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William Mulholland

William Mulholland was a Los Angeles pioneer who created one of the engineering marvels of the age: the Los Angeles Aqueduct. At over 200 miles long (the world's longest at that time), the aqueduct allowed the dry city of 100,000 to grow into the second largest city in America.

Biographical fast facts

Date and place of birth: September 11, 1855, Belfast, Ireland

Date, place and cause of death: July 22, 1935, at 426 South St. Andrews Place, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. (Parkinson's disease)

Wife: Lillie Ferguson (m. July 3, 1890 - 1915) (her death)
Wedding took place in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Sons: William Perry Mulholland (known simply as "Perry Mulholland") (1892-1962)
Thomas Ferguson Mulholland
Richard James Mulholland (b. 1903 - d. May 15, 1905, of spinal meningitis)

Daughters: Rose Ellen Mulholland (1891-1977)
Lucile Mulholland (1896-1968)
Ruth Mulholland

NOTE: William and his wife, Lillie, had a total of seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.

Father: Hugh Mulholland (a mail guard for the Royal British Mail)
Mother: Ellen (Deakers) Mulholland (d. September 18, 1862, of consumption)

Burial site: Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, U.S.A.


Fully cognizant that water is the lifeblood of every community, William Mulholland worked for half a century to ensure that Los Angeles had sufficient supplies of that precious commodity. A hero to many, and villain to others, he was a prominent and influential water-services engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in Southern California.

Beginning as a manual laborer responsible for keeping water ditches open in 1878, he worked his way to the top of the organization in less than 10 years. The self-taught engineer was named superintendent of the water works in 1886. Recognizing the limited water resources available to the city locally, he cast an eye toward the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the water that resulted from its melting snow pack.

Marshaling a workforce of thousands, he spent years building the aqueduct which would carry the water Los Angeles needed to sustain its phenomenal growth. It would flow more than 200 miles across rugged and inhospitable mountains and deserts, and truly was one of the great engineering marvels of the age. At the grand opening of the aqueduct, November 5th, 1913, William Mulholland pointed to the water cascading into the San Fernando Valley and declared: "There it is! Take it!"

It was a personal triumph for the man. Mulholland had not only seen the need for the project, but also had the vision and tenacity to see the arduous task completed. Life magazine once hailed: "The engineer moved a river and made the desert bloom."

Southern Californians generally revered him for turning the arid land of the L.A. region, into a lush, growing, and prosperous metropolis. However, by bringing the water from the melting snows of the High Sierra southward, the Los Angeles Aqueduct ultimately turned the Owens Lake into a dry lakebed. Understandably, he was generally reviled by residents of the Eastern Sierras for diverting Owens Lake water. Eventually, the population boom in L.A. meant the thirsty city would need even more water. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power continued purchasing land and water rights all the way up through the Eastern Sierras. The DWP was accused of using underhanded tactics, threats, intimidation and violence to obtain Owens Valley land and water rights. Numerous shootings, and bombings took place. Some residents of the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains called it "the rape of the Owens Valley." While the massive water project had indeed turned the dry San Fernando Valley into rich farmland, and housing developments, the effect on the Owens Valley was the exact opposite. By diverting so much water, the D.W.P. managed to completely drain the enormous 100-square-mile Owens Lake. Where once an enormous lake stood, massive dust storms now raged.

Some observers have been puzzled when surveys of city tap water across the United States have repeatedly ranked LA city water among the best-tasting. This is due to the fact that the source for some of the city's water is actually high-quality mountain water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada, obtained via Mulholland's enormous aqueduct.

He remained a celebrated figure throughout Southern California for years, but in March of 1928, that changed. In order to increase the utility's water storage capacity locally, Mulholland had designed, and supervised the construction of several dams. One of these was the St. Francis Dam. Located north of Los Angeles near Valencia, the dam had been plagued by minor leaks. March 12th, 1928, when those leaks appeared to worsen, it was Mulholland who personally inspected it. Several hours after he had declared the structure sound, the St. Francis Dam gave way. Since it was the middle of the night, most of those downstream were sleeping when their lives were turned upside down. Billions of gallons of water, mud and debris swept through the valley, claiming hundreds of lives and destroying hundreds of houses. When the sun rose that morning, the death and destruction stretched as far as the eye could see. Virtually every town between the dam and the Pacific Ocean sustained heavy damage. Mulholland was not found criminally liable for the deaths, although investigations did place the blame squarely on the self-taught engineer and his lack of expertise to create such a massive structure without oversight and consultation from other engineers and geologists.

Although Mulholland took full responsibility for the disaster, his spirit was broken, and "The Chief" retired shortly thereafter in disgrace.

After Mulholland's death, L.A.'s insatiable thirst spread the struggle for water high into the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Department of Water and Power's water diversions reached an ancient lake just east of Yosemite National Park. Mono Lake was over 1 million years old, yet appeared to be headed for a quick death, mirroring that of Owens Lake. For years following the water diversions, the level of the ancient lake continued to drop. In 1994, nearly half a century after water diversions began in the Mono Basin, the state of California ordered the protection of Mono Lake and its tributary streams, sparing it the destruction experienced further south in the Owens Lake area.

California's water wars took center stage in the acclaimed 1974 Roman Polanski film, Chinatown. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Houston, the Academy Award-winning motion picture was set against a highly-fictionalized backdrop of the thirsty city's unscrupulous efforts to obtain water.

Mulholland Drive is one of several streets and other miscellaneous L.A. area structures named in his honor.

Residences of William Mulholland:
This is not to suggest that Mulholland owned each and every one of these structures. We're only reporting the fact that he called them home at one point or another in his life.

William and Lillie Mulholland's first home was located at 914 Buena Vista (which later became North Broadway), in Los Angeles. The Mulholland family next lived in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles at 6th Street and Cummings, from 1894 till 1920. From 1921 until his death in 1935, William made his home at 426 South St. Andrews Place. All of these areas have changed drastically since then, and his homes no longer exist.


The most in-depth of more than two dozen sources consulted in preparing this profile, was the 2002 biography, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Catherine Mulholland.

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