Part I: William Mulholland’s vision

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Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

Listen below as Madeleine Brand and Saul Gonzalez report on the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The Mulholland Fountain is named in honor of William Mullholland, the City Engineer who brought water to the Los Angeles area from the Owens Valley via the aqueduct. Mulholland used to live in a shack where the fountain is now located, on the corner of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive. He worked as a ditch tender by day, and studied at night to learn all he needed to know to become an engineer.

Los Angeles in the late 1870s was a dusty and dilapidated pueblo of 9,000 people. Many of L.A.’s residents were outlaws and vagrants.  But a real estate boom sparked a growth boom and in ten years, L.A.’s population tripled. By 1910 there 300,000 people in the city.

The main source of water was the L.A. River. What we know today as that concrete-lined waterway that Angelenos  usually ignore. But back in Mulholland’s early days, the L.A. River was where the city got most of its drinking water.

Looking north at the William Mulholland Memorial Fountain in Los Feliz. Griffith Park (left), Los Feliz Boulevard, and Riverside Drive (right) are present in the background. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library
Looking north at the William Mulholland Memorial Fountain in Los Feliz. Griffith Park (left), Los Feliz Boulevard, and Riverside Drive (right) are present in the background. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library
The new and improved Mulholland Fountain
The new and improved Mulholland Fountain. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Engineer with the Department of Water and Power, Fred Barker, explains that it was, in fact, the city’s only source of water and it wasn’t that reliable. “If you had a wet winter you had plenty of water. If you had a dry winter, the river would shrink,” says Barker. “It never dried up but it got smaller and smaller as the summers went dry.” In the summer of 1904, the reservoirs were on their way to becoming empty in August of that year. There was a heat wave, the river supply was diminished and people were quite nervous.”

For William Mulholland, the head of the city’s new public water department, increasing L.A.’s water supply was a matter of civic and professional pride.

But some of L.A.’s wealthiest and most powerful men knew that if they played their cards right, more water for the city would mean more money for them. Men like railroad magnate Henry Huntington, Union Pacific president E.H. Harriman, developer Moses Sherman, and Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler.

Fred Eaton, an engineer and former Los Angeles mayor, suggested to Mulholland that that water could be brought to L.A. from the Owens Valley. All the city had to do was build a massive aqueduct to get it south.

The project required a two-pronged strategy: Buy land quietly from the ranchers and farmers of the Owens Valley and sell the people of Los Angeles on the idea of building the aqueduct.

A PR campaign got underway to convince voters to pass a $25 million dollar bond measure to pay for the aqueduct’s construction. The owners of the L.A. Times were part of the syndicate that had bought up much of the San Fernando Valley and stood to make a lot of money when the water started to flow. Because the paper was at the center of the plotting or planning of develop of aqueduct, “everything you read in the Los Angeles Times was enormously supportive,” explains William Kahrl, the author of “Water and Power, the definitive history of the L.A. Aqueduct.”

Voters passed the bond overwhelmingly.

And Aqueduct construction began in 1907. “At any one time, close to 4,000 people were working on it. But over the six years, 100,000 different people worked on it. There was a tremendous turn over in personnel because of the conditions. We’re talking a hundred years ago. The food was terrible. The conditions were very challenging, so there was a large turnover in the workforce. Mulholland had never built such a large project. He had just put in water mains in the city, so this was a leap for him,” says DWP historian Fred Barker.

The aqueduct was formally opened on November 5th, 1913. Thirty thousand Angelenos came by car, wagon, and buggy to see the water race down the final cascade.

A crowd of 30,000 arrived by car, wagon, and buggy for dedication ceremonies at the Sylmar Cascades on November 5, 1913. The San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce distributed bottles of Owens River water to the celebrants. (Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library)
A crowd of 30,000 arrived by car, wagon, and buggy for dedication ceremonies at the Sylmar Cascades on November 5, 1913. The San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce distributed bottles of Owens River water to the celebrants. (Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library)

With the first trickle the crowd rushed to the canal, dipping cups in the water. The program called for Mulholland to formally turn the Aqueduct over to Mayor J.J. Rose, but it was mayhem and Mulholland simply turned to the mayor, who was standing next to him on the platform, and uttered those immortal words:

“There it is. Take it.”

On the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, we look at William Mulholland’s legacy and the on-going quest to quench LA’s thirst. More at: Power & Water: The Los Angeles Aqueduct at 100  This series was reported by Madeleine Brand and Saul Gonzalez and produced by Matt Holzman.