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Rivers in the Desert
by Margaret Leslie Davis

Category: People
Description: Rivers in the Desert is the quintessential American story. It follows the remarkable career of William Mulholland, the visionary who engineered the rise of Los Angeles as the greatest American city west of the Mississippi. He sought to transform the sparse and barren desert into an inhabitable environment by designing the longest aqueduct in the Western Hemisphere, bringing water from the mountains to support a large city. Davis chronicles Mulholland's dramatic ascension to wealth and fame, followed by his tragic downfall after the sudden collapse of the dam he had constructed to safeguard the water supply. The disaster, which killed at least five hundred people, caused his repudiation by allies, friends, and a previously adoring community. Epic in scope, Rivers in the Desert chronicles the history of Los Angeles and examines the tragic fate of the man who rescued it.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1993
eBookwise Release Date: May 2001


3 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [421 KB]
Words: 549441
Reading time: 1569-2197 min.

"Davis offers an arresting biography of William Mulholland, the visionary Los Angeles Water Department engineer...(his) personal and public dramas make for gripping reading." -PW

"In the annals of city building, there are few stories more compelling than arid Southern California's eternal search for water...Davis addresses some of the more controversial issues of Los Angeles' water wars...Rivers in the Desert offers a fascinating look at the political maneuvering and engineering marvels that moved the City of Angels into the first rank of American cities." -Booklist

"Recommended for popular collections." -Library Journal

"Davis presents the story of Mulholland's rise and fall as that of a tragic hero--a rugged, determined, larger-than-life man who became a hero to his people only to suffer a disastrous fall. It makes a fascinating story, which Davis tells in rich detail and a graceful style." -Westways

"A fascinating history." -Newsweek

"A dramatic saga of ambition, politics, money and betrayal." -Los Angeles Daily News


IT WAS JULY 26, 1935. Tens of thousands came to the Los Angeles City Hall to pay their respects to William Mulholland. Scores of black limousines circled the streets as mourners lined the sidewalks waiting to bid farewell to the retired chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. At exactly 10:00 A.M., City Hall's huge bronze doors swung wide, and the waiting crowd streamed inside the building's massive, four-story rotunda.

Elaborate funeral wreaths of chrysanthemums, gladioli, and red and white roses surrounded the body, which lay in a flag-draped, blue steel coffin. Gifts, hand-written notes, personal tributes, framed photographs, mementos, and garden bouquets had been lovingly placed beside his funeral bier; a myrtle wreath from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a hand-penned note of condolence from former President Herbert Hoover were among the offerings.

City officials, celebrities, working men, and families silently queued toward Mulholland's coffin. Among the mourners were publisher Harry Chandler, banker Joseph Sartori, philanthropist George L. Eastman, humorist Will Rogers, University Chancellor Ernest C. Moore, six United States senators, four state governors, scientists, millionaires, engineering associates, and men who had worked with him in the tunnels and in the field.

As mourners passed the open casket, they stopped briefly to stare at the waxen features of "The Chief," now finally at peace in death. Some placed tokens and gifts inside his coffin or near the pyre. Others gently touched the brow of their beloved Chief, or whispered a prayer, then awkwardly moved on.

Meanwhile, throughout the city, eulogies praised William Mulholland for his honesty, modesty, valor, intellect, humanity, and, above all, his spectacular achievements for the city of Los Angeles. At 2:00 P.M., for ten minutes, two million residents of Los Angeles halted commerce to pay homage. Flags at all schools and public buildings were lowered to half-mast. Water in the Los Angeles Aqueduct was stopped for one minute as it flowed from the river in the Owens Valley. One thousand miles across the desert, ten thousand men working on the Colorado River Aqueduct paused with reverence to stand bareheaded, their steam shovels, drills, and tractors silenced in tribute.

"We are a forgetful generation," declared Los Angeles Mayor Frank L. Shaw, "but pray God that this community will never forget the everlasting debt of gratitude it owes this human diamond. His like we may never see again."

IT HAS BEEN SAID of heroes that for every devoted admirer won on the precarious climb to glory, two enemies are incurred. William Mulholland was no exception. Coupled with the outpouring of tribute was enough hatred, both within the city of Los Angeles and in Owens Valley, 250 miles to the north, to prove he had labored and struggled in the world. There had been many among the mourning crowd who had come not to revere but to damn; some even blamed him for the violent deaths of their kin.

They, too, had left gifts among the tribute offerings. Placed inconspicuously amid the rose petals of a huge funeral wreath draped across the foot of Mulholland's casket was a small glass vial tied with a ragged fragment of red cotton, now faded and stained. Many would have recognized it as a commemorative from the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The tiny vial had been saved all those years by someone who had been in the crowd that day. When opened, the vial emitted the unmistakable, acrid odor of urine.

Yet even this dismaying commentary was lost amid the tributes and praise. Like Moses, William Mulholland had gone to the mountain and had brought back life -- in the form of water -- to a city dying of thirst. He transformed a land that could not support 250,000 souls into a flourishing oasis harboring millions.

ONCE THE PROCESSION at City Hall ended and the last bereaved were gone, the bronze doors of City Hall were closed. Now William Mulholland would be transported to his eternal place of rest, a mausoleum situated upon a sunlit rise overlooking the city for which he had accomplished and sacrificed so much.

Requiescat in pace great dreamer, great builder, great friend of our fair and prospering city.

Copyright © 1993 by Margaret Leslie Davis

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