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From Belfast to Los Angeles: How William Mulholland Built an Aqueduct that Shaped a City



Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles




Introduction




Los Angeles is known as a sprawling metropolis that attracts millions of people from all over the world. But how did this city grow from a small town of about 9,000 people in 1877 to a booming city of over 4 million people today? One of the key factors behind this remarkable transformation was water. And one of the key figures behind this water supply was William Mulholland.




Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles Les St



William Mulholland was an Irish American self-taught civil engineer who was responsible for building the infrastructure that provided a reliable and abundant water source for Los Angeles. His main achievement was the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile-long system that moved water from Owens Valley to San Fernando Valley. This project enabled Los Angeles to expand its population, industry, agriculture, and power generation.


However, Mulholland's aqueduct also sparked controversy and conflict. He faced fierce opposition from Owens Valley residents who accused him of stealing their water and land. He also faced criticism from environmentalists who questioned his impact on nature. He also faced tragedy when one of his dams collapsed in 1928, killing hundreds of people and ending his career.


In this article, we will explore the life and work of William Mulholland, his monumental aqueduct project, and his rise and fall in Los Angeles history.


The Early Life and Career of William Mulholland




William Mulholland was born in Belfast, Ireland on September 11, 1855. His parents were Dubliners who moved back to the city a few years after his birth. His mother died when he was seven years old, and his father remarried. He was educated at O'Connell School by the Christian Brothers in Dublin.


At the age of 15, Mulholland ran away from home and joined the British Merchant Navy. He spent the next four years as a seaman, making at least 19 Atlantic crossings to ports in North America and the Caribbean. In 1874, he left the sea and worked as a handyman in various places, including Michigan, Ohio, and Arizona.


In 1876, he and his brother Hugh stowed away on a ship bound for California. They were discovered in Panama and had to walk 47 miles through the jungle to Balboa. They finally arrived in Los Angeles in 1877. There, Mulholland found a job as a deputy zanjero (water distributor) with the newly formed Los Angeles City Water Company (LACWC). He quickly learned the skills and knowledge of water engineering and management.


In 1886, he became the superintendent of the LACWC. He improved the water system by building new reservoirs, pipelines, and wells. He also surveyed the surrounding mountains and valleys for potential water sources. He became known as a competent and charismatic leader who had a vision for Los Angeles's future water needs.


The Construction and Operation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct




In 1902, Mulholland became the chief engineer of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, a municipal agency that replaced the LACWC. He proposed a bold plan to bring water from Owens Valley, a remote area about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, to the city. He believed that this was the only way to meet the growing demand for water in Los Angeles, which was facing droughts and shortages.


He designed and supervised the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which involved digging canals, tunnels, reservoirs, and power plants along a 233-mile-long route. He hired thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, who labored under harsh conditions and terrain. He also secured funding, permits, and rights-of-way from various authorities and landowners. He also faced technical, financial, legal, and political challenges along the way.


He completed the aqueduct in 1913, ahead of schedule and under budget. He celebrated the completion with a grand ceremony at the Cascades, where water from Owens Valley first reached Los Angeles. He gave a famous speech to the crowd: "There it is. Take it." The aqueduct was hailed as an engineering marvel and a civic achievement that boosted Los Angeles's growth and prosperity.


The Controversy and Conflict over the Los Angeles Aqueduct




However, Mulholland's aqueduct also sparked controversy and conflict. He faced opposition and criticism from Owens Valley farmers, environmentalists, and journalists who accused him of stealing water and land from them. They claimed that he used deception, coercion, and bribery to acquire water rights and property in Owens Valley. They also claimed that he drained Owens Lake and damaged the ecosystem of Owens Valley.


He also faced sabotage, violence, and lawsuits from angry locals who tried to stop or destroy the aqueduct. They dynamited pipelines, canals, and power plants. They also staged protests, boycotts, and armed confrontations with Mulholland's men. They also filed legal actions against Mulholland and Los Angeles in state and federal courts.


He defended his actions and motives as serving the public interest and progress of Los Angeles. He argued that he had acquired water rights and land legally and fairly. He also argued that he had left enough water for Owens Valley's needs. He also argued that he had created jobs, power, and revenue for Owens Valley through his project.


The Tragedy and Legacy of William Mulholland




In 1924, Mulholland built another dam, the St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon near Valencia as part of the aqueduct system. The dam was designed to store water for Los Angeles during dry seasons. It was also designed to generate hydroelectric power for Los Angeles.


On March 12, 1928, Mulholland inspected and approved the dam after a dam keeper reported a muddy leak in the structure. He declared it safe and returned to Los Angeles. Less than 12 hours later, the dam collapsed due to structural failure caused by geological instability. The collapse unleashed a massive flood that swept through San Francisquito Canyon, Santa Clarita Valley, Santa Clara River Valley, Ventura County, Oxnard Plain, and Pacific Ocean.


The Tragedy and Legacy of William Mulholland




In 1924, Mulholland built another dam, the St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon near Valencia as part of the aqueduct system. The dam was designed to store water for Los Angeles during dry seasons. It was also designed to generate hydroelectric power for Los Angeles.


On March 12, 1928, Mulholland inspected and approved the dam after a dam keeper reported a muddy leak in the structure. He declared it safe and returned to Los Angeles. Less than 12 hours later, the dam collapsed due to structural failure caused by geological instability. The collapse unleashed a massive flood that swept through San Francisquito Canyon, Santa Clarita Valley, Santa Clara River Valley, Ventura County, Oxnard Plain, and Pacific Ocean.


The flood killed more than 400 people in its path. It also destroyed homes, farms, bridges, roads, railways, and power lines. It was one of the worst civil engineering disasters in American history and the second-greatest loss of life in California's history, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.


Mulholland took full responsibility for the disaster and resigned from his position. He testified at several hearings and inquiries that investigated the cause and consequences of the dam failure. He was cleared of any criminal charges but faced civil lawsuits from the victims' families and property owners. He also faced public outrage and condemnation from his former supporters and admirers.


He lived in seclusion and died in 1935 at the age of 79. He left behind a mixed reputation as a visionary or a villain, a hero or a murderer, a genius or a fool. His legacy is still debated and controversial today.


Conclusion




In this article, we have explored the life and work of William Mulholland, his monumental aqueduct project, and his rise and fall in Los Angeles history. We have seen how he transformed Los Angeles from a small town to a large city by providing a reliable and abundant water supply. We have also seen how he sparked controversy and conflict by taking water from Owens Valley and causing environmental and social problems. We have also seen how he faced tragedy and disgrace by building a faulty dam that collapsed and killed hundreds of people.


Mulholland's impact on Los Angeles history and culture is undeniable. He shaped the city's physical landscape, economic development, political power, and social identity. He also inspired many works of art, literature, film, and music that depict his achievements and failures. He also influenced many other water projects and policies in California and beyond.


However, Mulholland's legacy is also complex and contentious. He was a man of vision and ambition, but also of arrogance and ignorance. He was a man of progress and innovation, but also of exploitation and destruction. He was a man of service and sacrifice, but also of guilt and regret.


How should we remember Mulholland? How should we evaluate his aqueduct project? How should we learn from his mistakes? These are some of the questions that we can ask ourselves as we reflect on his story.


FAQs





  • Q: When was William Mulholland born?



  • A: He was born on September 11, 1855 in Belfast, Ireland.



  • Q: When did he complete the Los Angeles Aqueduct?



  • A: He completed it in 1913 after six years of construction.



  • Q: What was the name of his famous speech at the opening ceremony of the aqueduct?



  • A: He said "There it is. Take it."



  • Q: When did the St. Francis Dam collapse?



  • A: It collapsed on March 12, 1928 at 11:57 p.m.



  • Q: How many people died in the flood caused by the dam failure?



  • A: The official death toll was estimated to be 450, but the actual number may have been higher.



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