The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1977, Volume 23, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review
Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

William Mulholland: A Forgotten Forefather. By Robert William Matson. Stockton: Pacific Center for Western Studies, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 89 pages. $7.00.


Reviewed by William L. Kahrl; Director of Research, Governors Office of Planning and Research. Author of “The Politics of California Water: Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 1900-1927.” Parts I and II. California Historical Quarterly. Volume LV, Nos. 1 and 2. 1976.

Robert William Matson tells a swell story about William Mulholland and the origins of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It depicts Mulholland, visionary water engineer for Los Angeles, turning to the ample resources of the Owens Valley to save his bustling little city of 200,000 from the ravages of a severe drought in 1905. In the Owens Valley, Mulholland encounters a momentary problem with an old friend, Fred Eaton, who first proposed the aqueduct but who hopes to retain enough water in the valley to support his own ranching operations and to develop a power project.

Eaton, however, is persuaded to relent for the good of Los Angeles, and the United States Reclamation Service, which had already initiated a water project of its own for the Owens Valley farming communities, similarly agrees to withdraw because Los Angeles’ need for the water is great and the Service has no money for its project anyway. Back in Los Angeles, the bonds to fund the initial stages of the aqueduct pass over­whelmingly despite the “amusing” but not particularly significant opposition of the Los Angeles Examiner.

It is hard to resist a story like this, which portrays a variety of interests joining in happy concert to solve a pressing problem. Unfortunately, it just isn’t true. There was no drought. Fred Eaton had not then begun to think of power development but was seeking instead absolute control of Los Angeles’ new water supply. Eaton withdrew only after extracting an exhorbitant ransom from the City and even then he continued to undermine the project for years afterward. The Reclamation Service’s interests in the Owens Valley were far more complicated than Matson realizes, and its withdrawal was prompted by much more than a shortage of funds. And, the Examiner’s “amusing” campaign against the project revealed evidence of municipal corruption which has continued to plague Mulholland’s project even until today.

Matson’s problems derive from his apparently guideless reliance upon the extremely limited range of resources he has chosen to construct his biography of Mulholland. His errors in treating the origins of the aqueduct, for example, repeat almost exactly the sanitized and self-serving reports and promotional broadsides which Mulholland’s own department published to herald his achievements and defend them from attack. Similar problems crop up throughout the book. By failing to treat the bases for the numerous attacks which were made upon Mulholland and the policies he pursued, Matson effectively leaves his reader at a loss to understand why this grand old man should have been controversial at all.

The treatment of Mulholland that results is not only misleading but also unfairly belittles his achievements which have shaped the history of water development in California for better or for worse. A skillful biographer could do much to reveal the character and skill Mulholland needed to dominate the water programs of Los Angeles for nearly half a century, destroy the Owens Valley for the sake of development in the San Fernando, unite the fractious communities of the South Coast in the Metropolitan Water District, and establish the principle of public water indelibly on California history. Matson, however, presents only a two-dimensional pastiche of the man, lifted for the most part from the recollections of Mulholland’s associates, many of whom were writing long after his fall from power in an attempt to resuscitate his reputation after the Saint Francis Dam disaster and to save thereby the credit of their own careers. In place of analysis, Matson offers anecdotes. In place of understanding, either of the man or of the problems he encountered, Matson accomplishes only a pedestrian reworking of other more thoughtful books.

The student of California water history will find little new here, and much that is wrong.