Track 4: There It Is—Take It!

“That which Los Angeles has not and wills not, is not.”

Commemorative of the Official Opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Exposition Park, November 5th and 6th, 1913

In 1907, Los Angeles voters approved a $23 million bond issue allowing construction to begin on the aqueduct the following year. This was the second bond issue supporting the project; in 1905 voters had passed a successful $1.5 million bond to initiate design and development of the aqueduct which was backed by a group of ten wealthy Los Angeles businessman including; Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times; railroad magnates, E.H. Harrison, Henry Huntington, and Moses Sherman, who was also one of the Los Angeles Board of Water Commissioners at the time.

This group, known as the San Fernando Syndicate, had used insider information provided by Sherman and others to purchase 16,000 acres at $35 an acre in the rural San Fernando Valley north of the city—real estate that would worth millions if water was brought to the area.[1] The group of investors hit a snag when President Theodore Roosevelt, who had decided to support the aqueduct project under his Progressive agenda, realized that this group of powerful capitalists would reap unprecedented wealth if the aqueduct was indeed constructed and put into service. The city’s project was contingent on securing the rights-of-way through federal public lands necessary to bring the water across the Mojave Desert.

In an effort to curtail the speculation and special interests, Roosevelt ultimately decided to limit the sale of the water exported from the Eastern Sierra within the City of Los Angeles—resale of water for profit outside city limits was excluded. At the time the San Fernando Valley was a sparsely settled agricultural area not yet part of Los Angeles. To deal with the setback, city leaders gathered the necessary public support to annex the San Fernando Valley into Los Angeles by 1915, resulting in the valley’s unprecedented development and growth just as the syndicate members had planned.

Construction of the 233 mile-long gravity-fed aqueduct began in 1908 was completed in 1913 setting records along the way for a total cost of about $23 million. An estimated 5,000 workers labored under extreme environmental conditions using Caterpillar traction trailers, steam shovels and other modern machinery alongside fifty-two mule teams. When completed, the new aqueduct was considered to be the longest one of its kind.

On November 5th, 1913 a public dedication ceremony was held at the Cascades, the aqueduct’s terminus near Sylmar located at the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. William Mulholland addressed the crowd announcing, “This rude platform is an altar, and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating this aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children-for all time.” Mulholland then turned to Major, J.J. Rose and uttered his famous statement, “There it is Mr. Major. Take it,” as the water first gushed down the spillway. The audience celebrated by dipping cups into the flowing stream.

With the aqueduct completed and water flowing southward, life in Owens Valley remained relatively calm during the early teens into the 1920s. Farmers and ranchers who had not sold during the first wave of sales continued to prosper until a real drought hit the region setting off a growing demand for more water in both Owens Valley and Los Angeles—now rapidly expanding at an unprecedented rate of growth. During this time, Los Angeles was only exporting modest surface river flows. Owens Valley citizens had also been led to believe that the city would only export surplus water not used by valley agriculture, suggesting a somewhat cooperative water exportation agreement of sorts.

As a solution to the demands brought on by the drought, the city began drilling wells and commenced with extensive groundwater pumping to supplement their surface exports. Between 1923 and 1926, fifty-two new wells were installed alone in a one-mile zone adjacent to the aqueduct in Independence.[2] By 1930, a total of 171 wells ranging from depths of 100 to 850 were in service within the valley powered by efficient electric turbines pumping at full capacity. Consequently, groundwater levels dropped drastically forcing the city to look farther north for additional pump sites.[3]

In the late teens, Owens Valley farmers and ranchers began using more water upstream of the aqueduct intake. Fearing competition from these upstream users, the city commenced on another series of hushed land and water right purchases during the early 1920s. The sales pitted neighbor against neighbor due to the “checkerboard” purchasing pattern of the properties they obtained. The city would pump their newly acquired properties depleting the groundwater levels of those who had held out, which, in turn, focused intensified resentment towards the city. As the city purchased the majority of the land on the valley floor, local businesses began to fail when their customer base moved away in search of better opportunities elsewhere.[4]

Eventually, a resistance movement of Owens Valley citizenry developed in response to the city’s strong arm purchasing tactics, organized and led by local bankers, Mark and Wilfred Watterson. The brothers, in an effort to convince Los Angeles to provide more favorable rates for the properties the city desired, organized ranchers and farmers to stand up for their rights.

“It is deplorable that the farmers of any community should have to continually fight the encroachment of any large city. If the city must have the water, and it seems that such is the case, what wiser plan would there be than to make preparations to buy out the entire valley, not at your price, not at our price, but by a reasonable price fixed by a board of appraisers…We recommend either complete purchase of the valley at a fair valuation or the institution of a program which will bring the proper agricultural development of the Owens Valley.” [5]

When negotiations failed, the resistance movement turned violent setting off a series of mysterious dynamite attacks on the aqueduct that began in 1924 and continued through 1928. During the first wave of 1924 attacks, the city responded by sending armed trainloads of nightriders and Pinkerton guards bearing Winchesters, tommy guns, and sawed-off shotguns up to the valley with orders to “shoot to kill” anyone loitering around the aqueduct in an attempt to control the violence and reveal the agitators.

The infamous Alabama Gates occupation, however, was non-violent; approximately seventy unarmed men took over the aqueduct spillway gate and facility just north of Lone Pine with no contest on November 16th, 1924 releasing water flowing south to Los Angeles back into the dry Owens River streambed.

During the four-day event, over seven hundred Owens Valley men, woman, and children joined the occupation in a great act of civil disobedience.[6] The well-publicized event was a festive affair; townspeople brought food, barbecued, and celebrated the takeover with a community picnic Western movie star, Tom Mix who was filming at the time in the nearby Alabama Hills, brought his crew and a band to show solidarity with the protesters. [7] Inyo County Sheriff Charles A. Collins refused to arrest the “insurgents” and instead, joined the picnic. Newspapers in Los Angeles and around the world reported on the occupation, creating sympathy for their cause internationally.

But by the end of the decade the resistance had failed; Inyo County Bank, owned by the Wattersons, collapsed after their bank was subject to an audit which some believed resulted through pressure by Los Angeles officials. An investigation into the matter revealed that the Wattersons had embezzled the savings of valley residents to support the resistance. Still, many valley people who had lost everything generally felt that the brothers were working with the best interest of the community—even after the bank failed. Both brothers ended up serving jail terms for embezzlement. Neither returned to the valley.

By 1933, Los Angeles had acquired 85% of all residential and commercial properties in valley towns and 95% of all farm and ranches along the valley floor.[8] Citizen outrage eventually lead to the divestment of some town properties by the City of Los Angeles, but all associated water rights were retained. Today, the city remains the largest private owner in Owens Valley with its 314,000 acres predominantly located within the valley’s floor.

For further reading:

POI: Alabama Gates
A view of the Alabama Gates (site of the 1924 Alabama Gates Occupation) can be viewed best while heading north on U.S. Route 395. The structure is dramatically lit at night. A historical marker provided by E Clampus Vitus can be viewed at a pull-off just north of the gates, accessed only from the southbound lane about 0.6 miles south of Moffat Ranch Road.

Latitude: 36.672816°

[1] William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 96.
[2] Ibid. p. 285.
[3] Ibid. p. 285.
[4] John Walton’s Western Times and Water Wars discusses in detail the how the failed Owens Valley agriculture economy directly impacted Native Americans working throughout the valley, many of whom depended on agricultural related jobs the valley farmers and ranchers provided.
[5] John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 160.
[6] Ibid. p. 164.
[7] Ibid. p. 164.
[8] Greg James, “Changing Perspectives on Groundwater Management: The Owens Valley (2002),” Inyo County Water Department website. Last accessed 9/8/12.

Archival soundtrack excerpt from Frontier Horizon (The Three Mesquiteers series, Republic Pictures, 1939) starring John Wayne, Ray Corrrigan, and Raymond Hatton.

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