In March of 1928, the St. Francis Dam north of Los Angeles—designed by William Mulholland as a reservoir for the L.A. Aqueduct—collapsed. The largest engineering disaster in California history is inextricably woven into the epic history of water in Los Angeles. In this centennial year of the California Aqueduct, join us for a discussion of the St. Francis tragedy and its enduring catastrophic and cultural significance.
William Deverell is a professor of history at the University of Southern California, where he specializes in the history of California and the American West and directs a scholarly institute that collaborates with the Huntington Library in Pasadena. He is the author of Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past and Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910. With Greg Hise, he is co-author of Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region. William is a Fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC.
Donald C. Jackson is the author of Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the American West and Pastoral and Monumental: Dams, Postcards, and the American Landscape (June 2013). In 2004 he co-authored with Norris Hundley Jr. the article “Privilege and Responsibility: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster” published in California History. Jackson is a Professor of History at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and was recently in residence as a Trent R. Dames Fellow at The Huntington Library.
Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, activist, and author of thirteen books about ecology, environment, landscape, community, art, politics, hope, and memory. Her books include A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories; Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and most recently, the bestselling volume of 19 essays and 22 innovative maps, titled Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Solnit has received many awards for her writing, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award for her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. She is a contributing editor to Harper's and regular contributor to the political site Tomdispatch.com
Patt Morrison is a writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and she hosted the daily Patt Morrison public affairs program on KPCC. She has won six Emmys and ten Golden Mike awards for Life & Times Tonight on KCET, and for her KPCC show, which won three Golden Mike Awards for Best Public Affairs Show in its six-year run. She’s the author of the best-selling Rio LA, Tales from the Los Angeles River, and her interview subjects include Salman Rushdie, Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Ray Bradbury.
Main photo: LAPL Photo collection
St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon near Saugus was completed in 1926 and failed in 1928. It was part of the Owens Valley Aqueduct System. This post-failure photograph shows several men looking very small as they stand in the area below the failed dam. One large chunk of dam remains standing while another lays on the ground below it.
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