastation?   Remember that connected to the dam was a power facility, which generated electricity for Los Angeles.  It is said that when the city went dark that night, everyone employed by the LA Department of Water and Power knew exactly what had just happened.  Including Mulholland.   He and others hurried to the dam site that night, reaching it 2 1/2 hours after the collapse.  I'm sure he desperately wished there was a way to turn back the clock a mere 12 hours.  He later said, "I envy the dead," and  "The only ones I envy about this whole thing are the ones who are dead."
Mulholland and Harvey Van Norman at the tragic site, March 15 1928

During the subsequent investigation, Mulholland eventually took the blame; that could not be avoided.  "Fasten it on me.  If there is an error of human judgement, I am the human."  You've got to give him credit for manning up to his drastic error.  In the aftermath of the flood, a sign popped up urging "Kill Mulholland."  That was hardly necessary; he probably died inside a hundred times, or maybe 500, once for each of the dead.  He resigned his position, crushed and disgraced, and died 7 years later, his brilliant career in ashes.  Mulholland's charmed career made it possible for Los Angeles to become what it is.  It ended horribly tarnished by failure and death.

concrete debris at the dam site today

1 comment: