Ruins following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam.

American Experience “Flood in the Desert”


Premiering Tuesday, May 2 at 8 p.m.

Just before midnight on March 12, 1928, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles, one of the biggest dams in the country blew apart, releasing a wall of water 20 stories high. Ten thousand people lived downstream. Flood in the Desert tells the story of the St. Francis Dam disaster, which not only destroyed hundreds of lives and millions of dollars’ worth of property; it also washed away the reputation of William Mulholland, the father of modern Los Angeles, and jeopardized larger plans to transform the West.

A self-taught engineer, the 72-year-old Mulholland had launched the city’s remarkable growth by building both an aqueduct to pipe water 233 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the St. Francis Dam, to hold a full year’s supply of water for Los Angeles. Now Mulholland was promoting an immense new project: the Hoover Dam. The collapse of the St. Francis Dam was a colossal engineering and human disaster that might have slowed the national project to tame the West. But within days a concerted effort was underway to erase the dam’s failure from popular memory.

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