I would not suggest reading “The Complete Report on Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct” if you do not like numbers. Over the 8 years it took to build the 250 mile long aqueduct, from its head at an elevation of 3,812 feet, to its mouth at the northern end of the San Fernando Valley at 1,135 feet, not a single pump or moving part was required.
For their $24.5 million investment the citizens of Los Angeles got “…215 miles of road, 230 miles of pipe line, 218 miles of power transmission line and 377 miles of telegraph and telephone line.
Fifty-seven camps were established…(for) laborers who numbered, at their peak, 3,900….(who) blasted and drilled 142 tunnels totaling more than 43 miles…They built 34 miles of open unlined channel, 39 miles of concrete lined channel, and 98 miles of covered conduit…”
The project also cost 43 lives, considered a significant inprovement over previous large construction programs. The system also brought electricity to Los Angeles for the first time, through the construction of two generating stations. Still, it is amazing to remember that the entire thing was built only with muscle, human and animal, and the liberal application of dynamite.
It was no wonder then why, when the gates were officially opened on November 5, 1913, that "Controlling Engineer" William Mulholland looked upon the tumbling white waters and proudly told the citizens of Los Angeles, “There it is. Take it.”
And yet on the day the aqueduct was opened, it was not finished. A series of drought years beginning in 1923 reminded everyone that the aqueduct lacked a head-end reservoir. Frank Eaton, the man who had inspired the aqueduct and who had risked his fortune to make it happen, was not at the opening ceremonies. He had stubbornly refused to lower his asking price for the required reservoir on the northern Owens River, and Mulholland (pushed by the DWP board) had stubbornly refused to raise his own offer. But without that reservoir low snow pack in the Sierra meant low water flowing through the aqueduct.
By now, with the aqueduct finished, Mulholland could have admitted the problem and paid Eaton’s asking price of one million dollars. Instead he ordered the drilling of wells and started buying up local irrigation canals in the Owens Valley, to produce more water for Los Angeles.
As the residents of the Owens Valley saw their wells drying up, and Mulholland’s Department of Water and Power filling in the irrigation ditches that once fed their fruit orchards, their anger began to simmer.
The center of resistance became the Inyo County Bank (above) in Bishop. The bank was owned by Wilfred (center bg) and Mark Watterson (left bg). There was also an uncle, George Watterson, who, though less of a fire brand, was also an Owens Valley supporter. As William Karl observed in his book “Water and Power”, “…the Wattersons could gather around their family table the same sort of concentration of power and expertise that members of the San Fernando Land syndicate applied with such effect in Los Angeles.” ( P 276).
Besides holding extensive business and mining interests across the Owens Valley, the Wattersons headed the Owens Valley Irrigation District, which sought to organize landowners in a united front against Mulholland and the D.W.P. Still, a few farmers chose to sell out to the DWP, or the drought forced others to just give up.
Only the bravest and the most stubborn farmers hung on and followed the Wattersons. And many of those who did saw their soil reduced to dust and their trees wither and die. Some desperate farmers were reduced to stealing water from the aqueduct. When L.A. responded by sending in armed “private detectives” to arrest violators, the Wattersons asked the Governor to send in the National Guard. The Governor, who had depended on the L.A. elite for his re-election, refused.
And then, at 1:30 A.M. on May 21, 1924, a party of about 40 men cut through a fence around the adueduct's Lone Pine spill way gate. The attendants were peacefully detained, and several sticks of dynamite were set of against the pipeline, blowing it apart and sending the water spilling across the desert floor. Now, it was war.
Mulholland’s reaction was predictable. He regretted, said the old Irishman, “the demise of so many of the valley's orchard trees, because now there were no longer enough trees to hang all the troublemakers who live there.” More “detectives” were hired and a $10,000 reward was offered for any information as to the identity of the “dynamite gang”. None was obtained. The D.W.P, seeking to avoid bad publicity, offered to buy out all members of the Owens Valley Irrigation District for $365 an acre. The Watterson’s rejected that offer as insulting.
Instead, on November 16, 1924, 70 armed men, led by Mark Watterson, descended on the Alabama Gates on the aqueduct and completely shut off the flow of water to the entire city of Los Angeles. And this time the explosions were only headlines.
By the next day the 70 men had become 700 men, women and children, who threw a gigantic picnic above the aqueduct. Businesses in Lone Pine and Bishop displayed signs in their shop windows informing their customers, “You can find me at the Aqueduct”.
Movie cowboy star Tom Mix provided a mariachi band to entertain the crowd. When two carloads of armed D.W.P “detectives” arrived at the scene, the sheriff of Inyo County warned them not to cause trouble because, “I don’t believe you will live through it.”
Newspapermen from San Francico and out of state snapped pictures and wrote about plucky farmers standing up to the all powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Now Los Angeles asked the governor to send in the National Guard. But again the Governor refused. It suddenly occured to Mulholland that his DWP was losing the Owens Valley Water War.
And at just this moment Wilfred Watterson arrived in Los Angeles to present the DWP with two bills; either pay the citizens of the Owens Valley $5.3 million in “reparations” for damage to crops and livelihood, or $12 million to buy out the entire valley. The D.W.P refused, pleading that legally they were not allowed to buy land that did not have water rights attached, which was true. But the DWP also promised to return to the negotiations. The Wattersons decided that they had made their point and the occupation of the Alabama Gates ended after four days. But now the entire mess ended up in court.
The bad news for the Wattersons was that this was a battlefield which favored the power structure of Los Angeles. Legal delay followed legal delay. As the court cases dragged out, slowly the farmers of the Owens Valley were squeezed between depressed markets and expensive money and water. What came next was predictable.
On May 20, 1927 an explosion cut the aqueduct outside of Mojave. Over the next two months there were 10 more bombings.
Mulholland now sent an entire train of “detectives” into the Owens Valley.
Then, in August, both of the Watterson brothers were arrested and charged with embezzlement from their own bank. They were convicted of 36 counts and sentenced to ten years each in San Quentin. Their bank failed and amongst the depositors who were wiped out was Fred Eaton, whose son had taken out a $300,000 mortgage on his ranch (and Owens River dam site) with the Watterson's bank. The bank's assets were sold at auction and eventually Los Angeles bought the dam site for a pittance. After the bank was offically closed a note was left taped to the locked front door: “This result has been brought about by the last four years of destructive work carried on by the city of Los Angeles.”
The Owens Valley opposition had lost its heart and soul. There would be future battles, and the Owens Valley would win more than a few. But that was in the future. And well before then, on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, built by Mulholland to replace the unbuilt Long Valley dam, collapsed, killing at least 1,000 people and shredding William Mulholland’s reputation forever.