California Scheming

Los Angeles' insatiable thirst for water, which drained the Owens Valley, has ruined lives, shaped the city's politics and provoked ongoing controversy

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)

In any event, when the ranchers and farmers learned the real story in 1905—“Titanic Project to Give the City a River” headlined the Los Angeles Times that July—they were so angry that Eaton had to leave town for awhile.


The construction of the aqueduct, under the direction of Mulholland, proceeded quickly. To provide power for electric shovels, he erected two hydroelectric plants—still in use today—on creeks that dump into the Owens River. He also built some 500 miles of roads, ran telephone and telegraph lines across 150 miles of desert, and laid down 268 miles of pipe to provide drinking water for the workers.


Conditions were harsh. Temperatures in the Mojave Desert could swing 80 degrees in a single day. “In the winter, it was just as windy and bitter cold as it was hot in summer,” Raymond Taylor, the aqueduct’s medical director, said at the time. Over the six years of construction on the aqueduct, 43 men died out of the 5,000 or so who worked on it, a toll that some experts say was rather low considering the scope of the project and the rugged terrain.


On November 5, 1913, Los Angeles officials staged a grand opening ceremony at the aqueduct’s terminus in the San Fernando Valley, with parades, fireworks and speeches, including a famously terse one from Mulholland: “There it is,” he said, as the gates opened, “take it.”


Eaton did not attend. His years of dreams of a real estate empire had come to naught. Mulholland had balked at Eaton’s price for the LongValley land, which most historians peg at $1 million—and refused to pay it. Consequently, the completed aqueduct at first had no reservoir in the LongValley area.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus