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Mach Ryan Pactol

Jay Ian Gerona

Shannen Dorothy Martir
Victor Arlan
Shayne Avila
James Rapliza

“The Worst American Civil Engineering Disaster of the 20th Century”
St. Francis Dam was a curved concrete
gravity dam constructed in order to create a
large regulating and storage reservoir for the
Los Angeles Aqueduct system. It was
designed and built between 1924-1926 by
the Bureau of Water Works and Supply under
the supervision of the organization's chief
engineer William Mulholland.
At 11:57 p.m. on March 12, 1928, the dam
catastrophically failed, and the resulting flood took the
lives of what is estimated to be at least 431 people.
The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is considered to be
one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of
the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of
life in California's history, after the 1906 San Francisco
earthquake and fire. The disaster marked the end of
Mulholland's career.
Prior to the design and construction of the St. Francis
Dam, Mulholland had only participated in the design of
one other concrete gravity dam. Which was named in his
honor. Mulholland dam is a curved concrete gravity dam
with similar height to the St. Francis dam, constructed
between 1923-1925. William Mulholland ‘s experience in
concrete dam design, however, was lacking.
Although his experience resided primarily in the design
of embankment dams, Mulholland still proposed that a
concrete gravity dam would be the proper structure for
the canyon terrain across which St. Francis would be built.
Multiple instances of poor judgement by Mulholland
and several of his subordinates significantly contributed
to the cause of the failure of St. Francis Dam.
The Plans for the dam were based upon those
previously prepared by Mulholland for the Mulholland
Dam with little regard for site-specific investigations.
When the plans were finalized and after the
construction began, the height of the dam was raised by
ten feet on two separate occasions in order to provide
additional reservoir storage needed to sustain the
growing community surrounding the dam.
Despite of the changes made in the dam’s height
which was increased by 20 ft. from its original plan, NO
changes were made to its base width. As a result, the
intended safety margin for structural stability decreased
St. Francis Dam failed at Midnight on March 12-13,
1928 only 12 hours after its last inspection by Mulholland.
For a considerable period leading up to the last
inspection, leaking cracks were observed within the main
dam and at its abutments which were dismissed as
conditions typical of the dam type.
Upon investigating the cause of failure, it was clear
that the proposed St. Francis Dam design was not
reviewed by any independent party. It was also clear
that it was designed to prevent small foundation stresses
only and not accommodate full uplift.
Also upon investigating, it was estimated that the
design exhibited a safety factor less than one while
Mulholland claimed it was designed using a safety factor
of four.
More thorough investigations assign the ultimate
failure mode to weakening of the left abutment
foundation rock due to the saturated condition created
by the reservoir which essentially reactivated a large
landslide. Which also leads to the failure of the dam’s left
In quick succession as catastrophic failure was
occurring at the left end, the maximum height section
tilted and rotated which destabilized the right end of the
main dam causing catastrophic failure at the right end as
well. The incident marked the end of Mulholland’s career.
Mulholland’s subordinates
designed the two concrete
dams using the methods then

Hazard in use which ignored FORMAL

UPLIFT beneath the dam and
assumed the concrete to be
impermeable (not allowing
fluid to pass through).
Early on the day, dam
keeper Tony Harnischfeger,
Hazard accompanied, carried out his
routine inspection. He
noticed muddy water that
appeared to be coming from
a crack at the bottom of the
dam. Fearing that this muddy
water could be coming from
the dam foundation, he
called lead engineer William
Mulholland to express his
Hazard The city’s concrete dam designs
were relatively crude (primitive), in
that they LACKED grout curtains,
grouted contraction joints, internal
drains, or inspection galleries. There
also was no engineering geologic
input regarding the suitability of
the foundations or abutments for
such high structures.
Mulholland arrived with Harvey van Norman, his assistant
engineer on the project, but after examination decided
that the water was being muddied by the soil from a new
access road, and was not concerned.
Dan Mathews, the maintenance engineer at hydropower
generating house No. 2. He also had discovered muddy
water, although this time it appeared to be coming from
underneath the dam and running by the powerhouse.
Again after inspection of this new leak, Mulholland,
although showing concern, decided that there was no
need for alarm.
A mere twelve hours later, a few minutes before midnight,
the dam failed, creating a huge wave of water estimated
at 125 feet high that swept down the valleys toward the
The dam failed catastrophically
Severity just before midnight on March 12,
1928, with 12 billion gallons of water
killing nearly 450 people. A dozen
panels were appointed to investigate
the failure by various agencies and
interested parties. They pointed to the
dam’s inadequate foundation as the
culprit- specifically, the tendency of
the Vaqueros formation to slake
profusely upon saturation, and
alleged hydraulic piping of this
material along the San Francis.

Overturned railroad tracks Debris and overturned cars Damaged pecan fields
Check the site thoroughly and the stability of the
dam foundation.

Geological features must be considered during dam

A fully coordinated team of structural, material, and
geotechnical engineers, geologists, and hydrological and
hydraulic engineers should ensure that all engineering
and geological considerations are properly integrated
into the overall design.
Design should be checked by an
independent party.

To avoid bias of the project.

Use the right materials for the dam.

The design of concrete dams involves consideration of

various construction materials during the investigations
Construction materials include fine and coarse
aggregates, cementitious materials, water for washing
aggregates, mixing, curing of concrete, and chemical
Analyze the stresses of the main dam.

A concrete dam requires a sound bedrock foundation. It

is important that the bedrock have adequate shear
strength and bearing capacity to meet the necessary
stability requirements
Install instrumentations to measure & confirm the validity
of uplift pressure assumptions.
Expect expansions.

The dam should be expected to expand in a few years

since the demand would increase exponentially thru time,
hence, making its base width wider in the first place is
effective and efficient.
Modifications during construction are costly and should
be avoided if possible.
Be a good judge as an engineer.

Listen to your instincts.