Water World

By Robert CreminsMarch 30, 2014

Water World

William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles by Catherine Mulholland

THIS YEAR marks the centenary of two projects that, at first glance, would seem to have nothing to do with each other.

As Laura Bliss has reported in these pages, last November the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Owens Valley/LA Aqueduct in some style; the department even had an actor impersonate the massive endeavor’s chief engineer, William Mulholland — “LA’s wet Prometheus,” to use Bliss’s wry phase. But it wasn’t until seven months later, in June 1914 — as the late Catherine Mulholland, the Chief’s granddaughter and biographer, recorded in William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles — that, thanks to the completion of a trunk line, the vital and vexed waters of the Owens Valley finally flowed into the city.

That same month, after another decade-long, contentious process, Grant Richards Ltd. of London finally published James Joyce’s groundbreaking short-story collection Dubliners.

A memory from my education trims the great distance between those events. On a cold, rainy Saturday morning early in 1990, as part of a college class, I went on a walking tour of Joyce’s Dublin, specifically the dingy north inner city, which the novelist got to know intimately as an adolescent in the 1890s. His colorful but improvident father, John Stanislaus Joyce, was made redundant from his plum job as a tax collector, never to work steadily again, and James had to bid adieu to the genteel southside suburbs of his childhood.

I remember especially the muted thrill of stepping onto North Richmond Street, for that truncated space was the setting of one of my favorite stories in Dubliners, “Araby.” Its famous opening sentence not only immortalizes the street, but also encapsulates the profound concern of the entire collection: the social and spiritual paralysis (or “hemiplegia,” as Joyce also called it) of the city, and the attempts by various characters — often vain attempts — to escape that state of paralysis: “North Richmond Street,” Joyce writes, “being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.”

That Christian Brothers’ school is the O’Connell School. Still flourishing on North Richmond Street, it was founded in 1829, the year its namesake, Daniel O’Connell, secured Catholic Emancipation. He makes a cameo appearance in “The Dead,” the tour-de-force novella that closes out Dubliners­ — or at least the snow-clad statue of “the Liberator” does. 

The school named in his honor was also in the business of providing a more mundane kind of liberty. The Christian Brothers educated working-class boys who otherwise would have gotten little or nothing in the way of schooling. Standing on North Richmond Street, I already knew about what appears to be Joyce’s class-conscious erasure of the months he is thought (by a majority of his biographers) to have spent as a pupil of the Christian Brothers, but it would be years before I would hear of Irishman William Mulholland and his Promethean achievements half a world away, and not until I read Catherine Mulholland’s book that I would learn that he too was an O’Connell’s old boy.

In fact, I wanted to learn a lot more about William’s Irish origins, but Catherine Mulholland’s focus is, understandably, on her grandfather’s magnum opus. However, with some 10 chapters devoted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, as opposed to less than one on Ireland (and, indeed, just one on the tragic conclusion of his career, the anti-Aqueduct that was the St. Francis Dam disaster), William Mulholland the man sometimes feels like a hostile witness in his own biography. 

True, Mulholland did spend only 15 years of a long and epic life on what he later disparaged as that “damned island,” living for just one decade, the 1860s, in Dublin. But that decade brought him from the age of five to 15 — arguably the most formative in anyone’s life, and certainly, to echo Flannery O’Connor, enough to fill up a book. Frank McCourt was four when he and his family moved to Limerick and still in his teens when he returned to New York, the city of his birth, and those years constitute the blistered heart of Angela’s Ashes

Thinking about the life and work of James Joyce (especially Dubliners) helps us, I believe, recover those partially lost years of William Mulholland’s youth. Even in the scant Irish pages of her biography, Catherine Mulholland does make intelligent connections between the two Dubliners (both were shrewd young men, and both emigrated), but the link between them is richer than she realized, or at least put on paper. 

In his classic study of short story, The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor holds up Joyce stories such as “Araby” as exemplars of the genre. “[T]he short story,” he says, “has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group […] always dreaming of escape.” Mulholland was born into that “submerged population group” and did make a wildly successful escape. Joyce too, as Stephen Dedalus puts it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, dodged the “nets” that Ireland threw at him, and enjoyed an exile in which he too was productive on an epic scale.

Once again there is, at first glance, a disconnect between the two men and their achievements, this time not geographical but chronological. By the time Joyce was born, in 1882, Mulholland had been gone from Dublin a dozen years and living in Los Angeles for five. Having started as a ditch-digger, Willie was, to use one of Catherine Mulholland’s chapter titles, “Advancing in the Water Business” by the early 1880s.

But the city of his childhood hadn’t changed much during his absence. The most damning and eloquent evidence for this stasis comes from George Bernard Shaw, another overachieving Dublin boy born, like Mulholland, in the mid-1850s. In the early 1920s, when Sylvia Beach was readying Ulysses, Joyce’s epic of “ordinary” life in the Dublin of 1904, for publication, Shaw wrote this to her: 

To you possibly it may appeal as art … but to me it is all hideously real: I have walked those streets and know those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870.

In other words, the submerged Dublin that Shaw and Mulholland both left in 1870 was the same city that Joyce would be plunged into, and would transmute into art, in the decades that followed. And he didn’t just go to school on North Richmond Street; he actually lived there for a time. Compared to the many shabby dwellings John Joyce dragged the family to later on in his downward spiral, this was a respectable address; the Joyces rented, as Jim remembered later in “Araby,” one of the typical “houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gaz[ing] at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” The conspicuous “uninhabited house of two storeys [that] stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground” was one that Willie Mulholland would have watched being built in the mid-1860s. Today it is called Araby House and is the headquarters of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed — a reminder that Ireland, while not semi-paralyzed economically as it was in the 19th century, still has its economic woes, particularly after the false spring of the Celtic Tiger era.

Even without Araby House, North Richmond is a dead-end street, for almost right behind it is the Royal Canal. And that historic body of water is just 500 feet from where, I have discovered, William Mulholland lived. Here I think we need to fill in a gap in Catherine Mulholland’s account of her grandfather’s Dublin upbringing: during his childhood there was a revolution in his hometown’s water supply. Once more Joyce is a resource. In Ulysses, he consecrates one of the catechistic riffs that make up the “Ithaca” episode to an explanation of how water gets all the way from the Wicklow Mountains to Mr. Bloom’s kitchen. Even though the Vartry Scheme was, in comparison with the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a modest undertaking (being less than one-tenth of the 235 miles of piping and channeling from the Owens River to Los Angeles), its completion was still a justified source of civic pride in Victorian Dublin. Joyce’s riff, however, hits some dark notes:

[…] from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12 1/2 million gallons the water had fallen below the sill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks engineer, Mr Spencer Harty, C. E., on the instructions of the waterworks committee had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to the impotable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893) […]

In relation to that earlier crisis (the water shortage of 1904 is a Joyce fiction), Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman comment, in their Ulysses Annotated, that “[t]he waters of the two canals were quite polluted, hardly fit for swimming, and in retrospect the ‘recourse’ seems an extreme measure,” but earlier in the century the canals had been had been an integral part of Dublin’s domestic water supply. In 1860, around the time the Mulhollands moved to Dublin, a commission was set up to modernize the utility; work began on the Vartry Scheme in 1862 and was complete by 1868; as Joyce scholar Anne Marie D’Arcy states, “This massive feat of engineering finally gave Dublin a sustainable supply of clean, soft water at high pressure, and liberated her citizens from the hard, turbid water of the […] canals, and the heavily polluted, open conduit called the City Watercourse dating from the thirteenth century.”[1]

The energetic and capable Spencer Harty (City Engineer by 1904) was to the Vartry Scheme what Mulholland would be to the LA Aqueduct half a century later, and although he doesn’t have a plethora of places named after him as his famous compatriot does in Los Angeles, the grateful citizens of Dublin did grant him the Freedom of the City in 1907. I doubt that young Willie Mulholland would have known his name, or the names of the other notable “watermen” who brought that refreshing Wicklow liquid to the city, but, by the end of his Dublin days, he probably noticed an improvement in the taste and color of the water that flowed out of the family tap. 

But where was that faucet? Catherine Mulholland states that O’Connell’s was “only a short walk from [the family’s] home” but doesn’t mention the name of the street. However, she does discuss in some detail the death of Willie’s mother, Ellen, and this account led me to the digitized records of Dublin’s great cemetery, Glasnevin. They reveal that at the time of Ellen’s death, in 1862, the Mulhollands were living at 1, Richmond Cottages, which is indeed just a few hundred feet from the school. It’s also an address that brings us right back into the world of “Araby,” for the narrator remembers his pubescent self “[running] the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages.” 

Of course, we have to keep in mind the story’s point of view. We’re seeing things through the eyes of the sensitive, Joyce-like boy, who, influenced by his parents, would have been acutely aware of class distinctions, tending to magnify small differences. (Small differences, one must add, that in the constricted world of Victorian Dublin could, socially and economically, make a world of difference.) Boys like Willie Mulholland and his younger brother, Hugh, would not have been, compared to the Irish gangs of New York, especially rough or tribal. Catherine Mulholland usefully records that they were “described as ‘a pair of Dublin jackeens’ [jackeen is a slang term for a dyed-in-the-wool Dubliner] — city kids who ran the streets with their buddies.” To run a gauntlet formed by such lads would, I suspect, have meant enduring more “slack-jawed blackguardism” than physical blows.

The school a block from the cottages, O’Connell’s, offered Willie Mulholland a solid but unspecialized education, and even that curriculum he did not complete. (This lack of formal schooling cannot be forgotten in any comprehensive assessment of his career). Joyce, again, helps us understand what it meant for O’Connell’s to be the closest thing Mulholland had to an alma mater. The novelist gave his first biographer, Herbert Gorman, no inkling that he had ever set foot in O’Connell’s; instead, that account of the educational limbo the boy found himself in between Jesuit schools drips with class attitude. (This is the period after John Stanislaus, for reasons of pecuniary embarrassment, had to pull James out the elite boarding school Clongowes, and before the good Fathers took him on as a scholarship boy at their prestigious city-center institution Belvedere). Gorman writes: “He would not send the boy to the Christian Brothers. […] The father possessed a formidable pride of caste and never forgot that he was a Joyce of the Joyces and not a descendent of some scraper of the soil.” Scraping the soil is exactly what William Mulholland did during his early days in California, as his first job in the water business was as a “digger and tender of ditches.”

 Mr. Joyce’s aversion to having his son educated alongside the great unwashed is further reflected in A Portrait. After Stephen’s mother remarks, “I never liked the idea of sending him to the christian brothers myself” (suggesting that the Joyces had at the very least contemplated doing exactly that), Simon Dedalus, the stand-in for John Stanislaus, reacts indignantly to the idea that his golden boy would ever share a bench with the wretched of the earth: “Christian brothers be damned! […] Is it with Paddy Stink and Micky Mud? No, let him stick to the jesuits in God’s name since he began with them. They’ll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows that can get you a position.” And ditch-digger is not the kind of position Mr. Dedalus has in mind. Such labor was for the likes of Micky Mud, and Willie Mulholland. 

Joyce and Mulholland both had younger brothers close in age who followed them into exile, and it was in his memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, that Stanislaus Joyce (named after the father he loathed) claimed that they had been sent for a few months to a Christian Brothers school, before the social face-saving of Belvedere. The irony here is that no matter where the Joyce boys were educated, their father was on his way down, and Willie and Hugh Mulholland’s father was on his modest way up. In the last few years of his life, Hugh Sr. joins John Stanislaus Joyce on Thom’s Directory’s[2] list of “Nobility, Gentry, Merchants & Traders.” He is listed as living on Emmet Street, which means he has moved less than a quarter of a mile from Richmond Cottages. In contrast, his sons have traveled 5,000 miles, and their journey to California has involved them walking across the Panama isthmus.

After Hugh Mulholland’s name in Thom’s, and acting as a guarantor of at least a modicum of respectability, are the squat initials G.P.O., indicating that Hugh was working in the General Post Office on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). His oldest son, Thomas, (who was to die young of tuberculosis, the family disease) followed him into the postal service, and Catherine Mulholland is correct in pointing out that, if he had stayed in submerged Dublin, such a career was probably the best that Willie could have hoped for. Even a man with his talents and drive would probably have ended up as no more than middle management. The Irish Revolution, which began with the seizing of the G.P.O. on Easter Monday, 1916, did shatter the glass ceiling that had kept Catholics out of top administrative positions, but by 1922, when independence finally arrived, a Dublin-bound Bill Mulholland would have been 67 years old and “enjoying” a comfortable but utterly obscure retirement.

Hugh Mulholland didn’t make it to retirement. He died in his mid-50s, in 1885 (leaving behind a modest estate). Ten years later John Stanislaus had disappeared from Thom’s index of decency, not because he had died (he would live on stubbornly until 1931), but because he no longer had the financial standing of a gentleman. In semi-paralyzed Dublin there was at least enough economic mobility (upward and downward) for the Joyces and Mulhollands to more or less swap places. One of the many memorable episodes in A Portrait is when Stephen accompanies his father on a journey to his native city of Cork; this is probably based on a business trip John Stanislaus was forced to make in order to sell the inherited properties that had helped fund his affluent lifestyle in Dublin. In the census of 1901 (the year of her death), Hugh’s widow (and Willie’s stepmother), Jane Mulholland, is listed as having “Income from Houses.”

Willie Mulholland was too restless to settle for a cozy, smothered Irish life sustained by rivulets of such income. In the story after “Araby” we find the figure in Dubliners who most resembles him. “Eveline” is based on a family who were neighbors of the Joyces on North Richmond Street. The title character is a young shop assistant oppressed by a widowed, alcoholic father; domestically and commercially she is a drudge. (There must have been countless Evelines in Victorian and Edwardian Dublin. Looking at the 1901[3] census returns for Richmond Parade, one of the lanes around North Richmond Street, I was struck by the occupation listed for one dutiful daughter: “paper folder.”) Enter Frank, a hearty sailor who wants to whisk mousy Eveline to fantastically far away “Buenos Ayres.” Just as “Willie would later enliven many a night circle in California construction camps and in the high Sierras with his tales of seafaring days,” so too does Frank thrill Eveline with tales of “sail[ing] through the Straits of Magellan and […] of the terrible Patagonians.” But at the last moment she balks at the freedom he offers her. She freezes on the quayside. There will be no New World for Eveline. Frank, however, lights out for the Territory. As did Willie Mulholland.

Apart from some late-blossoming nostalgia, he more or less turned his back on the old country; the Chief had, it seems, a prodigious but selective memory: emblematic of that is the scrapbook he kept, with few items pasted in. Even his most vivid memory of O’Connell’s, or “at least, the one he chose to tell his own children,” looked forward to his land of opportunity: the boys were informed that another “Liberator” had died: “President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated.”

The fascination with America is palpable in the story before “Araby” in Dubliners. “An Encounter” ultimately turns out to be an unsettling narrative about the perils of even a modest project of escape, but it begins comically enough. A Jesuit priest catches a schoolboy reading pulp fiction in class:

“What is this rubbish?” he said. “The Apache Chief! Is this what you read instead of studying your Roman History? Let me not find any more of this wretched stuff in this college. The man who wrote it, I suppose, was some wretched fellow who writes these things for a drink. I’m surprised at boys like you, educated, reading such stuff. I could understand it if you were ... National School boys. Now, Dillon, I advise you strongly, get at your work or ...”

The Jesuit might have well said “Christian Brothers”: to attend a National School (a state-funded parochial school) was similarly déclassé; and this is another possible parallel between Joyce and Mulholland. Joyce biographer Peter Costello has theorized that Stanislaus may have misremembered, and that perhaps he and James actually spent a few months at a National School, and Catherine Mulholland suggests that Willie may also have attended one for a time. Jesuit boy Dillon would probably have been jealous to learn that William Mulholland’s life was shaped by actual Apaches; a gold-prospecting foray by Willie and Hugh into the Arizona Territory was cut short by reports that Geronimo was on the warpath. They returned to California, William to his destiny with water.

His adventures had begun at the age of 14, when he ran away to sea after an altercation with his father over poor grades; a year later he shipped out of Dublin for good. By 1877, a combination of ambition and accident had brought Mulholland all the way to an incipient Los Angeles, the city with which he has become synonymous. And his was not a posthumous fame. As the Aqueduct neared completion, Mulholland was introduced at a City Club luncheon as “the biggest man in Los Angeles.” In 1913, supporters urged him to run for mayor; the Chief demurred with the famous quip that “he would rather give birth to a porcupine backward.”

I think Joyce would have liked the color of that comment and definitely agreed with its sentiment. Early on he had been burned by politics, for in the Ireland of his childhood there was another man known as “the Chief,” as one of the later stories in Dubliners, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” testifies: Charles Stewart Parnell, “the Uncrowned King” of Ireland. Like Daniel O’Connell, Parnell was a great constitutional crusader for Home Rule, but a combination of scandal and backstabbing led to his political downfall in 1890; he died the following year. Young James Joyce picked up on his father’s diehard support for Parnell, and at the age of nine produced a poem, privately printed by John Stanislaus, that reflected the bitter mood of the time: “Et Tu, Healy?” For the rest of his life, Joyce steered clear of the porcupine. 

As did Mulholland. But it was not politics but his own trade, water management, that would prove to be the undoing of the Californian Chief, just as it had been the making of his reputation. By the 1920s, Mulholland was himself a kind of uncrowned king: “the American Association of Engineers […] named him one of the top engineers in the world, placing him in company with Goethals, Steinmetz, and Orville Wright.” Like Parnell, he was controversial, and bitterly regarded in some quarters, most notably of course in the aggrieved Owens Valley. But he had also been feted from Los Angeles to Stanford. In Joycean terms, he was not Prometheus but Daedalus, the “[o]ld father, old artificer” that his young namesake, who is about to fly away from Ireland, appeals to at the very end of Portrait

Then, in 1928, all would change, change utterly, with the catastrophic failure of the St. Francis Dam. The collapse, which would result in at least 450 deaths, occurred just hours after the now 72-year-old chief engineer had inspected the structure and declared it safe. There is still some debate over the degree to which Mulholland was responsible for this misbegotten project (and the degree of responsibility he took for the disaster). Catherine Mulholland insists on her ability to analyze her grandfather’s career objectively, but perhaps it’s not too surprising that her relatively brief account of the dam collapse tends toward mitigation. 

A more recent and sterner judgment comes from Marilyn Dyrud, a professor at the Oregon Institute of Technology, in a paper presented at a 2013 conference organized by the American Society for Engineering Education. “While autonomy is an important professional attribute,”[4] she writes,

too much can result in what the ancient Greeks called hubris — excessive pride. Hubris has marked the tragic downfall of many a dramatic hero, and, in many ways, Mulholland’s story is similar; a great man, in a position of significant responsibility, is brought down by his own devices: William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer who knew it all and based current decisions on past triumphs. 

If that analysis seems itself a little dramatic, just consider this disturbing image offered to us by another Mulholland biographer, Margaret Leslie Davis, in a recent radio interview: “in his grief, in his pain, in his self-loathing, following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, he did pull all his [decayed] teeth out of his mouth.”[5] 

That’s closer to Sophocles than Joyce. William Mulholland had escaped the Irish short story and become the protagonist of an American epic, only to end up in a Greek tragedy.

[1] Dr. Anne Marie D’Arcy: “‘Vartryville’: Joyce’s Sublation of Local Government,” James Joyce Annual Studies, 2013. 

[2] The 1904 edition of Thom’s Directory was a key resource for Joyce in writing Ulysses. I’d like to thank both Dr. Mark Humphrys and Dr. Anne Marie D’Arcy for their assistance in using Thom’s.

[3] This is the earliest complete census available to us; to the chagrin of countless researchers and genealogists, massive amounts of records were destroyed in 1922, during the opening battle of the Irish Civil War.

[4] Marilyn A. Dyrud, “The Limits of Professional Autonomy: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam,” Proceedings of the 2013 Conference for Industry and Education Collaboration.

[5] http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2013/10/30/34409/william-mulholland-s-rise-from-ditch-digger-to-con/; for Davis’s full account of this incident, see p. 199 of her Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).


This is Robert Cremins’s second contribution to LARB. 

LARB Contributor

Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils. Recent fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review. He teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.


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