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St. Francis Dam

William Mulholland, creator of the Los Angeles water system and a designer of the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal, had to take the blame when his newly constructed St. Francis Dam burst on 12 March 1928. The previous day Mr. Mulholland had examined the dam and declared it sound, but at midnight the dam send a 24 metres high wall of water down the valley. More than 500 people perished in its path.

The dam was built at a time when engineers were pushing the limits of technology. The twenties meant a boom in the building of dams in USA and engineers often had to start constructing on the basis of guesswork and extrapolation from much smaller projects.

Ambition outpaced knowledge – and St. Francis was a failure to learn from. Among the the most important consequences was the formulation of the world's first dam safety agency and the normalization of uniform engineering criteria for testing of compacted earthen materials.

Recent geological research shows that the dam was built without proper knowledge of the uplift theory, meaning that the dam’s base was thinner than first assumed, and furthermore its designers were not aware that the left abutment was a palaeolithic mega-landside that would slake upon submersion.

After the scandal, Mr. Mulholland burst out: “I envy the dead”, and retreated into seclusion. But the disaster did result in the formation of the world’s first dam safety agency and engineering policies, which are still being used today.

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Links and references:

Read the newest geological explanation. The St. Francis Dam Diaster Revisted, Editied by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr:

William Mulholland & the collapse of St. Francis Dam, USC Library:

Santa Clarita Valley in Pictures:

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