William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles
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 movie Chinatown, 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This vivid portrait of a rich chapter in the history of Los Angeles is enhanced with a generous selection of previously unpublished photographs.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
Controversial, self-taught engineer Mulholland (1855-1935) was almost singlehandedly responsible for transforming Los Angeles from a dusty pueblo of 9,000 souls into a teeming megalopolis. The tough-as-nails Irishman, who ran off to sea as a teenager and arrived in California in 1877, began as a ditchdigger, rose to become waterworks superintendent and, in 1913, gave L.A. its first abundant water supply by building the Owens Valley Aqueduct with an army of 5,000 men. Critics charge that the aqueduct, which diverted water to L.A. across desert and mountains from the Owens River 233 miles northeast, was created through devious land deals, water thievery and cronyism. Owens Valley farmers and ranchers, who felt their water had been wrongfully taken from them, committed acts of sabotage, dynamiting sections of the aqueduct in 1924 and 1927 (the 1979 movie Chinatown dealt with parts of this saga). In this sympathetic, scholarly biography, the engineer's granddaughter attempts to refute these charges, which she labels "myths," but her explanations are not always convincing. In a densely detailed narrative unfolding against a backdrop of land booms, earthquakes, oil drilling, local scandals, labor unrest and the rise of the Progressive movement, she portrays Mulholland as a pragmatist with integrity, guided by an overarching vision. She uses recent research pointing to geological conditions undetectable by 1920s technology to exonerate him of the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster, which unleashed a flood that killed 500 people and destroyed Mulholland's career. Though the scent of whitewash hovers over its pages, this biography will appeal to readers of regional history, city politics and environmentalism. 40 b&w photos.