Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Special Author Event: The St. Francis Dam Disaster

Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles,by Jon Wilkman

Celebrated documentary filmmaker and historian Jon Wilkman’s new book on the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster is being released today. You can meet him at out Buena Vista Branch Library tomorrow night (Wednesday, January 6) at 7:00 p.m. when he will present an illustrated talk on his book, one that California state historian Kevin Starr is calling a “future classic of California historiography.” We will have the book available for sale at a generously discounted price (cash and checks only, please!).

Just before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, a recently built, 20-story-high concrete structure located 36 miles from Burbank near Saugus, in San Francisquito Canyon, suddenly collapsed, releasing 12 billion gallons of water it held back in the St. Francis Reservoir. The huge wall of water at its initial release was close to 140 feet high, and traveled at 18 miles an hour. It utterly destroyed the few residences, Edison’s camp, and Power Station 2 just below the damn, as it continued on a path of destruction for 54 miles until it reached the Pacific Ocean in Oxnard. The water coursed through the Santa Clara River Valley and caused massive destruction, particularly in the small towns of Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula. The water and force of the flood were responsible for nearly 29 million dollars in damage (nearly 400 million in 2015) and a loss of life that may have approached 600 people. An exact casualty count was not possible as not all bodies were recovered---some were washed out to sea, others buried under the silt---and there was not an exact census of how many people, including undocumented workers, were in the flood path at the time. The collapse of the dam made national headlines in newspapers across the country. It also ended the storied career of William Mulholland, the self-taught civil engineer who built the dam and was responsible for developing the water system that made it possible for Los Angeles to grow into the nation’s second- largest city.

Although this was the most catastrophic man-made disaster in America in the 20th Century, few people know about it today, not even those who live near where it happened as I found out when I visited the site. Those who heard about it know about it only vaguely, and often inaccurately. Wilkman offers interesting speculation on why this is so. He wants to tell this story because he believes in its historical importance as well as the enduring lessons it has to teach us. His most important challenge in trying to bring this event to life is the one that all chroniclers of large disasters face, whether it is a disaster unfolding or one that occurred long ago: We simply have trouble comprehending---for a variety of physical and psychological reasons---- something of this size. We try the view from far away, looking down from the mountaintop, the airplane, the helicopter, and it doesn’t fully sink in. We turn to the individual and personal stories of individuals caught up in the disaster, a connection of empathy that leaves us still longing for a broader comprehension. What is 12 billion gallons of water? How do we make the details as well as the aggregate real to us?

That is what sent me on a drive to San Francisquito Canyon late in the fall after reading Floodpath. The canyon was simply beautiful with its grey scrub and bright yellow-leaved cottonwoods, punctuated by the flat golds and rusts of the occasional California sycamore. As you climb the canyon you enter an iconic California woodland. I visited the rebuilt Power Station 2 and went up to Power Station 1 at the top of the canyon and looked into the cavernous basin below and tried to imagine all of the water that had been there. Where the wall of the dam used to stand I imagined the cold water pouring in the dark through the narrowed canyon below, and realized how there would have been no hope for anyone directly below the dam. I followed the path of the flood through the Santa Clara River Valley out to the sea. The story seems to goad your imagination, pressing it to do more as it finds a full realization of things just out of reach. That’s what makes this a compelling story, one that you just can’t seem to leave. 

William Mulholland and Harvey Van Norman inspect all that 
remains of the St. Francis Dam
This makes you appreciate what Wilkman has done in Floodpath. It is a story that catches you up in the many details and all the unknowns. You could spend, as Wilkman has, years researching every facet of this, getting caught up in every story within the story, and your first impulse would be to be to write a book 700 pages long, to follow every fascinating tangent down the trail. Wilkman has disciplined himself, has kept an eye on his quarry, and told us the story in fewer than 300 pages. And he has told it in a way that makes us feel the narrative has touched all the important aspects of the disaster. Maybe that editorial discipline is something that comes from being a documentary filmmaker, but I find it an extraordinary accomplishment in relation to the seductive and faceted nature of this subject matter.

There were many rumors, speculations, and harsh judgments surrounding the disaster. Wilkman defuses the more sensational ones, refuses to speculate on what cannot be answered, and is considered and balanced in his conclusions about individuals and events. Like any event large in scope, however much it might be confined to a narrow period of time, it is no easy matter to arrange seemingly simultaneous events in their proper sequence, and the apparently effortless weaving of the stories of individuals and their experiences---the interviews and first person accounts-- into a dramatic timeline is something that must have been meticulous and painstaking work. It is the centerpiece and most impressive part of Floodpath. What gives this story meaning, however, is the context that Wilkman has given to these events: the book’s carefully structured exploration of the California water wars that preceded the building of the dam; the coroner’s inquest that followed the disaster; the process of settling claims; the early investigative studies about the reasons for the failure; and the later geologic and civil engineering studies that resulted in more satisfying explanations of what happened. Giving “context” is necessary but it can also feel (in the hands of some writers) like a perfunctory exercise; in Floodpath, Wilkman has managed to make each of these subplots a matter of interest and understanding. He’s working on a documentary of the disaster, and if Floodpath is any indication, it’s going to be a film you won’t want to miss.

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