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William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Without Irish engineer William Mulholland, would Los Angeles be around today?

Controversial, self-taught, Irish engineer William Mulholland (1855-1935) was almost singlehandedly responsible for transforming the city of Los Angeles from a dry and dusty pueblo to a booming metropolis.

“There it is, take it,” William Mulholland proclaimed the day the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, an engineering marvel that delivers water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains all the way to the City of Angels.

Mulholland designed and supervised the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile-long system to move water from the Owens Valley into the San Fernando Valley. The project required 3900 workers and involved the digging of 164 tunnels. It was said that this project was created through devious land deals, water thievery and cronyism. The Owens Valley farmers and ranchers, who felt their water had been wrongfully taken from them, committed acts of sabotage, dynamiting sections of the aqueduct in 1924 and 1927. The 1974 Neo-Noir mystery film Chinatown was inspired by the California Water Wars.

When the Dam Broke

Disaster struck in March 1928, when the St. Francis Dam failed just over 12 hours after Mulholland and his assistant gave it a safety inspection. The dam broke and unleashed a flood that killed 500 people and destroyed Mulholland’s career. In 2000, a book came out penned by the granddaughter of Mulholland, trying to exonerate him from the disaster by using research pointing to geological conditions undetectable by 1920s technology.

A Tragic End

The next time you drive on Mulholland with friends, you can share the story of the remarkable life of the self-taught, Irish- born civil engineer. He rose from obscurity to become a leading citizen but just like a Hollywood film, his life ended in sadness and tragedy.

Photos Courtesy of the LA Public Library Photo Collection

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