Home » From Privilege and Responsibility to Heavy Ground: Donald C. Jackson/Norris Hundley Jr.

Norris Hundley Jr. (1935–2013)

Norris Hundley Jr.

Born in Texas, Norris Hundley soon moved west to become a longtime resident of Southern California, receiving a BA from Mt. San Antonio College and a Ph.D. from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1964 he joined the UCLA History Department, where he became a leading scholar in the history of the American West and helped create the nascent field of Western Water History. During his career at UCLA, he also served for twenty-nine years as editor of the Pacific Historical Review. His first book, Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy Between the United States and Mexico (1966), focused on the dispute between Mexico and the United States over rights to the Rio Grande and to the Colorado River. Then came Water and the West: The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West (1975), his landmark investigation of Colorado River development, focused on the most important watercourse in the arid Southwest. His “Water Trilogy” culminated with The Great Thirst: Californians and Water, 1770s–1990s (1992), a volume that gave stature to the study of water as a driving force in California’s political economy.

After retiring from UCLA in 1994—and moving up the coast to Santa Barbara—Hundley served as president of both the Western History Association and the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. Always interested in issues involving western water history, in 2001, he began working with fellow water historian Donald C. Jackson on research into the history of the St. Francis Dam Disaster and William Mulholland.

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Donald C. Jackson (1953– )

Donald C. Jackson

Born in Newport, Rhode Island, while his father was stationed at the Naval War College, Donald C. Jackson lived in many places before receiving a BS in Engineering from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, he worked for the Historic American Engineering Record, a part of the National Park Service focused on engineering and technological history, where he first became interested in the history of Western dam building and particularly in the history of multiple arch dams.

In 1989 he joined the History Department at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he is presently the Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History.

A “dam historian” of long-standing, Jackson’s books include Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West (1995); Big Dams of the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics (2006, co-authored with David P. Billington); and Pastoral and Monumental: Dams, Postcards, and the American Landscape (2013).

In 1994, his article “Engineering in the Progressive Era: A New Look at Frederick Haynes Newell and the U.S. Reclamation Service” was awarded the Ray Allen Billington Prize by the Western History Association, and in 2010, his article “Structural Art: John S. Eastwood and the Multiple Arch Dam” was awarded the Overseas Prize by the London-based Institution of Civil Engineers.

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The Hundley/Jackson Alliance

In the late 1990s, Jackson became interested in the St. Francis Dam and specifically in questions related to how its design compared with other large-scale gravity dams built in the teens and 1920s. Issues involving how “uplift” forces can act to destabilize dams had been of considerable importance in his prior work investigating multiple arch buttress dams and, to his mind, William Mulholland’s St. Francis Dam design fell well short of many contemporary concrete gravity dams in terms of addressing the dangers posed by “uplift” forces.

Collaborating with longtime colleague Norris Hundley, their conjoined research spawned the article “Privilege and Responsibility: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster,” published in the journal California History in 2004. Following the article’s publication, Hundley suggested that the partnership continue to write a history of the St. Francis Dam disaster that, while including evidence of design deficiencies, would offer a broader perspective, both in terms of the career of William Mulholland and in terms of how the disaster impacted the Santa Clara Valley and how reparations were made by the City of Los Angles to victims and their families.  Also, care would be taken to analyze how post-disaster investigations of the dam collapse were related to concerns that the St. Francis disaster might derail passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act and impede Congressional authorization of what would become Hoover Dam.

Although Hundley passed away in April 2013, the Jackson/Hundley scholarly alliance endured, bearing fruit in late 2015 with the publication of Heavy Ground: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster. The book was subsequently awarded the 2017 Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology, where it was honored for displaying “exceptional scholarship” in the field of the history of technology while also reaching for readers “beyond the academy.”

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