Coroner’s Jury in the Inquest of Victims of the St. Francis Dam Disaster (1928)
Inquest convened by Los Angeles County Coroner Frank A. Nance to investigate the failure of the St. Francis Dam. The jurors included Los Angeles hydraulics engineer Irving C. Harris, real estate appraiser Harry G. Holabird, contractor William H. Eaton, Jr. (nephew of former Los Angeles Mayor and City Engineer Fred Eaton), mining/petroleum engineer Sterling C. Lines (a close friend of Coroner Frank Nance), Oliver G. Bowen, architect and structural engineer Blaine Noice, Chester D. Waltz, civil engineer/insurance agency owner Ralph F. Ware, and Z. Nathaniel Nelson. The Jurors were taken on a field trip to the St. Francis Dam site on Friday March 23, 1928 to familiarize themselves with the site. Public testimony commenced on Monday March 26th, and continued for almost a month thereafter.
Although none of the Jurors appears to have had any formal expertise in geology or foundation engineering, they possessed considerable technical training in civil engineering and heavy construction, which is revealed in their recommendations and findings, which reveal considerable engineering judgment and statements of timeless wisdom. Waltz, Bowen, and Noice, became founding members of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California (SEAOSC) in 1932, while Noice and Bowen were appointed to the Joint Technical Committee on Earthquake Protection following the 1933 Long Beach earthquake (summarized below).
District Attorney’s Fact-Finding Commission to investigate the failure of the St. Francis Dam (1928)
Fact Finding Commission assembled by Los Angeles County District Attorney Asa Keyes a few days after the St. Francis Dam failure on March 13, 1928 to prepare a report and testify at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Inquest. The commission was comprised of three engineers and two geologists: Edward L. Mayberry, architect and structural engineer was the chairman, Walter G. Clark, consulting engineer, Charles T. Leeds, of Leeds and Barnhard Consulting Engineers, Los Angeles, Allen E. Sedgwick, Professor of Geology at USC, assisted by consulting geologist Louis Z. Johnson.
Their report was submitted to the DA’s office on April 4, 1928 and was tilted: “Report to Mr. Asa Keyes. District Attorney, Los Angeles County, California, on the Failure of the St. Francis Dam.” Their report assuaged that reservoir water percolating along the old fault in the dam’s right abutment softened the arkosic sandstone sufficiently to remove the material via hydraulic piping. Mayberry began testifying on April 4th, followed by Clark, Sedgwick, Johnson, and Leeds, during the first two weeks of April 1928.
Report on Failure of the St. Francis Dam to the Board of Water & Power Commissioners (1928)
Investigative board appoint by the Los Angeles Board of Water & Power Commissioners to investigate and report upon the most likely causes of the failure of the St. Francis Dam. The board was comprised of civil engineer Louis C. Hill of Quentin, Code & Hill of Los Angeles, Stanford geology Professor C. F. Tolman, and Los Angeles consulting engineer D. W. Murphy, former hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation’s regional office in Los Angeles. This panel was one of the first to have access to the post-failure triangulation surveys of the remaining portions of the dam, which showed that the wing dike had lifted 0.285 feet since the dam was constructed (because of swelling of the underlying gypsiferous arkose). Their findings were summarized in “Report on the Failure of the St. Francis Dam on March 12, 1928,” dated April 12, 1928.
Committee Appointed by the Los Angeles City Council to Investigate and Report the Cause of the Failure of the St. Francis Dam – the Mead Report (1928)
On March 16, 1928 the Water & Power Committee of the Los Angeles City Council, led by councilman Pierson M. Hall, passed a resolution calling for an independent investigation of the causes of the failure of the St. Francis Dam on March 13, 1928, naming Dr. Elwood Mead, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Washington, DC to serve as the committee’s chairman. The resolution called for two other members to be nominated by the American Society of Civil Engineers. On March 23rd the other members of the committee were announced: Louis C. Hill of Quentin, Code, and Hill Consulting Engineers of Los Angeles (and formerly employed by the U.S. Reclamation Service) and Major General Lansing H. Beach, retired Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers from 1920-24 (who lived in Pasadena). Beach was known in southern California, having previously authored a Report from the Harbor Commission to the Orange County Board of Supervisors in July 1926.
The three man committee also engaged the services of the County’s permanent Board of Consulting Engineers, comprised of: David C. Henny, consulting engineer of Portland (formerly employed by the U.S. Reclamation Service) and Raymond F. Walter, Chief Engineer of the US Bureau of Reclamation in Denver (already charged with making an independent investigation for the federal government), and consulting engineer J. B. Lippincott of Los Angeles, former Assistant Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. They were asked to “join it in its investigations and to take advantage of their experience in the discussions.” The committee also solicited an independent input regarding possible earthquake activity on the night of the dam failure from Caltech Geology Professor F. Leslie Ransome and Harry O. Wood, Chief Scientist at the Seismological Laboratory of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, also at Caltech in Pasadena. Mead, Walter, Hill, and Henny were all later involved with the design and construction of the Boulder Canyon Project, between 1929-35.
This body prepared a typed report issued on March 31, 1928, entitled: “Report of Committee Appointed by the City Council of Los Angeles to Investigate and Report the Cause of the failure of the St. Francis Dam,” signed by all five men. It was referred to as the “Mead Report” in newspaper accounts of the time. The committee concluded that the dam’s concrete was not at fault, nor that movements of the Earth’s crust were involved; but that the dam possessed insufficient dimensions to withstand the loads imposed and failed as a result of defective foundations. The Mead Report contained the highest quality photographic images, but only a handful of copies were made.
Committee of Engineers & Geologists to Assess Mulholland Dam (1928)
In the wake of the untimely failure of the St. Francis Dam, on May 11, 1928 the Los Angeles Board of Water & Power Commissioners appointed an independent panel to evaluate the safety of Mulholland Dam in the Hollywood Hills, because its design was almost identical to that of St. Francis, although it was completed a year before St. Francis. This committee was comprised of: Chairman Louis C. Hill (of Quentin, Code, and Hill of Los Angeles), R. E. McDonnell (of Burns-McDonnell in Kansas City), and geologist Robert T. Hill of Dallas, retired from the U.S. Geological Survey. They reviewed cores taken through the dam and its foundations. Finding a tight seal between the concrete and the sandstone supporting the structure, they concluded in the report of July 24th that the dam was safe, even under conditions of “full uplift.” They recommended that at least 4,500 ac-ft of storage be maintained in the reservoir, for domestic use and fire protection.
City of Los Angeles Dam Safety Review Panel (1928)
In the wake of the St. Francis Dam failure, in April 1928 the Los Angeles City Council named a committee of independent experts to make a preliminary evaluation of the 29 dams operated by the City’s Bureau of Waterworks & Supply. This committee was comprised of: consulting engineers A. J. Wiley of Boise, Idaho, Charles H. Paul former Chief Eng’r of the Miami Conservancy District of Dayton, Ohio, and F. C. Herrmann, former Chief Engineer of the Spring Valley Water Co of San Francisco. The committee was aided by Caltech Geology Professor F. Leslie Ransome and former USGS geologist Robert T. Hill, to provide their geologic expertise. The committee’s report was submitted on July 23rd, concluding that the city’s dams appeared to be of adequate quality to withstand imposed loads, even Mulholland Dam, which they opined could withstand the “strongest seismic shock,” capable of leveling Los Angeles or Pasadena.
Board of Consultants to Examine the San Gabriel High Dam (1929)
At 425 feet high, the San Gabriel High Dam, also referred to as the San Gabriel Dam at the Forks Site, would have been both the highest and largest curved concrete gravity dam in the world. It was designed by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District as their kingpin structure, along the San Gabriel River about 9 miles above Azusa. Bids were advertised in November 1928 and a $12 million contract was awarded the flowing month, supplanted by $13 million in materials and site improvements provided by the County, for a total project cost of $25 million (all figure more than 10 times those of the ill-fate St. Francis dam, which had failed 8 months previous). Abutment excavation began in January 1929, averaging 100,000 yds3 per month from February onward. Flood Control engineers had estimated that approximately 600,000 yards of material would need to be stripped from both abutments. The contractor excavated 13 tunnels in the right abutment to evaluate the quality of the rock. These tunnels were then filled with 193,000 pounds of dynamite and detonated on June 26, 1929. The blast brought down 160,000 cubic yards (350,000 tons) of material. On September 16th a massive landslide enveloped the blast-weakened right abutment, dumping another 100,000 yards of debris. The contractor had excavated about 650,000 of the 675,000 total cubic yards slated for removal from both abutments when the slide occurred. It soon became apparent that considerably more excavation would be required on the right abutment than anticipated.
At this juncture the County Board of Supervisors retained a new board of consultants to study the site. This board was comprised of consulting engineer Louis C. Hill of Quentin, Code and Hill in Los Angeles), consulting engineer A.J. Wiley of Boise, Idaho, retired USGS geologist Dr. Robert T. Hill of Dallas, and Stanford geology Professor C.F. Tolman. In their report dated October 16, 1929 this board judged that the slide set in motion on September 16th was of much greater volume than originally estimated, being about 200,000 cubic yards. This board issued a report stating “that a safe dam of the proposed height cannot be built at this site.” Geologists Hill and Tolman found a series of faults cris-crossing the dam site, which intersected in the west abutment. Wiley had chaired the Governor’s Board of Inquiry on the St. Francis Dam failure 1-1/2 years previous. The County ordered the contractor to cease all operations, pending further inquiry. They had expended approximately $2 million when the project was shut down.
State Engineer’s External Review Panel to evaluate the San Gabriel Forks Dam (1929)
State Engineer Edward Hyatt also visited the site and announced that the State would be making an independent inquiry, based upon their new-founded powers (dam control law) which came out of the St. Francis disaster. Here’s where the individuals you’ve named entered the picture. In early November 1929 the State selected a special board to investigate the safety of the San Gabriel Dam site. This board was comprised of: John L. “Jack” Savage (Chief Designing Engineer, USBR-Denver), George A. Elliott (Chief Engineer, Spring Valley Water Co., San Francisco), M.C. Hinterlider (State Engineer of Colorado), George D. Louderback (Professor of Geology at U.C. Berkeley), Ira A. Williams (consulting geologist from Portland, OR), and Charles P. Berkey (Professor of Geology at Columbia University in NY). This group convened in Los Angeles on November 12th.
Los Angeles County reappointed a board of consultants to investigate, which included: geology Professor Andrew Lawson of Cal Berkeley, Stanford Civil Engineering Professor Charles D Marx, consulting engineer Charles H. Paul (of the Miami Conservancy District in Dayton, Ohio), and consulting engineer Frederick H. Fowler of San Francisco. The County Board of Supervisors also asked those geologists and engineers who had formerly provided advice on the dam to provide their own comments and evaluations concurrent with the State’s inquiry. This group included: consulting geologist Wayne Loel of Los Angeles, consulting engineer Joseph B. Lippincott of Los Angeles, consulting engineer David C. Heney of Portland, F. J. Safley, Allen Sedgwick (geology professor at USC), Robert T. Hill (retired USGS geologist in Dallas, Texas), Louis C. Hill (consulting engineer with Quentin Code and Hill in Los Angeles), Stanford geology professor C. F. Tolman, and former LA County Flood Control Engineer J.W. Reagan.
On November 26, 1929 the state panel issued their findings, concluding that the proposed dam “cannot be constructed without creating a menace to life and property.” As a “supplemental suggestion,” the board found that earth and rock fill dam of “conservative design” might be successfully employed at the site. The “conservative design” of those days foresaw a broad hydraulic fill embankment with a concrete core wall. Between 1933-38 the LACFCD constructed San Gabriel Dam No 1, about two miles downstream of the forks site. This was the highest rockfill dam in the word when it was completed.
Consultants for the Pine Canyon [Morris] Dam (1928-34)
In the late 1920s the City of Pasadena employed a number of consulting engineers and geologists to provide overview of the design and construction of the City’s expanded waterworks, centered about a new reservoir in San Gabriel Canyon, with a conveyance system linked to the distribution network already serving Pasadena. The dam site was about 1-1/2 miles above the canyon’s mouth, near the town of Azusa, next to a small ravine called “Pine Canyon” on the maps.
Samuel B. Morris attended Throop Polytechnical Institute (the forerunner of Caltech) in Pasadena, before heading to Stanford, when he received his BA in civil engineering in 1911. He joined the Pasadena Water Department in 1913 and rose through the ranks to become its general manager by 1925. In late 1928 the Los Angeles County Flood Control District was just beginning construction of their massive San Gabriel Forks Dam in San Gabriel Canyon, about 10 miles upstream of the Pine Canyon dam site. In an effort to pacify Pasadena voters for a bond election in 1929, the city decided to retain a blue ribbon panel of consulting engineers and geologists to advise them on the project. These included: engineers Louis C. Hill, Dr. Frederick A. Noetzeli, A. J. Wiley, and A. L. Sonderegger. Their consulting geologists were Professors F. Leslie Ransome of Caltech and A.O. Woodford of Pomona College.
In September 1929 voters from Pasadena approved a $10 million bond issue to build a concrete gravity dam 295 ft above the stream bed (and 375 feet above the lowest point of foundation) at the Pine Canyon site, and a 13-mile long aqueduct pipeline. In January 1930 the city retained Louis C. Hill of Quentin Code & Hill in Los Angeles to provide ongoing review of their design and Caltech geology Professor F. Leslie Ransome to advise them on how to best develop the dam site. Hill and Ransome issued favorable reports to the city in July 1930.
In October 1930 the city filed an application with the state to construct the dam. In March 1931 the dam’s height was reduced to 245 ft above the streambed. A contract was awarded in April 1932, but construction did not begin until early September. Other consultants that the city retained during construction included consulting engineer Walter L. Huber of San Francisco, retired Corps of Engineers Major General Lansing H. Beach (who lived in Pasadena), and Caltech Geology Professor John P. Buwalda. The completed dam was dedicated by former president and engineer Herbert Hoover on May 31, 1934. Morris returned to Stanford the following year (1935) to chair their civil engineering department, and was named Dean of Engineering in 1936, succeeding Theodore Hoover (Herbert’s younger brother). Morris resigned in 1944 to become Chief Engineer and General Manager of the Los Angles Department of Water & Power, until his retirement in 1955.
First pseudostatic earthquake load applied to a dam (1929)
During excavation of the granodiorite to diorite gneiss foundations for Pine Canyon Dam (renamed Morris Dam during its dedication by President Herbert Hoover in 1934), engineers found the gneiss was cut by dikes of aplite and diabase, as well as numerous shears and faults. One prominent fault was exposed at the base of the dam’s right abutment. Close inspection showed that this fault had not exhibited appreciable movement in at least 10,000 years. This discovery led to a much more thorough examination of the dam’s foundation and abutments, including 23 exploratory adits, adding up to 2,760 lineal feet. They had an aggregate total of 4,155 ft of exploration shafts, tunnels, and diamond core drilling.
The dam was the world’s first to be designed for a pseudostatic lateral load of 0.10g, through the dam’s center of gravity. This load was based on the recommendation of geologist F. L. Ransome at Caltech and seismologist Harry O. Wood at the Carnegie Institute at Caltech in early 1929, as reported in S.B. Morris and C. E. Pearce, “Design of Gravity Dam in San Gabriel Canyon to Resist Earthquakes,” Seismological Society of America Bulletin v.19:3 in Sept. 1929. The pseudostatic method was subsequently approved by Professor Harald M. Westergaard of the University of Illinois, in 1933 (Westergaard became Dean of Engineering at Harvard University a few years later).
Engineering Board of Review – Metropolitan Water District (1929-30)
In August 1929 the Board of Directors of the newly formed Metropolitan Water District of Southern California appointed an Engineering Board of Review to evaluate their engineering scheme for a Colorado River Aqueduct and its appurtenant systems of distribution. This board was comprised of Boise consulting engineer A. J. Wiley of Boise, Idaho, Richard R. Lyman, founder of the civil engineering program at the University of Utah, and Thaddeus Merriman, Chief Engineer of the Board of Water Supply of the City of New York.
On Dec. 21, 1929, the board issued a preliminary report recommending surveys, investigations, and comparable estimates of four proposed routes for a Colorado River Aqueduct. On Nov 25, 1930 MWD submitted its findings to the board for their review, with the necessary design details for the proposed Parker aqueduct route. This plan proposed to divert the river’s flow with a dam just downstream of the river’s confluence with the Bill Williams River, with five pump lifts totaling 1523 feet (between elevation 450 ft at Parker Dam to 1807 ft at Hayfield Lift), a return power drop of 252 feet, and an aqueduct length of 252 miles. On Dec 19, 1930 the Engineering Board issued its final report to the MWD Board, approving the Parker aqueduct route. A $220 million bond to construct this aqueduct was subsequently approved by voters on Sept 29, 1931.
Board of Consulting Geologists – Metropolitan Water District (1930)
Following the recommendations of the MWD Engineering Board of Review in December 1929 to pursue detailed studies of the so-called “Parker aqueduct route” for the proposed Colorado River Aqueduct (described above), the Metropolitan Water District appointed a panel of consulting geologists to evaluate the geology along the proposed alignment. Their charge was to “select the route which would encounter the fewest construction difficulties and be the least subject to seismic disturbances.” This panel was led by Caltech Geology Professor F. Leslie Ransome, who had served as the principal geological consultant for the proposed Hoover Dam. Ransome was assisted by Caltech Geology Department Chairman John P. Buwalda, Levi F. Noble of the U.S. Geological Survey, and Messrs. Frank M. Murphy and Rollin P. Eckis, who were both PhD students at Caltech. This was the largest panel of geologists ever assembled to evaluate a single project up to that time. The Aqueduct was eventually completed between 1933-39 and was christened by ASCE as one of the Seven Great Civil Engineer Wonders of the United States in 1955.
External Board of Consultants for Pine Canyon [Morris] Dam (1930-31)
In October 1930 the City of Pasadena announced it was appointing a special board of consultants to investigate the safety features of their proposed Pine Canyon Dam along the San Gabriel River in San Gabriel Canyon. This panel was seen as a politic expedient in the immediate aftermath of the cancellation of the LA County Flood Control District’s San Gabriel Forks Dam, a few miles upstream, which was deemed unsafe because of the geologic conditions exposed on the dam’s right abutment.
The members of the special board were: Geology Professors Charles P. Berkley of Columbia University and George D. Louderback of U.C. Berkeley, consulting geologist Ira A. Williams of Portland, John L. “Jack” Savage, Chief Designing Engineer of the Bureau of Reclamation, George A. Elliott, former Chief Engineer of the Spring Valley Water Co of San Francisco, and M. C. Hinterlider, Colorado State Engineer. The board consisted of the same members who condemned the San Gabriel Forks Dam site, a few months previous.
Board of Engineering Consultants to the City of Los Angeles (1930-31)
In September 1930 two eminent engineers and a geologist were nominated by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to review the engineering and geological features of the City’s proposed $39 million water development program, overseen by the Board of Water & Power Commissioners. This board was comprised of: Charles P. Berkey, Professor of Geology at Columbia University; Louis C. Hill of Quentin, Code & Hill consulting engineers – Los Angeles; and J. B. Lippincott, consulting engineer of Los Angeles. Hill and Lippincott had previously worked for the U.S. Reclamation Service.
External Review Panel to evaluate the Mulholland Dam (1930)
This panel was convened in January 1930 under the auspices of the State’s new Dam Safety Act of August 1929 to evaluate the Mulholland Dam, constructed in 1923-25 in Weid Canyon above Hollywood, because it was a near-identical design to the St. Francis Dam, which had failed in March 1928. This panel was appointed by the State Engineer, Edward J. Hyatt, and was chaired by John L. “Jack” Savage, Chief Designing Engineer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Denver, assisted by geology Professors George D. Louderback of U.C. Berkeley and Charles P. Berkey of Columbia, and Ira A. Williams, consulting geologist from Portland. This board issued their report in June 1930 they unanimously agreed that the Mulholland Dam was safe, and no action was recommended to the State Engineer to retrofit the structure or lower the reservoir storage levels.