William Mulholland, Belfast man who shaped modern Los Angeles, to get blue plaque

A Belfast-born man who designed the Los Angeles Aqueduct over a century ago is to be commemorated next week.

Thursday, 21st March 2019, 5:49 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st March 2019, 5:51 pm
William Mulholland was head of LAs Department of Water and Power for 42 years

Leading civil engineer William Mulholland directed an army of thousands of men across more than 200 miles of desert and mountains as he created one of the engineering marvels of the age.

Born in St Patrick’s parish in Belfast, William was the son of Hugh Mulholland and Ellen Dakers from Dublin.

His childhood was spent in Dublin but when he left home at the age of 15 he became a sailor, eventually arriving in New York in early 1870.

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A life in the Michigan lumber camps, and mining in Arizona finally brought him in 1877 to the American west coast.

His lengthy self-educated engineering career commenced as a ditch cleaner for Los Angeles’ private water company, but when the city took over the water system, William became head of the Department of Water and Power, a position he would hold for some 42 years.

As Los Angeles’ population increased from 100,000 in 1900 to 320,000 in 1910, it became clear the city would need more water to sustain its growth.

So began an engineering challenge of epic proportions. Some 230 miles away the Owens River which irrigated the crops of the ranchers of the valleys, was in William’s sights.

“We either take Los Angeles to the Owens River or we bring the Owens River to Los Angeles,” was his comment.

So with lands purchased through much dissatisfaction and opposition of the ranchers, for eight years from 1905-1913, William’s men blasted tunnels, carved out sluiceways, cleared roads, laid railroad tracks and ran power lines. When men died, William would hire more.

Over 4,000 men worked on the project at the height of the aqueduct’s construction, and the complexity of the project had been compared to the building of the Panama Canal.

Upon completion, it allowed Los Angeles to grow into the largest city in California.

Today, in a city of four million inhabitants, William is still remembered in LA with the names of Mulholland Drive, Mulholland Dam in the Hollywood Hills, Mulholland Highway and Mulholland Middle School.

Sadly, a dam collapse which killed many people was to end William’s glowing career, and he resigned in 1928. He retired from public life and died in 1935, never knowing that the dam collapse was due to a land fault which was discovered some 57 years later.

The Ulster History Circle will dedicate a blue plaque in William’s memory on Monday at 11am at Donegall Street, beside St Patrick’s Church.