8/11/2001 • American History Reviews

WILLIAM MULHOLLAND AND THE RISE OF LOS ANGELES, by Catherine Mulholland, University of California, Press, 496 pages, $35.00.

Readers may have long since tired of the seemingly endless string of exposés about the corrupt history of our nation’s most enigmatic city. One might even ask, justifiably, “What else can be said about Los Angeles?”

Surprisingly, Catherine Mulholland has delivered an answer. In fact, it is more than an answer: it is a response. William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles takes on every source that came before it, with authority. Thankfully, Mulholland does not let her personal relationship with the subject interfere with her analysis. She carefully and methodically retraces the events that shaped her grandfather’s life and made him an icon of the city’s legendary beginnings.

In 1907 the city of Los Angeles and its water chief, self-taught engineer William Mulholland, embarked on an unprecedented and controversial engineering project to bring water to the booming city–the Owens River Aqueduct. Construction took more than six years, resulting in one of the greatest engineering feats ever accomplished. Less happily, the St. Francis Dam, also built by Mulholland, collapsed in 1928, killing 450 people. Mulholland accepted personal responsibility for the disaster, which ruined his reputation.

From newspaper stories, city documents, and personal correspondence, the author pieces together the story of the contentious rivalries at play during the years when water was brought to Los Angeles. On one hand, she reports “the Chief,” the city, and its newly created water department had good intentions when it pursued the municipal ownership of water and power for its growing populace. On the other hand, private power companies, landowners, profiteers, and socialists had various motives for resisting the effort.

Mulholland shows how the rivalry spawned misconceptions, lies, and conspiracy theories that have persisted to this day. One can hope that her objective, factual version of the story will win out over the scandal myths that have fed countless books and even a movie or two. Unfortunately, people usually prefer the notorious legend to the informed truth.

RICK LAEZMAN is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who enjoys delving into the mysteries of the history of his city as much as he enjoys a good detective novel.

Talking with Catherine Mulholland