Book excerpt: The Valley rises as Mulholland falls

A couple of the chapters in my 2001 book, The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb, deal with the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and how abundant water changed the city and the valley. It holds up, I'm happy to say. Here's part two of an adaptation pegged to this week's centenary of the water arriving.
Part one: LA and its Owens Valley water

Harrison Gray Otis, Ellen Beach Yaw and Mulholland at the Nov. 5, 1913 aqueduct dedication. CSUN Catherine Mulholland Collection.

Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the combative anti-union owner of the Los Angeles Times, at age 76 was the patriarch of the Los Angeles Suburban Homes syndicate that purchased the southern half of the San Fernando Valley. Harry Chandler, the youngest partner at 49, was Otis's business manager and, eventually, his successor as publisher of the Times and scion of one of California's most powerful families.

They were the influence men of the Valley land venture, along with two partners: Moses Hazeltine Sherman, 60, a streetcar mogul, and Otto Freeman Brant, 53, who was in the title insurance business. The partner who knew the most about developing land was Hobart Johnstone Whitley, a 53-year-old Toronto native who had created new towns as he worked his way across country to California. While managing the subdivision of Hollywood, Whitley would drive through Cahuenga Pass with his family after Sunday dinner to gaze upon the wheat fields and vast emptiness of the San Fernando Valley and ponder the possibilities. Here was a basin of immense size, located right next to a growing city. Whitley must have thought he had found a subdivider's Promised Land.

These five self-described capitalists — the syndicate's Board of Control — had their friends and admirers, but they also were controversial. Especially Otis, who used the Times as his bully pulpit to rail against unions and anything liberal, and for favored projects like the aqueduct. The city's socialists, a powerful bloc at the time, assumed that Otis and the others exploited inside knowledge of the aqueduct to get rich. Some believed that Otis finagled its approval and construction in order to extract fortunes out of the Valley land. This legend grew to mythic proportions even though the syndicate obtained the land two years after voters gave their approval for the aqueduct. From that point on, all of Los Angeles had openly anticipated the water and how their lives would change. "Mr. Chandler discussed this with me quite fully and quite frankly," Isaac Van Nuys, the seller, acknowledged.

Still, if one were so inclined, there was plenty of reason to suspect the syndicate of shady dealings. Otis and Sherman were among the influential Los Angeles businessmen who formed the San Fernando Mission Land Co. a few years earlier to purchase the 16,200-acre George K. Porter ranch, south and west of the mission. The investors, led by Glendale trolley car magnate L.C. Brand, intended to re-sell the Porter land in small plots and build a streetcar line to San Fernando from Los Angeles. This was the first big speculative subdivision in the Valley, and the group fashioned its purchase of Porter's ranch in secret, knowing almost certainly what the public did not yet know — that plans were afoot for an aqueduct.

water-comission-lapl.jpgThey likely knew because of an insider who sat on the city water commission — Moses Sherman. He was privy to the secret that a former mayor of Los Angeles, Fred Eaton, had been acquiring water rights in the Owens Valley faster than farmers there could figure out his game. Eaton apparently bet that if he could deliver a reliable source of new water, Los Angeles would pay him dearly. Mulholland made a clandestine wagon trip to the Owens Valley with Eaton, his onetime mentor, and returned to advise the water board in July, 1905 that the aqueduct idea was feasible. One day after the board privately gave its go-ahead, the secret Valley investors quietly claimed their option on the Porter land.

No proof has ever linked the Porter land deal to an insider tip from Sherman, but there also seems little reason to doubt the strong circumstantial case. He was eventually deemed too controversial to remain on the board, and with Otis was forced to publicly divest his stake in the Mission Land Co. subdivision. Nonetheless, the Times published the scoop of the young century on July 29, 1905, under the headline "Titanic Project to Give City a River!'' Historian Remi Nadeau wrote later: "Copies of the Times were no sooner dumped on the depot platform at Burbank than valley property began to soar."

Sherman Way west of Van Nuys in 1927. Yes that is the photographer's shadow. LAPL/Security Pacific Collection.

The murky land deal seems almost trivial in scope compared to the Board of Control's ambitions for the Valley's southern half.

Their machinations have been scrutinized through the years, but never more thoroughly than by Catherine Mulholland, the engineer's granddaughter, in her 1987 book "Owensmouth Baby: The Making of a San Fernando Valley Town." She dug through the personal papers of the principals, reconstructed meetings and documented the fervor they brought to developing the largest single subdivision ever filed in the county of Los Angeles, recorded officially as Tract 1000.

Each of the Board of Control partners put up $100,000, and to raise additional cash they took in leading members of the Los Angeles financial establishment willing to put up $25,000 each as "participators." These investors got to select a small parcel of Tract 1000 land to keep or sell, while the main partners kept prime parcels for themselves. Otis, for example, took 550 acres at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains and built a hacienda and ranch, Mil Flores, on a site that later was sold to writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and became the community of Tarzana. The rest of Tract 1000 was made available for sale and development.

A key to the strategy was the creation of three new towns, laid out across the Valley to lure buyers to the far ends of the tract. They called the first town Van Nuys, after Harry Chandler's old friend. The middle town was founded as Marian, named after Otis's daughter and Chandler's wife [later changed to Reseda-ed.] Otis himself dubbed the westernmost town "Owensmouth," a name he meant to conjure up the image of fresh cool water from the Owens River, perhaps as an antidote to the dusty reality of the place. The name was a mouthful the townsfolk never quite mastered. "We are inclined to pronounce the name...with a little too much `mouth'," the editor of the Owensmouth Gazette gently chided a few years later. "For a little self pride...and for the dignity of the town, let us practice up by putting the accent where it belongs, then we will pronounce it as though it were spelled `Owensmth.'" Eventually, the town took the name Canoga Park.

Before a single board was nailed, the Times, doing its part to sell the boss's lands, proclaimed the non-existent new communities "The Wonder Towns of the San Fernando Valley.'' The marketing strategy had a truly audacious element that commanded notice: a fine boulevard, extending fourteen miles through the old wheat fields, would be built to connect the three towns-to-be. The Times lauded it as a "masterpiece of civil engineering...that ranks with the best hard surfaced roads in the world."

chandler-blvd-lapl.jpgSherman Way east of Van Nuys, now Chandler Boulevard. LAPL.

Sherman Way began at the Board of Control's property line, west of the established town of Lankershim. It had a paved roadway for motor cars, an oiled track for horses and wagons, and a streetcar line laid on crushed rock. The route was lighted at night and its shoulders were planted with more than 8,000 shrubs and trees so passersby could not see the bare landscape that stretched for miles. Signs posted the speed limit at 100 miles an hour, an invitation to sporting motorists to put the roadway to the test. [Today's Van Nuys Boulevard was originally part of Sherman Way-ed.]

Convincing people to come live on a dusty former wheat field posed a challenge. To sell Van Nuys, the Board of Control turned to William Paul Whitsett, a Pennsylvanian whose mother was related to patriotic flag sewer Betsy Ross. A marketer by nature, Whitsett incited buzz about Van Nuys by calling every person with a telephone in the Los Angeles region and inviting them to the opening day barbecue on February 22, 1911. Travelers in Los Angeles hotels also found tags on their luggage offering free transport to the new town. Whitsett's ads invited "the businessman, the mechanic, the gardener, the farmer, the retired professional man or woman, or the astute investor'' to buy in Van Nuys — "the largest opportunity on the entire Pacific Coast today."

Lot salesmen wait at Van Nuys tract office in 1912. LAPL.

Never mind that the place was bone dry and that opening day was carefully timed to avoid stifling heat or blowing dust.

Prospective buyers who came by train from Los Angeles found sidewalks being paved, wells being dug and homes being finished — the activity all staged by Whitsett. Home lots began at $350, business property at $660; $39,606 in cash down payments the first weekend ensured that a town had been born. The first baby, Whitley Van Nuys Huffaker, arrived on October 18, 1911. Two months later, on December 16, flags and bunting greeted the first trolley cars connecting Van Nuys to Lankershim and Hollywood, clattering and swerving along tracks carved into the east side of Cahuenga Pass. The Pacific Electric Red Cars were a crucial cog in the sales strategy. Though the eighteen-mile ride was slow and at times unnerving, settlers could reach Hill Street in the shopping district of Los Angeles for a quarter (forty cents round trip.) In a few months Van Nuys boasted of two hundred homes and forty businesses, including a factory manufacturing Johnston organs.

Owensmouth, nine miles to the west, opened for sales on March 30, 1912 with the now traditional barbecue and an auto race on Sherman Way featuring champion driver Barney Oldfield, the most famous racer of the day. The first land auction at Marian was held on July 20. Some 18,700 acres of Tract 1000 had been divvied up, taking in more than $5 million — double the original investment. Almost 29,000 acres remained to be sold and developed. The partners often fretted that the land was not selling fast enough, and argued among themselves over tactics and money.

pe-arrives-1911.jpgBy 1913, the PE Red Cars reached west through Marian to Owensmouth, 29.1 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The trip took eighty minutes, if the erratic power supply across the Valley's old wheat fields cooperated. Many buyers came from out of state, their moves west subsidized by low train fares. The newcomers cultivated and built and did constant battle with the harsh elements. Winter floods inundated large sections of the Valley, including the center of Van Nuys, and freezes ruined citrus growers. Across the Valley, rivalries were stirring. Whitley referred privately to San Fernando as "a den of thieves and wharf rats." Cecil M. Wilcox, the editor of the Lankershim Laconic newspaper, took regular potshots at the upstart Tract 1000 towns and their controversial godparents.

San Fernando reigned as the biggest town. Lankershim became the peach-growing capital of the region. Across the Valley, Chatsworth had a few hundred residents and two hotels. The Norwegian immigrants who settled Zelzah [now Northridge-ed.] built a wood frame Lutheran church and sprouted a colony of small ranches alongside the Southern Pacific tracks. Even with Burbank and the settlements of Roscoe and Hansen Heights showing life on the slopes of the Verdugos, fewer than 10,000 people lived in the Valley.

Women in irrigated San Fernando Valley field in 1926. LAPL.

William Mulholland continued to live in the city, while his son joined the rush to the Valley. Perry Mulholland planted a citrus ranch west of Zelzah near the ranches established by other officials of the water department.

The senior Mulholland remained the most respected civic dignitary in the West. A portion of the town of Pacoima, hoping to enjoy some of his glory, briefly changed its name to Mulholland. On the ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains, engineers carved a sinuous twenty five-mile scenic drive from Hollywood to Calabasas and christened it Mulholland Highway. Cowboy star Tom Mix performed at the opening celebration.

The precious water flowing through the aqueduct Mulholland built lubricated the Valley's dreams of prosperity. Most land was selling to small-time farmers and ranchers who, if they had a reliable supply of cheap water, could produce lucrative crops like oranges and apricots and lima beans. But getting access to the aqueduct water was a problem. The City of Los Angeles owned it, and the city limits stopped on the far side of the Santa Monica Mountains. The Valley had no fair claim to any of the water.

Knowing that the aqueduct supplied far more than Los Angeles needed at the time, some Valley landholders offered to buy the surplus flow. But the city's biggest powers had another idea. They put it in the form of an ultimatum to the Valley: agree to be annexed by Los Angeles or stay dry. Some Valley ranchers with good wells resisted, preferring independence. Voters in Burbank, San Fernando and, initially, Owensmouth and Lankershim declined to be annexed. But on March 29, 1915, by a lopsided public vote of 681 to 25, some 170 square miles of the old range that belonged to Pio and Andres Pico became part of Los Angeles. The newly annexed section, including Mission San Fernando Rey itself, more than doubled the city limits. The destinies of the city and the Valley now were intractably joined.

Faced with the inevitable, Owensmouth soon capitulated and voted to annex, followed by Hansen Heights and Lankershim, and later Tujunga. Of the early settlements, only San Fernando and Burbank chose to remain forever outside the borders of Los Angeles.

keeler-bldg.jpgIn the distant Eastern Sierra region, the landscape of the Owens Valley was dramatically altered by the loss of water to Los Angeles. A farming culture basically vanished. The towns of Laws and Aberdeen withered away. Owens Lake, once navigable by barges carrying ore from the mines at Cerro Gordo, dried into a vast playa that spawned noxious clouds of alkali dust that blew across the shore town of Keeler. Owens Lake dust regularly scattered as far as Southern California.

Vengeful Inyo County ranchers on occasion sabotaged the aqueduct with shotguns and dynamite. They drew moral support from writers such as the humorist Will Rogers and from Morrow Mayo, an East Coast journalist who popularized a dark theory: that Otis and others conspired to "buy up worthless San Fernando Valley land, acquire control of the Owens River and then frighten the taxpayers of Los Angeles into paying for a huge aqueduct...and, incidentally, to use a great portion of the water to irrigate the San Fernando Valley and thus convert that desert region into a fertile farming section.'' Mayo's conspiratorial version of events is still embraced by some, but many historians dismiss it as exaggerated.

Water sprays from the face of St. Francis Dam.

Mulholland's aqueduct could deliver up to 258 million gallons a day, but its weak link was crossing the San Andreas Fault. As a hedge against a disabling earthquake — and against sabotage — he sought to build a dam massive enough to hold one year's supply of water.

Mulholland supervised construction of his largest edifice, the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon northeast of Newhall. A colony of dam keepers, power station workers and their families grew up around the towering concrete structure, which had a nagging propensity for small seeps and leaks. In farm towns downstream, friends used to jest, "I'll see you later, if the dam don't break.'' But Mulholland always insisted the seepage was routine. After the reservoir was filled for the first time, portentous new leaks erupted in the dam face. Mulholland came out to the site on March 12, 1928 to inspect the latest trouble. His son Perry rode along and remarked that there did seem to be an alarming flow of water through the structure, but the chief engineer reassured dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger that all was fine. The Mulhollands returned home to Los Angeles.

Thumbnail image for st-francis-dam-fragment-lap.jpgJust before midnight, the dam shuddered and broke apart with a roar. A wall of water ten stories high plunged down the canyon, scouring out everything — homes, power plants, trucks, huge slabs of soaked concrete — and racing toward sleeping farm towns on the river plain below. The flood wave and its load of tumbling debris hit the Santa Clara River at eighteen miles an hour and veered west. Railroad and highway bridges washed out as the disaster sped through the dark toward Castaic. Lights flickering out alerted light sleepers that something was amiss; telephone operators called frantically ahead, trying to waken as many people as they could down river. Two police officers who rode their motorcycles to alert residents are memorialized in a public sculpture in Santa Paula.

In Los Angeles, Mulholland's assistant telephoned the chief's house on St. Andrews Place to deliver the grave news: "The St. Francis is gone." Catherine Mulholland writes that family lore recalls her grandfather mumbling, "Please God, don't let people be killed."

st-francis-cycles.jpgThe rampage swept into Ventura County, churning through the citrus groves of Piru and Fillmore and leaving parts of Santa Paula under water. Finally, it reached the coast at Ventura and spilled into the Pacific Ocean. In five and a half hours, the flood had traveled fifty-four miles. Sunrise exposed a tragedy of grotesque extremity. A tall obelisk of jagged concrete was all that remained of the dam. The colony of families that lived at the dam — seventy four people — was utterly gone. Harnischfeger, the dam keeper, and his six-year-old son were never found. Downstream, bodies lay encased in a thick layer of muck and debris. The remains of one victim were washed out to sea and later found on a San Diego beach, more than 150 miles away.

Survivors and livestock clung to trees or were snarled in fences. At least 450 people perished, including 140 workers in a Department of Water and Power work camp and half of the pupils enrolled at Saugus Elementary School. An unknown number of migrant farm workers who had been camped along the quiet Santa Clara River also died. The actual toll possibly rivaled the more than 700 believed dead in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the only worse disaster in California.

The argument over who or what was to blame for the dam's collapse began almost immediately. Many suspected Inyo ranchers. They had bombed the aqueduct seven times in the previous year. Other theories focused on earthquake faults or blasting by road workers. Out in the muck, where troops helped slaughter and burn animals to prevent a typhoid outbreak, much of the rage was aimed at the dam's builder. A woman who lost her entire family posted a sign in dripping red paint: "Kill Mulholland!'' Some newspapers demanded he resign. The district attorney of Los Angeles County vowed to bring manslaughter charges against whoever was responsible, and left no doubt whom he meant.

The Depratment of Water and Power headquarters on Bunker Hill.

Looking sad and broken, Mulholland testified at the coroner's inquest just after a widower who described losing his wife and three daughters. District Attorney Asa Keyes gave Mulholland no quarter, frosting his questions with sarcasm and hammering at the record of leaks.

When the DA showed a grainy home movie of the devastation, Mulholland sobbed and muttered: "I envy the dead."water-bureau-cover-elysian.jpg After deliberating for two weeks, the inquest jury ruled that no prosecution was warranted, but it blamed deference to Mulholland's reputation for errors in judgment that led to the collapse: "The construction of a municipal dam should never be left to the sole judgement of one man, no matter how eminent." Mulholland had not consulted geology experts before choosing the site himself. The chief slumped in his chair, weeping into his hands. His career was over. He resigned seven months later at age 72, suffering from Parkinson's disease and apparently mired in depression.

Modern engineers have taken steps to clear Mulholland of blame for the greatest American civil engineering catastrophe of the 20th century. The dam was indeed seriously flawed. It lacked basic drainage features and the cement was too porous. But a new inquiry published by the Association of Engineering Geologists in 1992 concluded that design shortcomings did not cause the tragedy. Simply, the dam was built in the wrong place, although Mulholland and the most learned geologists of the time could not have known this. The eastern dam abutment was anchored not to solid rock but in the rubble of an ancient and still moving landslide. This condition was undetectable in 1928, the report concluded. The old slide probably began to shift on the night of March 12, causing the St. Francis to rupture.

cascades-whitewater.jpgBy the time Mulholland passed away on July 22, 1935, the city had mostly forgiven him. Thousands filed through the rotunda of city hall, where the chief's body rested in a flag-draped open coffin, surrounded by notes, photographs and flower wreaths, including one from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At 2 p.m., the city stopped working for ten minutes of silent tribute. Out in the desert, the aqueduct's flow was stilled.

During his lifetime, Los Angeles had grown from 10,000 to 1.5 million residents. And the San Fernando Valley had been transformed from a windblown pasture for the longhorned cattle of Andres Pico to a magnet for dreamers from everywhere.

Part one

Previous water coverage

More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Water stories on LA Observed:
Shade balls
Mass evacuation below Oroville Dam
The Mighty Los Angeles (River) was roaring on Sunday
Time for some weather geeking
Documenting Kenya and The Samburu Project
DWP promises Silver Lake to start refilling next May
Silver Lake residents 'had faith in DWP's promises'
The state of our overheated minds on the environment