BALDWIN HILLS ( — A “50th Year Commemoration” ceremony is set to take place on Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the devastating Baldwin Hills reservoir disaster.

On the morning of December 14, 1963, the Baldwin Hills Reservoir, built to provide safe water for Los Angeles in the event of an emergency, saw its final moments.

A fault line, on which the reservoir was constructed directly on top of, experienced a seven-inch displacement, resulting in a compromise of the large structure’s foundation.

Historian Abe Hoffman recalls watching the event unfold live.

“I was looking at this and saying ‘Wow, there is a crack in that reservoir’,” Hoffman said. “And I called up to my friends living in that area that were watching TV.”

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power scrambled to drain the reservoir, but they ran out of a time. In three hours, the dam failed and collapsed, unleashing 290 million gallons of water down the hill to sweep through the Baldwin Hills community below.

“The most striking images I remember was, there were cars parked on the street in the way of this flood coming down, and they looked like matchbox toy cars being bashed around by this flood,” Hoffman recalled.

The flood hit the community head on, effecting over 9,000 homes and killing five. Further loss of life was prevented through immediate rescue efforts.

Many civil engineers agree that the dam, built between 1947 and 1951, was destined to fail. UCLA professor of civil engineering, Jonathan Stewart, discussed the geological and seismological factors that led to the tragedy.

“…the reason a displacement on that fault occurred was because to the west of the reservoir, the Baldwin Hills reservoir, was a large depression that was caused by the extraction of oil over time,” Stewart said.

The circumstances were similar to those surrounding the events of the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928. The St. Francis Dam, engineered by William Mulholland in San Francisquito Canyon near Saugus, was also built on top of a fault. Just before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam failed, resulting in a colossal wall of 12.4 billion gallons of water that rushed to the coast of Ventura, claiming over 450 lives.

The remains and remnants of the St. Francis Dam still lay in the bed of San Francisquito Canyon.

The site of the Baldwin Hills reservoir, however, is today enjoyed as the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation area — a place Abe Hoffman recognizes as very different from that tragic day in 1963.

“In terms of the neighborhood, it certainly has changed very dramatically.”

For more information on the site of the Baldwin Hills reservoir, including the “50th Year Commemoration”, visit the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation website.


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