William Mulholland

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William Mulholland
Photograph of William Mulholland in 1924
Born William Mulholland
(1855-09-11)September 11, 1855
Belfast, Ireland
Died July 22, 1935(1935-07-22) (aged 79)
Los Angeles, California
Resting place
Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California
Ethnicity Irish
Citizenship American
Education O'Connell school
Occupation Civil engineer
Years active 1878-1929
Employer Bureau of Water Works and Supply
Known for Building the water system of Los Angeles
Successor Harvey Van Norman

William Mulholland (September 11, 1855 – July 22, 1935) was the head of a predecessor department to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was responsible for building the city water infrastructure and providing a water supply that allowed the city to grow into one of the largest in the world. Mulholland designed and supervised the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile (375 km)-long system to move water from Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley. The creation and operation of the aqueduct led to the disputes known as the California Water Wars. In March 1928, the St. Francis Dam failed just over 12 hours after he and his assistant gave it a safety inspection.

Early life[edit]

William Mulholland was born in Belfast, Ireland. His parents Hugh and Ellen Mulholland were Dubliners and they returned to the city a few years after William's birth. His younger brother, Hugh Jr. was born in 1856.[1] At the time of Mulholland's birth, his father was working as a guard for the Royal Mail. In 1862, when William was seven years old, his mother died. Three years later his father remarried. William was educated at O'Connell School by the Christian Brothers in Dublin.[2] After having been beaten by his father for receiving bad marks in school, Mulholland ran off to sea. At 15, he was a member of the British Merchant Navy. He spent the next four years as a seaman primarily sailing Atlantic routes. In 1872 he left the sea and traveled to California. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1877.

Initial career in Los Angeles[edit]

After arriving in Los Angeles, which at the time had a population of about 9,000, Mulholland quickly decided to return to life at sea, as work was hard to find. On his way to the port at San Pedro to find a ship, he accepted a job digging a well. After a brief stint in Arizona where he prospected for gold and worked on the Colorado River, he obtained a job from Frederick Eaton as Deputy Zanjero (water distributor)[3] with the newly formed Los Angeles City Water Company (LACWC). In Alta California during the Spanish and Mexican administrations water was delivered to Pueblo de Los Angeles in a large open ditch, the Zanja Madre. The man who tended the ditch was known as a zanjero.

In 1880 Mulholland oversaw the laying of the first iron water pipeline in Los Angeles. Mulholland left the employment of the LACWC briefly in 1884 but returned in mid-December of that same year. He left again in 1885 and worked for the Sespe Land and Water Company. As part of his compensation he was granted twenty acres on Sespe Creek. In 1886 he returned to the LAWC and, in October of that year, became a naturalized American citizen. At the end of that year he was made the superintendent of the LACWC. In 1898, the Los Angeles city government decided not to renew the contract with the LACWC.

Four years later the Los Angeles Water Department was established with Mulholland as its superintendent. In 1911, the Water Department was renamed the Bureau of Water Works and Supply with Mulholland named as its chief engineer. In 1937, two years after Mulholland's death, the Bureau of Water Works and Supply merged with the Bureau of Power and Light to form the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP); the agency continues to control, supply and maintain all the city's domestic services.[4][5]

The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades near Sylmar, Los Angeles, California

Water Superintendent[edit]

Mulholland, a self-taught engineer, was now laying the foundations that would transform Los Angeles into a modern metropolis. The growth of Los Angeles was limited because of its semi-arid climate and unreliable rainfall. The water system supervised by Mulholland began to irrigate large areas of previously arid land, which promoted population growth.[1] The city's population doubled from 50,000 in 1890 to more than 100,000 in 1900.[6] Ten years later it had tripled to almost 320,000.[7]

To provide water supplies for the ever growing city of Los Angeles, Mulholland designed and oversaw the construction of the 233 miles (375 km) Los Angeles Aqueduct; which opened on November 5, 1913. It carries water from the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra to a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley. The project, which at its peak employed 3900 workers,[8] involved the building of 164 tunnels and more than 175 miles (282 km) of pipes and channels.[9] At the opening ceremony, Mulholland said of this engineering feat, what has been cited as what may be the five most famous words in the city’s history, "There it is. Take it."[10]

Through the 1899 court decision of Los Angeles v. Pomeroy, Los Angeles won the rights to all surface flow water atop an aquifer groundwater without it being within the city limits.[11] San Fernando Valley farmers offered to buy the surplus aqueduct water, but the federal legislation that enabled the construction of the aqueduct prohibited Los Angeles from selling the water outside of the city limits.[12] This induced several independent towns[citation needed] surrounding Los Angeles to vote on and approve annexation to the city so they could connect to the municipal water system. These rural areas became part of Los Angeles in 1915.[13] Other areas opted to join the network too. Owensmouth, (now Canoga Park) (1917), Laurel Canyon (1923), North Hollywood, (at the time was known as Lankershim) (1923), Sunland (1926), La Tuna Canyon (the area today known as Sun Valley) (1926), and the incorporated city of Tujunga (1932). By this time, the administrative size of Los Angeles had more than doubled.

William Mulholland ca.1908-1913

The water from the aqueduct also shifted farming from wheat to irrigated crops such as corn, beans, squash, and cotton; orchards of apricots, persimmons, and walnuts; and major citrus groves of oranges and lemons. These continued within the city environs until the next increment of development converted land use into suburbanization. But a few enclaves remain, such as the groves at the Orcutt Ranch Park and CSUN campus.[14]

Mulholland's stature was also recognized internationally: he provided technical assistance during the construction of the Panama Canal.

He became the first American engineer to utilize hydraulic sluicing to build a dam while construing the Silver Lake Reservoir in 1906. This new method attracted nationwide attention of engineers and dam builders.[15] Government engineers adopted the method when building Gatun Dam, on which Mulholland was a consultant, in the Panama Canal Zone.[16] In 1914, the University of California, Berkeley honored Mulholland with an honorary doctorate degree. The inscription on the diploma read, "Percussit saxa et duxit flumina ad terram sitientum" (He broke the rocks and brought the river to the thirsty land).[1] Mulholland's public profile continued to grow. His offices were, at one point, on the top floor of Sid Grauman's Million Dollar Theater. He was even a favorite to become mayor of Los Angeles. However, when asked if he was considering running for office he replied, "I'd rather give birth to a porcupine backward".

Calaveras Dam[edit]

In May 1913, the Spring Valley Water Company (SVWC), which owned the water supply of San Francisco, authorized an Executive Committee to approve plans and direct construction of the original dam to create Calaveras Reservoir; the committee was also authorized to hire Mulholland as a consultant.[17] In October of that year, with construction of the dam underway, San Francisco’s City Engineer, Michael O'Shaughnessy, wrote negatively of Mulholland in a letter to John R. Freeman, an engineer who had assisted the city in its pursuit of permission to construct the Hetch Hetchy reservoir and water system in Yosemite National Park. O'Shaughnessy expressed the view that Mulholland and F. C. Hermann, chief engineer for the SVWC,[18] were “so intensely conceited that they imagine all they might do should be immune from criticism.” Indicating construction details or practices that he thought incorrect, O'Shaughnessy wrote of what was, in his view, sloppiness and recklessness at Calaveras dam site; he said “another feature which made objectionable impressions” on him was “the flippant manner in which the young college boys in charge of the work and Mulholland, with his swollen ideas of accomplishment, have undertaken this very serious engineering project.”[19]

On March 24, 1918, the dam suffered a partial collapse of the upstream slope. At the time, the water in the reservoir was fifty-five feet deep; no water was released.[20]

The remains of Owens River at Bishop Tuff. In 1913 the watercourse was diverted for irrigation and drinking water in Los Angeles.

Owens Valley[edit]

The California Water Wars were in part the result of Los Angeles' aggressive acquisition of surface, groundwater and the rights to it in the Owens Valley for the aqueduct. The project had been proposed by the Los Angeles Water Department[4] and was publicly debated before it began (because it needed voter approval for its bond financing), once passed, ex-Mayor Frederick Eaton went to the Owens Valley and began buying up water rights and land options. He purchased a large number of parcels of Owens Valley land for himself in the hope that he would become rich because he believed the city of Los Angeles would have to had to buy his land to complete the project.[21][22]

Eaton, J.B. Lippincott and his superiors, Mulholland and others have been accused of using underhanded methods to obtain water rights and block the Bureau of Reclamation from building water infrastructure for the residents in Owens Valley. While it is known that Eaton and Lippincott were not opposed to mixing public service with private gain, the same can not be said for Mulholland.[23][24] Lippincott, the regional engineer of the Bureau, was also a close associate of Eaton,[25] and allowed him access to inside information about water rights. By doing this he could influence Bureau decisions that would be beneficial to Los Angeles.[26]

In 1904 Eaton, with the help of Lippincott, began buying up land in the Owens Valley under the pretense that the land would be used for the reclamation project. By July 1905, Eaton had bought up enough land to secure the land and water rights to build the aqueduct.[27] In 1906, the Los Angeles Board of Water Commissioners voted to undertake the aqueduct project on the recommendation of Mulholland, and decided to use the Department's own resources to purchase Fred Eaton's land and water rights options. In the same year, a bond issue was approved by city voters to proceed with a feasibility study for the construction of a new aqueduct. The Water Commissioners created the Bureau of Los Angeles Aqueduct and appointed Mulholland as Chief Engineer.[5] On June 25 President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law a Congressional bill which gave Los Angeles the water rights to Owens River water. The next year voters approved the bond issue for the aqueduct's construction.[5]

Initially a number of residents in the Owens Valley were willing to sell and move south because of the hard economic times in California, but many were not.[citation needed] It has been said that those who resisted the pressure to sell until the 1930s received the highest price for their land.[who said this?] Though because most farmers and ranchers sold out between 1905 and 1925[citation needed] there are accusations that they received much less than the price Los Angeles was actually willing to pay.[by whom?] Even though there is nothing to substantiate this claim.

In the fall of 1908, The Bureau of Los Angeles Aqueduct began construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.[28]

In 1924, the pursuit of the water rights and exasperated by a prolonged drought throughout California which caused the amount of groundwater being taken to be increased and the large amounts of water being diverted from the Owens River, precipitated the outbreak of violence which came to be known as the California Water Wars. Farmers in Owens Valley attacked infrastructure, dynamiting the aqueduct at Jawbone Canyon, and opening sluice gates to divert the flow of water. Additional acts of violence against the aqueduct continued through the year, culminating in a major showdown when opponents seized a key part of the aqueduct and, for four days, completely shut off the water to Los Angeles. The State and local authorities declined to take any action and the press portrayed the Owens Valley farmers and ranchers as underdogs. Eventually, the city administration was forced to negotiate. Mulholland was quoted as saying, in anger, he "half-regretted the demise of so many of the valley’s orchard trees, because now there were no longer enough trees to hang all the troublemakers who live there".

By 1928, it has been alleged, that the water diversions had completely drained Owens Lake.

St. Francis Dam collapse[edit]

Mulholland's career effectively ended on March 12, 1928, when the St. Francis Dam failed twelve hours after he and his assistant, Assistant Chief Engineer and General Manager Harvey Van Norman, had personally inspected the site. Within seconds after the collapse, only what had been a large section the central part of the dam remained standing and the reservoir's 12.4 billion gallons (47 million m3) of water began moving down San Francisquito Canyon in a 140 ft. (43 m) high torrent at 18 miles per hour (29 km/h). In the canyon, it demolished the heavy concrete Powerhouse Number Two (a hydroelectric power plant) and took the lives of 64 of the 67 workmen and their families living there. The waters traveled south and emptied into the Santa Clara riverbed flooding parts of present-day Valencia and Newhall. Following the river bed, the water continued west, flooding the towns of Castaic Junction, Piru, Fillmore, Bardsdale and Santa Paula in Ventura County. It was almost two miles (3 km) wide, and still traveling at a speed of 5 miles (8 km) per hour when it reached the ocean at 5:30 a.m.; emptying its victims and debris into the Pacific Ocean near Montalvo, 54 miles (87 km) from the reservoir and dam site. Many of the bodies that had been washed out to sea were recovered from the Pacific Ocean, some as far south as the Mexican border; others were never found.

The city of Santa Paula received some of the worst damage, especially the low-land areas nearer the riverbed. Here, in many areas, only foundations or rubble marked where many homes had been. Rescue efforts were hampered and walking made hazardous by a thick layer of mud which carpeted the area.[29]

Recovery crews worked for days to dig out bodies and clear away the mud from the flood's path. The final death toll is estimated to be near 600,[30] of which at least 108 were minors.[31]

Mulholland took full responsibility for what has been called the worst U.S. civil engineering disaster of the 20th century and resigned at the end of 1929.[32] During the Los Angeles Coroner's Inquest he said, "this inquest is a very painful for me to have to attend but it is the occasion of that is painful. The only ones I envy about this whole thing are the ones who are dead."[33] In later testimony, after responding to a question he added, "Whether it is good or bad, don't blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, I won't try to fasten it on anyone else."[34]

The inquest jury concluded responsibility for the disaster lay in both an error in engineering judgement, in determination of the suitability of the area's geology as a stable foundation for the dam, and errors in public policy.[35] They recommended that Mulholland not be held criminally responsible as they stated in their verdict; "We, the Jury, find no evidence of act of criminal act or intent on the part of the Board of Water Works and Supply of the City of Los Angeles, or any engineer or employee in the construction or operation of the St. Francis Dam..."[36]

Nonetheless, his critics pointed out that another dam on which Mulholland had acted as a consultant collapsed and the city abandoned a dam project in San Gabriel before completion.[37] Mulholland had increased the height of the dam by 20 feet (6.1 m) after construction had already started, without a corresponding increase in the width of the base.[citation needed]

Later life[edit]

Mulholland formally retired in November 1929.[32] In retirement, he began writing an autobiography, but never completed it.[37] Shortly before his death, he consulted on the Hoover Dam and Colorado River Aqueduct projects. He died in 1935 and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Mulholland Drive (orange) and Mulholland Highway (brown) within Los Angeles County.


In his book Water and Power, author and historian William L. Kahrl summed up Mulholland's public legacy to the principle of public water development in writing:

The harshest judgement of Mulholland's actions lay in the damage he had done to the principle of public water development. More than any other individual, William Mulholland, through the building of the aqueduct and the formation of the Metropolitan Water District, established the principle of public ownership of water indelibly on California's history. But the furor that followed upon the mistakes made in the last seven years of his public service discredited the man and thereby gave aid to the enemies of the ideal he had labored all his life to establish.[37]

In contrast to the author William Kahrl's opinion on this one subject, his overall character was summarized by one of his associates in the engineering profession, who described him in saying:

" A man with a mind remarkable for its breadth and brilliant wit. A man who can build an aqueduct, and man who can also, beside a mountain campfire, while he broils his trout, discourse on profound structural geology. A man whose life has been spent in public service for the benefit of the masses in the land of his adoption. Remarkable for his originality of thought and analysis, yet equally active in the practical application of these ideals. Original in the minute details of construction, yet brave to the limit of conceiving and assuming the responsibilities of the greatest projects. Kind, generous and true to the public welfare, he stands an example of what the applied scientist can do for his state when he holds his brief for the people."[38]

In Los Angeles, Mulholland Dam in the Hollywood Hills, Mulholland Drive, Mulholland Highway and Mullholland Middle School are named after Mulholland.

In popular culture[edit]

  • A fictionalized story loosely based on the California Water Wars was used as the basis for the 1974 Roman Polanski film Chinatown, as well as the first third of the 1994 novel Taking of the Waters by John Shannon.
  • Singer/songwriter Frank Black recorded two songs about the life and works of William Mulholland: "Ole Mulholland", from Teenager of the Year (1994), and "St. Francis Dam Disaster", from Dog in the Sand (2001).

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Mulholland, Catherine (2002). William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. University of California Press. 
  2. ^ "Biographical Notes William Mulholland". Wandering Lizard. 
  3. ^ Sheer, Julie. "Los Angeles Aqueduct" Los Angeles Times (February 18, 1996)
  4. ^ a b "DWP - Name Change Chronology". Water and Power Associates. 
  5. ^ a b c "Water in Early Los Angeles". Water and Power Associates. 
  6. ^ "Population of Los Angeles is 102,479". U.S. Census Bureau. October 1, 1900. Retrieved July 3, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Historical Resident Population City & County of Los Angeles, 1850 to 2000". LA Almanac. Retrieved July 3, 2012. 
  8. ^ Los Angeles Board of Public Service Commissioners (1916). Complete Report on Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct: With Introductory Historical Sketch; Illustrated with Maps, Drawings and Photographs. City of Los Angeles, Department of Public Service. p. 270. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  9. ^ Prud'homme, Alex (2011). The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century. Simon and Schuster. pp. 151–153. ISBN 978-1-4165-3545-4. 
  10. ^ "Water in the desert". 
  11. ^ Thomas, Harold Edgar (1970). Water Laws and Concepts. U.S. Geological Survey. p. 10. Retrieved 20 June 2013. 
  12. ^ Bearchell, Charles, and Larry D. Fried, The San Fernando Valley Then and Now, Windsor Publications, 1988, ISBN 0-89781-285-9
  13. ^ Davis, Margaret Leslie (1993). Rivers in the Desert. p. 92. ISBN 1-58586-137-5. Retrieved September 2, 2010. 
  14. ^ "CSUN botanical garden". Retrieved May 30, 2010. 
  15. ^ "William Mulholland and "White Gold"". LA Almanac. Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  16. ^ Rogers, David J. (1995). "A Man, A Dam and A Disaster". The St. Francis Dam Disaster Revisited Nunis Jr., Doyce B. Ed. Historical Society of Southern. p. 23. ISBN 0-914421-13-1. 
  17. ^ Spring Valley Water Company (2013). Spring Valley Water Company Records. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. p. 5. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  18. ^ Hutchinson, Charles T. (1913). Western Machinery and Steel World, Volume 3, Western Engineering. Western Engineering Publishing Company. p. 338. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  19. ^ Hetch Hetchy: Its Origin and History M. M. O'Shaughnessy, Chapter VII: Spring Valley Water Company
  20. ^ Gillette, Halbert P.; Davy, Sir Humphry (1918). Engineering & contracting. p. 27. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  21. ^ name = "Eaton-PBS">"Fred Eaton". PBS: New Perspectives on The West. Retrieved October 8, 2011. 
  22. ^ "William Mulholland". PBS:New Perspectives on The West. Retrieved March 30, 2006. 
  23. ^ Kahrl, William. L. (1982). Water and Power. Los Angeles: University of California. pp. 48–69. ISBN 0-520-05068-1. 
  24. ^ Reisner (1993), p.62
  25. ^ Reisner (1993), p.63
  26. ^ Reisner (1993), p.64
  27. ^ "Owens River Water Rights Obtained For Los Angeles Aqueduct" Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictues, July 1905
  28. ^ "Los Angeles Aqueduct Facts". Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Retrieved 2012-11-15. 
  29. ^ Outland, Charles F. Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St Francis Dam. A.H. Clark Co. 1977 pp.154-158 ISBN 0-87062-322-2
  30. ^ Pollack, Alan (March–April 2010). "President's Message". The Heritage Junction Dispatch (Santa Clara Valley Historical Society). 
  31. ^ See "Report on Death and Disability Claims: St. Francis Dam Disaster in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties" of the Citizen's Restoration Committee (July 15, 1929), which list 91 minors involved in settled claims, 12 minors involved in unsettled claims, and at least 5 minors on whose behalf no claim was filed.
  32. ^ a b "Harvey Van Norman". Los Angeles' City Engineers and Surveyors. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 
  33. ^ Transcript of Testimony and Verdict of the Coroner's Jury In the Inquest Over Victims of St. Francis Dam Disaster, p. 16
  34. ^ Transcript of Testimony and Verdict of the Coroner's Jury In the Inquest Over Victims of St. Francis Dam Disaster, p. 378
  35. ^ Verdict of the Coroner's Jury In the Inquest Over Victims of St. Francis Dam Disaster, p. 2
  36. ^ Verdict of the Coroner's Jury In the Inquest Over Victims of St. Francis Dam Disaster, p. 4
  37. ^ a b c Kahrl, William. L. (1982). Water and Power. Los Angeles: University of California. pp. 315–317. ISBN 0-520-05068-1. 
  38. ^ "William Mulholland - The Man Who Built the Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct". Retrieved 9 May 2014. 


External links[edit]