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,
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)
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
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
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
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
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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