William Mulholland Gave Los Angeles Water and a Chance to Grow

Michael J. Arvizu
El Vaquero Staff Writer

William Mulholland, the man responsible for quenching Angeleno’ thirst during the early 20th century, is told through the eyes and ears of his granddaughter, Catherine Mulholland, in her recent book “William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles” (University of California Press, 2000).

Born in Belfast on Sept. 11, 1855, Mulholland was the second son of Hugh and Ellen Deakers Mulholland. Though Muholland’s family was from Dublin, his father was a mail guard stationed to the north. Mulholland’s oldest brother, Thomas, was born in Belfast in 1853, and his younger brother, Hugh Patrick, was born in Derry in 1860. By 1860, five years after the end of the Great Famine left most of the Ireland landscape torn and disheveled, the Mulholland family settled permanently in Dublin.

However, Dublin did not seem to suit Mulholland. He never cared much about his native land, according to Catherine. Asked whether he would consider visiting his native land, Mulholland replied that he never wanted to see the “damned island” again.

Mulholland was the key figure in the creation of a municipally owned water and power system that made Los Angeles into one of the biggest cities in the world. Spanning a career of more than 40 years, including “the administrations of 19 mayors” and holding the positions of superintendent and chief engineer of the city’s water department, this self-taught engineer, who barely had any schooling, was responsible for the building of the Los Angeles Owens River Aqueduct, which is a man-made river made up of pipes and conduits carrying water from the Owens River to Los Angeles – a journey of at least 238 miles – that according to Catherine, far surpassed the capacity of the local river.

The task paralleled in magnitude projects such as the building of the Panama Canal and helped Los Angeles on its way to becoming one of the largest cities in the country.
For five years, more than 5,000 men, under the guidance of Mulholland, worked on the aqueduct, completing it on Nov. 5, 1913. The civic ceremony commemorating the completion of the aqueduct even had fireworks, according to Catherine.

When the aqueduct was opened, a rush of water ensued, running past an applauding crowd, which was also made up of municipal water department and political officials.

When the water came, Mulholland said, “There it is. Take it.”
And the city of Los Angeles did.

With the aqueduct built, the population of Los Angels soared. Without it, the city would have been plagued by droughts, never seeing its population grow to more than 500,000, which was the maximum number that sources could supply.

William Mulholland’s career took a tragic turn, “very much like a tragic Shakespeare play,” said Catherine, on March 12, 1928, when the St. Francis dam that was constructed to increase storage of Owens River water failed. The 12 billion gallons of water that cascaded onto the Santa Clara Valley below killed roughly 400 people.

A grand jury blamed the accident on unstable rock formations. Though poor workmanship of the dam was ruled out, Mulholland still blamed himself, saying, “If there is an error of human judgment, I am the human.”

A present-day investigation of the accident determined that the land where the dam was constructed was crisscrossed with underground fault lines.

He resigned from the water department several months later, dying in 1935, having lived his final years in “the shadow of the St. Francis Dam collapse.”

In her lecture, Catherine Mulholland described some funny moments in her day-to-day life, owing those instances to having been born with the Mulholland last name. One in particular she recalled occurred at the grocery store.

“I tend to have odd experiences,” Mulholland said. “I would be at the grocery store at the checkout counter, and I would be writing a check, and the checker would say, `Oh, my God! Are you related to the highway?'”

She would respond that it was named for his grandfather, who was a prominent water engineer.
“I didn’t want to simply write some memoir to dear old grandpa. That wasn’t the point of my story,” said Mulholland, on writing her book. “What I wanted to tell was what happened.”