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Photo of William MulhollandWilliam Mulholland

(1855-1935)

A man obsessed with an engineering challenge of epic proportions, William Mulholland brought the Owens River to Los Angeles through a combination of determination and deceit.

Born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1855 into a family of modest means, Mulholland spent his childhood in Dublin. He left home at age fifteen to become a sailor, arriving in New York City in the early 1870s. He worked for a time in the Michigan lumber camps and at a dry-goods business in Pittsburgh, and arrived in San Francisco in 1877. After a brief stint as a miner in Arizona, during which he was hired to fight the Apache, Mulholland moved to the Los Angeles area.

In 1878, Mulholland began what was to be a lengthy engineering career with an inauspicious beginning -- as a ditch-cleaner for Los Angeles' private water company. Eight years later, the self-educated engineer had become superintendent. When the city took over the water system, Mulholland was retained as head of the Department of Water and Power, a position he would occupy until 1928.

As Los Angeles boomed and its business leaders began to envision endless prosperity, Mulholland and his former boss, Fred Eaton -- a one-time Los Angeles mayor -- warned that the city would need more water to sustain its growth. They began to look longingly at the Owens River, more than 200 miles away, but the residents of Owens Valley had plans for that water as well. Most of them raised crops and ranched, and they were anticipating an economic bonanza once the newly-founded Reclamation Service completed its Owens Valley irrigation project. Mulholland and Eaton realized that to acquire the Owens River for Los Angeles, they would have to put an end to this irrigation project -- a task for which Eaton was well qualified.

The local agent of the Reclamation Service was a political crony of Eaton's, and he allowed his friend to examine critical land and water rights documents on the pretense that it was necessary for the orderly advancement of the Owens Valley project. Eaton, in turn, hired his friend -- at a generous salary -- to develop the city's plan to take the Owens River. In this way, by the end of 1905, through a combination of normal land purchases and near bribery, the city had acquired enough land and water rights to block the Owens Valley project.

But the residents of the Owens Valley were not the only ones out-maneuvered by Mulholland and Eaton. Mulholland in particular had portrayed the acquisition of the Owens River as a life or death matter for Los Angeles. In reality, however, much of the water was to be used for irrigating the nearby San Fernando Valley, where a syndicate of private investors, many the personal friends of Mulholland and Eaton, had been furiously buying up land with the assurance that its value would skyrocket. This same group of investors was critical in securing passage of the 1905 bond issue that would pay for the Owens River diversion.

With millions to spend, Mulholland could at last begin the task that would call forth the deepest resources of his character: organization, vision and dogged determination. Over the next eight years, he would direct an army of thousands across more than two-hundred miles of desert and mountain as they blasted out tunnels, carved out sluiceways, cleared roads, laid railroad track and ran power lines. When machines broke down, he used mules. When men perished, he hired more. He was creating one of the engineering marvels of the age, and nothing would get in his way.

The completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 was a personal triumph for William Mulholland and the first step toward making his city the international metropolis it is today. But this staggering achievement brought no end to the intrigue that had long surrounded the project. Despite Mulhollands's dire predictions of imminent water famine, once the project was complete, Los Angeles found it had no need to draw all the water it had the rights to from the Owens River. Indeed, during the eight years it took to build the aqueduct, the city's population had more than doubled with no evident strain on the regular water supply. But while the city had enough water, the San Fernando Valley did not, so Mulholland began to squeeze every drop possible from the Owens River, draining the farms of the Owens Valley to make the lands owned by his financial backers bloom.

As they watched employees of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power destroy the dams and locks of their irrigation system, the residents of Owens Valley decided to fight back. Early on the morning of May 21, 1924, dynamite destroyed the Los Angeles Aqueduct at a structurally critical point. The city sent out private investigators and offered a $10,000 reward, but no one in Owens Valley would turn in a neighbor for what many considered an act of self-defense. The sabotage continued for months, and Mulholland received hundreds of threatening letters, but his only comment was 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."

What was quickly dubbed "the Owens Valley War" reached its climax on November 16, 1924, when seventy armed Valley men seized control of a critical aqueduct gate and completely shut off the flow of the river. By the next day, about 700 of their friends and neighbors had joined them for a massive demonstration of civic solidarity. The California governor refused to send in the state militia, despite the demands of Los Angeles business leaders; the local sheriff declared himself a "friend and sympathizer" of the rebels. Newspaper reporters from as far away as Paris came to report on the picturesque scene. Even the Los Angeles Times editorialized that the farmers were "honest, earnest, hardworking American citizens who look upon Los Angeles as an Octopus about to strangle out their lives."

Resistance flared up again in 1927, when four masked men captured guards and blew up a 45-foot section of the aqueduct. Mulholland sent out horseback patrols armed with machine guns, and issued shoot-to-kill orders when the aqueduct was bombed again. But by the next year the war was over. The Owens Valley Bank collapsed, wiping out the leaders of the opposition, and Mulholland's triumph at last seemed complete.

Then, on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, releasing a 15 billion gallon flood that was one of the greatest civil disasters in American history. The water began as a 75-foot high wave and scoured a path to the sea 2 miles wide and 70 miles long. In its wake it left much of Ventura county under yards of muck. The final death toll was nearly 500; weeks later, bodies continued to wash up on beaches as far away as San Diego. A horrified journalist wrote of the flood's aftermath: "Thousands of people and automobiles are slushing through the debris looking for the dead. Bodies have been washed into the isolated canyons. I saw one alive stuck in the mud to his neck."

Blame quickly fell on Mulholland, who had supervised the dam's construction. One of the flood's survivors, having watched the waters swallow her husband and children, put up a sign which declared "KILL MULHOLLAND" in blood-red letters. A board of inquiry blamed Mulholland for filling the reservoir too quickly and ignoring signs that it was leaking dangerously. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to resign in disgrace. He died in 1935.

M

ulholland's legacy stretches beyond his accomplishments and career. Much of the West's agriculture is dependent upon irrigation, and most of the revenues of such agriculture flow to landowners such as the rich San Fernando Valley growers who first benefitted from Mulholland's plan. The federal government, through such agencies as the Bureau of Reclamation, enormously subsidizes most of this production. While the construction of hundreds of river dams across the West has produced enormous agricultural bounties, it has also had an enormous environmental impact and given rise to massive concentrations of economic and political power. The original goals of the Reclamation Bureau, to foster widely-shared small landholdings, make this outcome seem deeply ironic. While the rhetoric of the West has emphasized the solitary pioneer, through the labor of such men as William Mulholland, state agencies and the prosperous have continued to dominate the land.


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