Jon WiIkman Interview
Author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
Jon Wilkman is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Along with a number of documentaries about Los Angeles, he is the author of an illustrated narrative history of the city, Picturing Los Angeles. His new book, Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, chronicles the events that lead up to the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, as well as the aftermat, and relevance to today. An Amazon Book of the Month, Floodpath is considered a definitive account of the disaster that took the lives of nearly 500 people 50 miles north of Los Angeles. The event was a tragic turning point in the life and career of William Mulholland—one that would ultimately ruin his reputation and legacy as the man who brought water to Los Angeles. I sat down with Jon recently to discuss his work on both the book and the upcoming documentary film of the same title.
Where did you grow up?
In the San Fernando Valley suburb of North Hollywood., Growing up in Los Angeles, like every kid, the only history you learned about were the missions and statehood of California in the fourth grade, and that was the last you heard of it. All of the other history we learned took place on the east coast. So when I graduated from high school, I was interested in history and culture. Why would I want to hang around here?
What did you study in college?
I went to Oberlin College in Ohio. And one of the great things about Oberlin is that you were free to explore. I had a major in sociology, but I had enough credits for a history major or an English degree. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in documentary films, so that sent me to New York, where some fortuitous events led me to one of the best places to work at the time, CBS.
At CBS I worked on a documentary series called The Twentieth Century, which was a great show. And then I worked on a science series, called The Twenty First Century where I met a lot of people who were designing the world we live in today. The internet was just beginning, and they talked about lasers and satellites, things that were new at the time. They talked about their vision, and they were pretty much right.
After fourteen years in New York, I came back Los Angeles and I saw the city in an entirely different way. It was more than just Hollywood and the Beach Boys. L.A.’s a very interesting city. And that’s when I got hooked on Los Angeles history. I produced a series for KCET called The Los Angeles History Project, which was the first TV series that looked at Los Angeles history in a systematic way, this was around 1988. And that’s when I first learned about the St. Francis Dam disaster.
I watched the video trailer for the documentary film on Floodpath, which is a companion piece to your book.
Working with my late wife and partner, Nancy, I actually started the film well before I wrote the book. Most of the interviews I conducted, many of which are in the book, were done as early as 1995. There were twenty interviews with survivors of the disaster. They’re all dead now. It’s one of those things. When you are an independent filmmaker, you go from one project to another. There were periods of years when I didn’t work on the St. Francis dam project, but it was always in my mind.
Did the documentary come first?
Yes, I first started researching it in the 1980s. I hope the book will be a way to attract interest in the film. I only need to complete a few more sequences, including computer-generated photo realistic animation showing the collapse of the dam, and re-enactments of the night of flood.
You interviewed the granddaughter of William Mulholland.
Yes. Catherine Mulholland, her grandfather’s biographer, has since died. I have the last taped interview with her. I knew her socially. She gave me several boxes of her own research about the collapse, which really helped with the book. I told her that I couldn’t promise anything, and that I would come to my own conclusions. I was honored she trusted me.
She didn’t care if your conclusion was positive or negative.
She said she’d been burned by others who’d interviewed her. The story is burdened by the movie, Chinatown, which was a wonderful movie,
but more fiction than fact. It contributes to appreciating the complexity of William Mulholland. He’s either the devil incarnate or untarnished icon. In fact there wouldn’t be a city of Los Angeles with William Mulholland. And yet he made some terrible miscalculations with the St. Francis dam. What I tried to do was to tell this as a complex, nuanced story. And so often what you do in books is you look at it in the present, when you know everything. But when I wrote the book, what I wanted to do was to put the reader in the time frame. So what the reader knows is what anybody knew at any particular time back then. The story reveals itself. There were things that happened that weren’t really understood until later. And what I hope I accomplished in doing that is to get people today to think in the same way. It gets them involved in the story as it unfolds in real time..
Mulholland also built the Mulholland Dam, overlooking Hollywood. I remember you writing about how it was lowered after the collapse of the St. Francis dam, which was a virtual duplicate.
Safety concerns after the St. Francis Dam required the city to lower it. There’s an image of it in Floodpath, looming over downtown Hollywood, which it still does, but obscured by a earthen berm and trees and shrubs.
How did you go about finding all these people to interview?
One of the pleasures of documentary work, and certainly writing a book, is the research. One aspect of the story that had been underplayed, and again what attracted me, was how this is a great disaster story, and a technological detective story, and courtroom drama also reflects on how history is written. Clearly, it’s the deadliest disaster in the history of twentieth century America. Why isn’t it more well-known or written about?
I told several people about your book, and they reacted the same way. They sort of remember hearing something about it.
One of the subtexts of the book is how history is written, and particularly how Los Angeles history is written—or not written. I discuss many aspects of this in Floodpath. Many of the victims were Mexican-American farm workers, not the majority, but a sizeable number. Even people who know of the tragedy, don’t know the story of these mostly farmworkers. I wanted to interview everyone involved. So early on, I brought in some Spanish-speaking friends, and they helped us find eyewitnesses and families of the victims that were Mexican-American. We also went through the Spanish press to see how they viewed the story. And a point I make in the book is why they should be included. And how more people are interested in their story today, then perhaps in the past.
When you visit these small agricultural towns along the floodpath, most of the people, and their families, have lived there for generations. So when you inquire at a local historical society, or talk to old-timers in the area, they know, and will tell you, “Oh, you should talk to this person—their mother was caught in the flood.” Or so and so was a little kid at the time.” One lead takes you to another. So my wife Nancy and I began to meet these people, and they would tell us about other people. In some cases you can look at a newspaper of the time and see the names of eyewitnesses. When you look at a phone directory today, you can see that this person still lives in town.
How was the story reported in the Mexican press?
La Voz de la Colonia was the Spanish language newspaper in Santa Paula at the time. It was basically a one-man operation. They didn’t have a lot of money. In general, they didn’t have the means to report what the bigger newspapers were reporting, but they covered local events. On the editorial page, they also had a chance to reflect on the disaster. The Anglo press would divide them into Mexicans and Americans. But the Hispanic population didn’t see it that way. The editor of the newspaper said, “We are not a race. We are Mexicans and Americans.” He had a very modern idea of American culture. It was an idea that was not popular at the time. You have to remember that in the 1920s, it was a pretty racist society. There was even a proud KKK chapter in Santa Paula.
What was the hardest or most interesting part of writing Floodpath?
The hardest part about doing this book, Floodpath, but also the most fun, was you already know the ending, you know how it’s going to turn out. So how do you write about, and make it interesting for the reader? That was the most challenging part of the book. You’re constantly trying to keep the reader involved. It happens in the first chapter, the dam is down and everyone has died. So the average reader would look and see that there’s another 250 pages. So it worked to my advantage, as you wonder what’s in these other pages. There’s got to be something interested. So you sort of lure people in. And the story is being told in real time. So you are engaging the reader with events as they unfolded back then. The reader tries to guess what caused the dam to break — was it dynamite, was it an earthquake – what was it? So slowly you uncover the truth about how and why it happened. And then you get to a point where all the official reports are in and you think that’s that final word. And you eventually learn that—no, not really. There are a lot of possible answers. From a writing point of view it was one of the biggest challenges, and the most fun.
What also what attracted me to the story, most people will look at it and say, oh, what a sad event. But it’s also reminder that we have this infrastructure today that is in serious need of repair. The dams and bridges across this country were built decades ago. This tragedy could happen again. So it’s a wake up call, to look at some of these aging structures. Even if they’re maintained, which many are not, they’re still fifty years old or more. They need to be upgraded and properly maintained. There are 4,400 dams that have been determined to be susceptible to failure.
Every time you think this story is over, there’s another aspect to it. So at the end of the book, when you say, it’s finally over, there’s still another chapter that talks about other dams that are at risk of failing—that could collapse. And nobody is doing anything about this.
That’s part of the problem in the making of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, that there were no laws requiring state supervision. That all changed after the collapse. The entire dam safety movement was a result of this St. Francis dam. So that’s great, all the newly built dams after that were deemed safe. But if nobody maintains them, they aren’t safe.
Today, they’re beginning to fill the Owens Lake again, and bring water back to the Owens Valley. And it seems that today a resolution is coming. There’s now a chance to correct these errors of the past. In Los Angeles now they’re trying to reclaim the concreted-in L.A. River.. The question today is how do you create a liveable and sustainable urban environment.
When you first started working on Floodpath, did you have a publisher? How did it go from concept to publishing?
I saw this new book as a national story. Through a friend on the east coast I found an agent at William Morris. He sold the book to Bloomsbury publishing They’re one of the top publishers in the world. It was a very smooth process. I wrote a treatment and that was how I got the book sold. The writing went relatively quickly because of all the research I had for the documentary film. We had cabinets fill of material. I had an idea of the structure. I had all these photos and interviews and newspaper clips. So I had everything I needed to complete the book in a timely manner. I could have written Floodpath ten years ago. But I was lucky I didn’t. One of the real obstacles to research was accessing the DWP archives. It wasn’t that they were inaccessible, but no one knew where they were or how to do find specific information. Fortunately for me, DWP hired an archivist who began to sort all the material. So I had access to all this information that was never available before., in cluding internal memos and notes from the field.
How did you turn all this research material into a narrative?
I really wanted to write Floodpath in a nonfiction narrative style so it has dialogue and description in it. But every bit of dialogue has a justifiable source. So when someone says something, I have a record that that’s what they said.
The difference between standard fiction and nonfiction is the narrative style. In nonfiction, unless you have a diary, you can’t get into a character’s mind, but you can tell people what they said and did. For Floodpath, a major resource to do this was the transcripts of the Los Angeles Coroner’s Inquest But when I started researching, nobody seemed to have a copy. It had disappeared — a major reason we didn’t do this book sooner. From my research, I knew the transcript was about 800 pages. But I didn’t have it – nor did the LA City Archives, or even the DWP. So one day my wife Nancy was researching at the Huntington Library and she came back and proudly announced she’d found them in the obscure collection of a retired engineer. I knew then I could do the book and the documentary film.
There’s a lot of engineering information in Floodpath, but I was fortunate to have the help of J. David Rogers, a geological engineer who’d spend decades studying the disaster. As I was writing the book, he vetted a lot of the technical information. But the book is written for a general audience. It’s not just for academics or engineers.
Why isn’t this disaster better known?
To me, that was another major mystery to be solved. One of the reasons why people don’t remember was that everything was settled fast—people got paid, houses were rebuilt, the valley was restored. That’s what most people wanted. They wanted to get on with their lives and not slow progress. People wanted to put the story behind them, and have it disappear. Also, the DWP and the City of Los Angeles had no reason to keep the embarrassing memory alive. Atr the same time, a the great era of dam building in the 1930s and 40s was about to begin and engineers didn’t want to create what they thought was unnecessary public doubt after the failure.. The Hoover dam was being planned at the time. Lastly, it wasn’t long before Americans were more concerning by the Great Depression and looming World War II. The story of the St. Francis Dam got engulfed by other bigger stories.
I think this story could not only make a great documentary, but a dramatic film as well.
Well, there’s some discussion about making it into a TV mini-series. But we’ll see how that progresses. There are a lot of intriguing elements to this story, with William Mulholland and his enemies, and the Valley and the dynamiting, the courtroom drama, and the rise and fall of a great man. It’s all contained within this tragic event.
Who are some of the documentary filmmakers that inspired you?
I think Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers. But starting in the late 1950s, I was watching Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow,
and the See It Now series on CBS, which took a more journalistic approach. In the 60s the Cinéma Vérité movement started, because the equipment allowed you to run around and sych the sound. So I was at the very beginning of that. A documentary filmmaker is sort of like a teacher. You go and find something out, and then you tell people about it. When you show people what you’ve produced, they’re learning something for the first time. I find that satisfying and fun.
Have you ever written any fiction?
No, just nonfiction, and documentary filmmaking work. The pleasure of doing nonfiction is you’re up against the ultimate arbiter – the factual truth, If you’re writing fiction, you can have your characters say and do whatever you want, because you created them. But with nonfiction you’re always up against the facts. And that’s how you have to play it. It’s a challenge. To me, that’s true with any artistic medium, where the really great work is done within a form. I never thought I would be a professional writer. I liked to write. I learned I was good at it. And almost before I knew it, along with making documentaries, I was writing nonfiction books like Floodpath. It took more than 20 years, but I hope readers will think it was worth it. It was for me.
Thank you very much for your time. I hope everyone reads your new book.
Produced as a companion to the new book Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, this ninety-minute documentary will include interviews with survivors, rare stills and footage, and 3-D computer graphics that recreate the collapse and aftermath.