Review: Les Standiford’s ‘Water to the Angels’

Water To The Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, And the Rise of Los Angeles. Les Standiford. Ecco. 336 pages. $28.99.
Water To The Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, And the Rise of Los Angeles. Les Standiford. Ecco. 336 pages. $28.99.

Water to the Angels marks another return to the Gilded Age for Miami writer Les Standiford. In 2005’s Meet You In Hell, Standiford chronicled the strained collaboration and rivalry of steel and coke magnates Andrew Carnegie and Ford Frick. In 2002’s engaging Last Train to Paradise, he masterfully told the story of Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler, risking a huge chunk of his fortune to build the fabled “train over water” linking Miami to Key West.

Water to the Angels focuses on a slightly different Gilded Age archetype. A hard-working Irish immigrant who never finished high school, William Mulholland didn’t come from money. But he was as transformative a figure as Carnegie, Frick or Flagler. Mulholland rose from cleaning ditches to the position of superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, where he spearheaded a series of audacious public works that transformed the sleepy desert outpost into a modern megalopolis.

His signature project — and the centerpiece of Standiford’s unevenly paced, occasionally meandering tale — was the construction of a 223-mile aqueduct that delivered water from the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The aqueduct, which opened in 1913, was a marvel of new construction and engineering innovation, its impact on par with the Panama Canal and Flagler’s Oversea Railway. Mulholland brought the complicated six-year project in on time and under its $23 million budget.

The history of Los Angeles oozes with tales of back-room corruption and opportunism. Powerful businessmen, tipped off by political pals, snapped up large tracts of the San Fernando Valley right before a key bond-issue vote. A former L.A. mayor tricked rural farmers into selling their land for an irrigation project and then resold it at huge markups for the city aqueduct. The Water Wars occasionally turned violent, including several attempts to blast the aqueduct with dynamite. (Many of these true-life tales loosely inspired Robert Towne’s legendary detective-noir script for Chinatown even though, as Standiford notes, the film is set in 1937, two to three decades after many of the actual events)

Mulholland continued building a series of dams and reservoirs, most of them closer to the city, to serve as a hedge against prolonged drought, earthquakes and the ongoing threat of rural saboteurs. But in March 1928, one of those insurance-policy dams failed. At least 450 perished and thousands of homes were destroyed as a torrent of water rushed 54 miles from the failed St. Francis Dam to the Pacific, taking out every road and bridge in its path.

Mulholland, then 72, claimed full personal responsibility for the greatest civil engineering catastrophe of the 20th century. He survived the coroner’s inquest but slipped off into a quiet, tormented retirement. The sprawl of Southern California, now home to more than 10 million and once again thirsting for new water sources, marched on without him.

In the end, Mulholland may have turned a blind eye to the powerful figures that shamelessly profited around him, but there is no evidence of any personal enrichment, Standiford notes with some admiration.

Longtime director of the creative writing program at Florida International University, Standiford began as a novelist, and he aims to use his novelist’s tools to bring history alive.

Held to the standard of his best non-fiction work — especially Last Train to Paradise — this effort is not without merit but falls a tad short. Water to the Angels unearths some new archival nuggets along the way but leans heavily on other critical historical sources, including William Karhl’s Water and Power, Catherine Mulholland’s biography of her grandfather, and, in a broader sense, Marc Reisner’s seminal classic Cadillac Desert, about water-supply politics in the American West.

Standiford opens with a riveting passage, re-creating the St. Francis Dam catastrophe and aftermath that essentially ended Mulholland’s career. But the pace slackens as he circles back in time, especially during the engineering and geology-heavy segments of the aqueduct work. With the exception of the brief Towne interview and Chinatown digression toward the finale, many of the asides distract from a good story.

Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.

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