William Mulholland (September 11, 1855 – July 22, 1935) was the head of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles in Southern California. He was responsible for building the water aqueducts and dams that allowed the city to grow into one of the largest in the world. His methods of obtaining water for the city led to disputes collectively known as the California Water Wars. In 1928, his career ended in ignominy after the St. Francis Dam failed just hours after he had given it a personal 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, also called Hugh, had been born in 1857 . 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. 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, however, 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 as Deputy Zanjero with the newly formed Los Angeles Water Company (LAWC). (In California during the Spanish and Mexican administrations water was delivered to Los Angeles in a large open ditch, or zanja. 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 LAWC 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 LAWC. In 1898, the Los Angeles city government decided not to renew the contract with the LAWC. Four years later the Los Angeles Department of Water was established with Mulholland as its head.
Mulholland, who was best described as a self-taught engineer, was now laying the foundations that would transform Los Angeles into today's metropolis. Up until then, Los Angeles' growth had been limited due to its geography and arid conditions. As Mulholland's public works began to send thousands of gallons of water across the area, irrigation and expansion quickly followed.
The 233-mile (375 km) Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in November, 1913, took water from the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra, in a project requiring over ,000 workers and 164 tunnels. Water reached a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley on November 5. At the opening ceremony, Mulholland said of this engineering feat:
“There it is. Take it.”
The words are said to be "the five most famous words in the city's history". Mulholland's power grew, his offices were, at one time, on the top floor of Sid Grauman's Million Dollar Theater. During this time, Mulholland was the favorite to become mayor of Los Angeles but when asked if he was considering running for office he replied "I'd rather give birth to a porcupine backward".
Mulholland also provided technical assistance on the Panama Canal.
California Water Wars
In 1913 the watercourse was diverted for irrigation and drinking water in Los Angeles.The Los Angeles City Water Company's aqueduct project was publicly debated before it acquired significant property in Owens Valley, because it needed voter approval for its bond financing. Once this was given, Mayor Fred Eaton, who had been the superintending engineer of the Los Angeles City Water Company for nine years, stopped at nothing to acquire water rights. These were hard times, and some residents of the Owens Valley were eager to sell out and move south. By 1905, through aggressive purchases, the Los Angeles City Water Company had acquired enough acreage to begin building the city's aqueduct.
After it acquired the first 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) in the Owens Valley, other farmers in the valley raised their prices for their land. Ironically, farmers that resisted the pressure from Los Angeles until 1930 received the highest price for their land. Most farmers sold their land from 1905 to 1925 and received less than Los Angeles was actually willing to pay. By 1928 the Los Angeles aqueduct had drained the 100 sq mi (260 km2) Owens Lake dry. This situation, and the diversion of the Owens River, precipitated the California Water Wars. Owens Valley farmers resisted violently, even dynamiting the aqueduct at Jawbone Canyon. They also opened sluice gates to divert the flow of water. The farmers' most successful tactic was to raise their asking price for their land. Eventually Los Angeles' city administration was forced to negotiate. Bullishly, 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."
Mulholland's career effectively ended on March 12, 1928, when the St. Francis Dam, which he had built, failed just hours after he personally inspected the site. The collapse of the central part of the dam sent 12,500,000,000 U.S. gallons (4.7×1010 l; 1.04×1010 imp gal) water into the Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles. Within seconds of the dam wall failing, a 100-foot (30 m) high torrent proceeded down the Santa Clara riverbed at 18 mph (29 km/h), swamping everything in its path until it reached the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. By the next morning rescuers found the town of Santa Paula lay buried under 20 feet (6.1 m) of mud and debris, and other parts of Ventura County were covered up to 70 feet (21 m) in flood deposits. Recovery crews worked for days to dig out bodies and clear away the mud from around Santa Paula. The final death toll was estimated to be 450 killed, which included 42 school children.
Mulholland took full responsibility for the worst US civil engineering disaster of the 20th century and resigned in March 1929. During the subsequent investigation, he said, "the only people I envy in this thing are the dead". Though the inquest placed responsibility for the disaster on improper engineering, design, and governmental inspection, it also recommended that Mulholland not be held 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).
Shortly before his death, Mulholland provided input on the Hoover Dam and Colorado River Aqueduct project. He died in 1935 and is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Mulholland Drive (orange) and Mulholland Highway (brown) within Los Angeles County. Mulholland Drive and Mulholland Highway within Los Angeles County are named in his honor.
In fiction, media
A fictionalized version of the story was used as the basis for the 1974 Roman Polanski film Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston.
In the 1990s, the artist Frank Black recorded two songs, "Ole Mulholland" (from Teenager of the Year) and "St. Francis Dam Disaster" (from Dog in the Sand) about the life and works of William Mulholland.
PBS - The West - William Mulholland
LADWP: William Mulholland
1.^ Catherine Mulholland, 2000, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., ISBN 0520217241
2.^ "Water in the desert". http://www.lausd.net/Mulholland_MS/mulholland/canel.htm.
3.^ "William Mulholland". PBS:New Pespectives on The West. http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/i_r/mulholland.htm. Retrieved 2006-03-30.
4.^ Rohit, Parimal (March 7, 2008). "Remembering the St. Francis Dam - 80 Years Later". The Signal.