Rehabilitating Bill

William Mulholland
William Mulholland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles
Margaret Leslie Davis
April 1994

I had spent my youth commuting to school across Mulholland Drive, and I had heard the stories about the man who made the San Fernando Valley bloom. More recently, I watched Roman Polanski‘s brilliant Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. My ignorance of the history of California suddenly felt like a missing tooth. When I discovered Rivers in the Desert, I decided it was time to rectify the situation.

I could not have picked a better book with which to begin my journey into California’s past. In this deeply research and passionately written story, the granddaughter of William Mulholland builds a case for the rehabilitation of the memory of “The Chief,” the engineer who made a desert bloom.

Whether Davis saves her grandfather from ignominy or not probably depends on how much you have read about the man, your opinions of what he did, and whether you live in Northern or Southern California. What she does accomplish, though, is perhaps more valuable. She brings to life the scale and difficulty of bringing water from the Sierra Nevadas to California, and in the process she makes a legend into a man again. Her accounts of engineering challenges are as engrossing as her exploration of the tortured soul of a man who, after accomplishing so much, must go the the grave with the souls of over 500 innocents on on his conscience.

Davis pulls no punches in her account of the fateful night when the St. Francis Dam failed and turned the Santa Clarita Valley from Saugus to the sea into an inundated charnel house. The account makes Mulholland’s subsequent decline more immediate and real. And yet somehow, I finished the book almost asking out loud “is that it? Is that how we shall ever remember the man who enabled so much?”

William Mulholland was no saint. But I challenge you to finish this book and not believe that he deserves a place in that pantheon of men and women who made California possible. Warts and all.

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