Following the St. Francis Dam collapse, thousands of San Francisquito residents were left homeless, many with missing family members. Millions of dollars in property loss and the exhaustive rebuilding process left residents facing an uncertain future. They demanded justice, and looked towards the city of Los Angeles for reparations. City officials responded and created the Citizens' Restoration Committee that was charged with distributing funds to death, disability, and property claims.


Desperation masked a plain fact on the morning of March 13, 1928: Earl McCall was running a fool's errand. McCall was wading through miles of mud, debris, and bodies in the wake of a catastrophe. Several hours earlier, the mighty St. Francis Dam had collapsed. The dam unleashed 12 billion gallons of water, waves nearly 100 feet high, traveling debris that weighed tons, and mud that glazed over the small farming communities that dotted the San Francisquito Canyon. McCall paced frantically through the canyon searching for his sister Minnie, her husband Eugene, and their two children. With every set of bodies that McCall walked past, he said a silent prayer to himself in the hope that his family met a different fate. Amid the carnage, he finally had a moment of recognition. Atop a small hill, McCall reached “a vantage point whence he had formerly looked down into the canyon at his brother-in-law's rich acres, the comfortable home, where the children played and he waved at his sister.” McCall rushed down but found no site of his family. “Here,” he cried, “is where the house stood.”


The St. Francis Dam collapse is one of the defining stories of modern California history. It possesses all the usual characters of a California drama—the wealthy industrialists, big city politicians, scandal, and tragedy are all readily apparent. Most histories of the St. Francis Dam center on William Mulholland. Hagiographies and screeds alike have devoted thousands of pages to capturing the tale of the brusque, self-taught engineer, who served first as one of the architects of modern Los Angeles and later retired in disgrace following the Saint Francis' collapse. Often forgotten in the drama of the dam's collapse were the thousands of people who settled, raised families, and worked in the San Francisquito Canyon. Beginning just before midnight on March 12th, the farm owners, fruit pickers, local business owners, and employees of the LADWP and Edison Company would see their families and communities torn asunder.


The visualizations that follow are an attempt to recover reality; to piece together the fragments of narratives borne out of the second worst disaster in California history and the desperate experience of survivors that followed. Some stories, like Thornton Edwards', are well worn tropes, while experiences like Earl McCall's are mere footnotes briefly captured by local newspapers in the immediate aftermath. Combined, these stories paint a more comprehensive picture of the St. Francis Dam's collapse and its original victims.




St. Francis Dam Disaster

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014