Engineering Ethics: The St. Francis Dam Failure (WEBINAR)

Course Number: ET-2027W
Credit: 2 PDH
Subject Matter Expert: Mary McElroy, P.E.
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In Engineering Ethics: The St. Francis Dam Failure, you'll learn ...

  • Warning signs that were overlooked or ignored
  • Lessons learned from the disaster and long-term impacts on the engineering community.
  • Impacts of the tragedy on the local community and resultant financial settlements
  • Important ethical lessons applicable to your professional practice


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The structural failure of the St. Francis Dam is considered by many to be one of the top ten worst engineering disasters of all time and rated the worst overall civil engineering disaster in the state of California. When the dam collapsed, the water that was unleashed created a 2-mile wide, 50-mile long course of devastation that began in the San Francisquito Canyon reaching all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. The dam collapse, which occurred on March 12th, 1928, released 15-billion gallons of water in the form of a 140-foot high wave; that wave picked up debris and mud as it travelled down the Santa Clara River Valley at an average speed of 12-mph. The failure of the dam caused the death of at least 450 people and the loss of property estimated at over $20,000,000 (in 1928 dollars).

The construction of the St. Francis Dam was directed by William Mulholland, Superintendent and Chief Engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Supply (aka LA’s Bureau of Water Works and Supply). Mulholland was not formally trained nor educated as an engineer; he can best be described as a “self-taught” engineer. When his career in water supply first began in 1878, Mulholland was employed as a ditch cleaner for a private water supply company in Los Angeles, California. Eight short years later, Mulholland became the Superintendent of that privately owned water supply company. When the city took over the water system, Mulholland was retained as the Superintendent and Chief Engineer for the LA Department of Water and Supply.

One of the major accomplishments of Mulholland’s career was the role he played in the conception, design and construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was completed in 1913. Mulholland, along with the former mayor of Los Angeles, Mr. Fred Eaton, envisioned the need for water to support the rapidly growing and expanding population of the Los Angeles region. The construction of the aqueduct was part of their plan to provide water to the Los Angeles area.

In the early 1920’s, the Los Angeles area suffered a drought. To provide additional water resources for the area, Mulholland proposed a five-year plan that called for the construction of eight new dams. The construction of St. Francis Dam and the reservoir were part of that plan providing additional water to support the growing need of the community.

The St. Francis Dam, which spanned the San Francisquito Canyon approximately 35-miles to the north and west of Los Angeles, was a curved concrete gravity/arch structure that was approximately 210 feet high with a 500-foot radius of curvature and a maximum base width of approximately 140-feet. During the construction phase, the height of the dam was increased approximately 20-feet to increase the amount of retained water; unfortunately, the base width of the dam was not adjusted accordingly.

When the dam was completed in 1926 and the reservoir was being filled (1926 through March 1928), cracks in the concrete structure were immediately observed. Mulholland attributed those cracks to concrete curing. New cracks and subsequent leaks continued to be observed throughout the filling process. However, Mulholland continued to state that the structure of the dam was “sound”. On the day of the collapse, the dam keeper contacted Mulholland and reported a newly developing larger leak in the structure. On March 12th, 1928 at approximately 12 noon, Mulholland personally inspected the dam and assured the dam keeper that the St. Francis Dam was structurally sound. Approximately 12-hours later, at 11:57 pm, the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed.

A board of inquiry blamed Mulholland for ignoring signs that the St. Francis Dam was leaking dangerously. Mulholland, who faced criminal prosecution by the LA County District Attorney, finally accepted responsibility for the collapse stating “Don’t blame anyone else. Whatever fault there was on the job, put it on me.” Mulholland was forced to resign in disgrace soon after the incident.

Specific Knowledge or Skill Obtained

This course teaches the following specific knowledge and skills:

  • Disregard for residents in the Santa Clara River Valley community, lack of concern for their livelihood and personal safety
  • Modifications to the dam during the construction phase that directly led to its’ eventual failure
  • Warning signs that were overlooked or ignored.
  • Impacts of the tragedy on the local community and resultant financial settlements.
  • Lessons learned from the disaster and long-term impacts on the engineering community.
  • Failure to comply with the NSPE’s #1 Canon which ethically requires engineers to place public safety and welfare above the wants of the individual.
  • Failure to comply with the NSPE’s #2 Canon which states that engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.
This course is applicable to professional engineers in:
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Louisiana (P.E.) Maine (P.E.) Maryland (P.E. Category A)
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Missouri (P.E.) Montana (P.E.) Nebraska (P.E.)
Nevada (P.E.) New Hampshire (P.E.) New Jersey (P.E.)
New Mexico (P.E.) New York (P.E. Live Course) North Carolina (P.E.)
North Dakota (P.E.) Ohio (P.E. Timed & Monitored) Oklahoma (P.E.)
Oregon (P.E.) Pennsylvania (P.E.) South Carolina (P.E.)
South Dakota (P.E.) Tennessee (P.E.) Texas (P.E.)
Utah (P.E.) Virginia (P.E.) West Virginia (P.E.)
Wisconsin (P.E. Live Course) Wyoming (P.E.)

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