Baldwin Hills Dam disaster, 1963

On the morning of December 14, 1963, a soft, gurgling sound of running water drew the attention of the caretaker at the Baldwin Hills Reservoir in West Los Angeles. Soon, a small crack was detected in the lining of the 232 feet (71 m) high dam that enclosed the reservoir. In the following hours, police officers tried their best to warn thousands of residents in the neighborhood below.

Baldwin Hills dam disaster 1963, Doug Wilson:Herald Examiner at LA Public Library

Baldwin Hills Dam disaster 1963, Doug Wilson: Herald Examiner at LA Public Library

Water rushing through, further eroded the earthen dam and widened the crack to a 75-foot gash. Only four and a half hours after the discovery of the defect, the dam collapsed. A 50-foot wall of water came running down Cloverdale Avenue, slamming into homes and cars: 65 hillside houses were ripped apart, and 210 homes and apartments were damaged. Thanks to the evacuations, only five people lost their lives.

The construction of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir was the last project overseen by Ralph R. Proctor (1894-1962), field engineer in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. For 23 years, he had been responsible for the design, construction, and maintenance of all dams in the Los Angeles water system. In his early years, he had worked with William Mulholland on the St. Francis Dam. The dramatic failure of that dam in 1928, killed 600 people and ended Mulholland’s career. In the following years, Proctor invented new methods to control soil compacting and became an authority in his own right.

During construction of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir, between 1947-1951, serious safety issues emerged. It was located directly on an active fault line, and the underlying geologic strata were considered unstable. Proctor, however, did not tolerate any criticism and he aggressively proceeded with the project according to his own design.

The Baldwin Hills Dam disaster was a blow to engineering confidence. Numerous hearings and investigations followed the collapse, suggesting various causes. By now, it has become widely accepted that the failure was triggered by sinking of the land under the dam due to extensive oil drilling in the adjacent Inglewood Oil Field and aggravated by injections with pressured liquids into the oil wells.

The reservoir was never rebuilt. Its remains lay bare for a few years, until County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn proposed in 1968 that it be turned into a park. Fifteen years later, the empty lakebed was partially filled in and the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area was created.

Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, County of Los Angeles, Department of Parks and Recreation
California Department of Water Resources, Investigation of failure, Baldwin Hills Reservoir: Report, 1964
Bob Pool, ‘Serene Hilltop Marks Site of Landmark Disaster’, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2003
K.R. Saxena, V.M. Sharma, Dams: Incidents and Accidents, CRC Press / Balkema, 2004, p. 144-151
Ronald F. Scott, ‘Baldwin Hills Reservoir Failure in Review’, Engineering Geology 24, 1987, p. 103-125