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The Los Angeles Aqueduct Just Turned 100


This afternoon, north of us here at NPR West, Los Angeles celebrated the centennial of a big moment, maybe the biggest moment in city history.


CORNISH: One hundred years ago today, the L.A. Aqueduct began moving water from the northern Owens River to the dry south. It was a marvel of engineering and clever politicking. Author David L. Ulin writes about the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the fall issue of Boom, a journal of California, and he joins me here at NPR West. Hi there, David.

DAVID L. ULIN: Hi, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: So I want to focus on the man who's considered, you know, the godfather of the aqueduct project, William Mulholland. He was the chief engineer of the L.A. Water and Power Department, also behind all that clever politicking you mentioned. What was his vision?

ULIN: Well, I think, Mulholland recognized early that water was going to be the central currency of Southern California. When Los Angeles was a growing city in the very early years of the 20th century, the question of how it was going to supply its citizens with water was already a prominent issue. Mulholland's great genius was that he sort of ran with it and began to think about how to make - how to use water and how to bring water down to Los Angeles as a way of making it a great city, not just a sustainable city.

CORNISH: Now, Mulholland and the business interests behind this effort very quickly became the center of conspiracy theories around the development of the aqueduct, right, which was already so kind of politically controversial. What are some of the tactics they were accused of using in terms of generating public support for the project?

ULIN: Well, the early history of Los Angeles is a history of rubber barons, essentially. And Mulholland and his compatriots have been grouped into that category. Basically, there was a - because of knowledge that the water was going to be coming in to Southern California, there was a vast amount of real estate deals, large tracks of the San Fernando Valley, which prior to the aqueduct was largely arid land, was bought up in sweetheart deals at low prices. Once the water came in, that land was worth much more than it had been previously.

This is a story that began to sort of fuel the popular mythology of Southern California as early as 1917, when Mary Austin, an early Southern California writer, wrote a book called "The Ford," although that took place in Northern California. This is also the story that underlies the movie "Chinatown," which came out in the 1970s and was very much about sort of based on the mythology of Los Angeles and its water politics.


ULIN: The movie is a work of fiction, but there is, you know, there's a long history in Los Angeles of public resources being used for private good - for the private good of a sort of social oligarchy or of the rubber barons, let's say. What interests me about this is that I think it's a double-edged sword. I don't have any doubt that rapacious capitalism was at the - sort of at the root of a lot of the development of early Los Angeles. But what interests me more at this point is that without that vision of kind of building a great city, we wouldn't live in the Los Angeles that we live in today.

CORNISH: Now, Mulholland was proud of the fact that the project came in on time...

ULIN: And under budget.

CORNISH: ...under budget, around $23 million?

ULIN: Yes.

CORNISH: But this - later, this horrific incident marred his reputation, and that's the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in March of 1928.

ULIN: Well, this is a really interesting story. And in many ways, I think of it as sort of the bookend to the aqueduct, right. If the - if turning on the water as it were, Mulholland made that famous speech in November of 1913 where he said to the assembled masses, there it is, take it, as the water came through the aqueduct.

If that is sort of the creation myth of contemporary Los Angeles, which, I think, you could make the case that it is, the flip side of that or the bookend is the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which happened in 1928 - March of 1928. The wall of the reservoir collapsed. There was a massive flood, killing - it's unknown how many people were killed. At least 500, maybe as many as 1,200 - wiping entire towns off the map.

Mulholland was ruined. In many ways, he was held entirely responsible. To his credit, he took full responsibility for it, which is something that I find it very difficult to imagine someone doing in contemporary American culture. And he became a recluse and sort of retreated.

CORNISH: Now, we've mentioned that statement from Mulholland, from the dedication ceremony where he says, there it is, take it. In the end, how has that statement come to be seen? What do you think is the legacy of that?

ULIN: Well, first of all, let me say, I don't think he was intending to do this. But I think in many ways, it is the most relevant assessment of Los Angeles' spirit that I know. Take this place that seems to be so inhospitable and turn it into something. And so I think that that is really a kind of defining statement for what Los Angeles is.

CORNISH: David L. Ulin, thank you so much for talking with us.

ULIN: Thanks, Audie. It was a pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: David L. Ulin is a book critic for the L.A. Times. He writes about the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the fall issue of Boom, a journal of California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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