- Historic Sites
The Water War
As Owens Valley water came down the aqueduct, thirsty Los Angeles rejoiced. But angry farmers were buying dynamite and cleaning guns
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
But one issue had never been cleared up. For years valley merchants had demanded “reparations” from the city to compensate for the loss of customers who had sold their homes and departed. Except for its offer to improve highways to attract tourists to the valley, Los Angeles coldly refused to accept any responsibility. The bitter question raged all the way to the state legislature at Sacramento, where the valley secured passage of a law to hold the city accountable. But Los Angeles officials then insisted that nothing could be done short of a test case in court. The valley people, with the farmer’s inherent distrust of lawyers, refused to launch one.
Still another sore was reopened in the negotiations for city purchase of the last of the big ditches, the Owens River Canal. With only $41,000 separating the two sides in a $2,500,000 deal, the talks suddenly burst into loud recriminations. The Watterson brothers and one of the city men almost came to blows before they were separated. Almost immediately after the negotiations were broken off, city wells in the Bishop area were dynamited, and another “shot” was planted in the side of the aqueduct.
After a temporary truce, the war had erupted more furiously than before. For weeks valley people were gathering their forces for what one of them called “the last stand.” On March 19, 1927, they opened their campaign with a full-page ad in leading newspapers of the state, describing the valley’s struggle under the heading, “We Who Are About to Die.” Four days later the city replied by announcing a deadline beyond which it would not buy Owens Valley land. City agent Leahey was horrified.
“If you do that,” he warned, “they’ll start dynamiting again.”
Ten days after the deadline passed, a valley rancher bought a large amount of blasting gelatin at the Hercules Powder plant in Martinez, California. A final letter was sent to various Los Angeles officials and civic groups demanding action before the city’s policy would “inflame real American citizens to violence.” When no answer had been received in two weeks, the violence began. Ten men descended on No Name Siphon, one of the largest pipe sections on the aqueduct, and blew it up. While the culprits escaped northward, the whole flow of the conduit gushed into the desert. Rushing up from Los Angeles to repair the break, the furious Mulholland told reporters he could not comment “without using unprintable language.”
Close upon this blow, the dynamiters placed two more shots against the aqueduct system. With his entire aqueduct threatened, Mulholland at last decided to fight back.
Northward into Owens Valley rattled a special Southern Pacific train loaded with a hundred armed men—veterans of World War I. Up and down the aqueduct they mounted their stations. When their arrival was greeted with another blast the following night, reinforcements came immediately. The lower valley along the line of the conduit was virtually under martial law. At night searchlights scanned the highway for suspicious movements. Autos were flagged down, and the guards inspected the interiors with flashlights.
But the valley had only begun to fight. Nearly sixty Winchesters were shipped to the Watterson hardware store in Bishop, where they were passed across the counter into willing hands. Fortunately a pitched battle never occurred. But under the very noses of the aqueduct guards the dynamiters continued to lay a shot in the ribs of the aqueduct whenever they chose. There was a total of fourteen dynamitings within two months; “shooting the duck” had become the leading outdoor sport of Owens Valley.
Reeling from these blows, the Los Angeles water department turned its attack on the leaders of the valley, the Watterson brothers. Early in August two of Mulholland’s men entered the Sacramento office of the state corporation commissioner.
“We have reason to believe,” one of them reported solemnly, “that corporate funds are being used for dynamiting the aqueduct.”
That night, at the request of the corporation commissioner, a state banking investigator caught a train for Owens Valley. What he discovered at one of the Watterson banks in Bishop surprised even the Los Angeles officials. Wholesale juggling of books had left the bank and various other Watterson enterprises approximately $2,000,000 short. An incurable speculator, Wilfred Watterson had sunk fortunes in unsound industrial ventures, and to cover his losses had tapped personal funds entrusted to his care by lifelong friends and neighbors. To the city water people, this explained his ravenous appetite for Los Angeles money—explained, too, his refusal to take the valley’s fight into a court of law. Convicted of embezzlement on November 11, 1927, both the Wattersons were sent to San Quentin prison. The bewildered valley people suddenly found themselves without leadership.