The Man Who Made Los Angeles Possible
The town needed water if it was ever to grow into a major city. William Mulholland brought the water from hundreds of miles away, despite big natural obstacles and enormous human ones.
Born in Ireland in 1855, Mulholland showed his venturesome spirit while still in his teens. A private tutor gave him an introduction to mathematics and navigation, and he promptly ran away to sea. From 1870 to 1874 he sailed between Glasgow, the West Indies, and the United States. After nineteen such voyages he decided to try something different and headed for northern Michigan, where he worked on Great Lakes boats and in lumber camps. Eventually he ended up at an uncle’s dry-goods store in Pittsburgh.
While there he read about the paradise to be found in California and decided to go there himself. With his brother Hugh he took sail for Panama at the end of 1876. A railroad crossed the isthmus, but they lacked the twenty-five-dollar fare, so they walked the length of the tracks. They worked their way to San Francisco on ships, arriving early in the new year. In nearby Martinez they purchased horses and set out for Los Angeles.
The town was nearly a century old but had fewer than ten thousand inhabitants. It was surrounded by vineyards and orange groves, and through its center meandered a small willow-banked stream, the Los Angeles River. “It was the most attractive town I had ever seen,” Mulholland later declared. “The people were hospitable. There was plenty to do and a fair compensation offered for whatever you did.”
He took a job digging wells by hand, south of town. Then the wanderlust seized him again, and he was off once more, on a prospecting trip into Arizona. He found no gold. By the end of 1877 he was back in Los Angeles, working for the town’s water company. His job was to tend the main ditch that carried water from the river, keeping it clear of weeds and trash. His pay was $1.50 a day, and he lived in a oneroom shack outside town.
One day the company president saw him shoveling with his characteristic energy. He asked what he was doing. Mulholland, not wanting to be disturbed, called back, “It’s none of your damned business!” When other workmen told him who the visitor had been, Mulholland hurried over to the company office, hoping at least to draw his pay before he was fired. But the president had other plans for him: promotion to foreman of the ditch gang. He had admired Mulholland’s spirit.
That was the beginning of Mulholland’s rapid rise within the water company. He improved his prospects by studying mathematics and engineering on his own, sometimes staying up until three in the morning. He talked with engineers and surveyors, and as his reputation grew, he was sought out by ranchers and developers with water problems. The water superintendent, Fred Eaton, was also a self-educated engineer; he liked Mulholland and warmly encouraged him to pursue his studies. In 1886 Eaton won election to the post of city engineer. Mulholland was promoted to fill his vacant position.
Los Angeles began its rise to cityhood in the 1880s, as its population rose to 50,000. During the 189Os it topped 100,000. Yet the town still drew all its water from the Los Angeles River. Eaton began looking farther afield. In 1892 he visited the Owens Valley, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. He realized that the valley was rich in water, which was largely going unused. Returning to Los Angeles, he described its prospects to Mulholland.
Mulholland was not interested. “We have enough water here in the river to supply the city for the next fifty years,” he said. But Eaton would not be swayed. “You are wrong,” he replied. “I was born here and have seen dry years—years that you know nothing about. Wait and see.”
Indeed, soon afterward a protracted drought began. For several years it caused few problems, but as the drought continued into the new century, the city’s booming population put increasing strain on the available water. A timely victory in a court case gave Los Angeles an unchallengeable claim not only to the river and its headwaters but to the groundwater that fed into these streams. Mulholland proceeded to tap these subsurface waters. He also installed water meters for factories and other large users, leading them to cut their use. It wasn’t enough. As the drought intensified during the summer of 1904, the city’s inadequate reservoirs ran a day-to-day race to avoid a genuine shortage.
Other water supplies were available in nearby rivers and watersheds that were not part of the Los Angeles system. But to tap them would amount to purchasing the city’s future growth at the expense of that of the towns that depended on these sources. Already there was an example to show what might be in store. Armed with its legal powers, the city had moved to shut down wells drilled in the nearby San Fernando Valley by farmers hoping to irrigate their lands. This had brought a severe setback to the growth of agriculture in that valley and thus to the natural development of lands and communities that should have been growing alongside Los Angeles itself.
So it was that during that thirsty summer of 1904, Mulholland sought out Eaton and asked him to “show me this water supply.” Eaton took him on a trip to the Sierra country. There, some two hundred miles north of the city, snow capped Mount Whitney and other high peaks, lasting into summer. That meant it would be melting just at the time of year when the city would need it most. The water flowed into the Owens River in quantities sufficient to support two million people. Because it was snowmelt, it was clean and high in quality. And as Mulholland and Eaton found when they made measurements of elevations by using barometers, the water could be made to flow to Los Angeles entirely by gravity, without the use of pumps.
Their next step was to win support from the city government, while keeping their plans hidden from the public. In Owens Valley well-watered land was cheap; the city in time would buy 120 square miles of watershed for a little more than a million dollars—the price of a single lot in some of today’s posh areas. But such bargains would disappear if speculators learned of the value of Owens land to the city.
Eaton took the initiative in March 1905, asking a local cattleman if he would sell his ranch. Because Eaton himself was a rancher, the move raised no eyebrows. To its owner the land Eaton wanted was merely several square miles of grazing country. But to Eaton it included water rights along the Owens River at the site where the aqueduct would meet it. It was the most promising location for the system’s main dam and reservoir.
Having won an option to purchase this land, Eaton went to the Los Angeles Board of Water Commissioners. In April the mayor and two city water commissioners went with him to see the new source for themselves. Again they posed as cattle buyers, with Eaton signing hotel registers “Fred Eaton and friends.” The “friends” quickly proceeded to purchase additional land in their own names.
Another potential obstacle lay in the federal government, whose Reclamation Service had an eye on Owens Valley as a prospective agricultural region, to be developed with irrigation. But the Secretary of the Interior regarded several other projects as having greater priority. Moreover, the Reclamation man in Southern California, Joseph Lippincott, advocated Los Angeles’s plans to his superiors and wrote a report endorsing the city’s arguments. The Interior Department quietly elected to let the city proceed.
Then, in July 1905, the Los Angeles Times broke the story. TITANIC PROJECT TO GIVE CITY A RIVER read its headline. The text that followed filled the entire front page, beginning, “The Times announces this morning the most important movement for the development of Los Angeles in all the city’s history- the closing of preliminary negotiations securing 30,000 inches of water, or about ten times our present total supply.”
In Owens Valley the reaction was shock, dismay, and anger. Not only would the people there lose their expected Reclamation Service project, but they would see water they thought was theirs shipped off. Just as Los Angeles had compelled the San Fernando farmers to go without water, so would Owens Valley now see its prospects sacrificed in the name of the city’s future growth.
The reaction within the valley was consistent with an old Western saying: “Steal my horse, run off with my wife, but damn you, don’t touch my water!” Feelings ran especially high against Eaton, who had bought his land under false pretenses, and against Lippincott, who had had a serious conflict of interest. While he held his Interior Department post, “Judas” Lippincott (as he was christened by a local editor) had also worked as a consultant for the Los Angeles Water Department. There was further anger in Owens Valley when Lippincott resolved this conflict by resigning his government position and was rewarded with a senior position on the aqueduct project.
The city held the water beyond cavil; it had purchased the necessary land. But it still was not free to proceed, for the aqueduct would have to cross the Mojave Desert, which was federal land. Legislation in Washington would be needed, and on this issue the Owens people made their most vigorous stand. Their congressman, Sylvester Smith, was a member of the House Committee on Public Lands, which would have to give its assent to any such bill. Here was their best chance to block the Angelenos.
The aqueduct, Smith declared, would carry eight times as much water as the city could then use. Clearly the excess would serve to irrigate lands near the city, raising their value and bringing to them a prosperity that belonged to Owens Valley. He thus proposed that the Reclamation Service’s project be revived, with most of the water remaining in the valley. Los Angeles indeed would build its aqueduct, but it would have the right to only as much water as it could use directly, with none left over for irrigation.
Such a proposal would have cut the heart out of Mulholland’s hopes, by eliminating the prospect of water to sustain the city’s future growth. But Los Angeles had its own champion in Sen. Frank Flint, an Angeleno and a political ally of President Theodore Roosevelt. In June 1906, with Smith’s bill ready for congressional action, Flint arranged for Mulholland to meet with Roosevelt. The full flow of Owens water would be essential, Mulholland asserted, to ensure that Los Angeles could grow without fear of a water famine. Roosevelt assented. As for the “few settlers in Owens Valley,” he declared, their “interests must unfortunately be disregarded in view of the infinitely greater interest to be served by putting the water in Los Angeles.”
The way was now clear for the city to pass a bond measure to carry out the project. Already its water system was in the hands of the municipal government, which had bought out the private owners who had employed Mulholland in 1902. The new aqueduct would cost $23 million to build, more than three times as much debt as Los Angeles was then holding. Indeed, the new debt would approach the legal limits of what the city could borrow.
The measure swept to passage in June 1907 by a vote of 22,063 to 2,135. Even then, however, it was still not possible to start digging. The route of the aqueduct would pierce the mountains north of Los Angeles and cross the desert with its stark hills and deep canyons. To support the work along the major portion of the route, there was only one town of any significance. This was Mojave, a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad. It had a post office, a general store, two restaurants, three lodging houses, and twelve saloons. It was also a terminus for the Owens Valley stagecoaches, relics of the type used during the sold rush.
With so inadequate a base of support, Mulholland’s first move was to launch a sweeping program of preparation. There would need to be a railroad along the length of the route, and officials of the Southern Pacific agreed to build it at their own expense, in exchange for a monopoly on freight hauling on it. In addition, Mulholland ordered the building of three hydroelectric plants on mountain streams to generate a total of 2.5 megawatts. This energy, carried by transmission line as far south as Mojave, would light the workers’ camps and run three dredges, a number of power shovels, six machine shops, and all the tunneling equipment.
It also would run a cement plant. The project would need more than a million barrels of cement, and the necessary ingredients—limestone and clays—existed in deposits along the route. So the city built its own plant. Mulholland also linked the work camps with roads and a telephone system and laid pipes to provide water.
The work crews were made up of the hard-bitten men who flourished in those times. “In the camps there were men of fifty and older, veterans of the Comstock Lode,” a surveyor named Frederick Cross later recalled. “The typical miner or mucker was an Irishman or a Cornish ‘Cousin Jack,’ about forty years of age, with graying hair, either loquacious or taciturn. He wore a woolen undershirt and drawers, a pair of dungarees held up by a piece of fuse in lieu of a belt, and hobnailed shoes.”
Burt Heinly, Mulholland’s secretary, added that “a laborer on accepting employment is introduced to a bath-tub (in many instances it is an introduction of total strangers) and is told to scrub himself. Meanwhile his clothes and blankets are disinfected.” And Cross recalled: “The aqueduct provided a sheetiron stove (it got below freezing in those hills in winter), and there was a faucet just outside the door. A naked sixteen-candlepower bulb hanging from a rafter furnished light. We brought along our own Gold Medal cot, pads and blankets. This was pure luxury.” Cross expected no creature comforts, for he was “an ‘S.I.’ (Sivil Ingineer), a hardy soul who rolled his Bull Durham cigarettes and drank Monogram whiskey.”
At times the temperature in the Mojave topped 120 degrees, and this plus the lack of refrigeration meant that meat spoiled and bread became foul with weevils. At times the workmen became so upset that they kicked over the tables and threw the food on the floor, even chasing the cooks out of camp. But life held more than hardship. “The full moon gave light enough to read newsprint,” Cross said. “No matter how blistering the day, sundown brought relief.”
Relief could also be found at the saloons. Mulholland is said to have declared that whiskey built the aqueduct, because no man would have kept to it unless whiskey had kept him broke. Actually he was quite concerned that liquor would sap the workers’ efficiency, and city officials had the state pass a law to prevent gin mills from spreading along the route. But this law could not touch the bars of Mojave, which were already established and quickly became a mecca during paydays. Sometimes a thirsty man would hand his paycheck to a barkeeper and say, “Let me know when that’s gone.” One tunnel boss said he regularly had “one crew drunk, one crew sobering up, and one crew working.”
The main tunnel was the chief point of attack. It would drive for five miles through the mountains north of the city. Mulholland spurred the work by setting up a system of bonuses. The miners were to meet a base rate of eight feet per day in lengthening the tunnel, and for every foot per day beyond this, every underground workman would receive an additional forty cents. As a result, wrote Lippincott, the method of work resembled a “snappy base-ball contest.” Heinly noted that “when a camp once gains the pennant for good and rapid work it strives with all its might to retain the emblem.”
To strengthen this competitive spirit, the project’s budget office published current work records every ten days. As a result the miners quickly broke what had been the American record for hard-rock tunneling, 449 feet in a month on Colorado’s Gunnison Tunnel. They then proceeded to break their own records, reaching a peak of 604 feet during April 1910. Many miners earned more through bonuses than through their regular pay. But Mulholland was able to drive the tunnel to completion with a time saving of fifteen months over original estimates and a cost saving of $500,000.
Another difficult area was the region around Jawbone Canyon, in the desert north of Mojave. It was a wild land of crags and ravines, but the channel would be driven underground, where much of the rock was soft sandstone that could be readily dealt with. Under the same bonus system, August 1909 saw a record run in soft-rock tunneling of 1,061 feet.
The Jawbone area also served as a testing ground for new technology: steam-driven traction engines that ran on treads rather than wheels. When Mulholland saw one operate, he said, “That thing looks to me like a caterpillar crawling along the ground,” giving it a name that would stick. Soon twentyeight of them were in use, hauling supplies across the desert. But amid frequent breakdowns they soon proved less effective than the alternative: wagons pulled by mule teams. These, with as many as fifty-two mules on leads, could pull the twenty-six-ton sections of pipe that would carry the water across the Jawbone.
The work ran ahead of schedule through much of the project, but in May 1910 it hit a major obstacle that was not technical but financial. City officials had been financing the work by selling bonds on Wall Street. The rapid pace of the work had led the city to sell these securities at a faster rate than had been specified in a contract with their brokers. Now a fall in the market led the brokers to curtail their purchases. They would buy no new bonds until the contracted schedule caught up with the number they had already purchased. Mulholland was forced to trim his payroll from 3,900 to 1,100. He managed to keep some work going through the following months, but it was a year before bond purchases resumed and the project could proceed again at full steam.
Another delay came in the summer months of 1913. With the aqueduct nearing completion, project officials had begun to test it by allowing water to flow through one section after another. In particular, this procedure would test the siphons, a form of hydraulic construction that dated to the ancient Romans. They were to carry the water across canyons. A heavy pipe would run down one side, across the canyon floor, and up the other side. Water, seeking its own level, would flow through with no need for pumps. But such a design put the lower reaches of a siphon under great pressure. In Jawbone Canyon, for instance, an 850-foot drop demanded steel pipe more than an inch thick.
Most of the siphons were built entirely of such pipe, but one in Sand Canyon relied on tunnels bored through rock. In March one of these tunnels failed. The pressure lifted the entire covering, and as water spouted into the air, the canyon wall came loose and fell into the ravine. The only solution was to build an all-steel siphon, a job that took until September. That was the last significant interruption. The work was finished on time and within budget.
The city’s population meanwhile had tripled in a single decade, reaching 319,000 in 1910, all without benefit of any Owens water. And people had felt the pinch; in dry times some of them had kept their faucets open all night long to catch a few meager drippings in pans. But in early November the aqueduct was ready. At its southern terminus in the San Fernando Valley, around forty thousand people gathered amid great enthusiasm, as if to welcome a king.
Mulholland himself would open the flow, but he had more than water on his mind. His wife, Lillian, was ill and in a hospital. He gave a speech, and in the words of the Los Angeles Times , “he remained the calm, efficient engineer. Without a tremor he gave the signal for opening the gates, calmly confident that the water would come forth at his bidding.” Then he turned to the mayor and said, “There it is. Take it.”
A moment later he received word that Lillian had rallied and was out of danger. Much relieved, he went forward to join the people who were taking their first drinks of the new water. The next day the Times headline read: GLORIOUS MOUNTAIN RIVER NOW FLOWS TO LOS ANGELES’ GATES . The accompanying article added that “it gurgled and splashed its message of good health, great wealth, long life and plenteous prosperity to Los Angeles and her people.”
That wealth and prosperity, however, would prove to have been obtained at the expense of Owens Valley. The people had hoped to see their valley grow through irrigated agriculture. Decades later they would rely upon tourism, as the scenery and skiing in the Sierra Nevada attracted an increasing number of visitors. Until that era there would be a lengthy period when the city’s demand for Owens water brought considerable hardship.
It didn’t have to be that way. True, in the long run Los Angeles was bound to tap as much of this water as it could get. But from the start there was the opportunity to build a major dam and reservoir in Long Valley, at the northern end of the aqueduct. It would have permitted the city to draw on a reserve in dry years, while still leaving enough to permit agriculture to develop. That would have helped the valley hold its own, smoothing over the decades of transition between these two eras.
At the very outset, in 1905, Fred Eaton had seen the eventual need for this dam and had bought the necessary land. He was willing to sell it—for a million dollars. No other location would be suitable, and Eaton knew he was in a strong position. Mulholland regarded Eaton’s price as exorbitant and refused to pay it. “I’ll buy Long Valley three years after Eaton is dead,” Mulholland is said to have declared.
Lacking this dam, as the city’s population continued to surge—576,000 in 1920 and 1,238,000 by 1930—officials exercised their rights to Owens water with little regard for the people who lived there. During the 1920s, led by a family of local bankers named Watterson, Owens citizens rallied for physical attacks. In one incident hundreds of them seized a spillway for several days, turning the flow back into the Owens River. Other attackers used dynamite with increasing skill, reaching a peak of destructiveness in 1927 when they blew up 450 feet of siphon in No Name Canyon.
The violent phase of the “water wars” ended later that year, when the Wattersons were indicted for embezzlement and their banks failed. And in 1941 Los Angeles finally finished building Long Valley Dam on what had been Eaton’s land, although by then it was too late for Owens agriculture to recover. The city managed to save a few hundred thousand dollars in purchasing the land, but this saving came at high cost: long-lived enmity in Owens Valley and a reputation for Los Angeles rapacity.
Meanwhile, early in the 1920s, Mulholland began to plan for a day when even Owens water would be insufficient. In . 1923 he won an election that gave him funds to explore the possibility of drawing water from the Colorado River. A week after the election he himself was on that river, leading a group of engineers in rowboats. He then sent surveying parties to study possible routes for an aqueduct.
An extended region of high land lay between the city and the Colorado, reaching elevations of 1,600 feet, so the water could not flow by gravity as it had from Owens; it would have to be pumped. The pumps would need electricity, which meant a hydroelectric dam. Such a dam would also be able to control the Colorado’s frequent floods and provide a reservoir. And that, in turn, would demand resolution of the competing claims of seven Western states that held rights to the river’s flow.
There thus arose a tangled skein of issues, both technical and legal, that had to be resolved before work could proceed. It was 1928 before enough legal underbrush had been cleared to permit authorization of Boulder (later known as Hoover) Dam, which would be the main facility within a comprehensive Colorado system. Not until 1941 would the first water from this new source reach users in the Los Angeles area.
By then Mulholland was gone. The great tragedy of his life struck in 1928, when the St. Francis Dam outside Los Angeles, which had been built under his supervision, collapsed with great loss of life and property. The collapse was the result of an inadequate foundation; Mulholland said afterward with characteristic honesty and straightforwardness, “If there is any responsibility here—it is mine alone.” Later that year, after fifty years of active service, he retired. He died in his sleep in 1935, at the age of seventy-nine.
The story of Los Angeles and water did not end there, of course, and it hasn’t ended yet. The next great phase of the city’s water-system expansion began in November 1958, when California voters elected Edmund (“Pat”) Brown governor. He was strongly committed to such an expansion, and his leadership helped resolve a touchy issue: most of the state’s water lay in its northern areas, but most of the demand for it came from the south. His solution lay in planning a true statewide system, with major dams and reservoirs within easy reach of the San Francisco area that could serve northern as well as southern users. By a narrow margin the voters of the entire state approved the necessary bonds in November 1960—$1.75 billion—and construction began.
By 1972 the system was delivering water from the northern part of the state to Los Angeles. Then, during 1976 and 1977, a statewide drought struck. The shortfall was 25 percent of normal demand in San Francisco and as much as 60 percent in that city’s northern suburbs—but only 13 percent in Los Angeles. A vast dam and reservoir stood near Oroville in the state’s north, and people in the north naturally thought of its water as theirs. But the existing channels permitted that water to flow only to Los Angeles, even though that city drew none of it for a time after March 1977.
Soon after, in 1982, the question arose of building a new channel that would double the system’s capacity. People in the north were easily convinced that this was just one more scheme by which the southerners would fill their swimming pools with northern water. In a vote that year on the new project, 90 percent of the northerners voted no. In the south 60 percent voted yes; but it wasn’t enough, and the proposal went down to defeat. At present there are no plans to revive it.
This means that the story of water in Southern California is not over. That part of the state’s population is likely to reach 16 million by 2000, and there remains the prospect that the coming century could see new shortages. Perhaps the answer will lie in another grand statewide program, building the 1982 channel for the south while adding waterways to help San Francisco and San Jose. Or perhaps California will reach even farther, running up the coast to tap the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific.
There is a saying in the West that water runs uphill to money. By whatever means, the needed flows will be found.