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1891 - President Benjamin Harrison stops at Saugus Depot, dines at Tolfree's Saugus Eating House [story]


Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Aug 31, 2014

DianneErskineHellrigelWilliam Mulholland has played a huge role in all of our lives. Without his efforts to bring water to Los Angeles, most of us probably wouldn’t be here. He was responsible for the creation of a massive water system that not only changed the course of our history, but brought most of us here.

One hundred years ago, Mulholland directed the opening of the valves at the Sylmar Cascades and sent water toppling down into the San Fernando Valley from his Owens Valley-Los Angeles Aqueduct. His famous words were, “There it is … Take it.” And L.A. did. The San Fernando Valley became a megatropolis, and Los Angeles grew to become one of the largest cities in the United States.

It all began when Fred Eaton, L.A.’s former mayor and water company superintendent, invited Mulholland to go visit the Owens Valley. There was water everywhere. It didn’t take long for the light bulb to go off. Together they surveyed the land and made plans to divert the Owens River. Eaton clandestinely bought up land and water rights along the river, acting secretly as an agent for the city of Los Angeles. President Teddy Roosevelt jumped on the bandwagon and passed a bill to allow the pipeline to cross federal land. Thus, the great Owens Valley water deal was struck.

Land values in the San Fernando Valley soared and new towns began to spring up. The first of the southern “wonder towns” were Owensmouth (now Canoga Park), Marian (now Reseda) and Van Nuys. Two bonds were issued at a total cost of $24.5 million, and the population and the elected officials placed their faith in Mulholland. He was successful and delivered the sweet Owens Valley water to Los Angeles. That water still flows south today.

William Mulholland

William Mulholland

So, who was this man? Where did he come from? Mulholland was born in Ireland, but he left at age 15, seeking adventure on the high seas. He made his way to America, stopping in New York, Michigan, Pittburgh, Arizona and eventually Los Angeles. He worked as a lumberman, in a dry goods store, as a miner, and he even fought Apache Indians. When he arrived in California, he secured a job from Eaton to dig ditches for the water company.

Eventually he rose through the ranks and became the superintendent and eventually a self-taught engineer. He worked to expand the city’s water system, but by the turn of the 20th Century, there wasn’t enough water to work with. Thus, Mulholland and Eaton hatched the idea of the aqueduct and successfully brought water to a thirsty Los Angeles.

Mulholland was hailed as a hero at the time, and with an unending supply of water, Los Angeles flourished. The Van Norman Dam was built to hold the incoming water, but there had been problems in the Owens Valley with vandals blowing up the intake area of the aqueduct. Mulholland worried that difficulties might arise if this kept happening. So he decided to build a series of dams to hold water closer to Los Angeles. His last dam was designed to hold a year’s worth of reserve water from the Eastern Sierras. This was the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon.

Although he had voraciously studied math, engineering, geology and hydrology, his design was flawed, and the St. Francis Dam would fail in 1928. The dam’s eastern abutment was built on an ancient Pliocene landslide, the western abutment on Sespe conglomerate, which when wet became weak and crumbled.

The St. Francis Dam in better days. It was up San Francisquito Canyon Road, 7 miles north of today's Copper Hill Drive.

The St. Francis Dam in better days. It was up San Francisquito Canyon Road, 7 miles north of today’s Copper Hill Drive.

Multiple errors were made in the construction of the base of the dam, and due to the weight of the water as the dam filled, hydraulic uplift occurred, causing the landslide to give way, setting off a chain reaction of events that resulted in the collapse of the dam.

A 140-foot wall of water roared out of the reservoir, killing nearly everyone in its path from Saugus to Ventura. Victims have been estimated to number between 431 and 600 people. Men, women, children, and entire families were killed.

Mulholland’s fame, respect and honor were drowned that night, as well. He took full responsibility for the collapse of the dam and the deaths. He died a broken man in 1935. The story of his life has all the makings of a brilliant Greek tragedy.

To me, it is sad that today, most people don’t know who the man was and the role he played in their lives. Despite the huge tragedy of the dam, he was still a great man who brought forth life into Los Angeles, and is the one person most responsible for the rise of that great city.

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. If you’d like to be part of the solution, join the Community Hiking Club’s Stewardship Committee. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

 

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3 Comments

  1. I work with the infrastructure this great man install back in the day. The other day I needed some info on a old trunkline and the document was signed by Superintendent Willaim Mullholland how cool is that.

  2. Nice article! One of the common myths about the Owens River was that Mulholland and the City of Los Angeles “killed” the agricultural heritage of the Owens Valley by stealing its water. In reality, the valley could not have sustained continued agricultural production for more than about 70 years before the ground would have become too alkaline, through precipitation of carbonate and other more soluble salts. So, the acquisition of these lands by Los Angeles has essentially preserved the Owens Valley as a national preserve of sorts. The environmental consequences of the Los Angeles Aqueduct were seen in the depletion of Mono Lake (which is now being mitigated) and in the complete draining of Owens Lake, which has caused a dust problem of immense magnitude. That is the remaining environmental problem that needs to be mitigated over the coming century, and it will likely require innovative technology.

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