Part one: LA and its Owens Valley water

A couple of the chapters in my 2001 book, The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb, deal with construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and how water from the distant Sierra changed the city and the valley. It holds up, I'm pleased to say. I adapted the section into a two-part piece for this week's centenary of the water arriving, with new photos mostly from LA Observed and some of my favorite historical images. This is part one.


As the end of the 19th century approached, the San Fernando Valley remained wild and lightly populated. "Nothing but cactus, brush, rattlesnakes and coyotes," in the words of resident Josephine LeRoy. But the area was edging closer to the modern world.
At the first high school, in the town of San Fernando, the school board complained about teenage students dancing and kissing. Long distance telephone service arrived in 1894. In 1898 the first motor cars appeared in the town of Lankershim, the drivers garbed in goggles and veils. Smart money was no longer on the San Fernando Valley remaining a domain of large ranches and scattered towns. Boring began on a rail tunnel beneath Santa Susana Pass that would open a coastal route to Santa Barbara and beyond.
sfv-mission-horsemen.jpgRancher George K. Porter, who at one time ran an orange grove a mile long, sold his last 16,200 acres of citrus groves and wheat fields to Los Angeles interests. They planned to subdivide the Porter land at the valley's north end into small ranches and connect them to Los Angeles with a grand trolley line. Another big parcel, the 1,100-acre Hawk Ranch, was sold in 1909 to subdividers who were mostly of Scandinavian descent from the upper Midwest. They laid out a 40-acre townsite near an abundant well and named it Zelzah, for a Biblical desert oasis. Stages pulled by horses still made the one-hour trip to Hollywood every day through Cahuenga Pass, but they began to share the winding road with automobiles. In the 1910 census, the Valley had 3,300 residents, including ranch hands and a few remaining Indians.
sfv-baling-hay-1890-lapl-sp.jpgThat year, the Lankershim and Van Nuys wheat enterprise harvested its most valuable crop ever. But Isaac Van Nuys felt too old to supervise the field operations; he wanted cash to build a hotel in Los Angeles. He struck a deal with his friend Harry Chandler, business manager of the Los Angeles Times, who represented a group of Los Angeles capitalists who saw gold in the Valley's empty land. The two men had a common bond, besides friendship: both had married the boss's daughter and become officers in their father-in-law's ventures. They consummated the biggest land transaction ever recorded in Los Angeles County with a single lawyer, Henry W. O'Melveny. The front page of the Times announced the deal on September 24, 1909. The syndicate Chandler fronted paid $2.5 million for the entire 47,500 acres left in the Lankershim half of the former cattle range of Mission San Fernando Rey. lankershimranchlogo.jpgThe price came to about $53 an acre, and included almost everything west of the town limits of Lankershim [now North Hollywood -ed.] and south of an old plow furrow that divided the San Fernando Valley into northern and southern sections. Today's Roscoe Boulevard generally follows the 19th century plow furrow. The purchase covered a swath of wheat fields, barns and ranch buildings fifteen miles long and six and a half miles wide. The Times divulged ambitious plans for new towns, highways and the eventual absorption of the San Fernando Valley into the city of Los Angeles. The buyers acknowledged two motivations: "One, of course, is to make money. The other is to afford an opportunity for home makers to secure desirable land close to Los Angeles at a reasonable price."
sale-of-century-flier-1909.jpgThe Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company waited a year before taking possession of its new land, then everything changed. On the first weekend of November 1910, ads in the Times proclaimed "The Sale of the Century.'' Everything to do with wheat farming and the ranching era was put up for auction: 2,000 head of horses and mules, including 400 brood mares; wagons, Concord buggies, plows and harvesters, and four complete blacksmith shops. More than 2,000 buyers and the curious came in special trains. Six steers were slaughtered for a free barbecue. "It was a scene to stagger the imagination,'' The Times reported. On the following weekend the auction moved west to finish the job. Ranching on a large scale was finished in the San Fernando Valley.
The Times reporter hit the mark when he called the auction "the beginning of a new empire and a new era in the Southland.''
The cascades where Los Angeles Aqueduct water arrives in the city.

A simple brass plaque marks the unofficial birthplace of the modern San Fernando Valley — and of modern Los Angeles. The spot is no haven for quiet reflection on history. The blasting roar from the engines and tires barreling along fifteen lanes of the Golden State Freeway smothers even silent thoughts.

cascades-plaque.jpgIn more bucolic times, this hillside on the lip of Newhall Pass was a gently sloping natural amphitheater where, on Nov. 5, 1913, thousands of expectant Southern Californians came to witness something extraordinary. They bumped along rutted roads, hopped special excursion trains from Los Angeles or rode horses to the remote hillside five miles west of San Fernando — not certain what they would see, just that it would be momentous. "As all roads led to the Rome, so all roads led yesterday to San Fernando," The Times reported the next morning, estimating — probably with some exaggeration — that 40,000 people made the journey. Church women served up frankfurters and sandwiches washed down with tubs of lemonade and soda.
Everyone there knew the knotting fear of drought. They had seen the Los Angeles River vanish into dust in dry summers, and many had left open their water taps at night with buckets in place to catch stray drops. Now they were gathered to witness the promised arrival of an abundant new water supply from the distant eastern slope of the fabled Sierra Nevada — a river diverted an astonishing 233 miles across the Mojave Desert. The notion was fabulous, but if the reality came even close to the hype, the arid Valley would suddenly be good for growing much more than wheat.
To listen to the scheme's promoters, the prospects were without bounds. There were fortunes to be made, towns to build, a whole new population to lure — and who knows, maybe someday a million people! Two million! — might inhabit this empty land of cactus and rattlesnakes.

About half of the Los Angeles water supply comes from the Owens Valley.

At ten o'clock that November morning, a motorcade forty cars long swung onto Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, escorting the hero of the moment. William Mulholland was the city's chief water engineer and the inventor of the aqueduct which that day would spill its liquid gold for the first time.
mulholland-in-car-lapl-he.jpgCheers and honking horns saluted Mulholland on the two hour trip out of the city, then along the sandy Los Angeles River and across the eastern edge of the rural Valley on newly paved San Fernando Road. The Times, playing to the hilt its role as chief shill for the aqueduct, heralded ''the culmination of a project daringly conceived, boldly executed and successfully completed.'' The payoff for Los Angeles, said the paper, was no less than ''the assurance of metropolitan grandeur and future prosperity such as but a few cities of the world can hope to attain.''
Mulholland's aqueduct was the longest working water conveyance in the world. Yet it was so simple and ingenious in design that it would remain an engineering triumph even in a world of micro chips and space shuttles: a river of cool mountain snowmelt, collected in the distant Owens Valley, then delivered over the desert by a system of open culverts, steel pipes, inverted siphons and subterranean tunnels bored through hard granite. Not bad for a self taught, Belfast born runaway who walked across the isthmus of Panama to reach California and began his career as a zanjero, or ditch tender, along the Los Angeles River.
Reading voraciously and thinking grandly, Mulholland had made himself into an engineer. He impressed the city fathers when he devised a way to capture the underground flow of the river through a system of filtration galleries sunk in the riverbed in the Narrows.mulholland-quote.gif His Los Angeles Aqueduct was far more visionary. Doubters called the venture twenty three million dollars worth of lunacy -or worse, a get rich scheme manipulated by greedy land speculators. Some darkly predicted the water would carry typhoid and be undrinkable. Nevertheless, the newspapers had built up Mulholland as a genius -and he was a lucky genius at that. A falling block that killed a man at the city water works a few years earlier narrowly missed the chief. "My time had not come,'" Mulholland shrugged.
After five years of construction, it was time to show people the water. Soprano Ellen Beach Yaw inspired the hillside crowd and dignitaries spoke. Then came the 58 year old Mulholland, not nearly as taciturn that Wednesday morning as his legend suggests. "This is a great event, fraught with the greatest importance to the future prosperity of this city,'' he began, according to the Times. ''You have given me an opportunity to create a great public enterprise, and I am here to render my account to you. The aqueduct is completed and it is good. No one knows better than I how much we needed the water. We have the fertile lands and the climate. Only water was needed to make of this region a tremendously rich and productive empire, and now we have it.''
Mulholland unfurled a large American flag, the signal to open the aqueduct gates. Cannons boomed while all eyes stared up the spillway. For two or three minutes, nothing happened. Then a first gush tumbled from a concrete mouth in the hillside and toppled down the curved cascade, built of steps to fluff the stream into whitewater and slow the flow. As children and parents frolicked in the new river, Mulholland turned to the mayor of Los Angeles and choked out his most quoted remark, a sound bite for the ages: ''There it is. Take it.''

After celebrating at a nearby ranch, the city's most influential men gathered downtown at the Alexandria Hotel to fete their own foresight. Los Angeles had the water it sought to blossom into a major city. None of the bigwigs could have been more ecstatic than the downtown movers who four years earlier had committed $2.5 million to Isaac Van Nuys for his wheat empire in the Valley. Their Los Angeles Suburban Homes Co. owned half of the Valley — 47,500 acres of dustbowl teased by a fickle river they could not touch, due to old Spanish water rights. They had big plans for Mulholland's water.

Tuesday: The Valley rises while Mulholland falls.

Also see: An album of LA Observed photos from the Owens Valley on Facebook.

"The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb" is published by Angel City Press.

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