News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

William Mulholland's rise from ditch-digger to controversial LA power player

William Mulholland, the chief engineer for building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, taken in the field, showing him with the surveying instrument whose use he knew so well.
William Mulholland, the chief engineer for building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, taken in the field, showing him with the surveying instrument whose use he knew so well.
LADWP, Used with permission
William Mulholland, the chief engineer for building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, taken in the field, showing him with the surveying instrument whose use he knew so well.
Portrait of William Mulholland.

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

LA Aqueduct anniversary series 2013This story is part of KPCC's weeklong series exploring the history of the L.A. Aqueduct and looking at the future of L.A.'s water resources. View the whole series

William Mulholland was the chief engineer of the L.A. water department, a self-taught man who rose from ditch-digger to be one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles.

To many he was a visionary who paved the way for an important metropolis. To others he is a ruthless villain who took part in an underhanded scheme to steal water and enrich the power elite. 

Mulholland biographer Margaret Leslie Davis joins the show with more. 

Interview Highlights:

On how Mulholland rose from the gutter to become such a powerful man?
"He was a ditch digger. He was self-taught, he was self-educated, he read ferociously and his special interest was in geology and engineering. By the age of 30, he rose from ditch digger, to superintendent of what was then called the Los Angeles Power Company. In his 30s he, as superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Company, would be in charge of the most immense water project ever undertaken possibly since Roman times...Today we have something like 14 million people, and it really is all thanks to this man who rose from the lowest ranks to the highest in the water department. 

On how Mulholland set his sights on the Owens River:
"This story is filled with conflict, tragedy and many points of views. It is a rather complicated, complex story. But in short, William Mulholland reasoned, as he watched the population of Los Angeles grow, that it needed an abundant source of water. The only source that he could find that could provide for the foreseeable future was water snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains...At the same time, it robbed many farmers and landowners in the Owens Valley of their indigenous water supply. Of course, conflict erupted and the famous water wars erupted and there were acts of terrorism later on against what became the Los Angeles Aqueduct."

On whether Mulholland understood what he was doing to the Owens Valley:
"In researching this book for five years, and believe me I was looking for it, I never found one piece of evidence of self-dealing on the part of William Mulholland. Now, there was evidence that other wealthy land owners, other self-interested parties may have manipulated the political system, the bond issues of 1906 to secure not only the funding for the aqueduct, but also the ability for the city to purchase the land along the way. 

"I must say, I do think William Mulholland was a purist in this sense that he saw the aqueduct as the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He was more interested in the benefit of the city, the benefit of the average man, the benefit of growth and economic commerce. Along the way, certain wealthy landowners became immensely rich from the water that did pour from the San Fernando Valley to irrigate what really were very arid lands, but without this water from the aqueduct Los Angeles certainly would not be the city it is today."

On how Mulholland viewed his aqueduct project:
"There is no doubt he had sort of a tunnel vision on this project and perhaps on the benefit of Los Angeles over what he saw as a few hundred farmers in the Owens Valley at the time. There is no doubt that people were treated poorly, people were not possibly paid the fair market value for some of this land. There were some questionable dealings. Did Mulholland himself ever personally profit? No, he was a man of relatively modest means. He had some sizable acreage of his own in the valley that was passed down to the descendants in his family, but I never found any evidence of personal self-gain."

On why he never got into politics:
"I think he hated the political life even though he was, in a sense, very much part of it. He loved the doing. He loved being with the workers. He loved being of the earth. And one of his great quotes, which again is true, he said, "I would rather give birth to a porcupine backwards than run for Mayor of Los Angeles." But he was a celebrity. He was constantly asked for his autograph and heralded wherever he went and no doubt he enjoyed it." 

On how the St. Francis Dam failure ended his career:
"One of his dams in a string of reservoirs collapsed and created massive devastation, massive loss of life. It was, without question, the largest, single natural disaster in history of the West. The flooding swept bodies, animals, homes, in some places, all the way nearly to the ocean. For William Mulholland, who was notified that morning of the dam's failure, it was the worst moment of his life, but he did take full responsibility for the dam's failure. 

"In fact, there was a coroner's inquest in which he was charged with manslaughter for the failure of the dam. He was eventually acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing. The saddest most poignant moment for me when I researched this book was in his grief, in his pain, in his self-loathing, following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, he did pull all his teeth out of his mouth. That showed to me what sorrow and grief had done to him. He was never the same."

On whether history has been too kind of William Mulholland:
"Following his death, his papers were sealed in the Department of Water and Power and really no scholars, no authors had kind of dug in there and looked at it. He was really a forgotten character in LA's history. Then, interest was revived in his again and now, because of the 100-year anniversary, we are like 'Wow, here is a city of 14 million people sitting where we have an indigenous water supply where maybe a quarter million people could survive on.' The truth is the aqueduct did serve an incredible purpose to create what I believe is the greatest city in the west, Los Angeles."