William Mulholland, like most Irish immigrants of the late 1800s, left his home country, fumbled around various parts of the growing United States, worked several less-than-prosperous positions, and landed in a career that brought him amazing notoriety. If his name sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve traveled out west. If you grew up in California, you know him. If you are a student of civil engineering, you’d better know him. Like thousands of others who staked a claim to Southern California’s booming growth, Mulholland impacted the life spring of LA: he provided its drinking water.
Like other successful American legends, an equally unfortunate adversity accompanies the eventual journey to triumph. For many of those stories, the stumble comes first and teaches a lesson that builds the story to its climax. For Mulholland, the failure came at the end of his career, or better worded, the catastrophe ended his career. When the last, and perhaps most memorable, moment of one’s professional notoriety ends with the word “disaster,” as in The St. Francis Dam Disaster, no measure of accomplishment or success erases more than 450 lives lost. Mulholland’s history mirrors that of every great novel: tremendous highs and heart-breaking lows.
The Backbone of LA
I embark on a drive along Los Angeles’ spine: the tenuous road along the peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains. The most famous of these relatively low peaks features the first point of interest where atop the Hollywood Hills large, white letters stand watch over the movie industry’s town. But this drive brings more surprises and more beauty than just a photo op, even an iconic one. One famous stop, the Paramount Ranch, served as the backdrop for dozens of movies, but it most notably looks like the 4077th compound. I cross the bridge made famous by Carmageddon, I see spectacular homes with breath-taking vistas looking both southward towards the city and northwards towards Simi Valley, I stop at roadside cafes that remind me of Route 66, I cross roads connecting Malibu to everywhere else, and I pass quiet, immaculate trailer parks ignorant of their premier real estate.
The high point, literally and figuratively, atop San Vincente Mountain, where atop a picnic table atop an abandoned radar site, the gracious New Year’s Day Santa Ana winds have blown the smog of the last year out to sea and I am wrapped by the full-circle beauty of Southern California. I see Big Bear, and the moderate skyscrapers of downtown LA, and the Valley, and Catalina Island all in a 360-view of the largest mass of city in the United States. Postcard images taken on days like this focus on individual highlights of the region – the beach, Rodeo Drive, Griffith Observatory – but never show this image, undoubtedly so the city may keep this treasure to itself. The full-day excursion along Mulholland Drive, across Mulholland Bridge, peering over Mulholland’s water-fueled metropolis, like the rushing flood waters from Mulholland’s Waterloo, carries me to the ocean’s edge at Leo Carrillo Beach. Even in failure, I am in awe of his success.