William Mulholland 18551935

James W. Bledsoe (lifedates unknown)
Gelatin silver print, c. 1910

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, on behalf of USC Special Collections


When engineer William Mulholland first arrived in Los Angeles in 1877, the town’s population was fewer than ten thousand people. Thirty years later it had grown to more than two hundred thousand. Mulholland found work initially as a ditch tender for a privately owned water company. Given southern California’s arid climate and its periodic droughts, the city’s growth depended on a reliable water supply, and Mulholland’s expertise in water management was increasingly in demand.

In 1904 the city appointed him the superintendent and chief engineer of the public waterworks, and Mulholland and city leaders immediately went to work on a long-range water plan. The proposed solution was a 250-mile aqueduct from the Owens River Valley to Los Angeles. Despite vocal opposition from farmers and others, Mulholland led the massive construction effort, and by 1913 the aqueduct was complete. Over the next twenty years Mulholland remained at the center of the often-heated debate regarding the management of water in the West.