Friday, November 27, 2009

The Making of Los Angeles, Part One: "The Water Wars"

The empire that is and was the city of  Los Angeles was made possible by something that had nothing directly to do with Hollywood or the enormous military and commercial aircraft factories like Lockheed that once dominated the southern California economy.  

That thing was water--Los Angeles was built on the edge of a desert.  As the population swelled, water had to be brought in via a giant aquifer  from the remote Owens Valley 200 miles to the northeast.   To do that meant quietly buying up some of the land in that area before the Owens Valley farmers knew their water was to be taken from them in a quantity far and above what they had been told the project would do...  

This from Wikipedia on the background to the story:  

Mayor Fred Eaton lobbied Theodore Roosevelt and got the local irrigation system cancelled. William Mulholland misled residents of the Owens Valley, by claiming that Los Angeles would take water only for domestic purposes, not for irrigation]. By 1905, through purchases and bribery, Los Angeles purchased enough water rights to enable the aqueduct. Many argue that Los Angeles paid an unfair price to the farmers of Owens Valley for their land. Farmers that resisted the pressure from Los Angeles until 1930 received the highest price for their land; most farmers sold their land from 1905 to 1925, and received less than Los Angeles was actually willing to pay. However, the sale of their land brought the farmers substantially more income than if they had kept the land for farming and ranching. None of the sales were made under threat of eminent domain.

The aqueduct was sold to the citizens of Los Angeles as vital to the growth of the city. However, unknown to the public, the initial water would be used to irrigate the San Fernando Valley to the north, which was not at the time a part of the city. A syndicate of investors (again, close friends of Eaton, including Harrison Grey Otis) bought up large tracts of land in the San Fernando Valley with this inside information. This syndicate made substantial efforts to the passage of the bond issue that funded the aqueduct, including creating a false drought (by manipulating rainfall totals) and publishing scare articles in the Los Angeles Times, which Otis published.

 As the video documentary and the article note, when the water was brought into Los Angeles the aquifer stopped just north west of the city center, in a then-remote and dry region called the San Fernando Valley. 

 In order for Los Angleanos to get at the water the people needed, it became imperative that the city council annex the valley into the city.  This created a bonanza for the large landowners who had recently purchased land sub rosa for a fraction of the cost of what the land would be worth had the original owners knew the full plans of William  Mullholland and his friends.

The story was retold in 1974 by Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne for the movie "Chinatown".  Now an American classic, it features the same events of the "Water Wars"  only transported thirty years ahead in time to make the story work in the Los Angeles of crime novelists Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.    John Huston plays millionaire Noah Cross, a thinly veiled version of Mulholland, with an added twist of utter depravity.  


  1. An equally-interesting tale is that of the Salton Sea, and the developments on it. As recently as ten years ago, some of the homes there were still occupied; in the '50's, it was a mecca for midcentury-modern architects; some excellent-though-decrepit examples still exist.

    You've done a good job of presenting a little-known piece of recent American history!

  2. Thanks Astra!

    The Salton Sea is another story in "Cadillac Desert". I've always wanted to go out there and see the area. Thanks for your information.

  3. Perhaps the best set-piece I've seen on the subject is the John Water's documentary. The trailer is below - it's well worth seeing:

  4. Oh my gawd! That is one crazy piece of ruined Americana! Looks well worth seeing indeed.

  5. LOL!!!!

    It certainly is!

    There were some 100% nutjobs living there (the fellow who built the mountain is perhaps the sanest of the bunch) - I couldn't help but laugh, shake my head - it's a slice of life, and well worth spending some of your Netflix budget to rent if it's not on Hulu for free.....

  6. Yes, a free show on Hulu would be my viewing choice, but the major indie Ashland DVD outlet is pretty good for stuff like this if that fails--especially if it has John Waters name on it.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. A part of LA I never knew about. ..

    Good stuff for this Saturday morning.

  8. Yes, Frank, its a part of American history I first learned about in the movies, not in high school history class.

    Ironic i think that the Owens Valley white farmers stole the land from the Paiute Tribe, then got similar treatment from their own kind.

  9. got a piece of property there I will sell to you for a song and a dance-

  10. I can sense what the Indians must have felt at that time, they lived by the land, read the land.
    To see such huge a construction must have been like witnessing the work of evil spirits.

    What an amazing achievement and that the construction lasted well to this day, shows what man can do if he does it well. Modern day constructions don't always last, they try to get clever with new materials. I was looking at the steep climb the water made as it went up and over the mountain, it must have had a tremendous volume and force.

    Very interesting, thank you, Doug.

  11. Chinatown is one of my favourite movies of it's type. I'd often wondered if there were a grain of truth to the story.

  12. Great film Will and Doug, like something out of a science fiction novel and yet somehow also the last bastion of the American Dream.

  13. Interesting history of great achievement at a price Doug. The commercial imperitives were so great that free marketeers were able to achieve miracles, or at least fund the workers achievements of miracles, in a massive bonanza on a continental scale. I guess the only question really is, which would we prefer, America with the Owens Valley in pristine shape, but without the city of Los Angeles ...or the other way round?

  14. I think I want to see the place first. Thanks for your offer though Red.

  15. So true--and all done over 100 years ago! From an engineering aspect, Cassandra, it really was quite an incredible achievement. What the workers--none allowed to unionize in the "proud" open-shop tradition of southern California--accomplished against the elements is staggering.

    The only mammoth project in the American Southwest that is comparable to it in the 20th Century was the building of the Hoover Dam on the mighty and almost untamable Colorado River in the 1920's and early 30's. Many thought that couldn't be done.

    From another perspective it was a rip-off and a misleading little swindle. But great history!

  16. Good points, AA. Los Angeles represents the end of the road to that dream indeed---a city made by men who wanted to create their own America free of the "elements" they thought had encroached into the older metropolis back East. More "science-fiction" to come in part two.

  17. Quite a lot of the background is true, Jim, far more than I imagined when I first saw this truly classic film.

    Only the time shift and the principal characters are imagined.

    There is reference to a real-life event a decade earlier than the film's time frame that must have haunted thousands for decades ---the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, built by William Mulholland, that sent billions of gallons of water down on hapless residents of the rural San Fernando Valley. 600 people lost their lives in one huge torrent of water in the middle of the night. I've always thought a film should have been made about that tragedy, since it is hardly remembered today for whatever reasons.

  18. I think that's the crux of the matter, AA. That's probably why Theodore Roosevelt's Administration didn't fight the project: Los Angeles simply was too big and strategic an American outpost in the Pacific to let it literally dry up and remain a small metropolis. The Owens farmers didn't have a change no matter how long they waited to sell out. A few lucky ones got some value, but nothing compared to the bonanza at the end of that amazing pipeline of vital water.