I would not suggest reading “The Complete Report on Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct” if you do not like numbers. It took 8 years to build the 250 mile long aqueduct. But from its head end in the Owens valley, with 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. Gravity did all the work.
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, also considered a significant improvement over previous large construction programs.
It was no wonder then, when the gates were officially opened on 5 November, 1913, that...
...Controlling Engineer William Mulholland looked upon the tumbling white waters...
...falling down the aerating "Cascades" from the final tunnel before being whirling into the Van Ryan Reservoir,..
...he 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. And a series of drought years beginning in 1923 reminded everyone that the aqueduct lacked a head-end reservoir.
Frank Eaton (above), 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 at Long Valley, above Lone Pine. So without that head end reservoir, low snow pack in the Sierra meant low water through-out the aqueduct.
Mulholland could have admitted the problem and paid Eaton’s asking price of one million dollars. His Department of Water and Power was now flush with money, and could pay for just about anything it wanted. Instead he ordered the drilling of wells across the Owens Valley, sucking up the ground water, and buying up water rights from small local irrigation canals to produce more water for the distant city.
And as the residents of the Owens Valley saw their wells drying up and their crops and orchards dying for want of water "stolen" by Mulholland’s Department of Water and Power, their anger began to simmer and then boil.
The center of resistance became the Inyo County Bank in Bishop, operated 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 banking (above), 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, slowly, the D.W.P. kept wearing the farmers down until, one after another, they were forced to sell out..
The bravest and the most stubborn farmers followed the Wattersons. And many of those who did saw their soil reduced to dust and their trees wither and die. Some desperate farmers even stole 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 money from the L.A. elite for his re-election, refused.
And then, at 1:30 A.M. on 21 May, 1924, a party estimated at about 40 men cut through a fence around the 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.
Instead, on 16 November, 1924, 70 armed men, led by Mark Watterson, descended on the Alabama Gates (above), the point where the Owens river was first diverted into the aqueduct, and completely shut off the flow of water to the entire city of Los Angeles. And this produced an even bigger explosion.
By the next day the 70 men had become 700 men, women and children, who threw a gigantic picnic above the aqueduct.Business in Lone Pine and Bishop displayed signs in their windows informing their customers, “You can find me at the Aqueduct”.
Movie cowboy Tom Mix provided a mariachi band (above) to entertain the crowd. When two carloads of armed D.W.P “detectives” arrived, the sheriff of Inyo County warned them not to cause trouble because, “I don’t believe you will live through it.”
Newspaper men snapped pictures and wrote about plucky farmers standing up to the all powerful Department of Water and Power. Now Los Angeles asked the governor to send in the National Guard. Again the Governor refused. It suddenly occurred 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 delay, and slowly the farmers were squeezed between depressed markets and expensive money. What came next was predictable.
On 20 May, 1927 an explosion cut the aqueduct outside of Mojave.
Over the next two months there were 10 more bombings.
And every bombing cut off the water supply to the growing city of Los Angeles.
Mulholland now sent an entire train of “detectives” into the Owens Valley, armed with guns and checkbooks, paying enough for information to get it.
Then, in August, both of the Watterson brothers were arrested and charged with embezzlement from their 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 the ranch with the Watterson's bank. The bank's assets were sold at auction and eventually Los Angeles bought the Long Valley dam site for a pittance. After the bank was officially 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 than, on 12 March, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, built by Mulholland to replace the unbuilt Long Valley dam, collapsed, killing 1,000 people and shredding William Mulholland’s reputation forever.
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