Mulholland’s Mishap: The St. Francis Dam Collapse of 1928

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In the late 1800s, Los Angeles created a massive irrigation project in the Owens Valley to provide water to the ever-growing metropolis. The project, under the leadership of civil engineer William Mulholland, was marred by controversy, including shady land dealings and the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, which resulted in the deaths of roughly 600 people in the Santa Clara River Valley.

Several important historical questions will guide my research:

  1. How did the urbanization of Southern California shape regional politics and the allocation of public resources?
  2. How did the political agendas of Los Angeles politicians influence public construction projects?
  3. How was responsibility allocated for the collapse at the St. Francis Dam?

My research will focus less on the effects and aftermath of the St. Francis Dam collapse and more the politics surrounding its construction as well as the sloppy engineering that led to its demise. I hope to examine sources that shed light on the California Water Wars of the late 19th and early 20th century, showing how the allocation of resources became a major political struggle. William Mulholland and his corps of engineers will also receive my scrutiny, as I hope to determine if their construction effort was based on a desire for political gain or public welfare and safety.

For my analysis, I will make use of Los Angeles public records, such as the purchase of land and waterways, irrigation plans and objectives, and the professional reports of engineers engaged in the project, focusing on the St. Francis Dam in Ventura County. As my work specifically follows William Mulholland, I will utilize any and all of his letters, journals, and reports from the 1920s and possibly earlier. Newspaper articles documenting the expansion of the irrigation project and the construction of the dam would also be ideal sources. Lastly, the critics of the Dam (or the irrigation project as a whole) may be able to provide interesting insight on the situation through their personal correspondence, public reports, and newspaper opinions.