“The St. Francis Dam Disaster Revisited”
Historical Society of Southern California
Ventura County Museum of History and Art
The Arthur H. Clark Company, Spokane, Washington, 1995
Charles E Outland,
by Abraham Hoffman
THE TERM “LOCAL HISTORIAN” carries a slight pejorative stain about it. To some people it suggests parochialism, a musty antiquarian devotion to documenting every inch of a particular patch of ground with little distinction between the significant and the trivial. Of course, such impressions are unfair and inaccurate. In a positive sense, the local historian serves as a mason preparing the building blocks on which historical constructions are based. How often have readers been frustrated by a historian, writing in the grand manner, who fails to provide essential details? And how often do we wince at the generalizations and inaccuracies of a scholar who doesn’t bother to get the facts straight at the local level?
Local history may carry the elements needed to provide essential background in describing events of broader significance. It may also tell a fascinating story of people, places, and times past. In providing a sense of place, it anchors us as to where we are in helping to understand what was here before, and how time has changed the locality in which we now live. It may also serve as a caution for the future prospects of our locality as well.
Charles F. Outland was a local historian, a lifelong resident of Ventura County, California. Born in the town of Santa Paula on August 30, 1910, Outland was raised on a farm family, and he remembered boyhood trips with his father to town to get their horses shod. Outlanďs father would give him ten cents as spending money. “That was always an adventure,” he recalled. “You could get a lot for 10 cents in those days.” Charles went to local schools and then attended Whittier College. While a student at the college he became interested in flying and learned to fly in a Waco single-engine plane at Orange County’s Fullerton Airport. He never obtained a piloťs license. “You did not need one in those days,” he said.
After additional work at Boston University, Outland returned to Ventura County and in 1933 married Harriet Roberts. For the next three decades he worked as a successful rancher in the Santa Paula area, growing walnuts, lemons, and flowers, establishing a longtime connection with the Burpee Seed Company. He also became interested in local history and began collecting books and primary source materials on Ventura County. Meanwhile, his brother George became a political science professor at Santa Barbara State College (now University of California, Santa Barbara ) and served two terms in Congress.
Outlanďs career as a local historian went into high gear in the 1950s when he became actively involved in the affairs of the Ventura County Historical Society. He served two stints as a member of the society’s board of directors, from 1955 to 1964 and 1968 to 1971. Outland was the first editor of the Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly, holding that post for nine years. In addition, he served on the society’s publications committee and supervised the publication of the society’s first book, The Letters of José Señan, O.F.M., Mission San Buenaventura: 1796-1823. He also contributed twelve articles to the Quarterly, dealing with rare books on Ventura County and some of the notable events and people in the county’s history.
While Outland was writing his articles for the quarterly, he was also doing research for a series of books solidly grounded in Ventura County history. Between 1963 and 1975 he authored five books: Man-Made Disaster (1963) , Ho for California: The Faulkner Letters, 1875-1876 (1964), Mines, Murders & Grizzlies: Tales of California’s Ventura Back Country (1969), Stagecoaching on El Camino Real: Los Angeles to San Francisco, 1861-1901 (1973), and An Old Shoebox (1975). His books combined research and narrative skill, resulting in authoritative history that was fascinating to read. Although he was writing local history, his books captured a wide audience. When Mines, Murders & Grizzlies was published, Auriel Douglas, his editor at Ward Ritchie Press, noted that newspapers in Chicago and New York had requested review copies. “I’m not at all especially interested in Ventura – nor am I a great Western fan,” she admitted, “but having read the book twice in the course of duty I believe I’m qualified to evaluate it and frankly I find it absolutely delightful.”
Man-Made Disaster, Outlanďs first book, clearly indicated the
importance of local history when placed in a larger context. Written
in 1963 and revised in 1977, the book carried a weighty subtitle: The
Story of St. Francis Dam, its place in Southern California’s water system, its failure and the tragedy of March 12 and 13, 1928, in the Santa
Clara River Valley. The book dealt with far more than the failure of a storage dam; it described the aggressive water plans of William Mulholland and the City of Los Angeles as the city fought for and won its connection via aqueduct to the Owens River, 230 miles to the north.
As Los Angeles triumphed over the residents of Owens Valley in
securing water rights and constructing the aqueduct, the city
annexed huge chunks of adjacent communities that needed a reliable water supply to survive – though survival meant surrendering to the growing metropolis of Los Angeles. To guard against possible future water shortages, Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, embarked on a program of constructing dams to create reservoirs. One of these, the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, was begun in 1924 and completed in 1926.
Outlanďs research uncovered many forebodings of disaster concerning the dam. Scrupulously fair in his study, Outland noted, ‘These criticisms cannot be regarded as unique or a true portent of trouble. It is doubtful if any concrete dam has escaped this same kind of gossip that befell St. Francis, and the reason is not hard to find. It originates in a general ignorance of the fact that to some extent, cracks appear in all concrete, and that all dams have measurable seepage.”
The existence of the dam invited residents to joke about it as black comedy, and Outland described a number of examples of mordant humor. One man said to another at a Saugus cafe, “Well, goodbye Ed, I will see you again if the dam don’t break.” This in early March. On March 10 Chester Smith and assistant dam keeper Jack Ely exchanged pleasantries at the dam. Smith jokingly asked “Ely, what are you sons-of-guns going to do here, going to flood us out down below?” Ely replied in mock seriousness, “We expect this dam to break any minute!”
In his research Outland did not come across the prediction by Frederick Finkle that the St. Francis Dam would fail. Finkle, an electrical engineer, had long been on record against the city’s construction of the aqueduct, and he had served as a constant gadfly irritating the LADWP. When it came to the St. Francis Dam, he opposed locating the dam at the chosen site. In a report to the Santa Monica Anti-Annexation Committee, Finkle said that if the dam were “kept full for any length of time” it would “unquestionably fail.”
The dam’s failure just before midnight on March 12, 1928, resulted in the second worst tragedy in California history, exceeded only by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in the number of lives lost. In the preface to the book Outland noted that the earthquake “was an Act of God, while the second can properly be termed an Act of Man.” He also observed that whereas the San Francisco earthquake is well known, the St. Francis Dam tragedy “has been allowed to decay into historical wreckage as shattered as the ill-fated dam itself.” Outlanďs goal was to place the tragedy in historical context, to do so with the best investigative research he could bring to the topic.
Chapters XII and XIII oí Man-Made Disaster examined the various theories as to why the dam failed. Some half dozen commissions were appointed by various government entities to determine the causes of the dam failure. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, California Railroad Commission, and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors all retained engineers to come up with reasons for the disaster. Even Governor George W. P. Hunt of Arizona sent an investigator, though Outland observed that Hunťs action was politically motivated. After viewing the conclusions of the various commissions, Outland himself concluded that the dam’s failure began with a break at the east abutment caused by “a huge slide action with a mighty lateral thrust that carried away those portions of the dam nearest the mountain.” And at the end of the book he accepted Mulhollanďs confession of guilt, quoting his words at the Los Angeles Coroner’s Inquest: “Don’t blame anybody else, you just fasten it on me,” said Mulholland. “If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human.”
Outland wanted to be sure that his manuscript was as free as possible from historical inaccuracies. He provided a copy to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials to have it checked for any factual errors. He was particularly interested in obtaining as accurate a figure as possible on the total number of dead and missing. “Mr. Outland has showed every evidence of wishing to be factual and objective in his coverage,” noted one official, “recognizing the possibility of his emotional coloring of the information by reason of his long residence in Santa Paula and personal recollections of the horror of the flood in his community.” The DWP made several suggestions which he accepted. Outland, of course, reserved issues of judgment for himself. The Arthur H. Clark Company accepted Outlanďs manuscript for inclusion as Volume III of its Western Lands and Water Series. On its publication Man-Made Disaster received lengthy reviews in the California historical journals and a good number of California newspapers. Two reviews in particular generated considerable discussion because of the people chosen to read and review the book. The reviewers for the California Historical Society Quarterly, the publication of the California Historical Society, and Southern California Quarterly, published by the Historical Society of Southern California, had both been involved in the efforts to compensate the Ventura County victims of the disaster.
Peirson Hall, a Federal District Court judge, was a member of the Los Angeles City Council at the time of the tragedy. Writing in California Historical Society Quarterly, Hall stated that Outland “has indeed done a remarkable job in his book describing the need for the dam, the building of it, its destruction, and the investigations which followed the failure of the dam. It has taken a prodigious amount of digging among old records and newspaper reports.” Hall focused on the third section of the book, dealing with the city’s efforts to help clean up, rehabilitate, and pay all victim claims. He pointed out that as a member of the Los Angeles City Council, he and his fellow Council member, Douglas Foster, had convinced City Attorney Jess Stephens to change his mind about whether the city could or should pay out any money until the legal liability for the dam was established. Hall also expressed his own opinion that the dam had been dynamited, “but I think whoever did it, perished in the flood.”
Former Municipal Court Judge Lucius P. Green, reviewing the book in Southern California Quarterly, also took the opportunity to present his own recollections of the disaster. “This book presents a lively and highly interesting account by description and photography of the apprehension and fears felt by many for the safety of the dam, by accounts from the few survivors immediately following its collapse, and speculation as to the cause of the dam’s failure.”
Having made this positive statement, Green proceeded to devote the remainder of the review to severe criticism of Chapter XI, as Hal had done in his review, but with quite different conclusions. Green had served in 1928 as First Assistant City Attorney to City Attorney Stephens. Picking at minor points in the book, Green argued that the City Attorney’s office did not need to be persuaded by anyone (Hall claimed that Stephens was informed by William С Mathes, then a young attorney living in Councilman Foster’s apartment building, of the legal statute by which the city could pay out claims, “sufficient to convince the city attorney to change his mind”) . According to Green, the problem was presented “to Stephens and his staff for solution and they provided the answers.” He made much of Outland’s description of the work of the Committee of Fourteen, a joint effort of the City of Los Angeles and Ventura County to settle claims and investigate the causes of the disaster, by stating that the two committees were independent entities and that no Committee of Fourteen had ever existed by that name.
Green also expressed his own views on the cause of the dam failure, arguing in favor of evidence presented by the plaintiffs at the one lawsuit that went to a jury. This was the theory that water seepage had produced extreme stresses on the dam’s foundation.
Outand was an outspoken person, and he did not take Judge Green’s criticisms passively. He fired off a seven-page, single-space typewritten letter to his publisher, Arthur H. Clark, Jr., delineating the shortcomings of Green’s review. To Green’s denial of the existence of the “Committee of Fourteen,” Outland asserted, “At no place in his ‘review’ does Mr. Green make a more glaring misstatement of the facts than when he says there was no Committee of Fourteen or Joint Reparations Committee as such, and that all decisions were made by Los Angeles.” He pointed out that Ventura County would hardly stand by passively while Los Angeles made all the decisions. “Mr. [Charles C] Teague, the fine group of men that assisted him, and the people of the Santa Clara Valley were not pawns that could be pushed around by the potentates, legal or otherwise, of the City of Los Angeles.” And on he went for another six pages.
Art Clark agreed with the points raised by Outland but advised him that if he wanted to write a rebuttal letter to Green’s review, he should condense his arguments to no more than 500 words or so. Outland managed to boil down his criticisms to three and a half pages, but Doyce Nunis, editor of Southern California Quarterly, declined to print the rebuttal as a matter of editorial policy. Nunis instead offered to forward a copy of Outland’s letter to Judge Green or else for Outland to write Green personally. Apparently Outland decided not to bother, but he did write to Peirson Hall expressing his appreciation of the positive review in California Historical Society Quarterly. The lengthy letters exchanged between Outland and Clark, and between Outland and Hall, indicate that much more remained to be discussed and investigated regarding the failure of the St. Francis Dam.
It was in a sense unfortunate that Man-Made Disaster was reviewed in the state’s two major historical journals by men who felt the need to state their own involvement and viewpoints rather than give the book a more objective evaluation. Historians of California history gave a more dispassionate analysis and generally had positive comments. Professor John E. Baur, writing in the Journal of American History, observed, “Readers will find this work both an unusual bypath of western history and a new dimension of California’s story, for this incident was southern California’s worst disaster. They will agree with the author that the evidence is in many ways unsatisfactory, though this is by far the best account, and probably the only possible one, after thirty-six years.”
Richard D. Batman agreed with Baur’s favorable review. “As a result of Outlanďs careful use of all available sources, plus his ability to write clearly on both a narrative and technical level, this work stands as magnificent contribution to California history,” he wrote in Journal of the West. And John W. Caughey, considered the dean among California historians, noted that thirty-five years had to pass before “we had anything that would pass for a thorough study of this dam, its collapse, and the horror thus unleashed. Charles Outland of Santa Paula is the historian…”
Green’s criticism’s were an exception to the generally favorable reviews of Man-Made Disaster. The book became an instant and authoritative classic, the major work on the subject, and no competitors to say otherwise. Outland, however, was unsatisfied. Green had proved him incorrect in his stating that no lawsuits had been filed against Los Angeles, and Outland himself had been frustrated by the unavailability of critical research materials. The publication of Man-Made Disaster, however, resulted in both a dividend and a challenge for Outland. Suddenly people who had remained silent since the tragedy expressed a willingness to share their knowledge. Untapped sources now became available. Outland realized that he had a new job on his hand: to revise his book and include the new sources of information.
Meanwhile, Outland was working on several other projects. His edition of the letters of George and Roda Faulkner, Ho for California: The Faulkner Letters, 1875-1876, was published in a limited edition of 150 copies by the Arthur H. Clark Company. Another major contribution, Mines, Murders and Grizzlies, came out in 1969 as a joint publication of the Ward Ritchie Press and the Ventura County Historical Society. In 1973, Outlanďs Stagecoaching on El Camino Real was published as the ninth volume in the Clark Company’s American Trail Series, and in 1975 An Old Shoebox was published.
During this time Outland was also working on his revision of Man-Made Disaster. To make time for his projects, he resigned from the editorial committee of the Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly which he had headed since 1955. “The Officers and Directors of the Society expressed their appreciation of Mr. Outlanďs nine years of work which has made the Quarterly such a success,” ran the editorial note in the Quarterly’s May 1964 issue. He did come back in October 1968 for another stint on the editorial board which lasted three years.
Outlanďs revision of the book was finally published in 1977, in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the failure of the St. Francis Dam. By then the 1963 edition was long out of print. Most of the 1977 edition remained unchanged as far as the basic story line went. Outland added material, and in some instances eliminated a paragraph here and there, but the overall effect was an enhanced version rather than a revised book. Outland took the opportunity of the new edition “to correct the few errors committed in the first edition and to offer more definitive account of the tragedy, although it is suggested here that a definitive account in the true sense of that word will never be entirely possible.”
Without naming Green, Outland admitted the error of saying that no lawsuit ever went to a jury. “The writer apologizes for the mistake but refuses to blush, in view of the fact that the four-page review [in Southern California Quarterly] contained a number of errors.” Outland thus had his revenge against the sole negative review of the first edition. He also expressed his appreciation to Peirson Hall not only for Hall’s analytical review but for the lengthy letter Hall had sent Manuel Servin, editor of California Historical Society Quarterly, a copy of which had been given to Outland. Outland quoted extensively from this letter in Chapter XII.
The main revisions and additions to the book came in Chapter VII, in adding new eyewitness descriptions of the terrible path of the flood, and in Chapter XI, “Investigating the Failure,” and Chapter XIII, “A Gathering of Clues.” Essentially Outland retained his original conclusions, buttressed now by documentation lacking for the earlier edition. He dismissed the idea of sabotage, a view held by Mulholland and others that the dam might have been dynamited, though he blamed city officials for covering up many of the details surrounding the city’s response to the dam’s failure. His conclusions on how and why the dam failed remained substantially the same. Outland added an epilogue, “Some Pregnant Questions,” which more than anything else indicated that questions of causes, blame, and inconsistent descriptions might forever remain open minded. These included speculations on possibly biased testimony, retracted statements, possible intimidation, perhaps even bribery. But at this point Outland implied that his investigation into the disaster had gone about as far as it could go, until such time in the future as documents held by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power might be made available.
The appearance of a new edition of Man-Made Disaster generated another round of reviews, these all generally favorable. William Kahrl in California History expressed frustration at Outland’s handling of the sabotage question but said the book “makes for exciting reading and the best kind of revelatory history.” R Coke Wood in Pacific Historian called it “a fascinating book even though tragic, and should be read by everyone interested in California history.” F. Ross Peterson in Western Historical Quarterly observed, “It is a significant addition to the historiography of both dams and disasters.” David Cummings, a geology professor at Occidental College, supplied a geological and engineering opinion for the Bulletin of the Association of Engineering Geologist ‘This classic book should be read by
every engineering geologist and civil engineer,”he said. “It is a careful exposition of a disaster that might have been averted.”
Man-Made Disaster was now solidly set as required reading for every student of California history. Local newspapers also publicized the new edition, and the Santa Clarita Historical Society made plans for the fiftieth anniversary observance of the tragedy, including the dedication of a marker at the dam site. Ironically, nature took a hand in preventing the ceremony as a major rain storm made it impossible for the observance to be held on the anniversary date.
With Man-Made Disaster finally completed, Outland set to work on a revised edition of Mines, Murders and Grizzlies, published in 1986,and Sespe Gunsmoke, an investigation into the murder of Ventura County rancher Thomas W. More in 1877, a book that would be published posthumously.
Throughout his writing career Outland maintained an active interest in Ventura County history through his work in the historical society publications and promotion of local history in county schools, museums, and libraries. He served as a member of the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board, and in 1984 the Ventura County Board of Supervisors named him the county’s official historian. In 1980 the American Association for State and Local History honored him with a Certificate of Commendation for his “historical contributions to the history of Ventura County.”
Outland also presented materials and books he had collected to the Ventura County and City Library as the Charles Outland Collection. In what surely was a labor of love, he indexed the Ventura County newspapers for the years 1871-1915.27 His interest in history extended beyond the borders of his beloved county, as for many years he was a corresponding member of the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners, presenting a lecture to the Corral in January 1960 on his research into the St. Francis Dam failure. “Mr. Outland, a rancher of Santa Paula, lived through the disaster, and was able to give a rare and intimate glimpse of the monstrous tragedy which Los Angeles City would do anything to forget,” reported Branding Iron, the Corral’s publication. “His exhaustive study of the affair was quickly indicated in his informative and interesting paper, and the illustrative slides which accompanied the lecture made the whole subject come to life. As indicative of the deep interest of his audience, Mr. Outland was kept overtime by an almost continuous barrage of questions.” In addition, Outland contributed “Some Ventura County Rarities” to the March 1966 issue oí Branding Iron. He assessed rare books dealing with Ventura County’s history, calling for “a formal listing and noting of her bibliographical heritage,” justified by the county’s continuing growth.
Outland died on March 21, 1988, at age seventy-seven. His interest in local history remained vital to the end as he was putting the finishing touches on Sespe Gunsmoke, published jointly by the Arthur H . Clark Company and the Ventura County Historical Society in 1991. One reviewer called it “a fitting capstone to his 40 years of research into local history.”
Charles E Outland devoted himself to local history – the people and events of Ventura County. Yet his work is read and enjoyed for the quality of his storytelling, his insight and dedication to the pursuit of that most elusive of truths, historical fact. Perhaps it is fitting to conclude this essay with an observation made by Auriel Douglas, Outlanďs editor on Mines, Murders, & Grizzlies: “You wouldn’t feel that Memoirs of Hecate County should sell only in Hecate County, would you?”
Bibliography of Outland Books and Articles
Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St. Francis Dam, Its Place in Southern California’s Water System, Its Failure and the Tragedy of March 12 and 13, 1928, in the Santa Clara River Valley. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1963. Revised edition, 1977.
Ho for California: The Faulkner Letters, 1875-1876. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1964.
Mines, Murders and Grizzlies: Tales of California’s Ventura Back Country. Los Angeles: Anderson, Ritchie, and Simon, 1969. Revised edition 1986, Arthur H. Clark Company and the Ventura County Historical Society.
Stagecoaching on El Camino Real: Los Angeles to San Francisco, 1861-1901. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1973.
An Old Shoebox: The Story of a Discovery of a Drawing by Charles M.
Russell. Pasadena: Grant Dahlstrom, 1975
Sespe Gunsmoke: An Epic Case of Rancher versus Squatters. Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Company and Ventura County Museum of History & Art, 1991.
“Bibliography.” VCHSQ, 1 (November 1955) ,7.
“The Works of Dr. CephasL Bard.” VCHSQ, 1 (February 1956),
“The County Histories.”FC#S£, 1 (May 1956), 17.
“The Silliman Report.” VCHSQ, 1 (August 1956) , 16.
“Early Promotional Publications. “VCHSQ, 2 (November 1956) ,
“The Saticoy Regulators .”VCHSQ, 2 (August 1957) , 13-16.
“Privately Printed Books and Pamphlets.” VCHSQ, 2 (August
“Dr. Stephen Bowers, Controversialist.” VCHSQ, 4 (November
“Historic Water Diversion Proposals.” VCHSQ, 5 (August 1960),
“San Buenaventura Justice, 1870-1871.” VCHSQ, 7 (November
‘Some Ventura County Rarities.” Branding Iron, No. 76 (March
“Fremont Slept Where?” Journal of the West, 5 July 1966) , 410-416.
“The life and Times of Joe Dye: Southern California Gunfighter.”
VCHSQ, 30 (Fall 1984), 3-30.
“Gunsmoke on Central Avenue: The Mason-Bradfield-George
Hendley Shooting.” VCHSQ, 30 (Spring 1985), 3-20.