Dutiful story of a man who, not having finished high school, “let alone set foot in an engineering class,” designed a metropolitan water system that is still in use today.
Irish immigrant William Mulholland’s (1855-1935) construction of a water grid centered on the Los Angeles River, which captivated him when he arrived in 1877, inarguably made the LA of today possible, for better or worse; more than 10 million citizens depend on it to some degree or another. Yet Mulholland was nearly condemned to oblivion after a dam collapsed in 1928 in the mountains above the city, an event considered by some to be the worst engineering failure in American history. Standiford (Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War, 2012, etc.) examines the events of Mulholland’s life up to that disaster, praising him for squarely accepting responsibility: “Devastated by the event that refashioned him from civic hero to villain in an eye-blink, Mulholland would at one point confide to a reporter, ‘I envy those who were killed.’ ” There are better books on the politics and history of water in Southern California, and sometimes it seems that Standiford is generating words just to fill space as he plumbs his topic—e.g., turning Edward Abbey’s stirring aperçu on the visual splendor of the West into the lame observation, “in the elemental landscape of Jawbone Canyon, no such problem presents itself.” The portrait that emerges is of a determined public servant who was in the right place at the right time, demonized by later generations for his role in removing water from other parts of California in order to shape a metropolis. The added value of Standiford’s book largely comes in its closing pages, in which he examines the now-canonical script for Chinatown and separates history from fiction.
Generally sympathetic to its subject and well-written but to be consulted only after William Kahrl’s Water and Power (1982) and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (1986).