William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles

Catherine Mulholland, Author
Catherine Mulholland, Author University of California Press $49.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-520-21724-9
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
Open Ebook - 432 pages - 978-0-520-92901-2
Paperback - 432 pages - 978-0-520-23466-6
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Controversial, self-taught engineer Mulholland (1855-1935) was almost singlehandedly responsible for transforming Los Angeles from a dusty pueblo of 9,000 souls into a teeming megalopolis. The tough-as-nails Irishman, who ran off to sea as a teenager and arrived in California in 1877, began as a ditchdigger, rose to become waterworks superintendent and, in 1913, gave L.A. its first abundant water supply by building the Owens Valley Aqueduct with an army of 5,000 men. Critics charge that the aqueduct, which diverted water to L.A. across desert and mountains from the Owens River 233 miles northeast, was created through devious land deals, water thievery and cronyism. Owens Valley farmers and ranchers, who felt their water had been wrongfully taken from them, committed acts of sabotage, dynamiting sections of the aqueduct in 1924 and 1927 (the 1979 movie Chinatown dealt with parts of this saga). In this sympathetic, scholarly biography, the engineer's granddaughter attempts to refute these charges, which she labels ""myths,"" but her explanations are not always convincing. In a densely detailed narrative unfolding against a backdrop of land booms, earthquakes, oil drilling, local scandals, labor unrest and the rise of the Progressive movement, she portrays Mulholland as a pragmatist with integrity, guided by an overarching vision. She uses recent research pointing to geological conditions undetectable by 1920s technology to exonerate him of the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster, which unleashed a flood that killed 500 people and destroyed Mulholland's career. Though the scent of whitewash hovers over its pages, this biography will appeal to readers of regional history, city politics and environmentalism. 40 b&w photos. (Aug.)
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