William Mulholland with a surveying telescope on a tripod, ca.1908-1913.
Without a huge system of aqueducts for water supply, Los Angeles could never have grown into the largest city in California and Angelinos can thank the Irishman William Mulholland for this. Despite being honored by the city’s famous Mulholland Drive, few today remember Mulholland’s history or its amazing achievements.
Mulholland’s parents, Hugh and Ellen Mulholland, were born in Belfast in 1855 and were Dubliners who soon returned to their city with him shortly after Williams was born. In 1862, when William was seven years old, his mother died and three years later his father remarried. Mulholland was raised by the Christian Brothers at O’Connell School in Dublin and received poor grades for which his father beat him up. With a decision to leave Ireland as well as school, Mulholland joined the British Merchant Navy at the age of 15, where he spent his next four years as a seaman, making 19 Atlantic crossings.
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Fascinated by American stories, Mulholland jumped overboard in New York in 1874 and headed west. He worked on a Great Lakes freighter for a while and then as a lumberjack. He later almost lost a leg while cutting a tree and decided to move to Ohio, where he reunited with his brother Hugh. Two years later, the brothers stowed away on a ship that sailed over the southern tip of South America to California. The stowaways were discovered and had to leave the ship in Panama. To save the $ 25 gold for crossing the Isthmus, the brothers decided instead to walk the 47 miles from Colon to Balboa and then worked their way as crew members on a ship to San Francisco that passed the Golden Gate in February drove to California in 1877.
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Mulholland made his way to the then tiny city of Los Angeles, which had only 9,000 inhabitants. He got a job as a humble zanjero or caretaker of the city’s irrigation ditches and devoted 50 years of his life to developing the city’s water infrastructure. Mulholland’s first job was only to maintain this rudimentary water system, but after his day-to-day work, the Irishman decided to master the study of water systems and learn textbooks on mathematics, hydraulics and geology himself. Thanks to his strength of character and knowledge, he advanced from trench keeper to straw boss, to foreman, to supervisor. In 1880, Mulholland oversaw the laying of the first iron water pipeline in Los Angeles, which drastically reduced water evaporation. Although he went briefly to work on other California water projects, he returned to Los Angeles and served as the city’s water superintendent until 1902, when the city’s Water Commission was liquidated, and was appointed first superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Department .
As a visionary, Mulholland foresaw massive growth in Los Angeles, but realized that the area’s semi-arid climate and limited water supply required the development of an aqueduct system. Mulholland once said, “If you don’t get the water, you don’t need it.” He initiated a public work program to irrigate large areas of previously dry land, which fueled rapid population growth. Mulholland realized that the region’s hunger for water could only be satisfied by controlling the Owens Valley, a lush area irrigated by the runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From 1902 to 1905, Mulholland and others persuaded the valley residents not to develop their own water infrastructure system by portraying themselves as contributors to a public irrigation project for the Owens Valley, but in reality Mulholland and others bought the land and water rights for Los Angeles, that he bought for a starvation wage.
The angry residents of the Owens Valley fought back with all their might and began the so-called California Water Wars. At the height of the conflict, parts of the aqueduct system were sabotaged and even blown up. In 1974 Roman Polanski’s film noir classic “Chinatown” staged a heavily fictionalized version of the conflict in which Mulholland was presented as the character Hollis Mulwray.
His crowning achievement was the completion of the great aqueduct that stretches 233 miles from the Owens River to Los Angeles and supplies millions of people with water fed by the snow of the distant Eastern Sierras. Mulholland, who led an army of 5,000 men who worked for five years, completed on time and under budget what was then the most difficult American hydraulic engineering project ever carried out. When the first water from the aqueduct reached Los Angeles on November 5, 1913, the city celebrated with an extravagant civic ceremony at the terminus of the aqueduct in the San Fernando Valley. There Mulholland said with characteristic brevity and modesty: “There it is: take it.” The city was now about to develop into a major metropolis, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct remains one of the greatest technical triumphs in the modern world to this day.
Mulholland was also the first American engineer to use a hydraulic sluice to build a dam on the Silver Lake Reservoir in 1906. This radically new construction idea attracted nationwide attention and government engineers adopted his method in building the Gatun Dam in the Panama Canal Zone.
However, building one of the dams in the Los Angeles aqueduct system would haunt him to the end of his days and result in his death. On March 12, 1928, just hours after a Mulholland inspection and pledge of safety, the St. Francis Dam, one of several dams he built to increase water storage on the Owens River, collapsed, creating $ 12 billion Gallons of water poured into the Santa Clara Valley, killing over 400 people. Although Mulholland was acquitted of all charges because the instability of the rock formations could never have been discovered by geologists in the 1920s, his career and reputation were ruined. Mulholland, plagued by guilt from the collapse to the end of his days in 1935, said, “If human judgment is wrong, I am the human.”
A memorial fountain was dedicated to him on August 1, 1940, just a few steps from the hut where he had started out as a zanjero. A five-ton pink granite rock, the beauty of which Mulholland once commented on when the city’s aqueduct was built, stands at the monument entrance. A plaque on the boulder reads: “To William Mulholland (1855-1935): A destitute Irish immigrant boy who rose to be a rugged American citizen and self-educated engineer through the strength of his industriousness, intelligence, integrity and fearlessness, a whole-hearted person, the father of this city’s water system and the builder of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This Memorial is gratefully dedicated to those who are the recipients of His selfless generosity and the beneficiaries of His prophetic vision. “