Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

50. The Chief

The population of Saugus took a sudden and dramatic upturn in the summer of 1907 as a score of new buildings were thrown up along the north side of what is now Magic Mountain Parkway. In San Francisquito Canyon, "Tunnel Station Camp" also popped out of the ground.

The reason for all this frenzied activity was that the flamboyant chief of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland, was on the move, building supply centers from Los Angeles to the Owens Valley. Saugus saw a curious mixture of mule teams hauling sections of pipe; steam shovels gouging out hillsides; dynamite, tractors, picks and shovels.

Mulholland emigrated from Ireland to New York in 1872, working on the docks at age 17. He moved west to the Great Lakes, Colorado and Arizona, and in 1878 finally wound up in San Pedro with ten dollars in his pocket.

He took a job as a ditch tender for the Los Angeles Water Company, studied every book and journal available, and eventually became a self-taught hydraulic engineer and superintendent of the company.

Faced with increasing water supply problems for a population that exceeded 102,000, the city of Los Angeles bought the water works, created the Department of Water and Power, and installed Mulholland as its chief engineer and general manager in 1902.

The Chief, as he was always called, set out to find a reliable supply of water for his adopted town, measuring river flows from Piru to the Kern. Nothing seemed adequate to quench the growing thirst of the mushrooming metropolis.

At the suggestion of former mayor Fred Eaton, the two men traveled to Owens Lake. Forty days later they were back home, elated that their dream would soon become reality.

Quietly the city of Los Angeles purchased 307,000 acres of Inyo and Mono counties at very attractive prices, making sure that the deeds included mineral and water rights. In June of 1907 a twenty-three million dollar bond issue passed. The bond issue was soon followed by the creation of those supply centers reaching from Saugus to Bishop.

More than four thousand men were employed to toil over rugged mountains, cross sterile deserts or burrow through hillsides, as they did with the five-mile-long Lake Elizabeth Tunnel.

The Chief was everywhere, it seemed. This barrel-chested apparition with hard, square jaw and bristling moustache, always chomping on a black cigar and carrying a gold-headed cane, stalked the aqueduct, calling everyone by name.

Mulholland's moment of glory came on Nov. 5, 1913 when he opened a gate valve high on a hillside between Sylmar and Newhall. As a crowd of forty thousand watched, the Owens Valley began to drain into a new, man-made lake named for the Chief's assistant, Harry Van Norman. "There it is," Mulholland cried out. "Take it!"

The Los Angeles-Owens Valley aqueduct extended 225 miles — without a pump in the entire system. As an engineering feat it was exceeded only by the Panama Canal. Electric power was added on March 19, 1917, when the three turbines in San Francisquito's Power House Number 1 began generating enough electricity to supply the whole city.

Back in 1879, Mulholland had purchased 235 acres in Hauser Canyon, northeast of Agua Dulce. He soon developed a so-called model ranch, where he raised a variety of grains and cattle. A 60-by-110 foot home was built, along with a barn and two out-buildings of "native rock and city cement." Guests are believed to have included Harrison Gray Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times, Governor Hiram Johnson and Will Rogers.

But Mulholland was not destined to lead a quiet, bucolic life.

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