A Los Angeles River Christmas Story – 1889

December 20, 2010 § 5 Comments

William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Catherine Mulholland, UC Press, 2000

I’ve been enjoying reading Catherine Mulholland’s William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, published by the University of California Press in 2000. It’s a biography of Catherine’s grandfather William Mulholland (1855-1935) who was the engineer responsible for much of Los Angeles’ early water supply engineering and vision, including our securing of water from the Owen’s Valley.

Here’s a Los Angeles River Christmas story from 121 years ago. L.A.’s creek freaks will know to expect some flooding in century-old Los Angeles River winter tales.

From William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, starting on page 49:

[I]n 1890… [William Mulholland] received a gold watch from a grateful water company [the private Los Angeles Water Company that later became the city of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power] for services beyond the call of duty when he had braved the torrential rains of Christmas Week, 1889-1890, to save the city’s water supply.

During the downpours, the Los Angeles River had changed its course and broken the water connections at Crystal Springs [present day Griffith Park]; or as company president [William Hayes] Perry explained, “The Los Angeles River got on a tear, cut a new channel through an alfalfa patch, and came rushing down upon the brick conduit then forming the head of the system with such force that it was knocked into a cocked hat.” The water brought with it such an accumulation of sand and detritus that it filled the conduit until only a small opening “about as big as your arm” remained. If it had closed completely, no water would have flowed to the city, and so the morning before Christmas 1889, “William Mulholland, superintendent of the company, jumped out of bed when the alarm was given, … and he didn’t get a chance to undress and go to bed like a Christian for four days; but he got the conduit open, and the city was not without its regular supply of water for a minute.” Perry estimated that in two hours’ time, the damage had amounted to $100,000, adding , “I did not know but that the city would have to go back to water carts for its supply.”

In the footnote, Catherine Mulholland notes that the quotes’ source is the Los Angeles Times, July 16, 18, 1890. Further she notes that the “gold watch remains in the Mulholland family.”

Another recommended book on William Mulholland and L.A.’s water supply history is Remi Nadeau’s The Water Seekers.


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§ 5 Responses to A Los Angeles River Christmas Story – 1889

  • Aaron Kuehn says:

    I might be a rube, is this intended to be highly ironic? Leave it to the “Los Angeles Water Company” to make enemies with the source of their product: rain. The message here seems to be, rescuing the for-profit water supply from the dangerous and destructive free water supply is heroic. I was thinking about this today as I went for a walk in the current annual ‘dangerous and destructive’ mega rain storm in my bad-ass second-hand DWP raincoat. Did these guys intentionally develop the whopping 1,600 mile storm drain system to quickly and quietly get rid of the competition, local rainfall? I did a couple calculations based on info from the MWD 2009 annual report, and the LA storm water program:

    2009 average daily water sold to LA: 387 million gallons
    Daily water dumped in the ocean on a dry day: 100 million gallons
    Daily water dumped in the ocean on a rainy day: 10,000 million gallons!

    In the MWD annual report, they even express these numbers as a percentage, with MWD competing with local production for percentage of total consumption. Beverly Hills is the biggest loser, producing only 7% of it’s water consumption locally. Bet they have rad storm drains!


    • Joe Linton says:

      Welllll… the irony runs even deeper. It turns out that, in the early 20th Century, when the river was flooding, massively degraded, apparently not really on any kind of environmentalist radar… the local purveyors of water (not so much the LADWP, but othere – like Pasadena’s water supply folks) were opposed to the concreting of the river systems. The folks who made a living pumping groundwater knew that they were out-of-luck if more-or-less all the rainwater would be flushed out to the sea. The water supply folks were at odds with the flood control folks… and the flood control folks won.

  • Jessica Hall says:

    All these are interesting points. Whatever else can be said, that Mulholland had passion.

  • The quotation above is not by Perry, but they are the words of a Los Angeles Times writer. Perry, I suppose, was not as colorful a writer as would be a professional reporter. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lapl.org/hnplatimes/docview/163471262/139824125CC59EA0B30/1?accountid=6749

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