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The Southland's Mythic William Mulholland

West Words

July 26, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The defining moment in the life of William Mulholland--and the destiny of Southern California--was the day in 1913 when the waters of the Sierra Nevada first spilled into the San Fernando Valley. At the opening ceremonies, after a long ordeal of anthems and oratory, the chief engineer himself was invited to address the 30,000 people who had gathered in Sylmar to witness the opening of the Owens Valley Aqueduct. "There it is," cried Mulholland, "take it!"

The scene is so famous that it has become almost mythic. Here was Mulholland, a poor Irish immigrant who invented himself as an engineer and went on to serve as the principal builder of waterworks in Southern California for four decades, at the moment of his greatest glory. And yet, as Catherine Mulholland recalls the same scene in "William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles" (University of California Press, $35, 496 pages), Mulholland was not wholly consumed with grandiose dreams or political wiles. Rather, she insists that he was animated by an engineer's passion for making things work. Moments after delivering his celebrated one-line speech, for example, Mulholland was approached by a spectator who wanted to know exactly how fast the water in the aqueduct was moving.

"Suddenly, his hat--a Tyrolean felt adorned with a peacock feather--dropped off his head into the water," reports Catherine Mulholland, "and as he watched it sail away, Mulholland answered: 'You'll find it at the dam in seven minutes.' "

Catherine Mulholland is the granddaughter of the man whose biography she has written, and she unabashedly seeks to polish his tarnished reputation. She dismisses the motion picture "Chinatown," which features a Mulholland-esque character caught up in a vast conspiracy of water theft, as "a tabloid yarn," and repudiates some of the most distinguished writing on California water politics.

Still, she accepts that history has not been kind to her grandfather. And to her credit, she is frank about the risks of writing the life story of one's own grandfather, a story "which in a sense I have lived all my life and which even now may be disbelieved." As if to anticipate and avoid the charge that her book is merely an exercise in revisionist family history, she has undergirded her biography with impressive scholarship of her own.

But "William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles" is something more than a work of scholarship; it is a saga of truly heroic proportions, a tale told with both grace and grandeur. The story begins with Mulholland's birth in Belfast in 1855 and follows him all the way to America, where he fixed clocks, prospected for gold and finally ended up digging artesian wells on an old Spanish land grant near what is now the city of Compton in 1878. "The first well I drove," Mulholland later recalled, "changed the whole course of my life."

Clearly, Los Angeles as we know it today simply would not exist without the importation of water, and Mulholland masterminded some of the earliest and most expansive waterworks that created and defined the place where we live. But Catherine Mulholland wants us to understand that her grandfather may have played a role in carrying out the imperial ambitions of Los Angeles, but he certainly did not invent them. Wealthy and willful men, including the founders of the Los Angeles Times, contrived to acquire water rights for Los Angeles in far-off Owens Valley and build the aqueducts and pumping stations that carried the water to Southern California. She insists that Mulholland was "falsely accused of conspiring with vested interests in the San Fernando Valley in building the aqueduct"--he was, she argues, "a good public servant."

Her defense of her grandfather does not blunt the sharper edges of his gruff personality or the darker side of his life story. She readily characterizes the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, which claimed more than 400 lives, as "the greatest man-made disaster in the history of California and the greatest American civil engineering failure in the 20th century." But she invites us to see a tragic grandeur in the defeat that forced him into retirement and hastened his death--Mulholland accepted responsibility for the failure of the dam that he had built, and when called to testify at a coroner's inquest, he said that he envied the dead.

Catherine Mulholland brings her book to a bittersweet ending with an intimate experience that sums up the contradictions in her grandfather's tumultuous life. On a shelf in her home, she keeps two mementos: a vial of Owens Valley water handed out as a souvenir to the crowds at the opening of the aqueduct in 1913, and a small water glass that survived when the cook house at the St. Francis Dam was washed away in 1928.

"The whole story abides for me in those two objects," she sums up. "Water as blessing, water as curse; water as life giver and destroyer."

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