From the Archives: William Mulholland of Aqueduct Fame Dies


Quietly as he slept, William Mulholland, veteran engineer and renowned the world over as the builder of the Owens River Aqueduct, died yesterday at his home, 226 South St. Andrews Place.

A son and a daughter were at his bedside when he died. He was critically ill for months, having suffered a stroke last December, at which time his death had been expected momentarily. His remarkable vitality and strength that sustained him through many a hard battle and years of heavy work, carried him on. Had he lived until September 11, he would have been 80 years of age.

Funeral Planned


Under tentative plans, funeral services will be conducted tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Little Church of the Flowers, interment being at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Arrangements are being made to have the body lie in state in the rotunda of the City Hall tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

News of this death brought tributes from public officials and men and women in all walks of life who had known him. Flags on public buildings were flown at half-mast as the community realized the curtain had been drawn on the life of one of the most colorful and important men in the history of Los Angeles and the Southwest.

Rose To Top

Starting in as a zanjero for the old water company that became the Los Angeles Water Department, Mulholland rose to the position of chief engineer and general manager.

He grew up with the city and was responsible for the planning and building of one of the most famous aqueducts in the world. It is a fact that, almost single-handed and against widespread and at times bitter opposition, he put over the Aqueduct project which made the building of the present-day metropolis possible.

Spoke For Bonds


Not only was he responsible for the engineering work on the project but he took the platform and spoke day and night throughout the campaign preceding the $24,000,000 bond issue and convinced the voters that it was the thing to do when people said it could not be done.

And when, after heartbreaking years of work and worry, the job was done and the water came roaring down into Los Angeles from its source 250 miles away, at a public celebration greeting its arrival, when he was called upon for a speech, all he said was:

“There it is--take it.”

Born In Ireland

Mulholland was born in Belfast, Ireland, September 11, 1855, the son of Hugh and Ellen Deakers Mulholland. He was educated in the public schools and later attended the Christian Brothers College in Dublin. While in his teens he shipped before the mast out of Liverpool, Eng., and after visiting many of the world’s ports, landed in America 1872.

The next six years were spent in working on the docks and on steamers of the Great Lakes, on the old side-wheelers that plied up and down the Colorado River and in prospecting for gold in Arizona.

In 1877 Mulholland came to California and settled in Los Angeles, then a sleepy town of some 10,000 inhabitants. He immediately obtained employment with the City Water Company, a concern which served water to the entire city.


Ditch Tender

Mulholland’s official title was that of zanjero or ditch tender, the Spanish designation for the men who attended the ditches which converted the waters of the Los Angeles River into various sections of the town.

While not actively engaged in his duties, Mulholland spent his time reading all the books he could obtain on mathematics, civil engineering and hydraulics.

It was not long before the officials of the water company began to ask his advice on various problems which were constantly arising. Mulholland was promoted from one position to a higher one in rapid order and in 1886 was made general superintendent of the water system. The year 1902 marked the termination of the lease between the City Water Company and the city, under which the company had operated the water system for a thirty-year period.

Becomes Chief

In that year the city of Los Angeles again took over the task of supplying water to the city and Mulholland was appointed chief engineer of the municipal water system.


As Mulholland aptly put it: “They bought the works and me with it.”

On July 3, 1890, Mulholland was married to Lillie Ferguson. Mrs. Mulholland died April 28, 1915.

Due to the rapid increase in population of Los Angeles, the need for an additional supply of water was seen to be vitally necessary to the city. In a search for water sources Mulholland made a trip to the Owens River country to determine the feasibility of obtaining water from that region. With a team of mules and an old buckboard for his means of conveyance and equipped with a camping outfit, barometer, surveyor’s transit and a geologist’s map, he made the 500-mile round trip in about forty days. All along the 250-mile stretch of desert and mountains he mad observations which convinced him that an aqueduct from a point near Owens Lake to the city was practicable.

Figures Found Correct

Returning to Los Angeles, he presented his surveys and recommendations to the Board of Public Works, which at that time was in charge of the city’s water system. Mulholland, indicating his choice in a route, stated the cost would be $24,500,000 and the time necessary for completion of the project about five years.

A check of Mulholland’s data by a board of consulting engineers proved his figures to be correct. As a result, two bond issues were voted by the citizens of Los Angeles, one for $1,500,000 in 1905 and the second for $23,000,000 in 1907.

Under Mulholland’s direction work was started in 1908 and finished in 1913 at a cost which was $40,000 less than his original estimate. The aqueduct assured a adequate supply of water for a population of more than a million people and enabled Los Angeles to continue its amazing growth.


Hunts More Water

By 1923, the tremendous increase in population had exceeded all previous estimates and made it evident that more water would be needed by Los Angeles in a comparatively few years. Once more Mulholland took up the search for another dependable water supply.

This time his explorations led him to the Colorado River as the only source of sufficient magnitude to fulfill the city’s water requirements. In October, 1923, he launched a systematic survey to determine the most practicable route for an aqueduct from the Colorado River to Los Angeles. Under his direction 60,000 square miles of terrain were studied and charted and five possible routes determined. As planned by Mulholland, as aqueduct capable of carrying 1500 second feet of water could be constructed. This supply was estimated as being sufficient for the needs of 7,500,00 people. The data acquired by Mulholland and his engineers were turned over to the Metropolitan Water System.

In December, 1928, after fifty years of continuous service, Mulholland handed in his resignation to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners. It was accepted with the understanding that he serve the city in an advisory capacity whenever his judgment was required on water problems.

Honored by University

As a tribute to his work and accomplishments, the University of California in 1914 conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Law. Mulholland was an authority on geology and delivered a number of university lectures on that subject.


He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Pacific Association of Consulting Engineers and was a charter member of the Engineers and Architects of Southern California, an honorary member of the National Association of Power Engineers and of the American Water Works Association. He also was a member of the Seismographical Society of America.

Tau Beta Pi Member

Mulholland was an honorary member of the Tau Beta Pi and belonged to the California, Sunset and Celtic clubs.

All his life he was an intensive reader, his choice of books covering a wide field. He was known as a mathematician of more than ordinary ability and even as a lad aboard ship it was invariably his task to work out the position of the ship.

He leaves two sons and three daughters, Perry and Thomas Mulholland of Los Angeles, Miss Rose Mulholland of Los Angeles, with whom the engineer made his home; Mrs. Ronald Mack of San Francisco and Mrs. Ruth Wood of New York.