The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles

The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles

by Gary Krist

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From bestselling author Gary Krist, the story of the metropolis that never should have been and the visionaries who dreamed it into reality
Little more than a century ago, the southern coast of California—bone-dry, harbor-less, isolated by deserts and mountain ranges—seemed destined to remain scrappy farmland. Then, as if overnight, one of the world’s iconic cities emerged. At the heart of Los Angeles’ meteoric rise were three flawed visionaries: William Mulholland, an immigrant ditch-digger turned self-taught engineer, designed the massive aqueduct that would make urban life here possible. D.W. Griffith, who transformed the motion picture from a vaudeville-house novelty into a cornerstone of American culture, gave L.A. its signature industry. And Aimee Semple McPherson, a charismatic evangelist who founded a religion, cemented the city’s identity as a center for spiritual exploration.

All were masters of their craft, but also illusionists, of a kind. The images they conjured up—of a blossoming city in the desert, of a factory of celluloid dreamworks, of a community of seekers finding personal salvation under the California sun—were like mirages liable to evaporate on closer inspection. All three would pay a steep price to realize these dreams, in a crescendo of hubris, scandal, and catastrophic failure of design that threatened to topple each of their personal empires. Yet when the dust settled, the mirage that was LA remained.

Spanning the years from 1900 to 1930, The Mirage Factory is the enthralling tale of an improbable city and the people who willed it into existence by pushing the limits of human engineering and imagination.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451496409
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 5,365
File size: 35 MB
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About the Author

GARY KRIST has written for the New York Times, Esquire, Salon, Washington Post Book World, and elsewhere. He is the author of the bestselling Empire of Sin and City of Scoundrels, as well as the acclaimed The White Cascade. He has been the recipient of the Stephen Crane Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for Travel Journalism, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Gary Krist

An Echo of Dynamite


SEPTEMBER 15, 1976


The gatehouse blew shortly after one a.m.—a powerful blast that ricocheted off the wall of mountains to the west and resounded across the dark, lonely valley. Another sound followed a moment later. It was less violent but more ominous: the low, rolling, slowly deepening roar of rushing water.

Someone had bombed the Los Angeles Aqueduct. A case of stolen dynamite, fitted out with a blasting cap and a makeshift fuse, had exploded under the Alabama Gatehouse, located about 210 miles north of the city, near the remote town of Lone Pine in the Owens Valley. One of the building’s five spillgates—thick metal doors designed to release excess water from the aqueduct after heavy storms—had been ripped apart, allowing two hundred cubic feet of water per second to pour uselessly down a spillway and out across the parched valley floor. By the time the aqueduct’s flow could be shut off at another gate some twenty miles north of the breach, over one hundred million gallons would be wasted—in one of the driest corners of the country, in the middle of one of the worst droughts in years.

By the time Detective Jim Bilyeu of the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department arrived on the scene, a small crowd of Lone Pine residents had gathered near the still-smoking gatehouse. Some were actually applauding the destruction, pounding each other on the back in celebration. Hostility toward the aqueduct—and toward the distant, insatiably thirsty city that had built it—was widespread across the sparsely populated Owens Valley in 1976, and many locals felt that the L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP) had been dealt a well-deserved blow. “If I ever find out who bombed the gates,” one man allegedly re- marked, “I’ll buy him a steak dinner.”

This resentment was not new. Ever since the city built the aqueduct in the early 1900s, tensions between Los Angeles and the Owens Val- ley had been high. Many in the valley felt that the city had stolen their water, acquiring property and water use rights under false pretenses and then greedily drawing off the flow of the Owens River, allowing L.A. to flourish while the local economy languished. This valley—despite being a “Land of Little Rain,” as one local writer had famously called it— was at one time an aspiring agricultural region. In the decades around the turn of the century, plentiful water from the Owens River, which gathered the runoff of forty mountain streams in the nearby high Sierra Nevada and channeled it through the otherwise arid region, had sustained livestock and irrigated fields all up and down the hundred-mile- long valley. At its southern end, the river had even broadened out into a large, shallow lake, where local residents could go boating and migrating waterfowl could cavort among the swaying reeds.

Then in 1913, the aqueduct had come, and most of that water had been taken away to nurture the growth of far-off Los Angeles. The people of the Owens Valley had rebelled. Several times during the drought-stricken 1920s, they had responded with dynamite, bombing the aqueduct at various points along its 233-mile path. Relations between city and valley remained poisonous for years. Eventually, though, the parties came to a compromise, declaring an uneasy truce, and the bombings stopped.

Now, decades later, the LADWP was trying to wring yet more water from the valley. To meet the city’s needs during this latest drought, they had begun intensive pumping of the valley’s groundwater basin, threatening to destroy what was left of the region’s vegetation and turning the lower Owens River into nothing more than a dry ditch, winding down the valley to a barren alkaline plain that had once been a lake. No won- der, then, that those people standing around the ruined gatehouse were applauding the bombers. As one valley resident later admitted, “We’d all thought about doing something like that—but they actually hauled off and did it. So we . . . clinked beer bottles in their honor.”

Not that this latter-day echo of the 1920s bombing campaign caused Los Angeles much harm. A series of reservoirs much closer to the city held enough water in reserve to ensure that Angelenos suffered no short- ages or interruptions in their service. Within a few days of the sabotage, the shattered spillgate was already repaired and the aqueduct was flowing again. County and federal authorities lost no time in ferreting out the perpetrators: two young locals who, after a few beers, had decided that they were fed up with the city’s water-grabbing and decided to do something about it. For the bombing of the Alabama Gatehouse, they were eventually indicted, tried, and sentenced to minor jail terms. After doing their time, they were allowed to fade into obscurity.

It was a pattern that had developed over many years: Los Angeles siphoning off resources, industry, and population from elsewhere to satisfy its insatiable desire for growth. The city’s leaders had turned this process into something of an art form, getting what was needed to prosper by whatever means necessary. Water was only one of the city’s requirements, and the stagnation of the Owens Valley only one of the consequences of this voracity.

The Owens Valley, meanwhile, just grew drier, and—as it had for decades—the great megalopolis to the south just grew bigger and thirstier.



Implausible City

It struck me as an odd thing that here, alone of all the cities in America, there was no plausible answer to the question, “Why did a town spring up here and why has it grown so big?”


—Morris Markey, journalist and California historian



1900 – 1930

It was no sensible place to build a great city. This corner of southern California—often bone dry, lacking a natural harbor, and isolated from the rest of the country by expansive deserts and rugged mountain ranges—offered few of the inducements to settlement and growth found near major cities in other places. The Spaniards, who first explored the region in 1542, declined to put down roots here for over two centuries; even then, in the 1700s, they sent mainly soldiers and Franciscan friars to establish missions and convert the local Indians to Christianity. When the Mexicans took over in 1821, they settled the area a little more heavily but still regarded it as a province, a hinterland, a backwater without the water.

Only after the Mexican War of 1846–48, when southern California became American, did anyone really start to postulate a grand metropolis in this desert, centered on a narrow, unreliable waterway known optimistically as the Los Angeles River. Only Americans, it seems, could dream of something so unlikely, so contrary to simple common sense. Of necessity, the place would have to be forced, like an amaryllis out of season. A certain amount of contrivance, or even trickery, would be required to bring resources, population, and industry to a place that lacked them all. But eventually the implausible became actual. By the end of the 1920s, the world city of Los Angeles, California, was a reality—an urban giant grown up in a place where no city should rightly be.

This book is the story of this extraordinary transformation. It begins in 1900, when Los Angeles was still a largely agricultural town of some 100,000 residents (and one that the National Irrigation Congress regarded as having “no future” as anything larger). The explosive growth that followed over the next three decades had nothing natural or inevitable about it. Each step in the city’s evolution had to be conceived, engineered, and then sold to an often-skeptical public. And as with any evolutionary process, not all visions of the city’s future survived this test. Some would die quickly and fruitlessly; others would prove unsustain- able over the long term, pushed aside by the interests of richer and more powerful elements in the population. But a few would leave an outsize mark on the city, taking root and giving rise to a metropolis unlike any other in the world. The pivotal period from 1900 to 1930 would witness, most notably, the realization of one of the largest and most controversial public works projects in history, second in magnitude only to the Panama Canal at the time; the invention of an entirely new form of entertainment—and of a new kind of industry to produce and sell it; and the flowering of a seductive urban ethos—arguably the birth of the whole idea of a “lifestyle”—based on utopian notions of leisure, physical wellness, and spiritual fulfillment. This combination of urban growth factors was unique, and it proved to be uniquely effective. By 1930, for better or worse, Los Angeles emerged as a major city of over 1.2 million people, and one with a distinctive identity: as an obscenely wasteful but alluring garden in the desert, as the focus of the entire world’s movie dreams (and often its moral censure), and as the heliocentric mecca of spiritual seekers across the country. Every city can be regarded as an artificial construct, an audacious projection of human will, imagination, and vanity onto the natural landscape; but none was more artificial—or more audacious—than this one.

Single individuals do not build cities, but three L.A. icons—an engineer, an artist, and an evangelist—both embodied and, to a unique extent, drove the three major engines of the city’s rise from provincial player to world-class star. William Mulholland (the engineer) was L.A.’s fabled water czar, whose wildly ambitious vision of a 233-mile aqueduct brought water to the desert and allowed the city to grow far beyond its natural capacity to support urban life. David Wark Griffith (the artist) was the seminal film director of the silent era, the man who almost single-handedly transformed the motion picture from a vaudeville-house novelty into a major creative (and fabulously lucrative) industry, important enough to help build a city. And Aimee Semple McPherson (the evangelist) was the charismatic faith healer and pioneering radio preacher who, courting both scandal and fanatical devotion, founded her own religion and cemented southern California’s reputation as a national hub for seekers of unorthodox spirituality and self- realization.

In this marginal and unfinished corner of the country, each of these three innovators discovered a kind of tabula rasa, an environment offering enough physical and mental space to permit their ideas to develop and ultimately flourish. Far from the entrenched attitudes and rigid power hierarchies of the hidebound East, each was free to create a distinctive vision of the city’s future and do the hard creative work to give it concrete form.

The images they conjured up—of a blossoming city in the desert, of a thriving factory of celluloid dreamworks, of a community of seekers finding personal salvation under God’s good sunshine—all had elements of the swindle about them, like mirages whose heady promises could evaporate on closer inspection. Each was tested by strong counter- currents of opposition, as scandals and accusations of corruption and malfeasance erupted continually to threaten their chances of realization. But the images proved resilient. More important, they succeeded in bringing the Los Angeles we know into being: people were enticed by the images; they came to live and work here; the city grew.

In the end, Mulholland, Griffith, and McPherson all paid a price for their ambitions. Each self-destructed in the late 1920s in spectacular fashion, finally succumbing to shifting tides of popular morality and technological change. All three found themselves humiliated and reviled as a fickle public turned against them. But while these individuals fell, the city they had worked to build barely registered their loss, entering the 1930s as the largest and fastest-growing U.S. city west of the Mississippi.

Few people could have imagined it all back at the turn of the century, when the dusty town of Los Angeles seemed destined to remain the thirty-sixth largest in the nation, behind places like Indianapolis, Toledo, and even Fall River, Massachusetts. What made the difference for L.A. was a combination of many different acts of imagination and engineering, supported by a great deal of sometimes deceptive advertising. But these efforts, large and small, gave the city what it needed to thrive: a source of water to sustain it, an industry to support its growth, and an ethos to bring it fame and notoriety. And in the process, this improbable place—the grand metropolis that never should have been— moved inexorably from the margins to the center of American life and consciousness.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xiii

Prologue 1

An Echo of Dynamite 3

Implausible City 7

1 A Thirsty Place 11

2 Alternate Realities 23

3 Stories in Light and Shadow 37

4 On Location 57

5 "A River Now Is Here" 69

6 The Birth of an Industry 85

7 Water and Celluloid 105

8 Epic Times 119

9 One Million Souls to Save 137

10 A Drinking Problem 157

11 Scandals in Bohemia 173

12 "Jesus, Jesus All the Day Long" 191

13 Thunder in the Valley 207

14 A Sound Proposition 225

15 The Missing Saint 241

16 A Silent Twilight 263

17 A Perfect Disaster 277

Epilogue: World City 297

Bibliography 307

Notes 315

Photo Credits 382

Acknowledgments 383

Index 386

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