It's L.A. lore that the most consequential speech ever given in Southern California was also the shortest. On a cloudless fall morning in 1913, William Mulholland, the head of the Los Angeles Water Company, stood before a crowd of hundreds of Angelenos to reveal the L.A. Aqueduct, a 226-mile “giant drinking straw” made of German steel that would keep L.A. in water for more than a century. Mulholland, a self-taught structural engineer, had spent four years overseeing the project's construction, and when it was time to finally snip the ribbon, all he had to say was, “There it is, take it!” 

Marc Weingarten’s new book, Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water, and the Real Chinatown (Rare Bird Books, $23.95), neatly encapsulates the complex background of civic battles (the so-called “water wars”) between L.A. and the Owens Valley that led up to that moment and which helped to create the sprawling megalopolis we live in now. Fortunately, he does so without becoming, in what is basically a book about dams, overly technical (i.e., boring). Instead, Weingarten keeps it human, focusing on the larger-than-life personalities who searched out far-flung sources of water to sustain and grow our once-isolated pueblo in the desert. They were a small group of self-made, strong-willed conniver-geniuses who went on to create the Los Angeles Water Department, the predecessor to today’s LADWP (and if invoking the name of a utility company is boring today, the construction of the aqueduct was actually an epic story).

In a saga that lurches from crisis to crisis, the crux of Thirsty arrives around the turn of the 20th century (1904), when it was becoming clear to L.A.’s city fathers that this burgeoning town with a booming population was getting too big for its water supply, then being drawn from the L.A. River courtesy of a badly run, private company owned by Prudent Beaudry (he soaked the city for years for big profits, and the water in L.A. homes during the Beaudry years literally stunk).

The historical plot thickened when former L.A. mayor Fred Eaton, who'd moved on to work for the water company, set his sights on the Owens River, just 200 miles north of L.A. Mulholland wanted the river’s water for L.A., Eaton wanted it for L.A., the people of L.A. wanted it for L.A. and President Theodore Roosevelt strenuously backed them up. In Thirsty, Weingarten walks readers through the infighting, the strong arming and civic chicanery that made the inevitable a reality and the fierce resistance from Owens Valley farmers, who rightly feared that their way of life was about to become extinct (as late as 1924, someone up there attempted to dynamite the aqueduct).

Biographers can at times sound incredulous when recounting William Mulholland’s life story, but a gigantic willpower seems to have made the difference. He arrived in the Los Angeles of 1881 as a young Irish immigrant, penniless but self-assured. He was already interested in geology and mining, but never went to school; like Abe Lincoln, he read books on his chosen subject then went to work, at first digging ditches for the Beaudry Company. By the relatively young age of 32, he was appointed head of the L.A. Water Company. This great autodidact then designed and commandeered the construction, in desert heat and cold, of the Aqueduct, which, 102 years later, is still in use today. To put it into perspective, imagine Teddy Roosevelt had designed the Panama Canal.

All of this, though, feels like the proverbial romp in the park once Weingarten’s book comes to the horrifying (and strangely forgotten) Southern California calamity that forever stained Mulholland’s reputation as a savior and his seemingly assured immortality: the St. Francis Dam Disaster.

At around midnight on March 12, 1928, this latter-day project of Mulholland’s, which held back millions of gallons of water inside a narrow mountain gorge north of Los Angeles (near where Magic Mountain is located), suddenly slid, buckled and collapsed, letting loose a 140-foot-high surging wall of water into the late-night darkness, which, incredibly, pushed its way across mile after mile of small towns north of the San Fernando Valley, including Saugus, Piru, Fillmore and Santa Clara. On and on it went, all the way out to the ocean near Oxnard, killing hundreds of people: farmers and farmworkers, isolated country folk in small wooden shacks. One moment they were asleep, the next, crushed and thrown for miles by the awesome onslaught of floodwater.

Weingarten writes, “The terrain now resembled the valley in pre-settlement days, even the days before the Native American population had settled in. It was barren, denuded. What life remained was high up in the trees and utility lines, where survivors held on for dear life until someone … might come to rescue them. If you found yourself in the swirling eddy at anytime during the night, chances are you were already dead.” More than 600 souls were suddenly gone. Nothing like this horrific event has happened to the L.A. area since.

Thirsty improves upon previous books on this disaster by recounting the experiences of individual residents — people with names — who lived in these towns, and how they either saved themselves or didn’t:

“In Fillmore, Eddie Herne drove his squad car to the firehouse and pulled the rope on the creaky town bell. … suddenly, he was confronted by the maelstrom. In the near distance, Herne could see the road being swallowed up by water, so that it looked as if it was sliding into a void …”

“The geyser came up to their waists within seconds of its initial impact. George and his father were carried along by the current… In the distance, George’s father could faintly discern a utility pole. Both men leaped for the pole, but only George Jr. found it. George Sr. yelled, 'I’m hurt,' then his son heard a faint ‘goodbye.’”

Most of the victims’ bodies were recovered, many of them twisted in the mud, far from where they'd once been sleeping. The author quotes from a typical autopsy report: “There was a laceration diagonally of the right forehead. The lungs were red and inflamed and contained water. The trachea contained mud and silt. The stomach contained a considerable amount of silt.”

To a majority of the public, William Mulholland went overnight from savior-angel to devil, from a genius to an incompetent. The man who made today’s L.A. and the entire region habitable for more than a century was overcome with a permanent, crushing sense of guilt: “I envy the dead.” (Weingarten quotes a friend of the old man as saying, “[His] face seemed to age 20 years.”) Still, his funeral service at City Hall in 1935 was pro forma, respectful and, by many accounts, a moving occasion. History’s verdict on the geologic and structural causes of the dam’s collapse is still ambiguous; over time, it's shifted like the sand.

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