Mulholland Is a Familiar Face at DWP Centennial Exhibit


A portrait of William Mulholland towers over a new exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park.

Still controversial more than 65 years after his death in 1935, Mulholland was the self-taught, Dublin-born engineer who founded the DWP and planned and supervised the building of the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct. In 1912, as the first water from the Owens Valley gushed into the San Fernando Valley, Mulholland gave one of the pithiest speeches on record to a cheering crowd of 40,000.

“There it is,” he said. “Take it.”

Cutting the ribbon Tuesday to open the anniversary exhibit was former DWP General Manager Robert Phillips. At 85, Phillips has known every head of the utility, starting with Mulholland. He encountered the charismatic Irishman at the office of his father, who was a DWP engineer and friend of Mulholland’s.


Phillips was about 6 and his mother had gone to the office to get money to take the children to see Santa Claus.

“What do you want from Santa?” Mulholland asked the boy.

Phillips confessed that he didn’t know.

“You better be making up your mind, because you’re going to be seeing him right now,” the no-nonsense Mulholland advised.

At the ceremony, Ruth Galanter, who represents the City Council’s 6th District, said the DWP is aware of the importance of balancing the need for energy with environmental concerns.

“Whole political careers have been made out of hating Los Angeles, and especially DWP, and it isn’t fair,” she said. “This is not exactly the same department it was before, but it’s the logical outgrowth.”

A retired DWP engineer and amateur historian, Le Val Lund, said the model of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the exhibit was Mulholland’s own. It was cleaned, repainted and updated for the show. The aqueduct, which uses gravity to move water, not pumps, was an extraordinary achievement, said Lund, who was with the DWP from 1947 until 1990.

From the start, Mulholland was aware of the aqueduct’s potential for generating hydroelectric power, Lund said. And unlike so many other civic projects, Mulholland’s aqueduct “was within [its $24-million] budget and within the schedule,” Lund said.

The show, which continues through March, includes a section of aqueduct pipe the size of a man, a gas mask once issued to DWP workers, and Mulholland’s hammered-copper smoking set. Designed by Thu Pham, the exhibit also includes innovative tools and other inventions by employees.

Phillips remembered the last time he saw Mulholland. It was after the DWP’s St. Francis Dam burst in 1928, killing 450 people in the Santa Clara River Valley.

Mulholland was blamed for the disaster and taken to court. He accepted responsibility, acknowledging that the dam probably failed because of a design flaw. According to Lund and others, the failure was caused by problems with the soil the dam was built on that could not have been foreseen, given the technology of the time.

At the time of that last meeting, Phillips had just begun working for the DWP, surveying in the Owens Valley, a job his father got for him in what he called “a case of pure nepotism.”

Mulholland congratulated the young man and said: “I hope you’re just as good as your father is.”

Phillips smiled sadly as he recounted his last view of Mulholland, tormented with guilt over his lethal dam: “He was very kind to me, very warm, but he was obviously a shattered man.”