Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles

William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles

Catherine Mulholland
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 432
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles
    Book Description:

    William Mulholland presided over the creation of a water system that forever changed the course of southern California's history. Mulholland, a self-taught engineer, was the chief architect of the Owens Valley Aqueduct-a project ranking in magnitude and daring with the Panama Canal-that brought water to semi-arid Los Angeles from the lush Owens Valley. The story of Los Angeles's quest for water is both famous and notorious: it has been the subject of the classic yet historically distorted movieChinatown,as well as many other accounts. This first full-length biography of Mulholland challenges many of the prevailing versions of his life story and sheds new light on the history of Los Angeles and its relationship with its most prized resource: water. Catherine Mulholland, the engineer's granddaughter, provides insights into this story that family familiarity affords, and adds to our historical understanding with extensive primary research in sources such as Mulholland's recently uncovered office files, newspapers, and Department of Water and Power archives. She scrutinizes Mulholland's life-from his childhood in Ireland to his triumphant completion of the Owens Valley Aqueduct to the tragedy that ended his career. This vivid portrait of a rich chapter in the history of Los Angeles is enhanced with a generous selection of previously unpublished photographs.Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction Book of 2000

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92901-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-2)
  6. CHAPTER 1 The Long Journey from Dublin to Los Angeles, 1855–1876
    (pp. 3-13)

    Of those civil servants who helped develop the modern metropolis of Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, the most prominent was William Mulholland (1855–1935). For over forty years spanning the administrations of nineteen mayors, Mulholland was a central force in the creation of a municipally owned water and power system that allowed a small, otiose western outpost to swell to outsized proportions. As a self-taught and inventive engineer, he became the creator of a project that ranked in magnitude and daring with the Panama Canal.

    A pen-and-ink cartoon of Mulholland drawn in 1902, about the time the City...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The City of Angels, 1877
    (pp. 14-22)

    Ella Deakers was not the first to find Los Angeles unprepossessing. “A queer little Spanish town,” young author Margaret Collier Graham reported to her parents in Keokuk, Iowa, shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles in 1876 with her consumptive husband. “There is not much to say of this wonderful city of the Angels,” she wrote. “We have been walking around nearly all day through the narrow streets full of strange Spanish and Chinese faces, passing long rows of low adobe houses swarming with dusky children and reeking with foreign odors.” Yet beyond the “squalor and nastiness,” she also saw...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Private Water Company and Its Owners, 1878–1879
    (pp. 23-29)

    When William Mulholland began his job with the Los Angeles Water Company as a deputy zanjero, he tended the main supply ditch from Crystal Springs, then the chief source of the city’s domestic water supply. Paid $1.50 a day and housed in what he once described as “a shack near the Old Sycamore Tree” (the latter then a historic landmark in early deeds and records), he settled in for two years of work and study that were to lead to his career as a hydraulic engineer. The locale remained important to him. Visiting as an old man over fifty years...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Advancing in the Water Business, 1880–1886
    (pp. 30-37)

    Mulholland’s promotion in 1880 moved him from his shack near the river to another rude dwelling west of North Broadway in the hills of what is today Elysian Park (approximately the present site of the Buena Vista Power Station). He was to be in charge of a crew laying an extension of twenty-two-inch pipe parallel to the west bank of the river to the toe of the Buena Vista Reservoir, which, under Fred Eaton, was undergoing one of its several enlargements. Living alone and largely indifferent to creature comforts, Mulholland possessed minimal housekeeping skills and would later recall that the...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The New Superintendent, 1887–1892
    (pp. 38-47)

    Mulholland’s advancement to superintendent of the water company coincided with the city’s first land boom, which, though brief, was dramatic. The population of Los Angeles bounded from 11,000 to 50,000 in less than three years as large areas of heretofore unoccupied land were promoted and established as town sites and new communities. With the upheaval, the need for public services became acute, so Mulholland and Eaton, the two chiefly responsible for maintaining the city’s mains and drains, must at times have felt that they were the busiest men in the expanding town.

    Heavy rains fell during Mulholland’s first months as...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Water Plots and Politics, 1893–1895
    (pp. 48-60)

    Los Angeles’s determination to grow in the 1890s led not only to the creation of a harbor through annexation of land adjoining the sea and the development of an efficient interurban transportation system but also to the laying of a groundwork for a water system that everyone hoped would provide an ample supply for a burgeoning population. Not surprisingly, the decade produced critical legal battles and decisions that arose from the city’s struggle to maintain its rights to the waters of the Los Angeles River. Of one major and complicated water suit in the 1890s—City of Los Angeles v....

  12. CHAPTER 7 The Years of Mayor Eaton, 1898–1900
    (pp. 61-74)

    At no time did Mulholland better demonstrate his ability to maneuver around the shoals of politics and water issues than in the closing years of the nineteenth century, when he found himself caught between private sympathy for a publicly owned system and public loyalty to his employer, the private company. Although popular sentiment seemed to favor public ownership, the community’s primary desire was for “a water system which shall give pure and abundant water at fair prices.” The private company defended its performance with occasional propaganda pieces claiming that it provided water at rates 50 percent less than any city...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The City’s Victory over the “Grand Monopoly”, 1901–1902
    (pp. 75-87)

    At the beginning of 1901, the city was snarled in thirty lawsuits growing out of its struggle for municipal water control. One alone consisted of 10,000 typewritten pages. The cost of all these litigations was draining the city’s coffers at a time of economic slump, and in May the council ordered a retrenchment of all city expenses. In the following months, the city and the water company engaged in a kind of high-stakes poker game that called for alertness and skill with each new deal. When a local group called the Mountain Water Company suddenly surfaced with a request for...

  14. CHAPTER 9 New Regime for a Booming Town, 1903–1904
    (pp. 88-99)

    For all the congratulatory talk about having removed the water system from politics, it never altogether escaped the controversies and power struggles centered in City Hall. Although Democrat Meredith Snyder became mayor again at the end of 1902 with a plurality of 2,700 after winning every precinct in the city, the majority of city officers and councilmen remained Republican. In selecting the new five-member board of water commissioners, Snyder reflected this balance by choosing two Republicans, one Democrat who voted Republican, and two Democrats. During this board’s tenure, the Los Angeles water system would be revolutionized. All the players were...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Desperate Remedies in a Dry Season, 1904
    (pp. 100-111)

    As dry conditions continued through the winter of 1903–1904, railroad officials were announcing that they expected 10,000 colonists to arrive in California in 1904, and builders were anticipating a boom. Meanwhile, thousands of cattle were starving in the Antelope Valley for lack of rain, and returning hunters reported that Lake Elizabeth had disappeared, leaving only a mud flat. Field crop growers announced that between winter frosts and drought, shipments of vegetables from Southern California had fallen several hundred carloads below estimate. In Los Angeles, pine trees in Elysian Park were turning brown from lack of water, and on January...

  16. CHAPTER 11 A Plan Revealed, 1905
    (pp. 112-125)

    Months before the proposal to acquire Owens River water for Los Angeles was finally made public on July 29, 1905, hints and rumors circulated around town. In December 1904, hardly able to contain his secret or enthusiasm, Mulholland gave a statement to the city’s newest morning newspaper, Hearst’s year-oldLos Angeles Examiner, which had urged the city to solve its chronic water shortage. He assured the public it had no need to panic at the present population but warned that growth beyond 225,000 would cause a problem—unless, he slyly suggested, a way were found to kill Frank Wiggins, perennial...

  17. CHAPTER 12 Preparations for an Aqueduct and a Trip to Washington, D.C., 1906
    (pp. 126-140)

    Even though the overwhelming event of 1906 for California was the earthquake and fire in San Francisco, the year was pivotal for Los Angeles in that it saw not only the establishment of the city’s right to import water from distant places but also marked the beginnings of the open shop’s triumph over organized labor and the rise of the Progressive movement in politics. In combination, these developments produced great civic turbulence and change, beginning with a turmoil of debate on the Owens Valley question as water men continued to lay ground for the massive undertaking.

    As the city pressed...

  18. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  19. CHAPTER 13 The Big Job Begins, 1907
    (pp. 141-158)

    The year 1907 ushered in a new mayor and a political debate that did not subside until after the noisy and spirited springtime campaign for the passage of the $24 million Owens River bond issue. At the end of 1906 the mayoral campaign’s four candidates had reflected the divisions within the city. Democrat Arthur G. Harper won by a slender margin after the Republicans, fearful of losing to one of the nonparty Progressive or Labor candidates, had thrown their support to him. Harper was allied to the city’s old-guard political machine, with ties to Southern Pacific interests. A genial but...

  20. CHAPTER 14 The Chief and the General, 1908
    (pp. 159-170)

    Mulholland had told Allen Kelly that he knew what building the aqueduct would entail. “I’m going into this as a man in the army goes into war, because it would be cowardly to quit. It will take the life out of me and if I stay to the end I’ll come out a rickety old man, tied together with baling wire. But if you think I’m going to wear myself out for a lot of political jobbers, you can think again.” This outburst was not without cause, as since the election of Mayor Harper and the passage of the water...

  21. CHAPTER 15 Building the Aqueduct: The Best Year, 1909
    (pp. 171-182)

    In most ways, 1909 was the best of all the seven years of aqueduct construction. Ample funds were available, work advanced on schedule, and crews set new world records for speed in tunnel drilling. Nor did the city’s uproar as it threatened to become the first in the nation to recall its mayor much affect work. In early February 1909, Mulholland wrote his friend and colleague Henry Dockweiler, who was helping San Francisco to prepare a brief in the Spring Valley water case as well as to fix rates for San Rafael, Oakland, and San Francisco. Doc had asked Bill...

  22. CHAPTER 16 Troubles and Interruptions, 1910
    (pp. 183-195)

    In an apparent attempt to keep his campaign promise of fairness and justice for all groups, incoming Mayor George Alexander shook up the city commissions with surprising additions and removals. He appointed the first union man ever to serve on a municipal commission, Ben C. Wilson of the Typographical Union, to the fire commission and restored Dr. John Randolph Haynes, a Progressive, to head the civil service commission. More controversial were his naming Lippincott to the park commission and removing Sherman from the water board. When Lippincott, with his penchant for controversial behavior, accepted the appointment, some saw a dangerous...

  23. CHAPTER 17 Aqueduct Progress and Political Fireworks, 1911
    (pp. 196-208)

    Having maneuvered the shoals of the previous year, Mulholland remained optimistic about the aqueduct’s progress in 1911. The city demonstrated its continued faith by offering to purchase $500,000 of its own bonds in order to advance funds when the foot-dragging New York syndicate was reluctant to sell its 1911 subscription. With money available, the work could advance. Only 1,295 feet of granite separated the two Elizabeth Tunnel crews digging and blasting their way through the mountain to the anticipated meeting; the steam shovels, drillers, and concrete workers were progressing across the desert at a rate of five or six miles...

  24. CHAPTER 18 The Investigation, 1912
    (pp. 209-227)

    If 1909 can be reckoned as the year when everything went right during the building of the aqueduct, 1912 should be remembered as the one when everything went wrong: the year when Mulholland’s old dream of keeping the city’s water affairs out of politics was shattered in the bitter aftermath of theTimesbombing and the deeply divisive 1911 mayoral campaign. Given the amount of sniping and insinuation aimed at the aqueduct during the campaign of 1911, Mulholland and the aqueduct advisory board probably had no choice but to request an investigation, even though the process opened a Pandora’s box...

  25. CHAPTER 19 The Completion of the Aqueduct, 1913
    (pp. 228-248)

    Many old-timers of Los Angeles would long remember 1913 not as the year that saw the completion of the Owens River Aqueduct but as the year of the Big Freeze. A cold wave the first week of January produced one of the worst freezes ever in Southern California. Eighty percent of crops were destroyed and the citrus industry crippled. One land developer who surveyed the damage from Pasadena to Monrovia reported that “things are so badly frozen that it is impossible to try and clean them up.” Work on the aqueduct halted when the temperature dipped to 8°F at Haiwee...

  26. CHAPTER 20 After the Aqueduct, 1914–1919
    (pp. 249-264)

    Mulholland’s pace did not slacken after the aqueduct hoopla. Five days later he was back in Independence for the soda works case. Shortly after he testified that Fred Eaton’s water appropriations were on behalf of the City of Los Angeles and that work on the surveys and preliminary construction had begun one year before the city had voted its first bonds for the project, a writ of prohibition stopped the hearings. A change of venue had been requested, claiming conflict of interest as presiding Judge William D. Dehy was a riparian owner of Owens River property, and now an appellate...

  27. CHAPTER 21 A Stormy Decade Begins, 1920–1923
    (pp. 265-281)

    The fight for municipal power in Los Angeles and the later campaign to build the federal project of Boulder Dam occurred during the politically reactionary years of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations and produced some of the ugliest political hate campaigns in the history of the West. Permanent scars yet remain on the reputations of those who battled in those wars, for the private interests proved almost insuperable adversaries against the advocates of public ownership. Not until 1936, a year after Mulholland’s death, would the municipalization of power in Los Angeles be fully realized, nor did the Chief live...

  28. CHAPTER 22 Boulder Dam and Dynamite, 1924
    (pp. 282-298)

    Controversy over Boulder Dam and the second Swing-Johnson bill (a bill to provide for the protection and development of the lower Colorado River Basin) dominated the news in Los Angeles during the fifteen months after armed ranchers had mounted the Big Pine Ditch and stopped work on the city’s proposed diversion ditch in the summer of 1923. At the beginning of 1924, the discontents in Owens Valley were somewhat muted, and with a continued drought in the state, Mulholland’s most critical concern was planning future water and power supplies in his burgeoning city. To maintain the power system, he felt...

  29. CHAPTER 23 More Dynamite, 1925–1927
    (pp. 299-318)

    Although no further acts of violence against the aqueduct occurred in 1925, the war of words persisted, especially after state engineer W. F. McClure in January released his report on the Owens Valley–Los Angeles controversy to the state legislature in Sacramento. McClure, who had once lived in Owens Valley and was friendly to its people, produced a wildly one-sided document, almost as if he were an attorney preparing a brief for his client. Freighted with reprints of editorials from the Owens Valley–San Joaquin Valley newspapers and reports from the major ditch companies, the “letter of transmittal” offered little...

  30. CHAPTER 24 The Saint Francis Dam Disaster and After, 1928–1935
    (pp. 319-332)

    Great human defeats are never forgotten. They pass into the annals of history and myth, even enter our racial memory as the Achilles’ heels of human aspirations: the sinking of theTitanic, the explosion of theGrafzeppelin, the failure of the space shipChallenger, and the collapse of the Saint Francis Dam. Rose Mulholland remembered how the horrible news came to their home in the middle of the night. When the upstairs telephone rang sometime after midnight in the hallway just outside her father’s bedroom door, she took the call. It was Van Norman, who told her the dam...

  31. Afterword
    (pp. 333-334)

    In 1989, a filmmaking group for public television asked me to participate in a documentary video film,Mulholland: The Dream-Builder(part of the Los Angeles History Project series for KCET). One of the shoots took place April 28 in San Francisquito Canyon, where I had not been since I was five years old when my shaken father had taken me the day after the disaster to view the wreckage. Sixty years later, although trepid about visiting what still seemed haunted and forbidden grounds, I hiked with the crew on a warm sunny day to the former dam site where few...

  32. Notes
    (pp. 335-384)
  33. Bibliography
    (pp. 385-392)
  34. Index
    (pp. 393-411)
  35. Back Matter
    (pp. 412-412)