News & Politics

The Irishman who made Los Angeles

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One of the world’s greatest engineering triumphs, William Mulholland designed and built the Los Angeles aqueduct and changed the fate of southern California.

William Mulholland, a self-taught stubborn genius, surveying the land

Dubliner William Mulholland (1855-1935) was the architect behind the most extraordinary environmental project in the history of California.

At 15, Mulholland ran away from Ireland by joining the British Merchant Navy. In 1877, he set out on horseback from San Francisco and arrived in Los Angeles, a town with a population of 9,000.

The Gold Rush brought 300,000 souls to California requiring roads and towns to be built while a transcontinental railroad led to Los Angeles.

By 1900, Los Angeles mushroomed to a population of over 100,000. By 1913, it was half a million. But as the population of LA grew, it outgrew its water supply.

Mulholland initially worked digging ditches (a zanjero) for the water company but after clocking off he would teach himself hydraulics and engineering with books bought out of his pitiful wages. He worked his way up to chief engineer in what today is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

A proud autodidact, the ‘Chief’ as he was called, said:

‘Damn a man who doesn’t read books...the test of a man is his knowledge of humanity, the politics of human life, his comprehension of the things that move men”

Mulholland and the mayor of Los Angeles, Frederick Eaton, shared a vision. 250 miles north of Los Angeles lay the Owens Valley which had a runoff from the Sierra Nevada. It could potentially deliver much needed water to LA. Thus began the California Water Wars. Employing ‘chicanery, subterfuge and a strategy of lies’, Mulholland and Eaton brought people to their water senses, garnering public opinion so that LA could lay claim to water rights in the Owens Valley.

Film: 'Chinatown', Polanski’s film of 1974, depicts the mammoth political intrigue involved in bringing water to Los Angeles.

By 1906 President Roosevelt signed a law granting Los Angeles water rights over the disputed Owens River. Roosevelt said:

'It is a hundred- or a thousand-fold more important to the state and more valuable to the people as a whole if used by the city than if used by the people of Owens Valley.'

Mulholland, a self-taught engineer, personally supervised the construction of the 233 mile long Owens Valley Aqueduct. Six thousand mules and five thousand men were involved in the six year-long project. There were 42 fatalities. From the Sierra Nevada mountains down to LA, the aqueduct includes 142 tunnels, covering a total distance of 42 miles, with the longest tunnel being 5 miles long.

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Photo: “There it is. Take it.” Mulholland said at the opening of the aqueduct.

A mythical figure in Los Angeles, where the Chief was often mistaken as a gangster as opposed to a genius, Mulholland was once asked what qualified him to run the world’s largest water system:

'Well, I went to school in Ireland when I was a boy, learned the three R’s and the Ten Commandments-- most of them-- made a pilgrimage to the Blarney Stone, received my father’s blessing, and here I am.'

Unfortunately, Mulholland’s career took a turn for the worse when a dam that was built to increase storage capacity at Owens Valley burst. The ensuing flood from 12 billion gallons of water claimed almost 500 lives, including 40 children.

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Photo: Mulholland (left) surveys the ruins of the St Francis dam after it failed.
The disaster took it’s toll.

‘It there is an error of human judgement, I am the human.’

Mulholland, always a controversial figure and the obvious fall guy, was cleared of blame but promptly retired.  

An Irish immigrant from a land of much rain and lush fields saved the semi-arid City of Angels using snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and slated the thirst of 3.8 million citizens. Thanks in part to Mulholland, Los Angeles is today one of the greatest cities in the world.


Honours bestowed on William Mulholland

  • Mulholland Drive and Highway is today a 50 mile stretch of road that skirts the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica mountains and is lined with million dollar homes. Together with Sunset Boulevard, its the most important and recognizable road in the county.

  • The University of California granted Mulholland an honorary doctorate degree with the words: ‘Percussit saxa et duxit flumina ad terram sitientum’ (‘He broke the rocks and brought the river to the thirsty land’).

  • The consummate public servant, a Mulholland Fountain was dedicated in his honour and is located at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Blvd. The inscription reads:

'To William Mulholland (1855-1935): A Penniless Irish Immigrant Boy who Rose by the Force of his Industry, Intelligence, Integrity and Intrepidity to be a Sturdy American Citizen, a Self-Educated Engineering Genius, a Whole-Hearted Humanitarian, the Father of this City’s Water System, and the Builder of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This Memorial is Gratefully Dedicated to those who are the Recipients of His Unselfish Bounty and the Beneficiaries of His Prophetic Vision.'

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