Fred Eaton: A second look*

Couple of fixes down below - ed.

Fred Eaton was the man behind the plan for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a man-made river of water that was completed 100 years ago on November 5, 1913. It took him several years to convince his good friend William Mulholland to build an aqueduct from Inyo County to L.A. Eaton knew that the Los Angeles River could not supply enough water for the exploding soon-to-be metropolis. That's because Eaton was born in L.A., unlike Mulholland, who arrived as an Irish immigrant in 1877, and knew little of the periodic droughts inevitable to the town built along the river. Although Mulholland later called him "the father of the Aqueduct," Eaton is barely a blip in the memory of long-time residents.

MAYOR-FRED-EATON.jpgEaton was born in Los Angeles in 1855 on Fort Moore Hill, overlooking the Plaza. It was bounded roughly by today's Spring Street, Hill Street, and Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. He would oversee much of the city's water supply during the 1870s. Eaton was the city's first elected City Engineer, during which time he developed several of the city's parks, which still exist today. He was later elected Mayor and led the often contentious, lengthy and eventual successful legal battle to bring municipal ownership to the water supply of the L.A. River. And, of course, he was intimately involved in bringing Owens River water to Los Angeles via the California Aqueduct.

In many ways Eaton was, to quote Orson Welles, "a man who had within him the devil of self-destruction that lives in every genius." Although many writers compare Mulholland's rough-edged childhood with that of Eaton's more patrician background, in many ways they were similar. Both loved camping and exploring the Sierra Nevada range. Both men were fascinated with water: its power as essential to the lifeblood of the city, and a plentiful supply of it to quench the thirst of an ever-growing city. Mulholland was often imperious. So was Eaton. Both men enjoyed the social company of men in fraternal organizations. But Eaton was more of a politician, and Eaton loved to engage in public debate. He also had a wicked sense of humor that he rarely demonstrated unless within the confines of his family.

As an adult Eaton was a Radical Republican, promoted Civil War reconstruction and was intimately involved with development of city parks, roads and sewers both in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. He made a second home in Santa Monica away from the demands of the ever-growing city that would eventually become a metropolis.

Eaton's father was Judge Benjamin Eaton, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1853 and shortly afterward became the city's district attorney. He subsequently served as county assessor in 1857. Benjamin later moved to San Pasqual, the area now known as Pasadena and is most widely acknowledged as the founding father of Pasadena, South Pasadena and Altadena. One of Pasadena's main streets, Fair Oaks Boulevard, takes its name from Eaton's large ranch home that he built in 1865 not far from Eaton Creek. Judge Eaton brought irrigation to vineyards in the area; and, at the time, a revolutionary method of using iron pipes to bring water supply to the area. He was also instrumental in the development of the Mount Wilson Toll Road in 1891. Several distinctive spots including Eaton Canyon, Eaton Wash, and Eaton Falls bear his name.

Fred was five when his father left for San Pasqual with his second wife, after Fred's mother died. Fred remained in Los Angeles and lived with his relatively wealthy aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. Despite the absence of his father, who had begun a new family with his second wife, Fred Eaton was deeply influenced by his father's work with water and his reputation as a leading citizen of Los Angeles.

Fred Eaton began his water career with the Los Angeles Water Company, a privately owned company that supplied the city with water, brought, by various methods, from the Los Angeles River. He became the company's superintendent in 1874 when he was only nineteen years old. A few years later he hired William Mulholland, who arrived in the city in 1877 as a zanjero (ditch digger), but then quickly moved up in the company under Fred's tutelage.

Fred Eaton became active in progressive politics in the city. After serving an appointed term as City Surveyor, precursor to the elected office of City Engineer, Fred Eaton, the only candidate, was declared by acclamation the city's first City Engineer. During his two-year tenure from 1887-1889, he redesigned and renovated present day Pershing Square--first known as 6th Street Park, later Central Park, and finally renamed in honor of General Pershing, a WWI hero. Other parks he designed included Elysian Park, the second largest and oldest park in Los Angeles founded in 1886 by the Elysian Park Enabling Ordinance.

The predecessor to Pershing Square as designed by Eaton.

He designed Westlake Park (later renamed in honor of General MacArthur). He also designed the Plaza, a park that had been built by the privately owned L.A. Water Company under an agreement with the city to improve the site. But it wasn't until Eaton became city engineer that the Plaza became a true park, a popular site that included fountains and grass, all of which are no longer there. His design for the park added a bandstand, and the square soon became a meeting ground and cultural center for the town's ascendant Anglo population. Fred also developed Eastlake Park with an artificial lake. Eastlake was later renamed Lincoln Park under Mayor Hazard, who served as mayor from 1889 to 1892-- the year that Fred Eaton left the City Engineer's office to pursue other business interests.

Fred Eaton's major achievement while City Engineer, however, may have been his design of a new sewer system for the city, as well as a twelve and-a-half mile sewage outfall to the ocean that would carry the city's sewage fully by gravity. Voters paid for the internal system, but balked at paying for an outfall for sewage that was then a valuable asset. Sewage was sold to farmers until 1907, and, after expenses and salaries were subtracted, profits ranged from $1,500 to $5,200 a year. Despite what would appear to be an overwhelming yuck factor, sewage farms throughout Southern California operated until well into the late 1940s when suburban development pushed out farmers operating the plants. These farms were primarily used for walnut trees and other non-vegetable products.

Eaton purchased a home on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica in 1891 and retained homes there until 1904, when he permanently moved to Inyo County. While in Santa Monica he led the campaign for a paved road from Santa Monica to Los Angeles to accommodate bicycle riders. He also designed a sewer system for the city as well as the wharf for the sewer to the ocean. The wharf was the later site of the present day Santa Monica Pier.

Eaton had visited Inyo County several times with his father when he was younger. Later, in 1892, he visited Owens Valley on a camping trip with friends where he made an extensive study of land and water resources. It was at this time that he became convinced that the Owens River could provide water via an aqueduct to Los Angeles. Eaton developed his plans for an aqueduct much earllier than is generally believed.

He described these plans in an interview published In the July 7, 1892 Riverside Press. "I saw more water going to waste than is contained in all he streams and rivers of San Bernardino, San Diego and Los Angeles Counties combined," he said. Eaton insisted it would be almost impossible to divert the water to San Francisco. He then outlined his plan to divert Owens River Water and conduct it to Los Angeles. "I propose to devote all of my energies to this great enterprise. It must come to Los Angeles, for it has not other outlet."

Shortly after he purchased land in Inyo, in October 1893, he attended the National Irrigation Congress held in Los Angeles as a representative from Inyo, while his father Benjamin Eaton was there as a representative from Pasadena.

Several years later he recalled, "My idea was to organize a strong company which should develop the great water power of the streams which pour down from the High Sierra and then combine with the electric feature, bringing the water to the San Fernando Valley. From the sale of the electricity and water I was satisfied the project would be an inviting one." Eventually he was persuaded that the project could not be a joint pubic-private enterprise and enthusiastically assisted the city in obtaining options for land and water rights in Inyo County.

In addition to his residences in Inyo and Santa Monica, Fred Eaton retained a home in Los Angeles. While serving as the city's mayor in 1899, he fought for city ownership of the water from the Los Angeles River. Primary spokesperson and leader of prominent businessmen, he headed up a committee of 100 for passage of a $2,090,000 bond measure to pay for the acquisition of the water company's rights. It received the largest vote ever cast in Los Angeles at a special election with two-thirds of the vote needed for passage. While mayor, Eaton led a series of battles for civic betterment: efforts to reform the city charter; ensured strict enforcement of civil service laws in the city, crusaded against unsavory activity of saloons that were used by women; desegregated the fire department (re-segregated by the mayor who followed him); attempted unsuccessfully to shut down slot machine activity, and in an echo to his days as city engineer, in 1900 led a successful fight to prohibit sale of sewage water to Chinese farmers who were using the sewage for vegetable and fruit crops grown both within and outside the city limits.

While Eaton was mayor, he created the Los Angeles Water Department, forerunner of the Department of Water and Power, and announced his plans to appoint William Mulholland as superintendent and Chief Engineer, who was then heading up the private L.A. Water Company.

It would be decades before Eaton convinced Mulholland of the need to bring water to Los Angeles from Inyo County. He knew that the L.A. River, with its periodic droughts, could not sustain the city's growth. Mulholland scoffed at the idea of bringing water from Inyo to Los Angeles.

This was particularly true in July 1900 while Eaton was mayor. F. H. Newell, chief hydrographer of the United States, and J. B. Lippincott, then a government hydrographer of the district in the Sierra Nevada joined Eaton and his son Harold on a hunting and camping trip to the summit of the Sierra. They were later joined by William Mulholland. Although they supposedly did not discuss plans for an aqueduct, all four men would later be embroiled in the controversy over the 1905 decision by Los Angeles to build the aqueduct.

The aqueduct story is far too complicated to summarize in this short essay,* but one point must be noted. William Mulholland and Fred Eaton had a terrible breach in their friendship. Eaton had purchased several thousand acres of ranch land in Inyo County, some on behalf of the city and some for his own use. He retained a large parcel for a reservoir to be built in Long Valley to hold water during the inevitable drought that would face L.A. It's never been quite clear how much money he wanted for this land, but all accounts suggest it was about $1 million, a hefty sum that would have set up Fred and his family for a long time. Mulholland was appalled. He was convinced that L.A. did not need a reservoir, just as he had been convinced years earlier that the L.A. River was sufficient for a population of one million. But this time he was angry and publicly announced that Eaton was attempting to unfairly profit from what was a civic venture. He refused to pay and vowed that L.A. would not go over his head. Mulholland then was in total control of the city's Department of Water and Power. Business and civic leaders shared his opinion.

Eaton was insistent. After all, when he first conceived of the aqueduct, he planned on a combined public-privately owned operation. City officials convinced him that the Department of Reclamation would not approve anything but a purely public venture, so he agreed. But he never let go of his dream of wealth. Even so, in the late 1920s, according to Hal Eaton, Fred's great-grandson, "Fred wanted the City to acquire the reservoir site through eminent domain or arbitration instead of stating his price."

When one looks at Eaton's time in Los Angeles, it is clear that he, like Mulholland, was an obstinate man. He relished public debates. Often wrote lengthy articles defending various positions he held to be true. Upon leaving office as mayor, in 1900, he wrote a 14,000-word article for a local newspaper that laid out all the many details of the Los Angeles Water Company's repeated illegal activities and unfair dealing with the city. After completion of the aqueduct in 1913, he also may have been upset upon noting the prominent businessmen--Moses Sherman, Harrison Gray Otis, his son-in-law Harry Chandler, E.H. Harriman, and H. E. Huntington among others--who profited greatly from vast land purchases in the San Fernando Valley (laying the foundation for the myth that became the movie Chinatown.

Despite the strange, so-called retelling of the Inyo County water deal in the now classic movie Chinatown, which set the story in the 1930s, there was no conspiracy to wrest the water rights from Inyo County. There was, however a concerted effort on the part of Los Angeles to obtain the water rights.

Fred Eaton suffered the first of several strokes in 1926, and by 1931, had become enfeebled in both mind and body. A receiver foreclosed his land in Inyo County in 1932 after he was unable to pay a mortgage that had apparently been signed by his wife. The mortgage was unpaid because the Watterson Brothers, who owned all five banks in Inyo County, embezzled funds, including money owned by the Eatons, and all mortgages became the property of receivers. The Inyo county bankers were convicted of their crime and went to prison for ten years. That was of no help to Eaton and his family. Both Eaton's wife Alice and son Henry [fixed-ed.] publicly announced their poverty in 1932 and need for public welfare. Fred Eaton died in 1934 in Los Angeles, pretty much a forgotten man.

He designed and built a world-class sewer system. He built the parks we still use. He fought for and won the battle to make the L.A. River a municipally owned utility. He envisioned and shared his vision of a river of water to build a metropolis. But he is remembered, if at all, as a villain, who attempted to profit from a mighty public venture.
Special thanks to Hal Eaton, Fred Eaton's great-grandson who generously shared family stories, links to publications, and photos for this article.

A version of this article ran first in the newsletter of the Los Angeles City Historical Society.

Anna Sklar is the author of Brown Acres: An Intimate History of the Los Angeles Sewers published by Angel City Press.

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