William Mulholland is Los Angeles’ most Promethean figure: the man who brought it the vital substance of water. He is the hero and the anti-hero of Los Angeles’ history and self-imagined mythology. He created the City of Los Angeles as we know it by “[breaking] the rocks and [bringing] the water to the thirsty land” (from the inscription on his honorary Cal Berkeley PhD: “Percussit saxa et duxit flumina ad terram silentum”) He created one of the greatest engineering marvels of all time, a 233 mile long aqueduct that opened up new areas of Los Angeles to development. Whenever you use a drop of Los Angeles water, there is a good chance that it came to you, if not through the Mulholland aqueduct, then as part of the water system that Mulholland built during his forty years at the top of Los Angeles’ water companies.
But Mulholland is also best known for being the driving force behind the corrupt historic events that “Chinatown” is based on. It was Mulholland’s aqueduct that decimated the Owens Valley, that “Switzerland of California”, creating an long-term war over water in the state of California, and creating a karmic debt that was only resolved less than a year ago. Without Mulholland’s water, maybe the small towns of Hollywood and Highland Park and Venice, all founded in land-grab schemes, would have remained small towns. Los Angeles would be a very different place if it had gone without the water sources it needed to expand and sprawl into the metromass it is today. But if Los Angeles hadn’t expanded, we would never have had the fascinating, multi-faceted megalopolis we love, live in, and blog about.
Last year, I went to see Mulholland Christmas Carol. Let me just say, that is a dam fine play, and if it ever resurrects itself, I recommend it. In it, Mulholland goes from the young Irish immigrant, to the jaded, bitter Scrooge-figure, obsessed with his visions – and then, after the failure of the St Francis Dam, haunted by tragedy. Aside from being freaking hilarious for anyone who’s had to watch the original black and white A Christmas Carol every single year since childhood, the play does a remarkable job of bringing to life the details of Mulholland’s history in the context of Los Angeles’ history.
William Mulholland isn’t just one of the most remembered Angelenos. In a way, his career is a metaphor for the city itself, as his personal success dovetails with the city’s. Mulholland started at the bottom of the water company ladder, in the 9,000 person city that was Los Angeles in 1877. He started at the age of 23 as an “anonymous ditch tender” in a city so sleepy that a bucking bronco in the streets was “the most fun since Christmas”. Thirteen years later, Mulholland had leaped up to water superintendent, an advancement which coincided with the city’s first land boom in the late 1880s. As Mulholland’s career took off, Los Angeles experienced a three-year period of population increase, leaping from 11,000 to 50,000 in three years. When Mulholland took over the water system in 1887, he inherited a crude system of fish-infested zanjas servicing a small outpost. As the city grew and annexed the small towns around it, the Los Angeles Water Company, under Mulholland, grew and expanded as well. New resevoirs were put in place. New water rights were secured. Mulholland carefully cultivated and grew the water system as effectively and quickly as he could to keep the population of the city supplied with the hydration they needed.
When Mulholland started the Owens Valley aqueduct in 1905, he had been Los Angeles’ highest ranking water official for almost twenty years. During that time, he had seen aggressive growth in the 1890s – and then a severe drought in 1904. The combined pressures of population growth and water shortage resulted in the Owens Valley aqueduct plan. In December, 1904, Mulholland gave a statement to the Los Angeles Examiner, warning the public that “growth beyond 225,000 would cause a problem.” But even then, Mulholland hinted in the same interview at an embryonic plan. That plan then became action in 1907, and well, the rest, is history. Mulholland, former mayor Fred Eaton, L.A. Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis and a few other wealthy investor buddies proceeded to use all the tools at their disposal to “sell” the aqueduct idea to the citizens of Los Angeles, in order to achieve the $24 million in bonds needed for the project. And the return for their tactics was San Fernando Valley real estate.
Still, despite the destruction of the Owens Valley, and the resulting destitution of the farmers in the “Switzerland of California”, I can’t quite see Mulholland as a villain. At the time the plan for the aqueduct solidified, he had just seen the city through an extraordinarily rough drought. He had been trying to provide for the city for eighteen years, struggling against the chamber of commerce boosters who kept encouraging more and more immigration. He was trying to supply a city with changing hygeine habits, as baths and showers began to radically increase water consumption on a per-capita basis. I can only imagine that Mulholland developed a sort of tunnel vision at the turn of the twentieth century, a straight and narrow vision to bring water to Los Angeles’ people. And if it meant selling a bit of his soul (for an awful lot of profit as a bonus) to Eaton & Co., so be it.
In the end though, Mulholland’s decisions did come back to haunt – and kill him. It wasn’t the Owens Valley, but a side result of the deal that effectively ended his life. During all the water-related land grabbing, Fred Eaton had bought a piece of property Mulholland needed to build his next dam. Eaton demanded a million dollars for the property. Mulholland refused, and relocated the dam elsewhere. That dam was the St Francis Dam, which burst on March 12th, 1928. It was an unbelievable catastrophe, burying parts of the Santa Clarita valley in mud from 20 to 70 feet deep, and killing 450 people in the process. It was the beginning of the end of Mulholland’s life, as his vitality and energy disappeared. He would die seven years later, joining the dead he was quoted as envying (“The only people I envy in this thing are the dead.”)
Finally, to give you all a sense of this great angeleno, I leave you with a few quotes:
1) When the Owens Valley was left a high desert, Mulholland said that 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.”
2) My favorite quote of his is definitely his quote from when he was asked to be Mayor of Los Angeles: “”I’d rather give birth to a porcupine. Backward”.
3) Mulholland’s most memorable quote is one of the shortest. When the water spilled down the aqueduct for the first time in 1913, Mulholland said simply, “There it is. Take it.”
(The photo accompanying this profile is courtesy of PBS. The text itself is much due to Catherine Mulholland’s book, William Mulholland And The Rise Of Los Angeles – link goes to Google online version)
The rest of the greatest Dead Angeleno’s series, by the way, is here