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The Chief Doesn't Deserve Ridicule for St. Francis


One hundred years ago, Los Angeles was a dusty little town that, despite being second fiddle to San Francisco, was already feeling the beginnings of expansion. It was the only seaport town accessible year-round. You didn't have to deal with heavy Sierra show storms in order to get to San Francisco; you just went to Los Angeles and hopped a ship.

In fact, Los Angeles and Remi Nadeau made the "20 mule teams" famous, hauling silver from Cerro Gordo and Borax from the Mojave, the revenues from which helped fuel Los Angeles' turn-of-the-century expansion.

But the city was still using an outdated water system of zanjas and water wheels to channel the waters of the L.A. River into an already ancient water system. By 1905, the city's voters decided to tap the waters of the Owens River and send them to Los Angeles via what would become, at that time, the world's longest aqueduct.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, opened in 1913, stretched 233 miles north; it would later extend to the Mono Basin to tap Lee Vining Creek and would, by the 1970s, be responsible for the down-draw of Mono Lake and destruction of Owens Lake.

But at the time, it was considered the greatest engineering feat in the world and assured the reputation of its builder, William Mulholland.

Known as "The Chief," Mulholland was superintendent of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, which later became half of the DWP. In Los Angeles, The Chief was as close to a superstar as one could be in that era. People would ask for his autograph. He was irascible, gruff, humorous and intelligent. The press loved him for his quotes ("I'd rather give birth to a porcupine backwards than be mayor of Los Angeles"), some of which were unprintable. But as a self-educated engineer, he was nothing less than a genius. Working in the deserts and ditches with his men, he would build the aqueduct on time and under budget.

And then his St. Francis Dam collapsed.

The St. Francis was a storage dam and reservoir in San Francisquito Canyon. It was the largest concrete, gravity-arch dam in the world when it was built in 1926. At 11:56:30 p.m. on March 12, 1928, the giant dam, with a reservoir so full it was topping the spillways, collapsed suddenly. The lake behind it was nearly four miles long, 200 feet deep at the dam.

The flood would kill more than 420 people and would become not only the second-greatest disaster in California history (behind the 1906 quake in San Francisco), but would effectively end the career, if not the life, of a great man.

Anger from the disaster mixed with resentment from Owens Valley ranchers, and Mulholland was vilified. Sadly, such resentments are expressed even today. Owens Valley residents still hate the name Mulholland, and authors and filmmakers ("Chinatown," "Cadillac Desert") further trash the name and legacy of The Chief.

Did I say the aqueduct caused the environmental destruction of Owens Valley? What that really translates into is, the people of Los Angeles caused the destruction of Owens Valley. At the time The Chief built the aqueduct, very few people other than John Muir were saying anything about ecology. Even President Theodore Roosevelt basically sided with Los Angeles, helping pave the way for a costly, bitter, destructive water feud. And it's not over. Shots are still being fired.

Three things will help us move forward:

First, the people of Los Angeles simply must stop using so much water. According to DWP figures, the average person in Los Angeles uses 188 gallons of water per day. This is just too much. This is the desert, no matter what your green lawn might have you believe.

Second, descendants of the Owens Valley farmers sometimes act as if they hold the morally high ground because their water was taken, but as one of the Paiute elders said, "First, we had the valley, then the white settlers came and took it away from us; then the city of Los Angeles came, and took it away from them."

Third, we must stop taking shots at Mulholland. The man was no empire builder, he was not a demigod, and he really wasn't trying to rip off the Owens Valley. His original plan called for watering both L.A. and the Owens Valley, but political machinations that were out of his hands caused other plans, which led directly to the building of the St. Francis instead of a dam at Long Valley. He was, first and foremost, an engineer.

He wasn't trying to build some great megalopolis; he was simply trying to assure the survival of his adopted city while tackling a challenge that would make any engineer race for his slide rule. He wanted no part of San Fernando Valley speculation, and he advised city fathers against further expansion.

He was a man of deep principle. During the coroner's inquest into the St. Francis disaster, when asked where the blame should go, he replied: "Don't blame anybody else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error of human judgment, I was the human."

He said that not because it was literally his fault — it wasn't — but because he had the moral strength to take the stand. He stopped the buck. Try to find any public figure today with that kind of courage and fortitude.

After the disaster, he retired from the DWP, over his colleagues' objections, to save the department from ridicule or embarrassment. He faded away in private life until his death at 79 in 1935.

If The Chief were alive today, he might do things differently. In speaking with those few people still around who were his contemporaries, it's obvious Mulholland was a well-respected, loved man. The aqueduct, though a source of controversy, nevertheless works as well today as when it was opened in 1913.

Too bad most of the people making their reputation by taking potshots at the aqueduct are doing so while quenching their own thirst with its water. They should be ashamed for judging a dedicated public servant of the 19th Century by 21st-century standards. Especially one so dedicated as William Mulholland.

Pony Horton lived in Tujunga when this was written and later moved to Tehachapi.

WILLIAM MULHOLLAND
St. Francis Dam Builder

L.A. Aqueduct
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Arizona Report 1928
• Rippens Story of Dam Disaster (1998)
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Hall of Justice 1928

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Fountain 1940s

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Aqueduct Memorial Garden Opens at Mulholland Fountain: Story 10-23-2013

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Mulholland Fountain & Aqueduct Garden: Photo Gallery 11-10-2013

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