Track 3: City of Destiny

Los Angeles rapidly increased in size at the beginning of the twentieth century. As the population grew, the city began to face the limits of its local water supply forcing officials to seek a more substantial and reliable source. Historically, Los Angeles’ water supply was drawn from the Los Angeles River and was distributed to the city through a series of hollowed logs and ditches or “zanjas” and later, through a system of reservoirs, plumping plants, and water mains. The system was privately owned by the Los Angeles City Water Company, which had maintained and operated it since 1868. In 1902, after the water company’s thirty-year lease had expired in 1898, the city purchased it for $2 million thus creating one of the first publicly owned utilities in the nation—known today as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

At the time of sale, William Mulholland headed the private company and continued at the helm when the utility was transferred into public ownership. Mulholland, a hard-working Irish immigrant and self-taught hydraulic engineer with no formal education, began his tenure with the water company in 1878 as a ditch digger, eventually moving up in rank to “zanjero” or head water overseer and later became LADWP’s first superintendent. William Karhl points out that newly formed Bureau of Water Works and Supply “inherited” Mulholland as he was the only person who knew where all of the city’s pipes were located as no maps existed for the system.

In the years leading up to the purchase and creation of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply—Fred Eaton, a former major of Los Angeles mayor who had earlier headed the Los Angeles City Water Company, began to set his sights on a distant river lying some two hundred miles away in the remote Eastern Sierra. Eaton noted the river’s potential as a reliable and sizable urban resource, while at the same recognized possibilities for his own personal financial gain. His first visit to the Owens Valley was in 1862, having traveled there on irrigation related business for a private client. There, he noted the significant water supply of the Owens River—sustained by pristine Sierra snowmelt that terminated at a saline basin with no outlet forming the vast Owens Lake. Eaton, like many of his contemporaries, considered this type of unused water supply a wasted valuable resource. Eaton began to actively promote the idea of securing the Owens River through land and water rights purchases in an effort to guarantee the City of Los Angeles a consistent supply for years to come. Mulholland was brought on board after Eaton convinced him to travel up to the Owens Valley to see the river firsthand.

Eaton initially proposed the aqueduct project as a joint private venture with the suggestion that he would personally undertake the procurement of land and water rights required to build the project. Mulholland recognized that lands withdrawn from the public trust intended for settlement through the federal government could never be obtained for a project of this size that was privately owned—hence an incentive to create a publicly owned utility.

By 1902, Los Angeles had had more than 100,000 residents reflecting a doubling of its population within thirty years. [1] Increasingly aware that the city’s natural water supply was insufficient for the municipal growth that city businessmen and boosters demanded; Mulholland, Eaton with others began to gather political and economic backing to support their vision of a gravity-fed water conveyance system that would bring the waters of the Owens River to Los Angeles. The public was encouraged to support the proposed aqueduct through opinionated newspaper articles published by Harrison Gray Otis’ Los Angeles Times supporting the project, pro-aqueduct civic events and speeches, and an alleged  “drought” that made the project seem all the more urgent.[2]

While the city was in the early stages of developing the aqueduct project, Congress had enacted the 1902 Reclamation Act whose purpose was to open and settle undeveloped lands in the western U.S. through federally funded irrigation projects, resulting in the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Ironically, one of the first projects considered for development was an irrigation system within the Owens Valley. Farming, ranching and rural business communities of the area unanimously supported the proposal. Surveys conducted suggested that 185,000 acres of land could be brought into production if an adequate irrigation and drainage system were constructed.[3] Land withdrawals and necessary other steps were taken to initiate the construction of a federally funded public irrigation project.

Joseph Barlow Lippincott, an engineer with the newly formed Reclamation Service who was also a professional associate and personal friend both of Eaton and Mulholland, had independently traveled to the Owens Valley to conduct research and head the Bureau’s anticipated federal project. Mulholland requested that Lippincott—who was also acting as a private consultant for the city’s project—provide him with Bureau stream flow reports and other data through his superior, Frederick H. Newell which helped Mulholland determine and convince city officials that a gravity-fed aqueduct design was indeed viable. Consequently, the two projects became fatefully intertwined through Lippincott’s association with both parties.

The relationship of these three men under the entities they represented posed a considerable conflict of interest between the City of Los Angeles and the Bureau’s proposed federal project. This was especially apparent when Eaton began to covertly purchase riparian land, water rights, and options within the valley during 1905 while conducting Reclamation Service research on behalf of Lippincott.[4]  Owens Valley farmers and ranchers were duped into thinking that they were selling their land to Eaton for the Reclamation’s public irrigation project—promoted to bolster their own local economy—when in fact they were selling their land to an undercover agent representing the City of Los Angeles. The citizens were kept in the dark primarily for financial reasons—the city wanted to avoid inflated sale prices at all costs. Even if Eaton did not act in bad faith or pose implicitly as a Reclamation representative while conducting the transactions, he failed correct any misimpression he had made.

By the time the local Owens Valley citizenry got wind of the fiasco, their fate had already been sealed; less than two days after the Board of Engineers had met with the Secretary of the Interior to discuss the feasibility of the Bureau’s federal project, The Los Angeles Times enthusiastically published the headline announcing, “Titanic Project to Give City a River” on July 29th, 1905.  In contrast, The Inyo Register ran in response, “Los Angeles Plots Destruction, Would Take Owens River, Lay Lands Waste, Ruin People, Homes, and Communities.”[5]

The Bureau of Reclamation announced that they had dropped their proposed Owens Valley irrigation project because it was no longer financially viable due to Eaton’s extensive purchase of prime riparian land, water rights, and options—including the Long Valley Reservoir site originally slated for development by the Bureau.[6] The public lands set aside for the proposed irrigation development did not return to the public domain—instead Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot under direction of then President Theodore Roosevelt—transferred the lands into the Inyo National Forest (mostly treeless) guaranteeing that the Owens Valley watershed and surrounding region would remain undeveloped. Roosevelt gave his blessing to the city’s project, citing, “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

The Bureau of Reclamation scandal resulted in a special federal investigation that ultimately found Lippincott and the City of Los Angeles’ misrepresented dealings deceptive and exploitative—although neither party was ultimately charged with a criminal offense. Lippincott resigned from the Bureau and within a week of the hearing, taking a job as Mulholland’s new assistant.

For further reading:

[1] Source: LADWP website: Los Angeles Aqueduct Facts & History. Last accessed 10/5/12.
[2] Los Angeles Times publisher, Harrison Gray Otis was one of the wealthy businessmen involved with investment group known as the San Fernando Land Syndicate whom benefited financially from lucrative real estate investments made with insider knowledge that Los Angeles Aqueduct would be constructed.
[3] Source: LADWP website: Los Angeles Aqueduct Facts & History. Last accessed 10/5/12.
[4] William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 103.
[5] Ibid.
[6] A huge riff formed between Mulholland and Eaton when Mulholland refused to purchase Long Valley from Eaton for a storage reservoir. The two men remained at odds with each other until the near end of their lives, when both men were broken (Mulholland from the tragic St. Francis Dam disaster) and Eaton from failed dreams.

Voice at beginning of track is Ernest Kinney, a life-long resident of Owens Valley who worked as mule packer and guide early in life and later as an artist. Kinney was interviewed by Richard Potashin for the Eastern California Museum Oral History Program (ECM #69). Recording courtesy Inyo County Eastern California Museum. Archival soundtrack excerpt from City Of Destiny produced by Standard Oil in 1947.

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