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

Written by Jon Wilkman
Review by Jessica Brockmole

Late in the night on March 12, 1928, the newly built St. Francis Dam, fifty miles north of the burgeoning town of Los Angeles, broke, flooding the San Francisquito Canyon and Santa Clara River Valley with 12.4 billion gallons of water. In the five hours it took to sweep out to the Pacific Ocean, it left 500 dead and fifty-four miles of destruction.

Floodpath stretches beyond the events of March 12. It’s the story of William Mulholland, Irish immigrant and self-taught chief engineer of Los Angeles’s municipal water department, who brought water to the city. It’s the story of California’s shifting population of immigrants, ranchers, and movie stars in the early 20th century. It’s the story of Los Angeles itself, a thirsty oasis at the edge of the desert.

Mulholland is a fascinating figure, whose rise and fall hinged on the building of the St. Francis Dam and its ultimate failure.  Though the writing is occasionally dense, this is a comprehensive, well-researched book and an important story in the history of the Los Angeles area.