William Mulholland

From Academic Kids

William Mulholland (18551935) was a prominent and influential water-services engineer in Southern California

He was born in Belfast, Ireland and immigrated to New York City in the 1870s, traveled to San Francisco in 1877, worked as a miner in Arizona and finally moved to the city that would build his reputation, Los Angeles.

A self-taught engineer, he took ditch-digging work in San Pedro with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and eventually became head of that agency. Few positions in local government have had such an effect on the fate of a metropolis—Los Angeles is a chapparal-covered desert that was transformed by sprinklers, pipes and Mulholland's public waterworks. Mulholland kept offices on the top floor of Sid Grauman's Million-Dollar Theatre on Broadway, a space now restored and occupied by actor Nicholas Cage.

The water chief initiated the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in November 1913, which took water from the Owens Valley in Central California in a massive public works project requiring over 2000 workers and 164 tunnels. It drained the 100-square-mile Owens Lake absolutely dry by 1928. The acquisition of water rights had been underhanded (the story is told, in fictionalized form, in the film Chinatown) and Owens Valley farmers resisted violently, even dynamiting the aqueduct at Jawbone Canyon in 1924, by opening the Alabama gates and diverting the flow of water for four days, and raising prices. Los Angeles was forced to negotiate, and Mulholland was quoted as saying 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."

Mulholland's career ended fifteen years later, on March 12, 1928, when his St. Francis Dam failed and sent 12.5 billion US gallons (47,000,000 m³) of water flooding into the Santa Clara Valley, north of Los Angeles. A 10-story wall of water rolled down the Santa Clara riverbed at 18 mph (29 km/h) towards the sea at Ventura, and the next morning the sun rose on scenes of unbelievable carnage. The town of Santa Paula lay buried under 20 feet (6 m) of mud and debris; other parts of Ventura County were covered up to 70 feet (21 m). Disaster recovery crews worked for days, and the final death count stood at 450, including 42 elementary school children. Mulholland resigned, took full responsibility for the worst civil engineering disaster in United States history, and at one point during the inquest sobbed, "I envy the dead."

The legendary Los Angeles road, Mulholland Drive—perhaps second only in L.A. street fame to Sunset Boulevard—is named in his honor. Mulholland died in 1935 and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

In the 90's, the artist Frank Black recorded two songs, "Olè Mulholland" (from Teenager of the Year) and "St Francis Dam Disaster" (from Dog in the Sand) about the life and works of Mulholland.

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