St. Francis Dam disaster to be explored in major new documentary

August 31, 2001
Santa Paula News

The California Council for the Humanities, a state-based affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has awarded a $10,000 outright script development grant for a 90-minute documentary called ?The St. Francis Dam Disaster.? The grant proposal was co-sponsored by the Historical Society of Southern California (HSSC) and the Ventura County Museum of History & Art (VCMHA). The film, planned for national public television distribution in 2003, will be produced by Emmy Award-winning husband and wife documentary filmmakers Jon and Nancy Wilkman.

The California Council for the Humanities, a state-based affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has awarded a $10,000 outright script development grant for a 90-minute documentary called ?The St. Francis Dam Disaster.? The grant proposal was co-sponsored by the Historical Society of Southern California (HSSC) and the Ventura County Museum of History & Art (VCMHA). The film, planned for national public television distribution in 2003, will be produced by Emmy Award-winning husband and wife documentary filmmakers Jon and Nancy Wilkman.HSSC Executive Director Tom Andrews commented: ?The collapse of the St. Francis Dam, just before midnight on March 12, 1928, is considered the greatest American civil engineering failure of the 20th century. With a death toll estimated at 450 - the exact number is still unknown - the catastrophe, beginning in the San Francisquito Canyon, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, is a California tragedy second only to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.?Tim Schiffer, executive director of VCMHA, added: ?Although the failure of the St. Francis Dam is a major event in Ventura County history, in many ways the aftermath has national and international significance. What was learned made major contributions to the creation of modern civil engineering. And, along with some remarkable Ventura County people and their stories, it?s also part of the saga of William Mulholland, the legendary engineer who brought water to Los Angeles. Mulholland?s efforts made modern Los Angeles possible, but his career came to a tragic end when he accepted responsibility for the collapse of the St. Francis Dam.??Nancy and I have been fascinated with the St. Francis Dam story for more than 10 years,? said Jon Wilkman, a documentarian with more than 35 years? experience. ?What especially excites us is the fact that this is a story with all the action and drama of a Hollywood epic, but also it has powerful educational potential, and social and political significance with relevance today. We plan to use state of the art photo realistic computer animation to recreate and analyze the geological and physical forces that led to the failure. With dramatic re-creations, based on actual interviews and testimony, we?ll also tell the human stories of heroism, survival and personal tragedy that filled those early morning hours of March 13, 1928 and the days that followed.?
Nancy Wilkman added, ?As historians as well as filmmakers, we look forward to working with the people and historical resources of communities all along the path of the St. Francis flood - from Santa Clarita, through Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula to the Pacific Ocean. A major goal is to find and videotape survivors and we ask anyone who has direct or indirect experience of the disaster to get in touch with their local historical societies or us. We?ve already uncovered treasure troves of photographs, film and memorabilia. And with the help of local communities, we hope to find even more. I?m especially excited by the interactive website we?re planning to create to enhance the educational outreach of our project,? she concluded.The Wilkmans, whose work has been seen on all the major networks, including PBS, A&E, and the History Channel, have assembled a distinguished collection of national and local historical and engineering resources to make sure that ?The St. Francis Dam Disaster? is not only exciting television, but as honest and accurate as possible. ?Man-Made Disaster: The St. Francis Dam Story,? by former Santa Paula rancher and historian Charles Outland, will be a major source, and forensic engineer J. David Rogers, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Missouri at Rolla, is an important member of the production team. His 1995 book ?The St. Francis Dam Revisited? is considered the most authoritative modern study of the disaster.?I?ve been studying the St. Francis Dam story for more than 25 years,? Rogers said, ?and I?m still uncovering the unexpected. It?s a fascinating and very important story and the Wilkmans, with their combined historical and filmmaking skills, are the perfect team to tell it fully for the first time on television.?



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