Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.55.09 AMOn the occasion of 150 years since architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth (June 8, 1867), ICW reached out to Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, for some thoughts.

ICW: Commemorations such as this allow us to ask questions about influence and legacy. In this case, how can we think about distinct pre- and post-Wright periods in American architecture? Can you give us a sense of that?

CH: Pre-Wright is marked by a slow search to establish an authentic American architecture, an effort that really picks up in the work of Wright’s mentor Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect he called his “Lieber Meister.” Wright takes Sullivan’s ideas about ornament, form and function, which were hugely influential but largely contained to the late 19th-century Midwest, and expands them in place and time, working all over the US and in Japan and across a staggeringly long career. To oversimplify a bit, Wright’s work is a sustained negotiation between a desire to express a domestic architecture and staying in conversation with — not wanting to appear outpaced by — experiments in European modernism. His career lasted so long and he was so prolific — especially at the beginning and the end of his working life — that any time you talk about before and after you also have to acknowledge how long the “during” was. His established his own firm in 1893; his last great building is the Guggenheim Museum, completed (posthumously) at the end of 1959.

ICW: A few buildings notwithstanding, we don’t generally associate Wright with Southern California or Los Angeles. Should we?

CH: We should. The work he did here in the early 1920s — mostly experimental concrete-block houses with pre-Columbian ornament — helped Los Angeles get a better sense of itself, its cultural and architectural identity. It pointed the way to a regional architecture that wasn’t Spanish (more on that below), that didn’t rely on European precedents. It was different from anything being done here at the time and also radically different from anything Wright did before or after.

ICW: Why have we missed the connections or the relationship, Wright and Southern California?

CH: Mostly because his time here was short. When he set up an office on Fountain Avenue in January 1923 he thought maybe he’d be here for good. LA was booming. But by the end of that year he’d given up on that dream. A number of potential projects — some of which were maybe pipe dreams from the start, like the massive Doheny Ranch — had fizzled out. He was not getting along with his son Lloyd, also an architect and the construction supervisor for some of the LA houses. Most of the concrete-block houses didn’t work out quite as he’d planned, in part because of their experimental structural system. He designed a house in Montecito early on his career and then returned to LA near the end of it for a couple of small projects. Those were flybys. But in the 1920s he was trying to really ground his architecture in Southern California, trying to reinvent himself as a West Coast architect.

ICW: Los Angeles in the 1920s must have seemed caught between provincial and would-be metropolitan, especially to someone with Wright’s eye. What did he think of the place?

CH: His opinions were inconsistent — since he was — but tilted negative. After he left he dismissed LA as a “desert of shallow effects.” But it also sparked something in him, elicited work as inventive and singular as he’d produce anywhere. And he sympathized with the provincial in any case — he was from a close-knit, rural Welsh Wisconsin family that was suspicious of cities. He never quite shook that attitude.

ICW: Who did he know here and with whom did he associate?

CH: His son Lloyd arrived earlier and was for a time the head of the design department at Paramount. Lloyd helped him make contacts. Aline Barnsdall first wanted to build her house in Northern California; once she bought land on Olive Hill he had a steady source of LA income. He was better at making connections in the right social circles when he was younger, as an up-and-coming architect in Chicago. By the time he got to LA he was middle-aged and reeling from the 1914 murder of his mistress Mamah Borthwick.

ICW: His LA time is coincident with his Tokyo work? Any connections between here and there that are especially interesting or germane?

CH: The timing is mostly during the Tokyo work, and just after. It’s the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo that gives him a key commission at a lean period in the middle 1910s and brings him regularly to the West Coast for trips across the Pacific. His work here is influenced by Japan but the hotel is also shaped by his rising interest in the architecture of the Americas, defined broadly. Especially pre-Columbian.

ICW: Do you know if he made any connections to the way Los Angeles boosters had become so attracted to Chicago at the time? In other words, LA wanted to do, 1900-1950, what Chicago did, 1850-1900. Did Wright sense that?

CH: He must have, though he was too cynical, too much of a curmudgeon and too vain to join a campaign promoting anything but himself. He saw Los Angeles as the future but also as refuge, a place to hide out and reinvent himself. That contradiction can be seen in his LA work, which is historicist and experimental at the same time, looking backward and forward in a way that has confounded some critics and historians, who were used to dividing 1920s architecture rather neatly into avant-garde and revivalist camps.

ICW: How did he change Los Angeles?

CH: I’ve been working through this question — not just to write the Times piece marking the anniversary but in helping develop a forthcoming KCET Artbound documentary on Wright’s work in L.A. I think you could make a case that his houses here paved the way for the particular success of the major civic and cultural landmarks of the middle and late 1920s — the Central Library, City Hall, Wiltern, etc. Those projects were eclectic and revivalist without being slavishly Spanish Colonial Revival, a style Wright disdained. He planted the seeds for that, for an approach that broke equally from the Bauhaus, the Mission and his own early work.

As architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne also writes a weekly column about architecture in Los Angeles.  The 1920s photo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House (above) was taken by Julius Shulman and is courtesy of USC Libraries.

Adam Goodman is currently a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Humanities at the USC. Beginning fall 2016, he will be an Assistant Professor of History and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Goodman is a scholar of migration interested in the interconnected histories of people throughout the Americas and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. His current book project explores the rise of the deportation regime and the expulsion of Mexicans from the United States over the last century. He has published articles, essays, and reviews in academic venues such as the Journal of American Ethnic History and popular outlets such as The Nation and The Washington Post.

We interviewed Adam about his research, what he’s currently teaching at USC, and how his work affects his experience of Los Angeles.



ICW: Tell us about your background and training. How did you come to your interest in immigration history?

Adam Goodman: Before starting graduate school I worked as a high school history teacher in the Lower Rio Grande Valley on the US-Mexico border. Many of my students came from families that had recently migrated to the United States, and some continued to cross the border on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis. Living in the Valley sparked an interest in how migration and migration policies shape people’s lives, which I then went on to explore in more depth as a history Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.


ICW: What was it like to study American immigration at Penn, and how did Mexican immigration history fit or not fit the paradigms you studied in graduate school?

Goodman: From the outside looking in, the Penn history department doesn’t seem like an obvious place to study Mexican migration history: there are no Mexicanists or Chicana/o historians on faculty and, although it has grown in recent years, the Mexican community in Philadelphia remains relatively small compared to major metropolitan areas in the Southwest and West. But it was the perfect place for me. When I started graduate school I didn’t know what I wanted to specialize in. (For a time, I thought it might be the history of education and social inequality.) Fortunately for me, I found a dynamic group of engaged scholars—Michael Katz, Tom Sugrue, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Eiichiro Azuma, and Steve Hahn, among others—who nurtured my burgeoning interest in migration history and policy, pushed me read widely and “think big,” and encouraged me to conduct archival research and oral histories in Mexico. Ultimately, their advice made me a better historian and added depth to my work. And, in the end, the fact that Penn didn’t have anyone working in my direct field forced me to branch out and make connections with colleagues at other institutions across the country.


ICW: Do the metaphors of uprooting and transplanting still mean something in immigration scholarship?  Why or why not?

Goodman: More than anything, metaphors like “the uprooted” (popularized by Oscar Handlin in 1951) and “the transplanted” (coined by John Bodnar in 1985) are useful to understanding the historiography of immigration and how much it has changed over the last few decades. Up until the 1990s, studies of one-way European immigration and assimilation dominated the field of immigration history (aside from a few notable exceptions). Since then, however, scholars—from increasingly diverse backgrounds—have focused on the histories of migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa; the many connections people maintain to their countries of origin; and how nativism, exclusion, and deportation have shaped United States history. There has also been an important shift away from the study of immigration and toward migration and mobility studies.


ICW: How does your work inform your daily life in LA?

Goodman: There are times when I see the city in a different light because of my work on Mexican migration and deportation. Dodger Stadium isn’t just where the Dodgers play: it’s also Elysian Park, the place where immigration authorities rounded people up in a make-shift detention camp during the infamous “Operation Wetback” deportation campaign in 1954; and it’s Chavez Ravine, the home to a large Mexican community until the city and team ownership forcibly displaced them so the ballpark could be built. Two of my favorite places in LA are Grand Central Market and the central branch of the Public Library. But when I emerge from the Pershing Square metro station en route to either, I can’t help but think about the people whose deportation hearings are taking place at that very moment, just two blocks away at the Immigration Court at 6th and Olive.


Chavez Ravine, exact date unknown. photCL 486 (307) from the Palmer Conner Collection of Color Slides of Los Angeles, 1950 – 1970 at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


ICW: Tell us about the class you are teaching at USC.  What do you think you might expect from USC students on the topic(s) you are working with in the course?

Goodman: This semester I’m teaching a class on the history of Mexican migration to the United States. The first half of the course covers the sixteenth century to 1986. (We move fast!) It starts with the legacies of colonialism and conquest by European powers and the United States, and then it explores the first Mexican migrants to the US, Mexican American community formation, the Bracero Program, undocumented migration, and return migration to Mexico—whether by choice or force. The second half of the semester we’ll be examining topics on contemporary Mexican migration, including the militarization of the US-Mexico border, popular culture and migration, and Mexico’s impact on migration and migration’s impact on Mexico.

I hope that the course’s historical orientation enables students to better understand the essential role migration has played in shaping the interconnected histories of Mexico and the United States. Today, more than 34 million people of Mexican origin live in the US, making up around 11 percent of the total population; and the 12 million Mexican migrants who reside in the US comprise around 10 percent of Mexico’s population.

There’s also no better place to learn about Mexican migration, past and present, than Los Angeles. I hope the class helps students engage with the city in new ways. I want them to get off campus and see LA for what it is: a global metropolis that is home to more Mexicans than anywhere else in the world aside from Mexico City. With that in mind, during the second half of the semester students will be heading out into the community and conducting institutional histories of local migrant-serving organizations.


ICW: What’s the best thing about Los Angeles?

Goodman: The food is hard to beat, but, as a public transportation user and advocate, I’d add that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the metro. The Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, Gold Line extension to the SGV, and Purple Line extension to Westwood are going to be game changers. An affordable, integrated public transportation system will make Los Angeles a more livable city for all of its inhabitants.


ICW: What are you working on now, in the short and long term?

Goodman: In the short-term I’m working on a couple of articles and essays, in addition to a book chapter about how migration policy has affected families split between Mexico and the United States. (It’s largely based on oral histories I did in the central-western Mexican state of Jalisco.) I’m also organizing an event on the roots and realities of the Central American refugee crisis that will be held at USC on March 22. And, a couple of weeks later, I’ll be giving a talk in El Monte on the history of immigration raids and immigrant resistance in 1970s Los Angeles. In the long—but hopefully not too long!—term, I’ll be working on my book project about the growth of the deportation regime and expulsion of Mexicans over the last century, and preparing it for publication.



The Aerospace History Project, under the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, is an effort to document the history of the aerospace industry in Southern California and the economic, cultural, and physical effects on the region and beyond. The project collects the papers and oral histories of key individuals and institutions across the aerospace industry, creating a permanent, central resource.

The Director of the Aerospace History Project, Peter J. Westwick, is Assistant Research Professor in the History Department at the University of Southern California. He received his BA in physics and PhD in history from UC Berkeley, and has taught at Yale and Caltech. His research focuses on the history of science and technology in the twentieth century U.S. He is the author of several books including Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004, and The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974. He is also editor of Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California.

In the following interview, Peter reveals how he became involved with aerospace history, some of the most interesting things he came across while working with the Aerospace History Project, and current projects.


ICW: Tell us a bit about your background and how you came by your interest in science and technology.

Peter Westwick: When I was a kid I got my hands on some popular books on astronomy and astrophysics and was transfixed by the images and descriptions of the universe.  So when I went off to college at Berkeley I decided to study physics.  But I also always really enjoyed reading history, and I also liked writing.  After my undergraduate degree I was working as a physicist in industry, and I discovered that there was actually a field, the history of science, that combined my interests – and that Berkeley had a strong program in it, with one of the leading historians of physics.  I decided to give history of science a try in grad school, and I was hooked.


French aviator Louis Paulhan makes record-breaking flight to 4,600 feet in 1910. The balloon in the background advertised the Los Angeles Examiner, which helped sponsor the 1910 LA Air Meet. (photCL Pierce 6298, C.C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library)


Describe the Aerospace History Project: what is it, how did it come about, and what is your role?  

Westwick: The project started when Bill Deverell and I were both at Caltech.  I was working on a history of JPL and wanted to situate it in the context of Southern California, so I went and talked to Bill.  We both realized the importance of SoCal aerospace to our respective fields – me, history of science and technology; Bill, California history – and also that few archival sources existed to support scholarly research.  We also both recognized that a window of opportunity was closing: because of recent mergers and relocations a lot of corporate files were being shredded or tossed; and many individual pioneers were fading from the scene, so we were losing the chance to record their memories and save their papers.  Then Bill got the offer to come to USC and ICW, and we recognized another opportunity: the Huntington Library, with its strengths in history of science, California, and business history, was a natural home for the archive.  That brought Dan Lewis on board as the third member of our little triumvirate. Dan knows the archival landscape and also the practical issues of acquiring collections.  My instinct as a historian is to save everything, and Dan often has to remind me that we have finite space and resources, so that we have to make decisions.  Bill knows everyone in the L.A. area and is constantly coming up with new connections to people or collections.  Bill has also been instrumental in finding funding, and also in finding creative avenues for outreach, for instance through a series of great programs for high-school teachers. He reminds me that it’s not enough just to save stuff; we also then need to help push that history out to the scholarly community and the general public.

My role is to provide the intellectual connection to aerospace history and understand the needs and opportunities of researchers.  I help evaluate potential collections and also handle the oral histories; it helps here that I can speak the language, at least a little, since I have some technical background.  I’ve also mentored the two postdocs we had under an NSF grant (I’m happy to say that they have since landed jobs at Harvard and the National Air and Space Museum).  One of these postdocs, Matt Hersch, worked with me on an exhibit at the Huntington in fall 2011, mostly using materials from our collections, that attracted about 25,000 visitors.  We had so many people come up to us in the exhibit and say that they had friends or family who had worked in aerospace – or that they themselves had worked in it – and thank us for recognizing the importance of this history.  That’s a rare and very gratifying sort of feedback for historians.

Tell us some things about the book you edited on the aerospace industry in Southern California.  

Westwick: When Bill, Dan, and I first started planning the project we had the idea to start off with a conference, as a way to survey the landscape, to figure out what we already knew and where research was neeBlue_Sky_Metropolisded.  We held the conference at the Huntington in 2007, and we got such a great response – not only from the over a hundred people who showed up, but also from people who heard about it through the media coverage – that we decided to bring the material to a wider audience through an edited
volume of papers.  The book wasn’t just a
collection of conference papers, though, since we brought in several more contributors. Bill also had the great idea to include a photoessay, and I had a lot of fun sifting through the Huntington’s photo collections for a few gems to illustrate themes of early aviation.

We really tried to highlight the diversity of topics and historical approaches, so the papers look at aerospace intersections with Hollywood, architecture, labor, women, the environment, and so on.  It’s really an eclectic but, we think, eye-opening perspective on the many ways aerospace shaped Southern California, and vice versa.


Are there particularly important collections that you have helped bring in to the Huntington archives, and what collections are still “out there” that you may know about and are interested in drawing into the archive?

Westwick: Thanks to generous advice from Sherm Mullin, a former head of the Skunk Works, we’re particularly strong on Lockheed: we have the personal papers of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the Skunk Works’ founder, and Ben Rich, Johnson’s successor, and so have a wealth of material on the U-2, SR-71, the F-117A, and other celebrated planes.  We also have several thousand photos on pre-World War II Lockheed from Harvey Christen, one of Lockheed’s first employees, and a systematic collection from Willis Hawkins, a key designer and manager.  We also have a very substantial collection of historical files from Northrop Grumman, and the papers of Tom Jones, who was head of Northrop for three decades.  We have the papers of Bud Wheelon, a major figure at Hughes and in the national-security and space program in general.  We also just received the papers of the Planetary Society, which was formed here in Pasadena in 1980 and has been probably the most important public-interest group for space exploration ever since.

But however we much we collect, we are always driven by the knowledge that so much more remains out there to preserve, and that a lot of it will be lost if we don’t act.


What are some of the most interesting things you’ve found in the archive?

Westwick: One of the more interesting collections is the Al Hibbs papers.  Hibbs got his PhD under Richard Feynman at Caltech and like Feynman had insatiable curiosity and diverse interests: he did underwater photography and kinetic sculpture, flew sailplanes, acted in local theater, made an electronic trombone, applied to the astronaut program, contributed to the Biosphere project — all in addition to being an architect of JPL’s early satellite program, and later the “voice of JPL” for radio and TV broadcasts and an important science popularizer.  He was just a fascinating character, and his papers are full of interesting twists.

The most unexpected thing was probably an item I ran across while I was cataloging the Ben Rich papers.  It was a photo of two bearded gentleman in a barn circa 1907, standing next to a contraption resembling an airplane but of dubious flightworthiness.

The first question was, who were these guys?  They turned out to be Charles and Lyman Gilmore, a couple brothers up in Grass Valley, California.  The airplane was a remarkably ambitious design for the time, just a few years after the Wright brothers: an enclosed cabin in a metal fuselage, big enough for eight passengers, instead of an open wooden framework; a single wing instead of a biplane; and the propeller in front instead of the pusher type used by the Wrights.  In fact it was too ambitious – the steam engine wasn’t nearly strong enough to get the heavy plane off the ground.  Worse yet, they built the plane bigger than the barn door, so they would have had to take off the wings to get it out to fly.

Lyman Gilmore

Lyman Gilmore Jr. and his brother Charles in their barn in Grass Valley, Calif., ca. 1907. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The second question was, what were these guys doing in Ben Rich’s papers?  Of the two brothers Lyman Gilmore was the moving spirit, but he was also an eccentric fellow.  He was obsessed with secrecy, and then at one point he stopped cutting his hair and beard and, worse, gave up bathing – not for a few days or weeks, but for years and eventually decades. Rich was fascinated by Gilmore, so much so that the Skunk Works director, a very busy man, took the time to track down all the information he could on him.  Now, Rich loved a good story, and he was no doubt drawn to Gilmore as a colorful addition to his collection of anecdotes.  But Rich may have also recognized a connection.  Granted, there is no path from Gilmore’s barn to the Skunk Works, no technological lineage from his steam-powered plane to Stealth aircraft.  But Gilmore still tells us something about aviation and California.  It was no coincidence that Gilmore was a gold miner living in the heart of the Mother Lode, or that some of his early investors came from the nearby town of You Bet.  Like the original Gold Rush, aviation attracted romantic spirits, people willing to risk failure in the pursuit of their dreams.  And Rich was one of them.  The first Stealth plane was aeronautically unstable on all three axes, and when Kelly Johnson saw an early model he told Rich, “that goddam thing will never get off the ground.”  Both Rich and Gilmore ignored the doubters and pursued their dreams of flight.


Tell us about the oral histories – how can someone use them, and what’s next on that front?

Westwick: We’ve conducted conducted oral histories with a wide range of aerospace figures:  men and women, design engineers and shop floor machinists, test pilots and CEOs, from huge firms and small machine shops.   These are guided oral histories, conducted either by myself or fellow historians.  We’ve done about fifty oral histories and thirty of them are available on-line through the Huntington Digital Library, here.

The rest of the interviews will be posted once they’re through the transcribing and editing pipeline.  As with the archival collections, we have far more oral history candidates than we have managed to get to, but we sense the urgency to record as much of this history as we can.  There are some fascinating stories in these interviews: personal histories, character sketches, funny episodes, and also illuminating windows on particular issues: African-Americans in aerospace, or secrecy and classification and civil liberties, or antitrust law.


What are you working on these days?

Westwick: My main research project at the moment is a history of the National Academy of Sciences, which is the major honorary society in the U.S. and a major source of science advice to the federal government.  The Academy was created in 1863, during the Civil War, and when it reached its 150th anniversary people there approached a few of us historians (Dan Kevles, Ruth Cowan, and myself) about writing a history.  I’ve also been working for several years now on a history of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, the 1980s plan for missile defense.  I’ve finished most of the research and just need to find time to write it.


Heavy Ground cover

ICW is proud to announce Heavy Ground, the newest book in our Western Histories series published by UC Press and Huntington Library Press, available December 2015. Heavy Ground gives a detailed account and analysis of the March 12, 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam – located in the northernmost reaches of Los Angeles County – which has been called the greatest civil engineering disaster in twentieth-century American history.

We interviewed co-author Donald C. Jackson, the Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania about the book, the research involved, and the impact of this disaster both then and now.

The St. Francis Dam, before its collapse in 1928. From the DC Jackson collection

The St. Francis Dam, before its collapse in 1928. From the DC Jackson collection

How did you first become interested in the St. Francis Dam disaster, and how did you come to collaborate with Professor Hundley?

DC Jackson:   It doesn’t take long for someone seriously interested in the history of California dam-building to come across references to the St. Francis Dam disaster and that was certainly the case for me when I began researching the history of multiple arch dams way back in the 1970s. What struck me early on—and is an issue addressed in Heavy Ground—is the seeming incongruity of how the failure of a concrete gravity dam (i.e. St. Francis) did not spur serious concern about the viability of concrete gravity technology, but in fact precipitated the end of multiple arch dam technology in post-1928 California. The issue was raised in my book Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the American West (1995), but Heavy Ground offered an opportunity to examine more carefully how some key engineering investigations of the St. Francis Dam disaster were oriented towards protecting gravity dam technology and making sure that the failure was not used to attack the proposed Boulder Dam then being considering for approval by Congress.

Norris and I began our collaboration around 2001 when we were asked for some advice regarding a film documentary. Through this, we realized that we shared a perspective on the disaster (and on William Mulholland) and this led to our writing the article “Privilege and Responsibility: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster” published in California History in November 2004. After the article appeared we said, “Hey, let’s build upon our already extensive research and write a more wide-ranging book on the disaster,” and we plunged into project. Additional archival work was carried out in 2005-06 and the drafting of chapters began soon thereafter. But professional demands and health issues then slowed work on the project. After a hiatus, in the summer of 2012 I received a Trent R. Dames Fellowship in Civil Engineering History at the Huntington Library and work on the manuscript accelerated. Unfortunately, Norris died in April 2013 after a sustained period of declining health. However, his passing came after much work on Heavy Ground had been done and, although I was responsible for completing the book and preparing it for publication, Heavy Ground stands as a true collaboration. In my view, much of the book’s value derives from how it melds the work of two historians who, in sharing a deep interest in the history of water in the American West, each brought a distinctive perspective to studying the history of the St. Francis Dam.

Why was the dam built in this particular place and time? What does “Heavy Ground” reference?

DCJ:   The dam was built as a component of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water from the Owens Valley to the City of Los Angeles. Financing for the original construction of the aqueduct, which came to completion in 1913, was limited and did not allow for the construction of major storage reservoirs. By the early 1920s the issue of storage loomed large, especially because Mulholland had encountered problems with his hope of building the Long Valley Dam in the upper Owens River watershed. Early plans for the aqueduct never mentioned the possibility of building a large dam in San Francisquito Canyon, but in 1922 Mulholland decided to pursue this option even though it acted to reduce the hydroelectric generation capacity of the city’s San Francisquito Power House No. 2.

“Heavy Ground” is a phrase used to describe the geology of the east side of the St. Francis Dam site. As we explain in the book, the dam’s failure was the result of water saturating the broken schist of the east side foundation; the resulting “uplift” accompanying this saturation destabilized the concrete gravity structure and, under the pressure of a full reservoir, precipitated collapse. Specifically, the phrase is taken from a letter written by Joseph B. Lippincott—Mulholland’s assistant chief engineer during construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct from 1906 through 1913—to the New England-based engineer John R. Freeman two weeks after the disaster. Noting that “The foundations on which the [St. Francis] dam was built were not good,” Lippincott described how

“I was intimately connected with the driving of a series of tunnels for our aqueduct through the range of mountains on which the left or east abutment of the dam rested… The rock that we encountered was a broken schist and a good deal of it expanded when it came in contact with the air and was what the tunnel men called ‘heavy ground.’ We had great difficulty in holding this ground [for the aqueduct tunnel] before it was lined with concrete.”

The “heavy ground” described by Lippincott is one and the same the broken schist that proved vulnerable to “uplift” when the reservoir was filled. And because Mulholland’s concrete gravity design did little to address the problems posed by “uplift” (in contrast to other major concrete dams built in the teens and 1920s), it was highly susceptible to the hydrostatic forces that brought about the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Norris and I agreed that Lippincott’s phrase “heavy ground” spoke directly to the essential cause of the dam failure and also that it evocatively conveyed the somber, tragic character of a disaster that killed some 400 people.

What impact did the disaster have on William Mulholland’s career, and do you think he should he be held accountable?

DCJ:   The disaster brought Mulholland’s career to an end; nominally he remained Chief Engineer of the city’s Bureau of Water Works and Supply until his formal resignation in November 1928, but after the disaster his stature as an engineer was destroyed. However, while Mulholland was no longer active as an engineer after the disaster, his colleagues did not publicly chastise him and most remembrances offered at the time of his death in July 1935 made no mention of St. Francis Dam and its tragic collapse.

The issue of Mulholland’s responsibility for the disaster comprised the focus of our 2004 article in California History and it is also central to Heavy Ground. We believe that Mulholland exercised complete control over the St. Francis design and that he took full advantage of the “municipal exemption” provided in California’s 1917 dam safety law that allowed him to build the dam without the review of, or approval by, the State Engineer. As such, Mulholland was given the privilege to design and build the St. Francis Dam as he wished without any outside review or counsel. As we document in Chapter 2 of Heavy Ground, Mulholland’s St. Francis design fell far short of what contemporary engineers of the 1920s were doing in terms of addressing problems posed by the effect of “uplift” acting upon concrete gravity dams. So yes, we hold Mulholland accountable for the disaster and Heavy Ground explains why.

William Weinland and his family (along with his visiting mother) in front of their San Francisquito Canyon bungalow prior to their death. From the Weinland Collection at the Huntington Library

William Weinland and his family (along with his visiting mother) in front of their San Francisquito Canyon bungalow prior to their death. From the Weinland Collection at the Huntington Library

What are some of the most poignant or interesting stories you uncovered in the research? Did you find the transcript of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Inquest (now preserved at the Huntington Library) to be of special value in your work?

DCJ:    In terms of poignancy, the story of how Lillian Curtis and her son survived the deluge that engulfed the community at San Francisquito Power House No. 2 (located a mere mile and a half below the dam site) is particularly moving. Norris and I recount it in the Prologue to Heavy Ground as a way to highlight the human tragedy brought by the flood—although staying in the same wooden bungalow, Lillian’s husband and her two daughters died that night; a week later they were buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. The story of William Weinland (an operator at Power House No. 2) and his family is also quite poignant, as his parents came up from Banning, CA a few months before the disaster and took photographs of their son, daughter-in-law and grandson in front of the wooden bungalow that would later be demolished by a 100 foot high wall of water. Unlike the Curtis family, the Weinland family all died in the flood and the next morning William’s body was among the first identified at the makeshift morgue in Newhall. His parents were notified of his death in a telegram sent the afternoon of March 13 and they preserved it in memory of their lost loved ones until donating it to the Huntington Library in the 1940s. Heavy Ground features a copy of this terse missive as a way of highlighting the tragic effect of the flood on far flung extended families.

In terms of “interesting stories,” Heavy Ground pays close attention to William Mulholland’s testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest and especially to the context in which he accepts “blame” for the dam failure and then attempts to claim that State Engineer Wilbur McClure approved the St. Francis Dam and its foundation and thus shares some degree of responsibility for the collapse. But the “story” the Mulholland wants to express relating to McClure’s half-day visit to the St. Francis site loses authority when placed in the context of how the State Engineer and his staff reviewed the plans, approved the design, and supervised construction of the Littlerock Creek and Palmdale Irrigation District’s Littlerock Dam (located about 35 miles east of St. Francis) over the six year period 1918-1924. The “story” of the Littlerock Dam’s relationship with the State Engineer’s office (as required by California’s 1917 dam safety law) is one that may appear unrelated to the St. Francis saga, but in fact it provides a telling and significant counterpoint to how Mulholland controlled the construction of his dam in San Francisquito Canyon.

Overall, the book makes extensive use of coroner’s inquest testimony, as this verbatim record provides invaluable access to the voices of people who were involved in the design and construction of the dam, experienced the horror of the flood, or witnessed conditions at the disaster site firsthand (both pre- and post-flood). The inquest testimony is certainly not “The Truth” per se and neither is it always insightful or edifying, yet the words stenographically captured by the court reporters allow historians to experience directly how and what questions were posed and answered in the tumultuous days after the disaster. And we can reflect on why some seemingly key questions (such as why the height of the dam was raised ten feet after construction began and how was the original design modified in reaction to this alteration) were never presented to Mulholland or his assistants. In many ways, what was left out of the inquest—and also from the Governor’s Commission investigation of the disaster—becomes a story unto itself within Heavy Ground.

The book is marked by the inclusion of extraordinary photographs — can you tell us about the image research you’ve done, and do many of these come from your own collection?

DCJ:   I have always been drawn to the physical character of water control technologies, and began collecting photographs and antique postcards more than 30 years ago. I used to do my collecting at paper ephemera and postcard shows (along with antique shops and flea markets). But with the advent of eBay and other online auction sites my collecting took on new life and several images featured in Heavy Ground are from original photographs obtained on eBay. I sought to use photographs, maps, and drawings in Heavy Ground not as mere window dressing, but rather as a means of illustrating important issues and concepts. It is one thing to describe how the daughters of Lillian Curtis were victims of the flood, but to see a photograph of them as smiling, happy children helps bring the tragedy to life. And while I can write a description of what a cut-off trench for a concrete dam might look like, showing a picture of such a trench and then contrasting it with a photo of the St. Francis foundation—where clearly no cut-off trench was excavated—makes the point visually.

The challenge in assembling the more than 150 photographs used to illustrate Heavy Ground was to insure that each image made its own contribution to the complex mosaic of the disaster. Along with drawing upon my personal collection of dam images (that make up about a third of the images in the book) and the wonderful range of photographs held in the collections of the Huntington Library (that make up another third), I spent much time reviewing photographs held by the Los Angeles Public Library, the Los Angeles Times photograph collection housed at UCLA, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power photo archive, all with the goal of assembling a wide range of images documenting the tragedy from a variety of perspectives. And then care was taken to arrange the myriad images so that they connect with, and reinforce, the book’s text. In the end all the effort was well worth it, and I believe that Heavy Ground can engage a wide audience simply because of the way the illustrations have been integrated with the written descriptions and analysis.

Did the failure of the St. Francis Dam permanently change the politics of water in Los Angeles and the West?

DCJ:   Certainly the disaster led directly to enactment of California’s 1929 dam safety law, which eliminated the “municipal exemption” included in the state’s 1917 dam safety law, and this changed how the City of Los Angeles interacted with state authorities in Sacramento. But the political stature of the city (and of the city-dominated Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) remained in place and did not diminish in the 1930s and subsequent decades. The city’s reputation suffered in the aftermath of the disaster, but Los Angeles leaders successfully negotiated contentious issues related to rehabilitation of the Santa Clara Valley and the compensation of victims and their dependents (see Chap. 5 of Heavy Ground). Within a matter of a few years (and in some contexts only months) the disaster disappeared as a subject of public discourse. Viewed broadly, the disaster was never “forgotten” in an absolute sense, but as described in Heavy Ground, supporters of the Boulder Canyon Project Act sought to downplay the significance of the St Francis tragedy so that it would not impede approval of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam. And once the Boulder Canyon Project Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Coolidge in December 1928, there was little reason why BCPA supporters and Los Angeles civic leaders and boosters would encourage memorialization of the disaster.

The dam was built for the benefit of the City of Los Angeles, but the affected communities were in the far reaches of northwestern Los Angeles County and Ventura County. Is it possible to say what the total human cost was?  And do you think the public memory of the disaster is lessened by the fact that it occurred in the metropolitan hinterlands?

DCJ:   In the immediate aftermath of the disaster newspapers reported victim totals approaching 1,000, but these proved wildly off the mark. As described in Heavy Ground, the actual number of dead came to around 400, a figure that accords with accountings made in May 1928 and June 1929 and with recent research undertaken by anthropologist Ann Stansell using detailed records held by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. It is not uncommon for modern-day newspaper and internet stories to report that there were “600 flood victims” but this number cannot be justified by careful historical research.

If topographical conditions had been such that the St. Francis Dam had been built in the upper reaches of the San Fernando Valley near Sylmar and the flood wave had wreaked havoc on slumbering residents in Van Nuys, Reseda and other communities within the City of Los Angeles, then there is no question but that the disaster would be remembered in very different ways, especially by residents of Los Angeles. But because all of the victims were either in a remote part of Los Angeles County or the rural reaches of Ventura County, the disaster remained separated from the direct experience of most Angelenos. City residents contributed to relief funds and were horrified by the tragedy, but the death and destruction remained at a distance. No doubt the long tail of public memory of the disaster among city residents (and the nation as a whole) would have been very different—and likely much more visceral—if the flood had laid waste to the San Fernando Valley and not the Santa Clara Valley. Sad perhaps, but true.

In the book you say, “The collapse of the St. Francis Dam was a tragedy with long tentacles, affecting people across the state and nation who had never heard of San Francisquito Canyon or understood its place in the hydraulic infrastructure of Southern California.” Why, then, is this event not better known today? Is there a public commemoration of the disaster?

DCJ:   In large part, the “long tentacles” of the disaster derived from the fact that the Southern California Edison work crew at Kemp was comprised of young men who were only staying in the Santa Clara Valley for a few weeks. Once finished with building the new Edison transmission line from Saugus to Ventura they would be moving on to other construction projects far removed from the flood plain below the St. Francis Dam. But it was their unlucky fate to be bunked down along the banks of the Santa Clara River on the night of March 12-13, 1928. Eighty four Edison workers housed at Kemp died and their funerals were often held in hometowns far distant from Southern California.

The reason that the disaster is not so well known today can be traced to the desire of the City of Los Angeles and its leaders to draw as little attention as possible to the disaster without offending the sensibilities of the aggrieved or raising the ire of people skeptical of the city’s power as an urban leviathan. In addition, civic leaders in Ventura County were content to work quietly with their counterparts in Los Angeles to insure that reparations were paid for deaths and damage to property without recourse to lawyers or the civil court system. In the past few decades residents in and around Santa Clarita (a newly incorporated city which includes the former communities of Saugus and Newhall) have initiated lectures, tours, and other memorial activities to increase recognition of the disaster. The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, and its president Alan Pollack, has taken the lead in working to win congressional authorization of a St. Francis Dam Disaster National Historic Site (akin to the National Park Service’s Johnstown Flood Historic Site in Pennsylvania). It is hoped that publication of Heavy Ground will help boost these efforts to increase public awareness of the disaster.

Part of the St. Francis Dam after its 1928 collapse. From the DC Jackson collection

Part of the St. Francis Dam after its 1928 collapse. From the DC Jackson collection

Do you think people should visit the site of the dam failure?

DCJ:    Yes, the site of the dam failure in San Francisquito Canyon is worth visiting, but care should be taken to follow the rules of the Angeles National Forest during any trip to the site. I would also advise anyone to go with a group, preferably led by someone familiar with the terrain and landscape. The City of Los Angeles dynamited the remains of the dam in May 1929 and, although there are many surviving concrete remnants, someone unfamiliar with the site may not readily understand how they relate to the disaster.

What do you think the average person living in Southern California should take away from your book?

DCJ:   Technology does not exist in a political or cultural vacuum. Dams and water control systems are both physical and political constructs and, although the character of the 21st Century regulatory state is different from what existed in the 1920s, engineering design—and its regulation—remains in the realm of human endeavor. No one wants to be imperiled by inadequate or unsafe technologies, but how can we be sure that regulation does not blindly block innovation and creative design? There is no easy answer to this question and I hope that the “average person” in Southern California will look beyond the particulars of the St. Francis disaster and the horrific deaths of some 400 victims to consider how Mulholland’s failings as a dam designer might foster deeper reflection regarding our society’s complicated relationship with technology and public safety. In hindsight, it is always easy to perceive a disaster as something that “regulation” should have protected us from. But regulation is no panacea and it can have a stultifying effect on technological innovation.

How would you suggest that this book is a fitting final scholarly contribution by your late co-author, Professor Hundley?

DCJ:   As the preeminent “Water Historian” of his generation, Norris led the way in elucidating how California came to dominate water resources development in the 20th century American West. Norris perceived William Mulholland as a key player (if not the key player) in rise of Los Angeles as a commanding force in the hydraulic history of the arid Southwest. And he also came to recognize that Mulholland’s responsibility for the St. Francis Dam disaster (the event that brought the self-taught engineer’s career to a close) was, at best, poorly understood. For Norris, Heavy Ground represented an opportunity to bring closure to his historical treatment of Los Angeles—and Mulholland—as actors central to the story of the modern American West.

This interview with Donald C. Jackson was conducted through email on November 4, 2015 by ICW Director William Deverell and ICW Administrative Director Taryn Haydostian. Heavy Ground will be available in December 2015 from UC Press.