Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles
The story of the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the largest public water project ever created, and the true tale behind the fictional film masterpiece Chinatown, featuring the exploits of one of the most important pioneers of the American West.
February 1, 2016: Water to the Angels is now available in paperback!
Les will be speaking on Water to the Angels at events all spring. Check out the events page for more details.
Critical Commentary on Water to the Angels
“Hubris and gilded dreams are good subjects for Standiford, who has previously written about Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie, among others; he artfully captures small moments while maintaining the historian’s broader view…Like Mulholland’s aqueduct, the book covers a lot of ground while moving along in episodic but dramatic fashion."
--The New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating… Standiford, a Miami-based historian, is a masterful storyteller, and he expertly captures both the present and past in a state not his own.”
--The Christian Science Monitor
“In the preface to his own book ‘Water to the Angels,’ Les Standiford tells readers that ‘the character of William Mulholland and the real-life story that he lived’ have the makings of a novel worthy of Charles Dickens or Gustave Flaubert. His first chapter lives up to that promise. It’s a riveting account of the collapse of the St. Francis dam in 1928, one of the century’s greatest if least known engineering failures....But the true focus of the book is the construction of the aqueduct itself. Though some dismissed it as little more than ‘a ditch in the desert,’ Mr. Standiford makes a convincing argument that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with other engineering marvels of the same era, such as the Panama Canal.”
--Wall Street Journal
“Les Standiford is a terrific writer and this is a riveting book.”
—Dennis Prager, The Dennis Prager Show
“Les Standiford, an accomplished novelist, sets out to tell this gripping story…[but he] also has an agenda: he wants to give Mulholland more credit than he usually gets — for being a pragmatist, a genius, and a consummate public servant. Standiford largely succeeds….A refreshingly engaging tale.”
--Los Angeles Review of Books
“Cattle were starving on the ranches in Antelope Valley. Lake Elizabeth had dried into a mudflat, and by July the city was consuming more water than was flowing into the storage reservoirs," writes Les Standiford in Water to the Angels. This was 1904, several years into a severe drought, when William Mulholland set out to survey the Owens Valley for new water. It's a disturbingly apt moment for a new book about the chief engineer…vividly captures the destruction [of the St. Francis Dam collapse] and offers a glimpse of Mulholland, both steadfast and devastated, who never flinched from taking the blame for the disaster…”
--Los Angeles Times
“This work of narrative nonfiction ups the ante on Standiford’s already storied career. Lays bare the struggles Mulholland faced in taming the abundant Owens River. An entertaining and reverent history.”
—Nancy Powell, Shelf Awareness
“Listeners are drawn in right away as narrator Robert Fass sets a dramatic scene that's literally the stuff of fiction, since it partly inspired the movie CHINATOWN. ..This opening emphasizes the undercurrent of drama in a fascinating slice of history. Fass delivers an understated but gripping narration. The hardworking Mulholland becomes a tragic hero through Standiford's writing, and the growth of Southern California is seen through his life.”
“Mulholland’s story has been told before, but perhaps never so compellingly as Les Standiford tells it in Water to the Angels…expertly weaves the internecine drama behind the building of the aqueduct with a modern inquiry into its legacy…leaves little doubt that the forward-thinking Mulholland was as original as the city he birthed.”
“In this incredibly timely book, Les Standiford chronicles William Mulholland’s heroic drive to bring water to Los Angeles and thus to create the city we know today. It’s a powerful—and beautifully told—story of hubris, ingenuity, and ultimately, deepest tragedy.”
—Erik Larson, Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
“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…opens with a riveting passage…oozes with tales of back-room corruption and opportunism…unearths some new archival nuggets along the way….”
"An incredible piece of history...a great book to read with your kids...a great book for book clubs."
—KUSI-TV, San Diego
“An attention-getting first chapter.”
“A dramatic account of the life of William Mulholland…Standiford, an accomplished novelist, displays his talent for finding and sharing compelling anecdotes that highlight the drama and adventure.”
--High Country News
“The portrait that emerges is of a determined public servant who was in the right place at the right time, demonized by later generations for his role in removing water from other parts of California in order to shape a metropolis. The added value of Standiford’s book largely comes in its closing pages, in which he examines the now-canonical script for Chinatown and separates history from fiction. Generally sympathetic to its subject and well-written.”
“An outstanding job recreating an epoch, a change-making enterprise and a larger-than-life American.”
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Los Angeles Times Op-Ed pages
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Los Angeles Times Best-Seller List
Los Angeles Times Book Fair
Miami Book Fair
BookMania of Martin County