September 11, 1855
|Died||July 22, 1935
Los Angeles, California
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California|
|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 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, his career ended when the St. Francis Dam failed 12 hours after he and his assistant gave it a safety inspection.
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. had been born in 1856. At the time of Mulholland's birth, his father was working as a guard for the Royal Mail. In 1862, when he 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. 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. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1877.
Initial career in Los Angeles
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) 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.
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 with unreliable rainfall. The water system supervised by Mulholland began to irrigate large areas of previously arid land, which promoted population growth. The city's population doubled from 50,000 in 1890 to more than 100,000 in 1900. Ten years later it had tripled to almost 320,000.
To provide water supplies for the ever growing city of Los Angeles, Mulholland 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 required more than 5,000 workers, involved the building of 164 tunnels and more than 175 miles (282 km) of pipes and channels. 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."
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. 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. This induced several independent towns 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. Other urban areas opted to join the network too, these were Owensmouth (Canoga Park) (1917), Laurel Canyon (1923), Lankershim (1923), Sunland (1926), La Tuna Canyon (1926), and the incorporated city of Tujunga (1932). By now, the administrative size of Los Angeles had more than doubled.
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.
In 1914, the University of California at Berkeley honored Mullholland 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). 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".
Mulholland's stature was also recognized internationally: he provided technical assistance during the construction of the Panama Canal.
The California Water Wars were the result of Los Angeles' aggressive acquisition of groundwater rights in Owens Valley for the municipal project to build the aqueduct overseen by Mulholland. Although the scheme by the Los Angeles Water Department was publicly debated before it began (because it needed voter approval for its bond financing), once passed, ex-Mayor Frederick Eaton, who had also been the superintending engineer of the Los Angeles City Water Company for nine years, stopped at nothing to acquire water rights.
Eaton, Mulholland and J.B. Lippincott used underhanded methods to obtain water rights and block the Bureau of Reclamation from building water infrastructure for the residents in Owens Valley. Lippincott, the regional engineer of the Bureau, was a close associate of Eaton, and allowed him access to inside information about water rights. He could also influence Bureau decisions that would be beneficial to Los Angeles.
As a respected public figure, Mullholland also influenced public opinion in Los Angeles by dramatically understating the amount of water available for Los Angeles' growth. Mullholland also misled residents of the Owens Valley, by claiming that Los Angeles would only take water for domestic purposes not for commercial irrigation.
Initially some residents in the Owens Valley were willing to sell and move south because of the hard economic times in California, but many were not. Those that resisted the pressure to sell until 1930 received the highest price for their land. However most farmers sold out between 1905 and 1925 receiving much less than the price Los Angeles was actually willing to pay.
In 1904 Eaton, with the help of his friend J.B. 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. 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. Water Commissioners created the Bureau of Los Angeles Aqueduct and appointed Mulholland as Chief Engineer. 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.
In the fall of 1908, The Bureau of Los Angeles Aqueduct began construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
By the 1920s, the aggressive pursuit of the water rights along with the diversion of the Owens River precipitated the outbreak of violence 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. Eventually, the city administration was forced to negotiate. Mulholland was quoted as saying 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 the water diversions had completely drained the 100 mi² (300 km²) Owens Lake.
St. Francis Dam collapse
Mulholland's career effectively ended on March 12, 1928, when the St. Francis Dam failed twelve hours after he and his assistant 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 reservoirs 12.4 billion gallons (47 billion liters) 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 next morning rescuers found parts of the town of Santa Paula buried under 20 ft. (6 m) of mud and debris, and other parts of Ventura County were covered in as much as 70 ft. (21 m) in flood deposits. 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, of which at least 108 were minors.
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. During the Los Angeles Coroner's Inquest he said, "the only people I envy in this whole thing are the dead" and toward the end of the Inquest went on to say, "Don't blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, and I won't try to fasten it on anyone else." Though the inquest placed responsibility for the disaster on improper engineering and governmental inspection, it recommended that Mulholland not be held criminally responsible because he had no way of knowing that the dam's site contained unstable rock formations, which were ultimately determined to be the cause of failure. Nevertheless, his critics pointed out that two other dams which Mulholland had consulted on had collapsed, and a third one was abandoned before completion.
Mulholland formally retired in November 1929. In retirement, he began writing an autobiography, but never completed it. 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.
In his book Water and Power, historian William L. Kahrl summed up Mulholland's public legacy:
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.
In popular culture
- A fictionalized story based on the California Water Wars was used as the basis for the 1974 Roman Polanski film Chinatown. The character of Hollis I. Mulwray appears to be drawn from Mulholland.
- 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).
- Mulholland, Catherine (2002). William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. University of California Press.
- "Biographical Notes William Mulholland". Wandering Lizard.
- Sheer, Julie. "Los Angeles Aqueduct" Los Angeles Times (February 18, 1996)
- "DWP - Name Change Chronology". Water and Power Associates.
- "Water in Early Los Angeles". Water and Power Associates.
- "Population of Los Angeles is 102,479". U.S. Census Bureau. October 1, 1900. Retrieved July 3, 2012.
- "Historical Resident Population City & County of Los Angeles, 1850 to 2000". LA Almanac. Retrieved July 3, 2012.
- Water and Power Associates Inc. "William Mulholland Biography"
- 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.
- "Water in the desert".
- Thomas, Harold Edgar (1970). Water Laws and Concepts. U.S. Geological Survey. p. 10. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
- Bearchell, Charles, and Larry D. Fried, The San Fernando Valley Then and Now, Windsor Publications, 1988, ISBN 089812859
- Davis, Margaret Leslie (1993). Rivers in the Desert. p. 92. ISBN 1-58586-137-5. Retrieved September 2, 2010.
- "CSUN botanical garden". Retrieved May 30, 2010.
- "William Mulholland". PBS:New Perspectives on The West. Retrieved March 30, 2006.
- Reisner (1993), p.62
- Reisner (1993), p.63
- Reisner (1993), p.64
- Reisner (1993), p.73
- "Fred Eaton". PBS: New Perspectives on The West. Retrieved October 8, 2011.
- "Owens River Water Rights Obtained For Los Angeles Aqueduct" Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictues, July 1905
- "Los Angeles Aqueduct Facts". Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
- Pollack, Alan (March–April 2010). "President's Message". The Heritage Junction Dispatch (Santa Clara Valley Historical Society).
- 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.
- "Harvey Van Norman". Los Angeles' City Engineers and Surveyors. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
- Rohit, Parimal (March 7, 2008). "Remembering the St. Francis Dam - 80 Years Later". The Signal.
- Kahrl, William. L. (1982). Water and Power. Los Angeles: University of California. pp. 315–317. ISBN 0-520-05068-1.
- Reisner (1993), p.105
- "William Mulholland" on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power website
- Notes on Irish Mulhollands in the 1600s