Hail to the Chief: William Mulholland’s Rise as Los Angeles’ Water Guru, 1877-1902

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This morning, the Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club gathered in-person and virtually to discuss Jon Wilkman’s book Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles concerning the horrific St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928 and the complicity of William Mulholland, the self-taught civil engineer who oversaw its construction.

Some previous posts here have summarized aspects of the terrible calamity, including Mulholland’s testimony at the coroner’s inquest (a press photo from the Museum’s holdings was recently used in two PBS documentaries, one relating directly to the dam disaster and the other a broader look at Los Angeles history referencing it.) Other posts have gone into aspects of Mulholland’s greatest achievement, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in late 1913 and which allowed for the continuing stratospheric growth of the Angel City, though obviously not without considerable controversy then and even now—just today the print edition of the Los Angeles Times has a feature about a state appellate court overturning a lower court decision on a case involving the city’s Department of Water and Power and it decisions about water taken from lands Los Angeles owns in Mono County as part of its far-ranging delivery system.

The registration of William Mulholland’s baptism at Belfast, 14 September 1855.

My brief presentation to the Club today included sharing artifacts, including pamphlets and photos, relating to Mulholland’s career and it, as these all are, consisted of general impressions of the more than half of a century of this remarkable figure. This included musings on his somewhat improbable rise from a water ditch digger in the late 1870s to a household name by the 1920s, this, of course, tainted by the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, with Mulholland, already in his mid-seventies at the time, dying within about seven years.

It is always challenging to take a figure like Mulholland and his body of work over so many years and try to reduce it to a 15-minute summation, especially when there remain legitimate questions about just how responsible he personally was for the St. Francis Dam disaster. Certainly, this self-trained civil engineer was taken to task following investigations in the aftermath for not consulting professionals outside his department, while he and his supporters claimed that there were geological conditions that were not known to have existed at the site until after the structure’s collapse. There is no shortage of information available, including Wilkman’s book, about that calamitous event, and readers of this post are very much encouraged to seek out such material.

Mulholland’s enumeration, line 5, in the San Fernando township in the 1880 federal census, about three years after he arrived in Los Angeles and showing him simply as a laborer.

For this post, we look at the rise of Mulholland from his humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success in his field during the quarter century from his arrival in Los Angeles in 1877 to the acquisition by the city of the private Los Angeles City Water Company and his transition from superintendent of the latter to chief engineer of the new city-owned bureau, which he then led for more than a quarter of a century.

Mulholland was born in 1855 in Belfast in what is now Northern Ireland to Hugh Mulholland and Ellen Deakers, who were Roman Catholics from Dublin and the family, which included a younger brother, Hugh, Jr. soon were back in that capital of what is now the Republic of Ireland. It should be added that Mulholland was born not long after the horrific potato famine that claimed a huge number of Irish lives and that his mother died when he was just six years old. By 15, with his home life problematic, the young man, who likely had what we could consider a junior high school education, left home and became a merchant seamen.

Los Angeles Times, 16 July 1890.

After being at sea for several years, Mulholland settled in the United States, living in several areas and working a variety of manual labor jobs. He was joined by his brother and the siblings apparently stowed away on a ship that left New York City for California towards the end of 1876. Discovered at Panama, they walked across the isthmus and then found their way up the Pacific Coast and arrived at Los Angeles by summer 1877.

The Angel City was in an economic depression, punctuated by the failure, not much more than a year before by the failure of the bank of Temple and Workman, but Mulholland who worked briefly in gold mining in Arizona and considered returning to the sea, was hired by Fred Eaton (a major figure later as mayor of Los Angeles and a key figure in the Aqueduct project) to work for the Los Angeles City Water Company (LACWC), a private firm that was established about a decade before and had a 30-year contract to provide water to the city. In the 1880 federal census, the 24-year old Mulholland was living in the San Fernando township, likely in its southeaster corner near the source of the company’s supply and was simply listed as a “laborer.”

Los Angeles Herald, 21 October 1892.

The young man, however, proved to be very bright, a hard worker and a quick study and built up an impressive body of knowledge about civil engineering and water works without any formal education whatsoever, being entirely self-taught. Mulholland came up in that world at a time when professional standards and college degrees were not quite universal and, with Los Angeles being something of a frontier town still, this likely was part of the equation.

In 1886, Mulholland became superintendent of the LACWC, and the timing was auspicious as, with a direct transcontinental railroad connection from the east just established, greater Los Angeles was on the cusp of the great Boom of the Eighties, which peaked in 1887 and 1888 during the mayoral administration of William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.)

Los Angeles Express, 16 February 1893.

As with other infrastructure, such as roads, sewers and schools, keeping the water system in good working order while also meeting burgeoning demand was a particular challenge, but Mulholland thrived in his role, even as he generally kept a pretty low profile. Improvements with more and larger reservoirs, the abandonment of the open zanja system, working with larger and better pipes and developing pumping systems that could reach higher elevations were among the critical elements of Mulholland’s work during the last fifteen years of the 19th century.

An early major newspaper reference to him was in the 16 July 1890 edition of the Los Angeles Times when it was stated that “as the old time pile dam and flutter wheel were knocked out years ago by floods” with the Los Angeles River sending enormous volumes of water over its banks, a young Mulholland “jumped out of bed at an early hour the morning before Christmas, when the alarm was given, and he didn’t get a chance to undress and go to bed like a Christian for four days.” What he did do, according to the piece, was get a critical conduit cleared so that “the city was not without its regular supply of water for a minute.” The account ended that, i gratitude, the company’s owners presented their star employee with a gold watch, which he wore regularly.

Times, 4 September 1895. Mulholland’s office was right off the Los Angeles Plaza.

Not quite two years later, Mulholland displayed his aptitude for vigorously defending the work of the company against charges of inadequate supply to another water company relying on the LACWC’s sources for the growing population of the “hill people,” presumably those in the elevated sections on the west end of town at Bunker Hill, Bellevue Terrace and like areas. Later in 1892, he labeled an anonymous critic, who claimed the LACWC fired employees who favored municipal ownership of the company, a growing issue at the time, as a “cur” and took umbrage about such assertions, claiming that no dismissals were so based and that there hadn’t been one at all for almost a year for any reason.

A project that helped burnish Mulholland’s reputation even more was the completion of a pump, designed by him and built by the local Fulton Engine Works, at a reservoir near the Buena Vista (North Broadway) bridge, this project giving a greater boost to supply of those hill sections of the city. The 16-ton pump, said to be the largest west of the Rockies, was hailed for its efficiency and its designer also was lauded for “his thorough knowledge of mechanics” which “has aided materially in secured the best and solidest work.”

Herald, 11 November 1895.

Still, grumbling continued about issues with inadequate pipes in the upper elevations of the City as well as the rapidly growing southern section of town, so that increase in water supply from the new pump did not address delivery through antiquated or poorly sized pipes. For example, in May 1893, it was reported in the Los Angeles Express that a 12-inch main running from the junction of Main, Spring and Temple down to 7th Street as to be extended four blocks south and then reduced to 8 inches beyond that, while distributing pipes to the south and southwest areas that were expanded quickly were also to be rapidly improved.

At that time, the Los Angeles Herald also trumpeted Mulholland’s “ingenious contrivance” in the form of a Pelton wheel that provided motive power for a pump with a capacity of 4 million gallons a day, though only 60% of that was deemed necessary for present conditions. The wheel was operated by the flow of the river with the water from Crystal Springs, some eight miles from the city center, solely for power, after which the precious fluid returned to the watercourse. It was added that the springs were naturally very clear in the release of its water because of the filtration through gravel and sand, while pipes kept the fluid free from impurity until it was delivered to the LACWC’s reservoirs.

A drawing of Mulholland testifying to a Board of Arbitration over the City of Los Angeles’ effort to purchase the Los Angeles City Water Company, Herald, 24 November 1898.

By the mid-Nineties, Mulholland was well enough known that he began making contributions to his profession’s literature, such as an article on the Company’s extended system and major improvements, probably those mentioned above along with others, to the journal Engineering News. The piece included a map, reported the Times of 13 February 1895, that showed the system from the Buena Vista Street reservoir, while more water was conducted by conduits at West Seventh Street in the southwest part of downtown. While Mulholland’s work was largely concentrated in the Angel City, he designed, also in 1895, new pipes for water and sewers for a supply system for the town of Puente, established a decade before.

The Herald of 11 November 1895 included a lengthy piece on the LACWC and its history and noted:

The entire property of the company is under the care of the able engineer, Mr. William Mulholland, a gentleman of wide research in the science of hydraulics. To him the vast system of reservoirs, conduits, tunnels and mains of the company are an open book. He guards them with conscientious care and preserves them at all times from the possibility of contamination.

Sometimes, the press had a little fun with the fastidiousness, essential as it obviously was, with Mulholland. In May 1897, the Express related a story of how a horrified Mulholland went to the City Council with news of a crisis in the water delivery system, especially, as he was quoted as saying, there was so much criticism of the LACWC as it was.

Los Angeles Record, 13 May 1899.

Mulholland told the spellbound city leaders that he “saw him almost exhausted, swimming down the waterway” and then manage to make his way into the Company’s main plant by crawling over a screen gate, from which he plunged into the water and vanished. The council members asked about the boy and Mulholland replied, “What little boy? Who said anything about a little boy? This was a [expletive omitted] squirrel and will come out of some user’s faucet some day and we’ll get the blame.”

Despite this humorous anecdote, blame was assigned in plenty as the city’s expansion was also confronted by several drought years during the 1890s, and Los Angeles city fathers increasingly agitated for a takeover of the water system once the original 30-year contract expired in 1898. What followed was a roughly five-year battle between officials, arbitrators, Company leaders, and the obvious retinue of lawyers retained on both sides.

Times, 6 February 1902.

On several occasions Mulholland was called in to testify at proceedings regarding minute details on the operations of the company, asked to provide details of work done during his tenure, and other often mind-numbing statistics and data concerning LACWC operations. City attorneys, naturally, sought to represent the Company as inefficient and lacking in proper recordkeeping, among other complaints, though it was generally universally admitted that Mulholland was beyond reproach in his work.

An obvious key issue came down to the valuation of the Company and its assets, with its officials insisting that this was well in excess of $2 million, though Mulholland’s assessment was lower than others within the firm, while the City asserted that the amount was roughly a million dollars less than that. Small wonder that it took so long for a deal to finally be reached early in 1902, though there was at least one other competing proposal from a New York bank, which stated that we intend to retain the services of W. Mulholland . . as he is a very valuable and able man.”

A 1909 photo, from the Museum’s holdings, of employees of the city water department, with Mulholland, sporting a Stetson hat, in the larger car at center, behind the one in the foreground with the man at the wheel and an empty seat next to him.

The City of Los Angeles felt so, too, so that, when it acquired the company, it kept Mulholland on as superintendent of what became today’s Department of Water and Power. The Times of 6 February 1902 asked him what his priorities were and the engineer mentioned first having a comprehensive plan for when the city hit 200,000 residents (which was much sooner than he and many others could have anticipated) and then accounting for the improvements required.

More specifically, he talked of a new boiler and pumping plant at the Buena Vista facility and extending a main to a reservoir at Angelino Heights. Mulholland professed that there was plenty of water in the business section of the City, but noted that gravity flow had to be replaced by pumping, while pipe improvements were always needed. He did refer to “development for a larger supply of water” because a core problem was “that regarding an adequate water supply.”

Mulholland, with his hat pulled down low over his eyes, in the passenger seat of a city vehicle, while an official speaks at what was likely the opening of Mulholland Highway in 1924. This image is also in the Homestead’s collection.

While he talked of immediate ideas of drilling more wells and an infiltration system at the headworks along the river north of the city and other work along the watercourse near the Zanja Madre (Mother Ditch) diversion not far north of the Plaza that would eliminate waste in the loss of river water, nothing was yet said about procuring water from outside the area.

In summer 1900, however, as the 19th century was coming to its close, Fred Eaton, now mayor of the Angel City, planned a trip with the federal chief hydrographer, the U.S. hydrographer for the Los Angeles district, and Mulholland, among others, to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Kings and San Joaquin rivers, these being on the west of that range. The Express of 30 July reported

The object of the trip is to inspect the proposed national reservoir system for irrigating Southern California lands.

This, obviously, never happened, but, by 1904, active planning was underway for another massive project, entirely undertaken by the City and funded with bonds approved by its voters (the city treasurer working with these in the early stages was William H. Workman, who served from 1901-1907), and which became the Los Angeles Aqueduct. With that, we end this brief survey of the early and roughly first half of the remarkable career of Mulholland, whose story, for those interested, can be found in many works, like Wilkman’s.

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