In 1877, a 21-year-old Irishman named William Mulholland arrived in Los Angeles, having worked his way from Ireland, by way of Pennsylvania, Panama, and San Francisco as a sailor, knife sharpener, lumberjack, dry goods salesman, Apache fighter and mine prospector. He would, in time, engineer a historic feat and have great impact upon the future of Los Angeles.
Years later, Mulholland wrote, "Los Angeles was a place after my own heart. The people were hospitable. The country had the same attraction for me that it had for the Indians who originally chose this spot as their place to live. The Los Angeles River was a beautiful, limpid little stream, with willows on its banks. It was so attractive to me that it at once became something about which my whole scheme of life was woven, I loved it so much."
Although he possessed no formal training in engineering, Mulholland pursued an intense personal interest in geology, hydraulics and engineering by educating himself at the public library. Living in a shack near what would later become the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive (near the present day Mulholland Fountain), he worked as a ditch tender, keeping a nearby section of the Los Angeles water channel clear. By 1886, he had worked his way up to become the private Los Angeles City Water Company’s superintendent.
After the City of Los Angeles bought out the Los Angeles City Water Company in 1902, Mulholland oversaw the formation of the new Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply (which would eventually become the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the 1920s). He was the department’s first superintendent and chief engineer. He also became the first American engineer to build a dam utilizing hydraulic sluicing (Silver Lake Reservoir, 1906). This new method attracted the attention of engineers and dam-builders nationwide.
Mulholland saw that a burgeoning and thirsty Los Angeles would soon need much more water than it had available. After much maneuvering and politicking by himself and others, Mulholland realized the dream of opening a new water source by tapping into Eastern Sierra water from the Owens Valley. He personally organized and supervised up to 3,900 construction workers at a time to build the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct over six years. The massive project was completed ahead of time and under budget ($24.5 million in municipal bonds were approved by voters for the project). It was the largest and most difficult municipal engineering project in U.S. history at the time. After an elaborate ceremony on November 5, 1913, water was released from the aqueduct into the San Fernando Valley. Mulholland declared to exuberant crowds at the ceremony, "There it is. Take it." The achievement gave the City of Los Angeles the ability to grow beyond a population of 500,000 and leverage of water to expand city territory into the San Fernando Valley and other surrounding communities (the cities of San Fernando, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills held out).
In 1923, the City of Los Angeles honored Mulholland by means of a new highway that ran along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains. It was named Mulholland Drive.
As the City of Los Angeles began extracting greater amounts of water from the Owens Valley and balked at paying higher prices for it, residents there began fighting back. In the summer of 1924, a band of Valley opponents launched their first dynamite attack against a section of the aqueduct. 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. State and local authorities declined to take action and the press portrayed the Owens Valley farmers and ranchers as underdogs. Los Angeles was forced to negotiate. Mulholland stated that 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."
The emboldened Owens Valley hiked water prices even higher. Mulholland became even more resistant to their demands. In 1927, dynamite again exploded along the aqueduct. Mulholland responded with a small army of heavily armed guards. The national press called the whole affair, California’s “Little Civil War.”
Owens Valley opposition did not hold together for long. Its leaders were owners of several local banks and were caught embezzling depositors’ funds. The banks collapsed and most Valley residents lost money. Opposition to the aqueduct fizzled. Mulholland and the City of Los Angeles moved in to buy up as much Valley land as possible, eventually taking ownership of 95 percent of farmland and towns.
With this victory, Mulholland turned his attention to potential new sources for water. He saw the Colorado River as a promising source. His vision eventually led to the construction of Hoover Dam and the Colorado River Aqueduct, an accomplishment he did not live to see.
Tragically, in 1928, the St. Francis Dam, a Mulholland project, collapsed, spilling 12.5 billion gallons of raging water through a sleeping Santa Clarita Valley and Ventura County. The water tore a two-mile wide, 54-mile long path to the coast. Close to 500 people died in the water and mud and millions of dollars of property were lost. The 72-year-old Mulholland was immediately blamed and he quickly accepted it. The incident cast serious doubt upon leaving engineering decisions in the dictatorial hands of an informally trained engineer. According to Fred Barker, an unofficial LADWP historian, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Jury faulted Mulholland with poor site selection and poor engineering judgment in choosing the kind of dam to be built on the site. He was further criticized for allowing the dam to be built without independent expert opinion.
Mulholland retired that same year as head of the Los Angeles Water Department, carrying the blame for the dam's collapse to his death in 1935. A 1992 engineering investigation, however, absolved him, pointing to an unstable rock formation beneath the dam, not the construction itself, as the cause of the disaster.
Although the film “Chinatown” (starring Jack Nicholson) was set in a different time period, it portrays in fictional form some of the events surrounding Mulholland’s quest for water. Mulholland's persona in the film is loosely split between two characters in the film, water department chief Hollis Mulwray and water tycoon Noah Cross (played by John Huston).
Special thanks to Fred Barker, waterworks engineer and unofficial LADWP historian, for his contribution to this article.