Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
In 1928, more than 400 people were killed in a massive dam break in L.A. County—and the tragedy is barely recognized. That might finally be changing.
Ask most Angelenos what they think of when they hear the name William Mulholland, and they'll probably mention the curvy road in the Hollywood Hills that bears his name.
Mulholland Drive has one of the best 360-degree vistas of the tentacled metropolis: To the southwest, Hollywood, West L.A., and downtown. To the northeast, the San Fernando Valley, and further on, the Santa Clarita Valley—close to the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the 233-mile pipeline that first brought water from the Owens Valley to the thirsty city back in 1913. The Aqueduct was Mulholland's construction, and its payoff—the explosive growth and viability of Los Angeles—has grafted his name onto the prime arteries of the city.
But that could finally be changing. "Things have been swept under rug for so long," says Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Historical Society. "It’s time to properly memorialize the victims properly."
H.R. 5357, the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act, was introduced to Congress last July by former California Representative Buck McKeon, who has since retired. The bill would create a national park around the dam site, an idea that Pollack got from visiting the Pennsylvania's Johnstown Flood National Memorial, where another dam burst catastrophically. Now Pollack and his colleagues are trying to work with Congressman Steve Knight to reintroduce the legislation—"he needs some coaxing along," Pollack says.
James Snead, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the nearby California State University, Northridge, is another co-host of the symposium. The story of the Saint Francis Dam came to him a few years ago by accident, during a discussion with a graduate student about the ways disaster is sometimes memorialized and sometimes not. The student brought up St. Francis, but Snead, having lived in L.A. on and off for some 25 years, had never heard of it. He was fascinated by the story, partly for that reason.
"The first thing I had to do was get informed about the disaster," he says, "but no one's ever heard of it! Where do you even begin?"
With his (now former) graduate student Ann Stansell, Snead launched a full-blown research initiative, the Forgotten Casualties Project. While a handful of researchers (like Rogers) have focused on the engineering aspects of the dam over the years, Snead found there'd been little accounting for the human loss. There wasn't even an official list of the dead.
"There were short lists, guess-timates," he says. "There's clearly been an ambivalence with remembering this in a major official way."
Over three years of combing through newspapers, dusty files at an LADWP warehouse, and cemeteries in L.A. County and across the nation, Forgotten Casualties has accounted for 425 deaths—though that's probably not the full scope. Pollack thinks it's more like 431.
Forgotten Casualities has also surveyed the old path of the flood for belongings of the dead. "One of the most poignant things we have is a bedstead," Snead says. "We have no way of knowing who owned it. But looking at this thing somebody owned, maybe was sleeping in, suddenly makes this abstract disaster very personal and real."
Snead says that his research project acts as a kind of neutral forum for those interested in the disaster. He doesn't take sides in how or whether the St. Francis dam should be more officially recognized by one jurisdiction or another. He says he admires Pollack's push for legislation, though he worries that the outcome might actually distance the people who care most about the disaster.
"I’m always concerned that local communities will be disappointed when they get what they ask for," he says. "It would be a great thing to gain recognition, but the cost might be that they'd become somewhat removed from this locality once it's under a certain jurisdiction."
As for the LADWP, spokesperson Albert Rodriguez said they were "unaware of HR 5357, but we will be reviewing it for consideration and stating of our position." And, that "LADWP has never hesitated to acknowledge the tragedy of the Saint Francis dam's failure, and the Department’s responsibility for the deaths and damages." There is also a small exhibit, erected in 2005, on Mulholland in the lobby of the LADWP's downtown headquarters, in which the dam "figures very prominently."
If there's any information on that exhibit on LADWP's website, I've yet to find it. Like the dam itself, you'd have to know the exhibit was there.
For now, anyway. "431 people died in one evening and they’ve never been properly memorialized," says Pollack. "If we could bring the equivalent of a national park to the back yard of the Santa Clarita Valley—that might finally put us on the map."