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On March 12, 1928 one of the worst civil engineering disasters of the 20th century
occurred suddenly and with little warning. The St. Francis Dam, located 64 km (40
miles) northwest of Los Angeles, California, failed unexpectedly, releasing 47 million
cubic meters (12.5 billion gallons) of water into San Francisquito Canyon. The result
was devastating, taking the lives of over 400 people and leaving a wake of
The St. Francis Dam was designed and constructed by a self-taught and
prominent engineer, William Mulholland. The Dam was initially designed as a
stepped concrete gravity arch on a 152 m (500ft) radius, with an initial design height
of 53 m (175 ft) from the floor of the canyon. The resulting reservoir capacity would
be approximately 38 million cubic meters (30,000 acre-ft) of water. After several
uncalculated design modifications to the height of the dam occurred during
construction, the final dam height was 59 m (195 ft) with a reservoir capacity of 47
million cubic meters (38,168 acre-ft). Construction of the dam began in the spring of
1924 and concluded in 1926. However, the life of the dam was short as it failed only
two years after completion.
Though a definitive cause for the failure was never determined, various
theories have been proposed during the nearly 80 years since the disaster. With such
theories as sabotage, geology, and poor construction, a variety of reasons for the
failure have been investigated. It was concluded that whether or not the failure was
entirely due to the geology of the site, the location in which the St. Francis Dam was
situated was unsuitable for this type of structure. The varying geology between the
two canyon walls and the inconsistent and unstable properties of the rock were
unacceptable for a dam foundation.
Not only was the geology of the site in question, the design and construction
techniques also came into view after the disaster. The failure to incorporate essential
dam safety features into the design might have resulted in the collapse. A lack of
uplift relief and expansion joints, along with drastic modifications of the dam during
construction might have contributed to the demise of the St. Francis Dam. Without
an outside source to verify the design as well as corroborate the design with the as-
built structure, it is not clear as to whether the mistakes and decisions made by
Mulholland would have been altered to provide stable dam design.

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned from the St. Francis Dam failure brought about several changes
in the way future dams were to be designed. Extensive geological surveys of
potential dam sites became an integral part of the design process. Uplift acting on the
dam base became a major design consideration resulting in deeper foundations and
seepage prevention. New laws were enacted by California that required any proposed
dam design to be evaluated by an independent review panel before construction
would be allowed.


Outland, Charles F. (2002). Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St. Francis Dam,
Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.
Rogers, David J. (1995). A Man, A Dam and A Disaster: Mulholland and the St.
Francis Dam, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Spokane, WA.
Shepherd, R. (2003). “The St. Francis Dam Failure,” Proceedings of the Third
Forensic Engineering Congress, ASCE Press, Reston, VA.