William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam: Background information when reading 100 Sideways Miles

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100 Sideways Miles

by Andrew Smith

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2015, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Beyond the Book:
William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam

Print Review

William Mulholland"Self-taught civil engineers are probably as trustworthy as self-taught brain surgeons and self-taught airline pilots," thinks Finn to himself in 100 Sideways Miles. He's thinking about William Mulholland, the engineer better known today as the namesake for Mulholland Drive, home to many famous actors and musicians and the inspiration for the movie of the same name by David Lynch, who once said the road carried "the history of Hollywood."

The road was opened in 1924, but the real-life incident that consumes much of Finn's attention, and that ultimately led to the end of Mulholland's career, happened in 1928. Mulholland was born in Ireland in 1855 and moved to Los Angeles in 1877. There he took odd jobs digging wells, prospecting for gold, and laying water pipeline, the work that would eventually lead this self-taught engineer to becoming Los Angeles's water superintendent, overseeing a series of pipelines, aqueducts, and dams that would make Los Angeles a viable and prosperous city in the early twentieth century.

St. Francis Dam in 1926But Mulholland's lack of expertise may have begun to show as early as 1918, when a dam that Mulholland oversaw partially collapsed, fortunately with no major consequences. That was not the case in 1928, however, when the St. Francis Dam collapsed, destroying hydroelectric Powerhouse Number Two and killing 64 of the 67 workmen and their families who lived downriver from the dam, as well as hundreds of others in communities downstream. Just twelve hours earlier, Mulholland and his assistant had inspected the dam and declared it safe. Mulholland resigned from his position a year later.

St. Francis Dam in 1928The dam construction and related projects were part of what's become known as the California Water Wars, as Los Angeles's demand for water threatened to decimate the agricultural lands surrounding it. Fictionalized in the movie Chinatown, the Water Wars are still relevant today as California and much of the western United States face chronic drought conditions. Mulholland and others like him cut deadly corners in their attempts to meet southwestern cities' demand for water.

Photo of William Mulholland, courtesy of James W. Bledsoe
St. Francis Dam in 1926, courtesy of H. T. Stearns
St. Francis Dam in 1928, after it failed, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Article by Norah Piehl

This article was originally published in September 2014, and has been updated for the September 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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