Book Review Thursday: Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles


After reading this book I have to wonder how I, having lived almost two decades in Southern California, never heard about this tragic man-made disaster which occurred on March 12, 1928.  I vaguely knew about someone named Mulholland who made a name for himself in Los Angeles and had one of the most scenic drives in Los Angeles named in his honor.  It’s almost like the City and County of Los Angeles swept it all into the dustbin of history, that is until author Jon Wilkman wrote this detailed account which was voted one of the best books of January 2016 by Amazon.

Although I’ve never seen the movie, fans of the 1974 movie Chinatown would have an idea of the background of the story.  The water wars of the early twentieth century which pitted the burgeoning city and county of Los Angeles against the farmers and ranchers of Owens Valley were marked by rancorous disputes and what we would today call acts of domestic terrorism.

Los Angeles had big plans to expand and grow and Owens Valley had abundant water resources.  William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant, had been involved in Los Angeles water matters since his arrival there in 1877, eventually becoming chief engineer and manager of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply.   Mulholland, a self-educated civil engineer and dam builder was well-respected, yet made some fatal mistakes when he oversaw the building of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon in the mountains north of Los Angeles.

The story of the dam breaking and creating a harrowing floodpath to the Pacific Ocean is riveting enough in and of itself, but the “back story” leading up to the disaster is equally compelling.  The technical jargon is a bit overwhelming at times, however (like me, you may want to skim through some of that).

There doesn’t seem to have ever been an accurate count of the deaths caused by the flood with estimates around five hundred.  Even before scientists and engineers participated in studies to determine the cause, the city of Los Angeles had agreed to pay reparations to the flood survivors.

A coroner’s inquest was held and Mulholland, visibly shaken by the tragedy, was called upon to defend his skills as an engineer.  With so many opinions as to the cause, it seemed almost impossible to determine who or what was at fault.  Would William Mulholland be indicted as a mass murderer?  The story was so compelling at the time, but why has it largely been forgotten?

Thanks to Jon Wilkman’s thorough research readers will learn about this important event which altered history in the sense that it brought public attention to the need for uniform safety standards, as well as standards for engineer training and certification.  Just a few years down the road the Hoover Dam would be built on the Colorado River, another vital source of Southern California water.

The book has a little bit of everything – engineering, history, intrigue, early twentieth century anarchy (making it read more like a novel instead of just a dry history book), the early rise of corporatism in America and more.  Anyone interested in learning about significant long-forgotten events like this one will find it a compelling read.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

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