Editor’s note: Over the past seven years, Boom has focused much of its attention on water in California. In 2013, commemorating the centenary of the Los Angeles aqueduct’s opening on 5 November 1913, our previous editor Jon Christensen and others spent some time reflecting on water and L.A. And so it’s no surprise that we’ve come back to it now. California’s life will be forever intertwined with the innovative use of water for its existence, which is perhaps as relevant for Los Angeles as anywhere. Here we sit down with Jon Wilkman, the author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), which received the Historical Society of Southern California’s Martin Ridge Award for Best Book of California History after 1848, and was also an Amazon 2016 Nonfiction Book of the Year.
Boom: You published a book recently, Floodpath, which has been optioned for a television mini-series by Joel Silver Productions. You also gave a recent talk on this at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, and earlier this year published an article in Southern California Quarterly. What brought you to this subject of water in California history in the first place? And specifically in Los Angeles?
Wilkman: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, not too far from the ruins of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, fifty miles north of downtown L.A. and northeast of Santa Clarita. But like many Americans, Californians, and even Angelenos, I had never heard of the disaster that killed well over 400 people. In the fourth grade I built a Spanish mission model, but there had been no classroom mention of the St. Francis Dam when I graduated from North Hollywood High School. As an elementary school kid, heading north on family vacations, we passed the Cascades, the concrete chute that disgorges water from the Owens Valley. When I asked what it was I was told, “That’s where our water comes from.” After college in the Midwest and the beginning of a career as a documentary filmmaker in New York, when I returned to Los Angeles in 1978 I rediscovered my home town, and especially its often overlooked and underappreciated history. I was hooked. While developing a public television series, “The Los Angeles History Project,” I ran across Man-Made Disaster: The Story of the St. Francis Dam, a 1963 book by Ventura County historian, Charles Outland. That set me and my late wife Nancy on a 25-year-long quest to document and tell the story of the St. Francis Dam in a modern context. As early as 1990, we began to videotape interviews with eyewitness and survivors. Some of them are included in Floodpath, and can be seen in a short film I made to promote the book.
Boom: Most people who are not historians may probably know the name Mulholland from the 2001 David Lynch film, Mulholland Drive; many Angelenos will have even driven the winding road with the same name. But who was William Mullholland and why does he matter today?
Wilkman: There would be no modern Los Angeles without William Mulholland. Some City of the Angels bashers might say no modern L.A. wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but Mulholland’s life and legacy are larger than life and Shakespearean in their rise and fall. An Irish immigrant to Los Angeles, he started as a ditch-digger in 1878, became a self-taught engineer, and in 1913 was responsible for the completion of the 233-mile-long Owens River Aqueduct, at the time, the longest in the world. With this great achievement, and others afterward, came legendary status and over confidence that led to the misjudgments that caused the failure of the St. Francis Dam. To me, his biography is filled with insights into the growth of Los Angeles, and even the United States, and warnings and lessons that have never been more relevant.
Boom: The leading L.A. writer David Ulin wrote a piece in Boom a few years ago, under the same title as Mullholland’s infamous phrase, “There it is! Take it!” highlighting both something of a wild ambition as well as an exploitation, what some have referred to as L.A.’s Original Sin. But could you tell us what the innovation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct meant for Los Angeles at the time when it opened? What did it also mean for California and the world?
Wilkman: To get to your question in a roundabout fashion, aside from a widespread lack of knowledge about the full extent of Los Angeles history, there’s a long tradition of “noir L.A.,” which I believe originated in a 1920s east-coast-based belief that Los Angeles was somehow an unjustified urban aberration, built on fraud and shallow values—certainly not a “real” city like New York, Boston, or even San Francisco, where hucksterism and chicanery were considered colorful, not foundationally sinister. Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home. Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre. To make a fresh start, I can’t think of any better story for a deep dive than the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam.
Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home. Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre.
“There it is! Take it!” is often cited as the short speech that encapsulates a legacy of quasi-criminal usurpation that’s the history of water in Los Angeles—as you say, L.A.’s “Original Sin.” The facts, as they tend to be, are multi-faceted. Mulholland’s five words occurred at the end of a longer less punchy oration, interrupted when water from the Aqueduct began to flow, and eager Angelenos rushed to dip tin cups into the city’s man-made river. The classic film noir, Chinatown, draws upon the mix of truth, half-truths, and conspiracy theories that followed. The business insiders who hugely profited by early investments in the San Fernando Valley had lots of power and influence, but at the time funding for the Aqueduct wasn’t assured, and unlike the plotting of Chinatown, they didn’t have to con other Angelenos by dumping water to fake a drought (something Mulholland would have never allowed). As we know from recent history, droughts were regular and real and the vast majority of the city’s citizens believed more water could benefit everyone in Southern California, as it ultimately did. Former city engineer and mayor Fred Eaton, representing Los Angeles as well as himself, indeed used surreptitious tactics to conceal his true intentions when he convinced Owens Valley farmers and ranchers to sell land with access to the Owens River. Even if the water was purchased, sometimes at inflated prices, not “stolen,” it was an unprecedented transfer of resources from one region to another in an era of small town localism. In the context of the Progressive politics of the day, with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, the acquisition was justified as providing “the greatest good to the greatest number.” But for the residents of the Owens Valley, the results had damaging and long-term ecological and economic consequences. They fought back with a water war that continues to this day. In the process, Valley activists repeatedly dynamited the Aqueduct, then, and even now, seen as a heroic act of defiance, although others might consider it terrorism. For Los Angeles, with water available beyond the elusive Los Angeles River, nearby independent communities were willing to be annexed to greater L.A., quenching thirst and irrigating crops. As a result, the city grew from forty-three square miles in 1913 to 442 by 1930. Combined with opportunities for trade, made possible by a new man-made harbor, which opened in San Pedro in 1907, by 1920 Los Angeles was poised to become the preeminent economic center of California, and eventually an important world capital.
Boom: Obviously, the dam no longer exists, and your book and recent article accounts for these things in some detail, but can you briefly tell us what happened with the tragedy on 12 March 1928.
Wilkman: Construction of the 200 feet-tall arched concrete St. Francis Dam was officially completed on 4 May 1926. Over the next nearly two years, as the reservoir was slowly filled, cracks and leaks appeared. At first they weren’t a source of concern because such fissures are common with concrete dams as they cure and settle. When they happen they are patched with caulk. Despite this, on the morning of 12 March 1928, St. Francis Dam watchman Tony Harnischfeger was especially anxious when he discovered leaking water that appeared to be filled with soil, a sign the foundations of the dam might be dissolving. He called his boss, William Mulholland, who, joined by his assistant, Harvey Van Norman, drove from Los Angeles to investigate. When Mulholland examined the leak, he said he saw it running clear. It became filled with soil only after it encountered construction debris lower down. Convinced the dam was safe, Mulholland and Van Norman returned to Los Angeles. Only hours later, shortly before midnight, with no warning the St. Francis Dam collapsed catastrophically. In forty-five minutes the St. Francis Reservoir was empty and 12.4 billion gallons of water were rushing west through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara River Valley toward the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles away. In between, thousands of people in towns like Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula were sound asleep. With downed telephone lines, it would take more than an hour before warnings were issued. To some, they never came. Well over four hundred died.
Boom: What did that disaster mean at the time, for Mulholland, for Los Angeles, and California?
Wilkman: Mulholland was obviously devastated by the collapse of the dam he’d built in San Francisquito Canyon. He never really recovered, personally or professionally. Although he refused to accept independent engineering accusations of inadequate safety measures and faulty decision-making, probably believing a dynamite attack was to blame, he nevertheless took full responsibility. “If there was an error of human judgment, I was the human,” he said, adding, “The only ones I envy about this thing are those who are dead. “Aside from the tragic loss of life, the St. Francis Dam disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for the future of water infrastructure in California and the American West. Plans for Boulder (Hoover) Dam were caught in a Congressional crossfire between those who believed in private enterprise and advocates of government support for new dams and hydroelectric projects. The failure of a city-built concrete dam near Los Angeles seemed to confirm that public agencies weren’t up to the task. In the end, a compromise between public and private interests allowed for the construction a series of dams that transformed the American West and Southeast. To put the matter behind as soon as possible, Los Angeles, without acknowledging blame, rapidly made restitution for loss of life and property damage. Most important, California established a dam safety regulation and review system that became a model for other states, and even countries overseas.
Boom: Knowing what he knew after the disaster, what do you think Mulholland could have done differently? If he knew and had today’s technology, what would be different with what he did?
Wilkman: There were plenty things Mulholland could have done at the time. To start, building the dam in a less treacherous geological environment. I don’t think Mulholland’s culpability can be excused by a lack of modern technology. The latest explanations blame a massive landslide as the initial cause of the failure, a situation some have said couldn’t be discerned by geologists in the 1920s. In fact, after the collapse, ancient landslides at the dam site were clearly identified in 1928 by a Stanford geologist. Mulholland’s failing was hubris. He believed he knew best and didn’t consult others. Even if he included the latest safety measures in his design, most engineers believe the geology of St. Francisquito Canyon doomed the St. Francis Dam. Too often, though, the disaster is treated as an anomaly—the work of a self-trained engineer and arrogant old man. However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.
However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.
Boom: This Spring and Summer our levees were tested with both the Delta levees and the canals. Kingsburg had flooding of a resort, along with the Delta’s Treasure Island, Van Sickle Island, among others. Much of California actually sits in flood zone areas. My hometown of Tracy does, in the Delta region. And while I knew that Tracy had its problems, I didn’t realize that one of them was its low-lying situation until Kevin Starr pointed it out to me. But add to this our dams that sit above many communities—Lake Isabella above Bakersfield, Oroville Dam, Folsom Lake, and many others. Our infrastructure is also in need of great repair. What do you think California needs in terms of its water infrastructure repair?
Wilkman: I am not an engineer, so can’t respond with specifics. As I indicated in my previous answer, regular and adequate maintenance is essential. That certainly appeared to be an issue with Oroville, along with some design weaknesses. Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state of dam infrastructure in America a grade of D+. Yet even in the best of circumstances, unprecedented acts of nature can be overwhelming, as sadly proved recently in Texas and Florida. Preparation for the worst is always a good strategy, including avoiding construction in known flood plains, but sometimes even that isn’t enough when flooding, as it was in Houston, is the greatest in a thousand years.
Boom: What do you think is the future of water in California? How do you envision us better reckoning with it and its power. Should we be more aggressive or more conservative toward it? In short, more technology, or more work with nature? And of course, there’s no indication that there will be any less people in California in the foreseeable future. What sort of things worry you about the future of California water infrastructure? And what sort of things should we as Californians and also our civic and governmental leaders be thinking about that we and they are not currently doing?
Wilkman: I read an interesting statistic while researching Floodpath. In 2015 Los Angeles consumed less water that the city did in 1970, and L.A.’s population was a million more. In the aftermath of the recent drought, I don’t know if that’s changed for worse or better, but it shows there can be hope if we adopt effective regulations and technologies, as well as enlightened lifestyle expectations. Again, I’m a filmmaker and historian, but from what I know, efforts to work with nature, not attempts to remake or ignore it, are what a lot of thoughtful engineers and social planners are thinking about. New technology, sure, but also conservation programs, including capturing what rain we get for local reuse or stored in natural aquifers, not just uncovered concrete-lined reservoirs. Establishing resource allocation policies that deal with urban and agricultural needs is obviously vital too. Certainly there’s no excuse for the citizens of California to be ill-informed about the challenges we face. No matter what some political leaders at the highest national level may believe, the effects of global warming are real and they’re not going to wait for the next election for us to act.
 Jon Wilkman, “Floodpath: The Forgotten History of the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster,” Southern California Quarterly 99 (2017): 71-88, http://scq.ucpress.edu/content/99/1/71.
Jon Wilkman is a native of Los Angeles and graduate of Oberlin College. A documentary filmmaker and author, his films have won numerous national and international awards. Books include Picturing Los Angeles and Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America on the Making of Modern Los Angeles. He is currently working on a new book, Screening Reality: How Real World Moviemakers Reimagined America.
Copyright: © 2017 Jon Wilkman. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/