Accessibility links

Mulholland on Water and Los Angeles Growth - 2002-11-01

Mulholland. In southern California, the name Mulholland is comparable to a Kennedy in Massachusetts or a Rockefeller in New York. In 1913, engineer William Mulholland directed the creation of a water system that forever changed the course of Los Angeles history.

He devised a way to buy the water rights and led the construction of an aqueduct, to bring the precious resource nearly 400 kilometers from the snow-capped Sierra-Nevada Mountains into southern California. Historians believe that, were it not for Mulholland's accomplishment, Los Angeles never would have become such a leading city.

Keming Kuo interviewed one of the few remaining members of the Mulholland family, Catherine Mulholland, who personally knew the man known as "the father of modern Los Angeles"- at her San Fernando Valley home.

Mulholland: "I'm the granddaughter of William Mulholland, the second of four grandchildren that he had. It's very strange, because my name has high name recognition. But people don't know why, other than there's a highway [named Mulholland Drive]. So I'm constantly asked if I'm 'related' to the highway, which is a funny question to be asked. The highway was named in [my grandfather's] honor in 1927-1928, when land development began along that ridge highway. I guess they wanted to honor him as the chief engineer of the building of the Owens Valley Aqueduct, which brought an ample water supply to the city of Los Angeles, a semi-arid land. Its existing water resources could not support a very large population."

Kuo: "There's a story told about a quote [he made] saying, 'You want water? Here it is!'"

Mulholland: "He's got a couple [famous] quotations. When the arguments, pro and con, were made to go 230 miles [370 km] [away to bring water down from the High Sierras [mountains] into the city, there was a lot of controversy. Always has been. He made the remark, 'If you don't bring the water, you'll never need it."

"The other was when the aqueduct was actually completed. It was a public works project and the citizens of Los Angeles voted the bond issues to make this engineering fete. At the time in 1913, it and the Panama Canal were considered the two great engineering fetes of their day. When the big 'whoop-di-doo' for the releasing of the water from the cascades up in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley occurred, the valves were opened and the water came tumbling down. Cannons went off, bands were playing, people were yelling. There was so much confusion and excitement and the sound of the roar of the water.

"All [Mulholland] could say was, 'There it is! Take it!' That's been construed as a rather cynical remark, as in 'Take it. L. A. has stolen the water.' That's constantly said. He had quite an eloquent speech about the 'heritage' of the water that the city was receiving. But all that is remembered now is, 'There it is, take it!' One newspaper columnist, Jack Smith, very popular with the L. A. Times, once said it was the best, short speech ever made."

Kuo: "Did your grandfather actually tell you some of these stories?"

Mulholland: My grandfather the grandfather that I knew as a child- was a rather silent, old man. He had been devastated by the [1928] failure of a [Los Angeles-area] dam that resulted in the deaths of at least 400 people the St. Francis Dam. He retreated into silence at family gatherings. He was more interested in what kinds of grades I was getting and whether I was being a good girl in school - that kind of grandfatherly conversation.

Kuo:"How were your grades?'"

Mulholland:"Good enough!" [laughter] His children my father and uncle- grew up with endless anecdotes about papa or the 'chief' or 'dad,' whatever they called him. One son called him chief, as many of his [business] associates did. He was the chief. In Ireland, [the term] is often used for the head person in a clan. From fourth grade on, in California history [class] we started learning about the rise of Los Angeles, as children here in Southern California. And of course, there was always the water story, that played a central part in the modern history of the city."

Kuo: "Sitting in the classroom and listening to this, did you have a feeling of pride, or did other kids tease you?"

Mulholland: "I was treated to both. By high school, I was becoming quite ambivalent. As a child, I was mostly proud, although I was five when the St. Francis Dam failed. It was traumatic not only for the poor people who lost their lives in the city, but also the personal impact on our family. For example, my mother lost her best friend in the disaster. This girl -that my mother had gone to high school with- had married a dam-keeper up there, and they were among the first to be swept away in the floodwaters.

"I grew up knowing what a tangled story this was. I think as a child, it's difficult to separate the personal: the grandpa you knew and loved -who gives you money for a bicycle, for example- also has another existence apart from you as a public figure. I remember once, in the third grade, on a class excursion, we all went to the Department of Water and Power and visited Mr. Mulholland in his office. That impressed me that he was important enough for my whole third grade class to go and see him. But in high school, I began to read books that took an antagonistic position about the 'theft' from the Owens Valley, the 'stealing' of water, and the city fathers being accused of dirty work at the crossroads and being secretive. That gave me a complicated vision and it took me a long time [to resolve]. What I did was what any good teenager did: I just turned my back on the whole thing!

"I walked away from it and went to university up in Berkeley [Univ. of California] and back to Columbia [Univ.] in New York [city] and got a masters degree in English. I spent a lot of time away from Southern California. After many years away, I came back to Berkeley and in recent years, returned to Southern California to find a transformed world. I really felt like Rip van Winkle. Then I began to read many skewed, slightly-off [from the truth accounts]. I didn't feel that anybody had written a book that was getting [the Mulholland story] right. So then, I decided I would find out for myself. Out of all that research came a book; it's called William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles.