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The Man Who Brought the Water : RIVERS IN THE DESERT: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles, By Margaret Leslie Davis (HarperCollins: $24; 320 pp.)

July 25, 1993|Geoffrey Cowan | Cowan is a film producer, UCLA law school faculty member, public interest lawyer and the author of "The People vs. Clarence Darrow: The Bribery Trial of America's Greatest Lawyer" (Times Books)

William Mulholland. . . . Today he is remembered, if at all, for the 22-mile skyline highway on the crest of the Santa Monica mountains that bears his name and that symbolically overlooks the valley his engineering genius made possible; or as Hollis Mulwray, the civic-minded engineer in the movie "Chinatown," Faye Dunaway's husband, who was murdered by his money-hungry father-in-law as part of a villainous plot to buy Valley land before waters from the Los Angeles Aqueduct sent property values soaring.

But William Mulholland deserves to be remembered for his own deeds (and his misdeeds), and Margaret Leslie Davis has shrewdly chosen to tell the story of Los Angeles's quest for water as a classic tragedy in the life of William Mulholland and the city that he did so much to build.

When he arrived at the small pueblo of Los Angeles in 1877, the young Mulholland had no formal education (he had spent several years as a merchant seaman, lumberjack and mechanic), but he was a charming Irish immigrant with a prodigious memory and an exceptional capacity for self-learning. He spent his days working in the city's water company and nights reading anything he could find about history, geology, hydraulics and engineering.

By the end of the century, the town's population was exploding thanks to the arrival of the railroad. Mulholland's mentor at the water company, the aristocratic Fred Eaton, became the city's mayor, and Mulholland became the water company's chief engineer. Their lives really intersected, however, in the years after Eaton left office with a determination to find new sources of water for the fast growing city. Both men knew that, if forced to rely on the Los Angeles River alone, the desert city's population would never be able to exceed 250,000--a number it was certain to reach in a few years.

Davis' book begins in September, 1904, when Eaton took Mulholland on a grueling, five-day buckboard journey through mountains, deserts and canyons, to a place some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, where a gleaming, five-mile-wide river flowed through the fertile Owens Valley. Fed by melted snow from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the river's annual flow was five times that of the Los Angeles River. Eaton proposed that they bring the Owens River to Los Angeles.

It was a brilliant, daring and dangerous idea. As an engineering project, it would be the second largest in American history--exceeded only by the Panama Canal, where construction work had begun a few months earlier. But as an economic and political proposition it would be even more hazardous.

Though hard to reach from Los Angeles, the Owens Valley was a prosperous and growing community of farmers and ranchers. It was targeted as the site of a major federal reclamation project that would make it one of the richest agricultural settlements in the nation. If word of Eaton's plan leaked out, the people of the valley surely would try to block it--and land speculators would drive the cost of Los Angeles' project skyward.

Using tactics that were perhaps essential to the plan's success, but would not be allowed today, Mulholland and Eaton took the city's small oligarchy into their confidence and set all of the ingredients of their plan into place before making it public.

The secret process served its purpose, but it also allowed Fred Eaton to buy valuable options on Owens Valley land (leading to a permanent break with Mulholland who disapproved of using the venture for private gain). Later, when it came to light that almost one-quarter of the arid land in the San Fernando Valley--which would be irrigated by water from the Owens Valley--had been purchased by a syndicate of insiders, skeptics became convinced that there had been self-dealing; that suspicion has hung over the city ever since. (Investors included Times owners Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler; Los Angeles Express owner E. T. Earl; city water commissioner Moses Sherman; and railroad magnates E. H. Harriman and Henry Huntington.)

During the next decade, while planning and building the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Mulholland was in his full glory. On Nov. 4, 1913, more than 40,000 citizens of Los Angeles came to see the first rush of water pour down into the northern end of the San Fernando Valley.

Mulholland emerged as a hero: the man who built Los Angeles. Now plentiful with water, the San Fernando Valley was annexed by the city in 1915, and its irrigated acreage rose from 3,000 acres in 1914 to 75,000 acres in 1917. In the process, the members of the city oligarchy who had invested in the region made a fortune as their 47,000 acres of land soared in value. Even Mulholland (in spite of his ethical reservations) built a 650-acre ranch in the valley.

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