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“It never occurred to me that it was in danger”

“It was the driest dam of its size that I ever saw in        

  my life.”[1]

                                                            ------ William Mulholland at the 1928 Coronor’s Inquest


Worst Disaster Clipping.jpg

St. Francis Dam Disaster

March 12 - 13, 1928


In 1885 a young engineer, William Mullholland, was hired by the Sespe Land and Water Company to design and build a very small dam on the Sespe river to provide water for irrigation.  As part of his compensation he was granted twenty acres on Sespe Creek.[2]


Sespe Dam.jpg

In the 1900s, a new water source was needed for the growing city of Los Angeles. Mulholland, by then L.A. City Engineer,  remembered the Santa Clara River and the Sespe. There were many ideas for reclaiming the estimated ½ million acre feet of water that flowed down the Santa Clara River to the ocean every year.[3]

One of those ideas laid waste to the Santa Clara River and those who depended on it for their food, shelter and their very lives.



September 1904, William Mulholland and Fred Eaton left Los Angeles for a trip by buckboard up the Newhall grade through the Santa Clara Valley and north along the edge of the Eastern Sierras to the edge of the soda filled Owens Lake and its source, the Owens River.

William Mulholland.jpg

William Mulholland

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Fred Eaton

In the Owens River Valley they discovered enough water to fill the parched mouths of the developing Los Angeles basin.

They set a plan in motion to acquire that water by any means possible. The Owens Valley farmers would not willingly give up their water rights, so Fred Eaton set about secretly purchasing property and the water rights along the river with the purpose of building an aqueduct to bring water to the L.A. basin.

Owens River Valley today.jpg

At the same time agents of wealthy Angelinos were purchasing property in the dry San Fernando Valley.  They were called the “San Fernando Syndicate” and included railroad executive,  Henry Huntington, publisher of the L.A. Times, Harrison Otis, Fred Eaton and Mulholland.


The aqueduct began near Lee Vining and proceeded down the valley bypassing Owens dry lake and along the edge of the Mojave desert to the San Fernando Valley.

Map of the Los Angeles Aquaduct.jpg

The Aquaduct was finished and dedicated in November,1913.  Mulholland’s granddaughter later said, that the roar of the water was so loud that no one could hear his words, so all he said was “Here it is , take it.” 

Opening of the aquaduct.jpg


Aquaduct today.jpg

A close up of the cascades today as the aqueduct brings water into the L.A. Basin. The location is on the east side of the I 5 freeway in the north end of the S.F. Valley

Farming in the Owens valley was increasingly devastated by the draining away of their water. By the late 1920s the farmers began a series of attempts to damage the project. They damaged valves and destroyed pipelines in order to release water back into their valley. In May of 1927, an explosive charge blew up 450 feet of pipeline near Little Lake in the Owens Valley.

No Name segment of LA Aquaduct.jpg

Below, angry local residents occupying the Alabama Gates in 1924.  They opened the gates and let aqueduct water flow into the dry lake bed.[6]

Damaged aquaduct picture straight.jpg

Mulholland and the LA Dept. of Water soon realized that, while they could use the water in the aqueduct to produce power and water for the city, much of that water was wasted down the Santa Clara River to the ocean.

There were additional fears that, in the event of a drought, there would be an insufficient supply of water to serve the rapidly increasing population of the L.A. basin.

 The attempts at destruction of the aqueduct in 1927 by the Owens valley farmers led them to decide to solve these two problems by building a series of holding dams.

One of these dams was to be built in San Francisquito canyon north of the city.



Construction camp at the dam site in San Francisquito  Canyon.

Construction camp at Dam Site.jpg

Pouring concrete:  A total of 175,000 cubic yards of concrete would go into the construction at a cost of $1,230,00. It would be 185’ above the stream bed.

Pouring Concrete.jpg


Adding the wing dike

Adding Wing Dike.jpg

On March 12, 1928, the dam is completely filled. The lake is 3 miles long and contains 38,000 acre feet or 12 billion gallons of water.  On this day, Mulholland inspected the dam and found it to be sound and the reported leaks to be normal.

Completed dam.jpg

At 3 minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam collapsed catastrophically and without warning. The center section of the dam, soon to be called the “tombstone” and the wing visible to the right were all that remained in place. The wing was 588’ long and 20’ tall.



A 140’ wall of water carried 1,000 ton blocks of concrete like rafts on a wave.  The largest piece, found 1500’ from the tombstone weighed 10 thousand tons and was 61’ tall

Dam debris with men.jpg

Note the size of the two men in front of one of the remaining pieces of the dam.


Of the 75 families living in the canyon just beneath the dam, only a few survived. 


This photo is of Tony Harnischfeger, the dam keeper, and son, Cody, his wife, and daughter.  Tony warned Mulholland that he saw muddy leaks around the dam the morning of March 12th.

Tony and Cody were among the first to die.  By then his wife and daughter were no longer living with him.  Tony and Cody were never found. The body of the woman living with them at the time was  found pinned between two large pieces of concrete.

San Francisquito Schoo.jpg

Mrs. Small, the teacher (4th from the right), had been in Saugus on the 11th. She missed the bus home the morning of the 12th and was given a lift by the chief of Power plant #2 allowing her to make it to school in time to greet the students.

All but one student, all the parents and Mrs. Small perished that night. The front porch of the school was later found at the mouth of the Sespe River.

Power Plant before break.jpg

Power Plant # 2 before the disaster. It was 61’ tall, made of brick and reinforced concrete.  When the dam collapsed, a wave 140’ high destroyed the building.

Power Plant after.jpg

The next morning only the turbines remained.  Eventually the one on the left was rebuilt and put back in service. The one on the right was removed and a new turbine put in its place. The building was rebuilt and is in use today.

At Castaic Junction, where Hwy 5 crosses the east end of the Santa Clara Valley, the wall of water was 78’ in height.  There was a construction camp there with 170 men asleep. [8]There was no warning and 164 men died.

Castaic Junction.jpg

Edison company workers, camped at Kemp Station on Ventura County line, were stringing electric line from Saugus to Saticoy. The flood was 40’ high when it arrived here. The night watchman, Ed Locke, heard the sound which he described as an avalanche. He did his best to wake up and warn the workers.

One of the workers awoke to find his tent half filled with water and bobbing about like a bubble in the raging water.  In his panic to get out he broke three teeth trying unsuccessfully to make a hole in the canvas.  He later escaped when one of his fellow tent mates found a board with a nail in it and ripped a hole in the canvas. He later told his story in the Fillmore Herald.[9]

Survivors were taken to Rancho Camulos where they got dry clothes and then to Piru where they were housed in the “Cozy Inn”. 


The tent in this photo is probably the same kind of tent that was in use at Kemp Station.  It had a wooden floor which helped keep the tent afloat.


 When the workers went to bed that night with the tent flaps closed they tended to survive. If the tent flaps were open, water flooded in and the men died. Of the 140 men in camp that night 84 died, including Locke, the night watchman.

Kemp Station damage.jpg

Kemp Station with the cars of the Edison workers just being recovered.  Note the steam crane at the right. 

Kemp Vehicles.jpg

Recovered vehicles lined up to be taken away.

Blue cut today.jpg

Blue Cut 2018 – the site of the Edison company camp at Kemp Station where 84 died.

The flood took about 5 ½ hours to travel the 54 miles from the dam site to the ocean. It arrived at Fillmore at 2:20 a.m. The speed of the flow was about 12 mph. Total time -- 11:57 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.

Path of destruction.jpg

From Piru to Fillmore

Damaged house near Piru at Torrey Crossing.  This is the only photograph we have in our collection of damage in the Piru area.

Torrey Crossing.jpg

At Rancho Camulos the adobe main house and outbuildings  were undamaged.  It is said that the water came almost to the fountain in the yard south of the adobe and the chapel.


It blew out the Bardsdale Bridge in seconds and began to spread south into Bardsdale.

Satellite Map.jpg


It took about an hour before the first warning of the impending disaster was given to the telephone operator on duty in Ventura.  The Ventura operator called the local telephone operators in Santa Paula and Fillmore and the sheriff’s office.

Fillmore Chief, Earl Hume, got the call, dressed, mounted his motorcycle and set out to warn people living closest to the river.

Earl Hume.jpg

The telephone operator stayed at her post and phoned as many people as she could with the warning.

By the time Hume got close to the east limits of Fillmore it was too late. The flood had hit with a wave 40 feet high.

East on 126 looking west.jpg

This is close to the place where Chief Hume was turned back by rising water. The location is just east of Pole Canyon looking toward Fillmore. This photo was taken sometime after cleanup had begun.

The north approach to the Bardsdale Bridge – looking from Fillmore to Bardsdale across the Santa Clara River sometime before March 13, 1928.

Bridge approach before dam.jpg

Film taken shortly after dam collapsed, provided by Bill Dewey.

The next morning the search for survivors began. This is what remained of the Bardsdale Bridge.

Bridge looking south.jpg

Chambersburg Road and Bardsdale

Chambersburg, Hwy 23 --- the road to Moorpark

Chambersburg after.jpg
Chambersburg after 2.jpg

The Basolo family lived in a group of three houses on their family ranch on the south side of what today is the Fillmore Equestrian center south of the Bardsdale Bridge. They received a phone call warning them about the flood and set out in three cars for high ground on the south.

The first two cars made it to safety. The headlights of the third car with 21 year old Georgie Basolo and his brother in law, Cliff Corwin, inside were visible for a brief time and then disappeared. Cliff saved himself.  Georgie’s body was later found with an apparent blow to the head from debris. Afterwards Cliff remarked that “As I was making the turn onto the highway, crash goes the house, the barn and the windmill and – bing!-we were in it.”

Basolo house.jpg

One of the Basolo homes

Georgie was 21 years old and newly married when he died.  His wife and family made a claim to the city of Los Angeles for payment for his death and for the loss of his home and belongings.

A local committee headed by C.C. Teague was formed to assist in the verifying of claims. They made an attempt to forestall the incursion of attorneys into the area which would make the process more difficult and costly. Most claims were settled promptly.  The Basolo family received $15,000.00 for Georgie’s death. As part of discovery, his wife had to provide proof of the loss, including an inventory of lost household goods.  Local furniture dealer,  Mr. Tingle, still had the information for her claim and others.

G Basolo tombstone.jpg

Harry Gage, living in lower Bardsdale, was caught by the flood and finding it impossible to get away with his family, shot a hole in the ceiling with his shotgun and lifted his wife and 2 children up into the attic where they remained until the danger was over.[1]

The Gage house on Pasadena Ave. in Bardsdale after the Flood.

Gage house damaqed.jpg

The Gage house is now on Los Angeles Ave. It was moved about 1 mile south to higher ground after the disaster. The same house in 2018.

Gage house 2018.jpg

Margaret Rudkin Meadows was a child of 5 or 6 in March 1928. In the dark of night, the family awoke to find their house moving, surrounded by water and with about 18 inches of water inside.  There was no escape.

Margaret’s mother dressed the children in their Sunday best.  They held hands, stood in the center of the bed and prayed.  All survived.

After the flood, the house was moved south to a location on Grimes Canyon road far from the river.

Meadows home after the Flood

Meadows home.jpg

Thelma McCauley Shaw

Thelma was 14, sick with the measles, and living in lower Bardsdale with her family when the flood hit.T hey awakened to the sound and smell of the flood and the moving of the house. 

In their escape attempt, Thelma’s mother, father and brother went out the front door of the house and Thelma went out the back. Her family was swept away by the force of the debris filled water and drowned.  She said that the family was taken by the water and caught by the tumbling of the house.

Thelma also was swept away by the water and floated the 9 miles from Bardsdale to Santa Paula.  She was found in the morning in a pile of debris unable to move because of heavy tree limbs on her legs.

The Burson barn was located on Guiberson road about 25 yards from the corner of Guiberson and Chambersburg Roads. It was on high ground and so was protected from the flood. It was used as a Red Cross headquarters and temporary morgue.

Burson Barn.jpg

The Fillmore High School football field was also used as a holding space where bodies were cleaned up and identified. [11]

The High School Music Room and Cafeteria were also used as temporary morgues.[12]

High School.jpg

In  Bardsdale, the Methodist church basement was also used as a temporary morgue.

Bardsdale church.jpg

Today this is the location of Otto and Sons Nursery. The only evidence of Cavin Crossing is the remaining tracks of vehicles.

Guiberson at Cavin.jpg

Shiells’ Orange Orchard, Guiberson Road

Orange Orchard.jpg

The Southside Pumping Plant on Guiberson Rd. at Shiells Canyon. This is on the south side of the river just opposite the current fish hatchery.

Southside pump.jpg

Rancho Sespe


The remains of the Rancho Sespe pumping plant.

Rancho Sespe Pumping Station.jpg
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Damaged tank at Rancho Sespe

Worker housing in 1928 was small, simple shacks. This is thought to be one of the housing areas along the river at Rancho Sespe.

Rancho sespe worker houseing.jpg

The Clean Up

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The cleanup was difficult requiring weeks and hundreds of men. Debris was piled and burned. Even steam shovels were used to remove trees, wood from houses and all kinds of materials left from the flood. The film was taken shortly after the dam break.  Courtesy of Bill Dewey.

Mules, horses and tractors were also used in the clearing of debris.

Santa Paula Survivors

Don Workman being interviewed by Leon Worden, SCVTV.[13]


The flood hit the Willard Bridge across the Santa Clara at about 3 a.m. Chief Thornton Edwards had been warning people near the river and found a number of them on the bridge waiting to see the event.  He was able to chase them off before the flood hit.


Remains of the Willard Bridge, west of Santa Paula.

Willard Bridge.jpg

Aerial view of Santa Paula March 13, 1928

Aerial Santa Paula.jpg

Isbell School on Harvard the morning after the flood.

Isbel School.jpg

Fillmore Herald’s March 16, 1928 headlines.





 Maria de Jesus S. Carrillo 33

                 MATILDA,11      NO ENCONTRADOS

ZENOMA, 7     JOSE,  12

ADOLFO, 6      ISAVEL, 2


Carrillo Tombstone.jpg





ZENOMA, 7,       JOSE, 12

ADOLFO, 6         ISAVEL, 2 ,

              ANACLETO, 3      MARCELLA 2 months

Mr. Carillo had loaded his family in the car and headed north to Guiberson Rd.  On the way he stopped to warn a friend and neighbor. He turned to see the car with his family being washed away in the roaring water.  Only he and his daughter survived.  This headstone is at the Bardsdale Cemetery.

Results and Changes

  • Official Death Toll in 1928                     385

  • Current Death Toll – at least                431 

    • Remains were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, others were found in the late 1970s and the most recent in 1994.

  • Actual Death Toll – Unknown – Many of the dead were swept out to sea and never found. Many were undocumented and unmissed by family or friends.

  • The Coroner’s Jury found errors in engineering judgement clearing Mulholland of blame or criminal culpability.

  • Recent studies have found that an undiscovered, ancient, unstable landslide on the south side of the dam was the cause.  Current studies would have recognized this unstable formation.

  • Mulholland retired in March 1929.

  • The California legislature in 1929 created an updated dam safety program.

  • In 1929 the legislature passed laws to regulate civil engineering and created the State Board of Registration for civil Engineers.


The Dam Site Today

One small remnant of the dam sitting beside the road to the dam site.

Dam debris today.jpg

The remains of the “tombstone”, 2018.

Dam site today.jpg

The dam site is clearly visible and can be visited today.  The large concrete segments have been turned to dust and gravel in the interests of safety. 

Recently the U.S. Congress passed and President Trump signed legislation naming the site a new national monument.



Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, sending over 12 billion gallons of water and debris rushing down the Santa Clara River Valley from San Francisquito Canyon to the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles away.

 In six hours more than 450 people were swept away in the dark and murky waters.  Though some of these souls are buried here, many were never found.  It was the worst man-made disaster of the 20th century.

This Sespe brownstone monument is dedicated to the memory of all who perished, and to the survivors and their families. On this 90th anniversary of the disaster, we remember you.

March 17, 2018

From the Communities of Bardsdale, Piru and the City of Fillmore


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Headline in The  Ventura Star

“California lawmakers boost dam checks after near disaster”

Gov. Brown ordered “beefed up” dam inspections after a near disaster when the spillway of Oroville dam suffered major damage.

The Assembly has now given final approval to a bill requiring dam checks for dams deemed to be of high hazard.  It also requires updates to safety measures every 10 years.

Currently California has 678 dams deemed high hazard, 271 deemed significant hazard and 289 low hazard.

The St. Francis dam volume was 12 billion gallons or 36,826 acre feet.

Today, Lake Piru, Pyramid Lake and Castaic Lake when filled to capacity hold a total of 630,244 acre feet.

[1] William Mulholland  at the coroner’s inquest in 1928 from “Floodpath” by Jon Wilkman

[2] Wikipedia article on William Mulholland

[3] Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly Vol V, No. 4 pg 7

[4] By The City of Los Angeles - Report from the City of Los Angeles, Public Domain,

[5]  Photo from LA Dept. of Water and Power

[6] Damaged Aqueduct photo from LA Dept of Water and Power

[7] Photos from LA Dept. of Water and Power

[8] Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, page 98.  This is the only reference to this camp.

[9] From the March 1943 Fillmore Herald.

[10] March 16, 1928, Fillmore Herald, page 4

[11] Lin Thomas’ mother's remembrance.  As told to Lin,  there was no bus to pick the children up that morning so she walked to school, crossing the Sespe on the city water pipe.  As she got up the hill to the high school she saw the bodies all laid out on the football field.

[12] Mildred Price Dewey remembrance.

[13] Used by permission of Leon Worden, President SCVTV

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