December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
As Owens Valley water came down the aqueduct, thirsty Los Angeles rejoiced. But angry farmers were buying dynamite and cleaning guns
Beyond the Missouri River, water has been almost a sacred commodity—accorded the same passionate respect that it received in the Bible lands. There is an old saying in the West: “Steal my horse, carry off my wife, but don’t touch my water.” Ever since the American frontier reached the great bend of the Missouri, water—or the lack of it—has been the chief determinant of western development. And from the time that the first farmer fenced a water hole on the open range, it has been the West’s chief source of conflict. Texas and New Mexico contended over the Rio Grande. Colorado battled Kansas over the Arkansas River, then turned to fight Wyoming for the North Platte. California took on all comers in the struggle for the Colorado River.
Ordinarily, these epic contests were fought in the realm of water law. Throughout most of the Far West, this body of law was based on the miner’s code of “first in use, first in right”--even though the benefited land was not contiguous to the water source. But in California, water law flowed from two origins--the priority rights established by the early American miners, and the riparian rights for contiguous land, according to the Spanish tradition and the English common law.
The complications brought on by this clash of two traditions intensified the water struggle in California and put a premium on legal cunning. While most western fights over water took place in the courtroom or the legislative hall, Californians fought many of theirs outside the law because one side or another distrusted legal machinery. This was the basis of violence in the Los Angeles-Owens Valley conflict. Not only was it the most savage water war in United States history; it provided an early warning of a disturbing modern trend--the inability of outlying communities to protect their identity and their way of life from being swallowed by Megalopolis.
In the long drought that afflicted California from 1892 to 1904, the burgeoning city of Los Angeles appeared to have reached its limit at a population of approximately 200,000. City parks and residential lawns were allowed to dry up. Irrigation canals were commandeered to supply drinking water. If Los Angeles could not find a new water source—and quickly—it would no longer be able to absorb the steady tide of newcomers from the Midwest. To the Los Angeles boosters, such a catastrophe was unthinkable.
One man stepped forward to lead the Angelenos out of their dilemma. William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant, had arrived in 1877 with ten dollars in his pocket and the resolve to “grow with the country.” Within nine years he had become superintendent of the company supplying water to the city, and when the company was purchased by Los Angeles in 1902, Mulholland was placed in charge of the entire waterworks. He had risen by hard work, by diligent study of engineering books late into the night, and--most important--by sheer force of personality. His supreme self-confidence inspired city authorities to act upon his recommendations alone, without further study. “They have always been,” he once said, “in the habit of taking my word.”
With this kind of authority, Mulholland charged forth in the late summer of 1904 to combat the city’s water shortage. Since local sources were already tapped, he looked afield for a new supply. His friend Fred Eaton, a former Los Angeles mayor, had once told him of a magnificent water source on the east side of the Sierra Nevadas. Desperately, he now asked Eaton to show it to him.
In September the two friends climbed into a two-horse buckboard and headed north. Camping in the open, they drove 250 miles over a rutted wagon road across the Mojave Desert to Owens Valley. Through this green oasis, nestled against the east scarp of the High Sierra like some remote Alpine vale, flowed stream upon stream of fresh snow water. They converged into the Owens River, which coursed down the valley and lost itself in the alkaline pollution of Owens Lake, one of the world’s rare dead seas.
In the 1860’s pioneer American farmers had wrested the valley from the Paiute Indians, and by the seventies were beginning to divert water from the river and its tributaries into large canals to irrigate the land. By the time Mulholland reached the valley in 1904, he found a population of some five thousand and a small empire—about 38,000 acres—of fruit orchards, melon vines, and cool alfalfa. It was truly a “land flowing with milk and honey.”
But in the meandering river and its feeder streams Mulholland saw only one thing: enough water to supply two million people and allow his own stunted city to grow into a giant. What was more, according to Fred Eaton’s rough calculations, the river could be diverted around Owens Lake and brought south all the way to Los Angeles by gravity, without the aid of a single pump.
It would, of course, be years before the city would grow enough to use the entire flow of the river. But in the meantime, to maintain title to the water under the law of prior use, the surplus could be used by farmers in San Fernando Valley, adjacent to Los Angeles. The whole project would represent the biggest municipal aqueduct in the world--a breathtaking project for a self-educated engineer. Immediately, Mulholland was captured by the boldness of Fred Eaton’s concept. “When I saw it staring me in the face,” he later declared, “I couldn’t back away from it.” While Mulholland sold the plan to Los Angeles authorities, Eaton went through lower Owens Valley lining up riparian water rights.
Trouble loomed in the valley’s own ambitions for water development. The young United States Reclamation Service, founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, had proposed a dam in the Owens River gorge to store water for irrigating the valley below. Its isolation and its limited area would keep the region from becoming a major agricultural empire like the one being carved out in the imperial Valley. But by providing an assured water supply year in and year out, the proposed reclamation project would certainly bring to Owens Valley a new order of life and prosperity. In this clash of interests the city had a key ally. The chief Reclamation Service engineer for the Southwest was T. B. Lippincott, a friend of Eaton and Mulholland, and by “religion” an ardent Los Angeles booster. At his insistence, consideration of the Owens River reclamation project was abandoned to make way for the city’s water plans.
When the Los Angeles Times broke the news in July, 1905, of a “Titanic Project to Give City a River,” there were two distinct reactions. Among the boosters there was immediate jubilation: the city’s wonderful growth would not be halted for lack of water! Within hours, property in much of the county doubled in price.
But in Owens Valley a different reaction greeted the Times story. All at once its people saw their reclamation dream go glimmering. Fred Eaton and his son, finishing some last-minute affairs in the valley town of Bishop, saw an ugly mob gathering around them in the street. They hurriedly packed and drove their buggy out of town, but before he escaped, Eaton was told that he would “never take the water out of the valley” and that if he came back he would be drowned in the river.
Nor was valley anger cooled by reports that water which Los Angeles did not actually need for the next few years would be used for irrigating the San Fernando Valley. As early as 1903, a syndicate of Los Angeles entrepreneurs had taken an option on a large chunk of that valley. Not very long afterward it was joined by Moses H. Sherman, who was a member of the Board of Water Commissioners. After Mulholland outlined his aqueduct plan to city officials, but before it was publicly announced, the syndicate exercised its option and bought 16,200 acres. The land thus purchased at approximately $30 an acre was to soar to $300 an acre. Today it is valued by the front foot. When operations of the syndicate were made public in 1905, Owens Valley people believed they were the victims of an outrageous water grab for the benefit of a few land schemers. Awaiting their chance, they moved to block Mulholland when he asked for a right of way for his proposed aqueduct across federal lands. “Not one drop for irrigation!” they shouted, pointing to the San Fernando deal.
The battle that followed raged from the floor of Congress to the White House. To prevent profiteering on the water itself, President Roosevelt proposed an amendment to the right-of-way bill that would prohibit Los Angeles from selling water to corporations or individuals for resale. Thus altered, the right-of-way bill passed Congress in June, 1906. But it contained no prohibition against the use of Owens River water for irrigation in the San Fernando Valley.
Inspired by this victory, the Angelenos moved to consolidate their water gains in Owens Valley. Once again the federal government was called upon for help. To forestall private claimants who might harass the city’s program, the Reclamation Service had continued to bar entry to public lands that had been within its abandoned project. But this did not include most of the flatland of the valley. The Angelenos thereupon asked Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot to extend national-forest boundaries to include the valley, even though the Forest Service Law forbade the reservation of land more valuable “for agricultural purposes than for forest purposes.”
Owens Valley people were outraged. Throughout the region, they cried, the only trees were those they themselves had planted. Nevertheless, in April of 1908 Pinchot’s decree extending the Sierra Forest Reserve was signed by the President. The city was tightening its grip. “Los Angeles has been given all that she asked for,” groaned one valley editor, adding ominously, “except the water.”
But the intrepid Mulholland, who had secured $25,000,000 in two bond elections to finance the big ditch, was already in the field turning the earth.
Over most of the 240-mile route he faced a forbidding desert, devoid of the necessities of life, innocent of supply lines, crisscrossed by jagged mountains, and cursed with brutal heat. Fortunately the rugged Irishman thrived on challenge. Since steam power was impractical over this arid route, he built two hydroelectric plants in Owens Valley and strung 169 miles of transmission lines--making his aqueduct the first major engineering project in the United Slates constructed principally by electric power. He solved part of the hauling problem by building another plant near the line of march to supply the million barrels of cement he estimated he would need. And for the heavy transportation the Southern Pacific Railroad took a hand and built a standard-gauge branch line northward into Owens Valley.
Then, over sterile wasteland and through mountain ranges, Mulholland drove his giant ditch. Along the whole line the monumental work was accomplished with new engineering triumphs. Digging his tunnels, particularly the five-mile Elizabeth Tunnel that bored through the Coast Range into southern California, Mulholland’s crew equaled, then repeatedly raised, the world’s hardrock drilling record. To take water across the deep canyons of the Sierra foothills the ditch was converted into monstrous inverted siphons--one of them built to withstand a greater head of water than any other pipe in the nation. Hauling sections of steel pipe to this siphon from the nearest rail point required wagon teams of fifty-two mules each.
By the middle of 1912, in spite of physical obstacles, financial problems, and labor discontent, Mulholland was able to report to the city that “the end of our task seems fairly in sight.” But he was nearly exhausted from tension and overwork. “If it were not for looking ahead to the time of reward …” he once said, “I could not go on with the work, for I am worn out.”
That time came on November 5, 1913, when Mulholland’s big ditch was put into operation with a huge ceremony at the northeast corner of San Fernando Valley. At the point where the aqueduct came through the mountains, an artificial cascade had been built to display the water as it splashed into the valley. To this spot on the appointed day came thousands of Angelenos—by carriage, auto, and train. Around a flag-draped platform they gathered for the preliminary speeches; above on the mountainside a crew of men stood at the gates, ready to crank wheels that would release the first Owens River water. Mulholland himself gave them the signal by unfurling the Stars and Stripes on a flagpole. The assembly cheered, cannons boomed, a brass band played furiously. Down the causeway came a torrent of water—foaming, dancing, churning, spraying its mist over the nearest bystanders. Without waiting for the presentation speeches the entire multitude rushed to the side of the cascade. Left virtually without an audience, the exuberant Mulholland turned to the mayor, who was to receive the water on behalf of the city, and made the five-word speech that has become famous:
“There it is. Take it.”
In this triumphant moment Los Angeles—and all of California—turned to shower adulation on William Mulholland. The aqueduct was recognized across the country as the finest in the United States. As an engineering feat it was second only to the great Panama Canal. The University of California gave Mulholland an honorary doctor’s degree, and he was introduced everywhere as “the Goethals of the West” and as “California’s greatest man.”
Virtually overnight, Los Angeles moved from water famine to water flood. The San Fernando Valley was transformed from a grain-raising community dependent on intermittent rainfall to an empire of truck gardens and orchards—one of the richest agricultural communities in the nation. In 1915 practically the entire valley joined the city. With their sure water supply as a lure, the Los Angeles boosters were able to annex one community after another to create the biggest municipal area in the world.
But for all his engineering genius, Mulholland had omitted one vital feature from his Owens River project—a major reservoir. In his anxiety to get water to the city, he had simply diverted the river to Los Angeles; the only reservoirs were those necessary for the month-to-month operation of the aqueduct. He had, it was true, tapped the river below the valley’s main center of agriculture, so that under ordinary circumstances both farmers and city dwellers would have enough water. But without a reservoir there was no means of storing the precipitation of the wet years; when the dry years came, there was insufficient water to supply both the city and the valley. Upon this predicament the Owens Valley water war was reborn, and it was to become more savage than ever.
The obvious site for such a reservoir was the same that had been planned for the ill-fated federal reclamation project. A dam located in the Owens River gorge upstream from the valley, above the town of Bishop, would back up a magnificent lake in Long Valley. Fred Eaton, who owned the site, had offered to sell it to Los Angeles for something like a million dollars. But Mulholland, believing his friend was trying to take advantage of the city, refused. Eaton then gave up an easement for a reservoir that could have been created by a hundred-foot dam, but such a reservoir was too small to serve as a year-to-year regulator. When the city began constructing the dam anyway, the settlers of Owens Valley filed an injunction suit: they would never stand for a dam on their river unless it was big enough to assure water for all. Caught between Fred Eaton and the valley farmers, Los Angeles abandoned its dam. The Owens River was left uncontrolled, and the first dry spell set the city and the valley at each other’s throats.
By 1923 the great aqueduct that had been built for fifty years of growth was already proving inadequate. Los Angeles, enjoying its biggest real-estate boom, had outgrown its old rival, San Francisco. In the lush San Fernando Valley the farmers would have used almost the entire flow of the aqueduct in the summer months if Mulholland had not arbitrarily shut off irrigation water.
Desperate for water, Mulholland invaded Owens Valley in quest of new sources. In the lower valley, where the city already owned most of the water rights, he sank new wells to tap the underground basin. And in the upper valley, which was still green with growing crops, his agents tried to buy water rights from the farmers in order to send a bigger flow into the aqueduct.
They found the valley organized against them. Leading the settlers were two brothers, Wilfred and Mark Watterson, whose five banks dominated the economic life of eastern California. Mark, the younger, was a good-natured mixer, inclined to follow the lead of his older brother. Wilfred, though more dignified and aloof, was nevertheless extremely well-liked; when meeting with a group of men he had the ability, as one observer put it, to “talk ‘em out of their hind legs.”
To prevent the city from getting further water rights in Owens Valley, the Wattersons conceived the idea of tying all the irrigation canals together in one large Owens Valley Irrigation District. With their customary persuasiveness they had put their plan over in an election late in 1922. But before the water rights had actually been turned over to the new district, the city made its move. Overnight two agents moved through the farmhouses along the McNally ditch, one of the oldest and largest irrigation canals on the river, offering premium prices for water rights. By next morning they had taken more than a million dollars’ worth of options. When this news flew through Bishop, the people fairly exploded with rage. The city thought it had smashed the irrigation district? Very well, they would see that no water secured in the McNally deal would ever reach the aqueduct.
Soon every farm canal above the city’s intake was gulping all the water it could carry, and overflowing onto marginal cropland. Below the last valley canal the bed of the river was dry as the desert. In the spring of 1923 Los Angeles was tapping its capital funds of water in the aqueduct reservoirs. In San Fernando Valley the crops were condemned to die. And in Owens Valley the city’s predicament in paying for a million dollars’ worth of water it could not deliver became an uproarious joke.
Mulholland had reckoned without the human factor. Embattled farmers at the source of water were threatening the very life of Los Angeles. In this frantic moment his water department made another error.
The last big ditch before the mouth of the aqueduct was the Owens River and Big Pine Canal, which was drinking in all the water not siphoned off by the canals upstream. At first the city’s agents tried to buy water rights in the Big Pine ditch. But the Big Piners formed a “pool” and demanded rates roughly double those paid along the McNally ditch. The city agents thereupon resorted to what one called “primitive measures.” The Big Pine intake was located at the point of a U-bend in the meandering river. One morning the Big Piners discovered city workmen with mules and scrapers cutting a ditch across the neck of the bend. If the river were diverted through such a ditch, the Big Pine Canal would be dry and the aqueduct would be gurgling with water. It was an astounding piece of deviltry for a municipality to engage in, but the municipality was powerfully thirsty.
Quickly the Big Piners rose to give battle. A posse of about twenty armed men--some on horseback, some in Model T’s--poured across Owens River to serve what one of them called a “shotgun injunction.” To the city workmen they gave stern notice: “We don’t want any shootin’, but we’re not goin’ to let you make that cut.” With that they threw the city’s grading equipment into the river and settled down to guard the strategic bend. For two nights, relieving each other around the clock, the minutemen of Big Pine kept up their vigil. Finally, seeing that the city was not prepared to fight, they struck camp.
“Los Angeles, it’s your move now,” challenged the Big Pine newspaper. “We’re ready for you.”
Faced with this firm opposition, the city reopened negotiations for purchase—this time on Big Pine terms. Two months later the Big Pine farmers sold out for a total of $1,100,000—a price that made many a family financially independent.
Such rates now gave the water war a new turn. Seeing the color of the city’s money, the other canal groups determined to sell out too. There were, to be sure, many families whose love of the land made them oppose sale at any price, but fearing they would be left to maintain a canal without the help of neighbors, they sold against their will. Still, from the moment of the McNally and Big Pine deals, the water war was chiefly a contest between valley farmers who wanted to force Los Angeles to buy them out at high prices, and city representatives who merely wanted to get the use of water rights they had already bought. To enforce their demands, the farmers of the upper valley continued to divert most of the city’s water into their own canals.
By March of 1924 this strategy was working well. Los Angeles was getting so little water that Mulholland prohibited irrigation in San Fernando Valley “until we get a rainfall.” Faced with destruction of their crops, the San Fernando farmers sent a delegation up to Owens Valley to buy a chunk of water. The Watterson brothers led a local delegation which escorted the San Fernandans along canals brimming full with clear Sierra water. Not one drop of it, said the hosts, was for sale. The entire upper valley, land and water, was for sale, however; it could be delivered in forty-eight hours—for $8,000,000. If the Angelenos needed the water so badly, they ought to be willing to pay what it would be worth in Los Angeles.
Back to the city went the San Fernando delegation. Within two months the city gave its answer. Suit was filed against the upper valley canals to recover the McNally and Big Pine water that Los Angeles had purchased. The Owens Valley people, fearing they could never defeat the city in court, prepared for violence.
On May 20, 1924, three boxes of dynamite were taken from the Watterson powder house at Bishop. A dynamiting job required no more than one or two experts. But some forty valley patriots assembled south of town for the excitement. In a caravan of cars the conspirators filed down the valley highway that evening while bystanders stood gaping. A few miles north of the town of Lone Pine they pulled off the road and began their work. Shortly after 1 A.M., the lower valley was awakened as if by an earthquake. Forty feet of concrete ditch was blasted away, but a great shower of rocks fell back into the hole and prevented most of the water from escaping. Quickly the dynamiters scattered over byroads to find their way back to Bishop while the valley came alive with the frantic activity of city aqueduct employees.
The preliminary skirmishing was over; the water contest had become a shooting war. Enraged at this attack on his aqueduct, Mulholland hurled a diatribe against Owens Valley ranchers that included such terms as “yellow” and “barking dogs.” From the north came immediate warning that if he ever set foot in Bishop he would be lynched.
“They wouldn’t have the nerve,” roared the old fighter. “I’d just as soon walk the whole length of Owens Valley unarmed.”
But the valley men had succeeded in rousing the city’s interest in their plight. From the south came a parade of excited Angelenos—reporters, committees, engineers, and finally the Los Angeles water board. Accompanying its members was Mulholland, who made good his defiance of Owens Valley hotheads. At Bishop they were told by Wilfred Watterson that the only fair solution was to buy the whole district. Instead, when the commissioners returned to Los Angeles they drew up a plan to insure a sufficient water supply for the remaining valley farmers. They further promised, in compensation for loss of business from previous land purchases, to help build up the valley communities by highway improvements that would increase tourist trade.
A month later the valley gave its answer—in violence. On the morning of November 16, 1924, Mark Watterson led a little army of between sixty and a hundred men in an auto parade down the length of Owens Valley. They seized the aqueduct at the Alabama Gates, near Lone Pine, and turned the water out through an overflow spillway. Almost immediately the city’s representative in the valley, Edward F. Leahey, arrived at the gates, in defiance of a warning to stay away. Leaving his car at the foot of the hill, he hiked up the slope to the wheelhouse. Through one of its windows a noose suddenly appeared and dangled before his eyes. Without blanching, he continued to the top. Six men, including Watterson, met him.
“Who’s in charge here?” Leahey demanded.
“We’re all in charge,” returned Watterson.
“You can’t contend we have no right to this water,” shouted Leahey. “It’s not hurting anybody going down the ditch.”
“Don’t you realize,” Watterson snapped, “that whether people are damaged or think they are, the effect is the same?”
The strategy was plain enough. This was not an attempt to seize water, for the aqueduct was located downstream from the valley’s center of resistance. It was a demonstration, through which the valley hoped at most to force the city to buy them out, and at least to publicize the affair throughout California. To the reporters who quickly gathered, the settlers gave their manifesto: “We are here to keep this spillway open. We will stay here until we are driven out or dragged out.”
Against this threat Los Angeles first tried legal action. The local sheriff soon arrived on the scene and served seventy-five copies of a restraining order. But the men at the gates simply threw them into the rushing spillway. Then they picked up the sheriff and carried him in a sitting position back to his car.
The city next tried to get warrants for the arrest of the demonstrators. But the valley judge, sympathizing with the ranchers, declared himself disqualified to act. The men at the spillway were left to laugh at the law.
Exasperated, the Los Angeles water department sent a request for help to neighboring sheriffs in southern California. Their combined forces were then offered in support of the Owens Valley sheriff. But he was busy pleading with Governor F. W. Richardson to call out the National Guard—an idea which the Governor steadfastly resisted.
By this time the stand at the Alabama Gates had become a grand picnic for the valley settlers. Up in Bishop practically every store was closed. On the flagpole in the center of town hung a large sign: “If I am not on the job, you can find me at the aqueduct.” At the gates, ranchers and businessmen gathered about campfires in cheerful conversation while their wives brought hot meals from nearby homes. The congenial crowd had swelled to fifteen hundred, many of whom had brought stoves, tents, and beds. On the fourth day they had a barbecue, entertained the sheriff, and even invited the city’s own aqueduct employees.
But later on their intensity of purpose returned. Gathered earnestly around the fires, the farm families passed along hymn books brought by the Baptist minister of Bishop. Soon the mighty strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” floated across the valley. For these stalwarts, Satan was a city, and they battled for the Lord.
That righteous refrain was not lost on the outside world. The story of California’s little civil war was headlined across the nation and featured as far away as France and Sweden. Throughout the state, resentment against the upstart city of Los Angeles put sympathy on the side of the farmers. Even in Los Angeles sentiment was divided, though William Randolph Ream’s Examiner charged that the seizure was the “big card in a gigantic holdup scheme.”
By no coincidence, Wilfred Watterson was in Los Angeles when the demonstration occurred. Meeting with his fellow bankers of the Clearing House Association, he addressed them for an hour, recommending the outright purchase of the Owens Valley Irrigation District. Here, of course, was the principal aim of the valley plan. Los Angeles might call it a “holdup,” but the embattled farmers believed they were simply giving forceful emphasis to their plea to “buy us all or leave us alone.” Since Los Angeles had not listened, they had done something to make it listen.
But for Wilfred Watterson the Los Angeles bankers had short words. Unless he got the gates closed, they are said to have told him, they would cut off his bank’s credit. They agreed, however, to use their “best efforts with the business interests of this city to bring about an equitable settlement.” Back to the valley went Watterson. Meeting with leaders of the spillway crowd, he asked them to disperse in response to the promise of the Los Angeles bankers. After holding the water supply of a great city in their hands for four days, they went back to their homes.
While the negotiations immediately following the gate seizure came to nothing, the valley people had made one point: they had convinced the Los Angeles water board that it could not afford to get its water from a hostile community. Up to Owens Valley went a top city representative to assess the situation. Returning, he went before the water commissioners and told them the bitter truth.
“The only way to settle things up there,” he said, “is to buy out the rest of the valley.”
“My God!” cried one of the members. “How much will that cost?”
“Five or six million dollars,” was the cool answer.
Such a figure was far above any previous water investment. It meant both a tacit admission of past mistakes and a partial concession to the Watterson group. But early in 1925 the commissioners said they were ready to buy all land tributary to the Owens River.
Within a few days, Wilfred Watterson was in Los Angeles negotiating the sale of a large “pool” of property on the Bishop Creek ditch. By the end of March the city bought the entire length of the canal. It looked as though the valley people had brought the city to terms, and that the long war was over.
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.
Los Angeles had won a greater victory than it had expected. Moving to make a final valley settlement, it bought the remaining Owens Valley Canal in 1929. The following year the Angelenos voted $12,000,000 in bonds to “clean up Owens Valley”; with this huge fund the city bought up practically all the town properties in Big Pine and Bishop. Though the purchases took place in the Depression, Los Angeles paid boom prices that had prevailed in 1923--the year that its invasion made its first impact on the valley.
To the Angelenos it was an expensive and even embarrassing program--constituting an admission of gross errors in Owens Valley. To the valley people who had spearheaded the fight against the city it could be considered a final victory; they had won a fatter settlement than those who had sold out in the beginning. But to most of the settlers, who wanted only to live out their lives on the land undisturbed, it was a tragic ending to a bitter feud. As they piled their belongings onto their cars and headed out of Owens Valley, they could echo Jeremiah’s lament: “Our inheritance is turned to strangers.” Wrote one of them, “It is not the loss of the home, or the garden … or the growing business which has been the test; it’s the loss of the years, and the hope and the endeavor …” In the stunted remains of abandoned orchards, Angelenos may still see the swath their city cut in its inexorable drive for water—and bigness.
The exodus from Owens Valley was not lost upon California’s literati. Not since Longfellow’s Evangeline had the dispossession of a people been the source of such pathos. Embattled critics charged that the aqueduct was conceived by the San Fernando land syndicate purely to reap swollen profits at public expense; that Los Angeles “forced the ranchers to sell to the city at condemnation prices and get out”; that it took water from the river forcibly without a legal right.
Even the Owens Valley people made no such claims. Fred Eaton and no other had conceived the Owens River project. In practically every case ranchers sold to the city because they were offered highly attractive prices. Los Angeles took extreme care to establish legal water rights from the beginning, and for several years it was prevented from using part of these rights because of forcible diversions by some of the ranchers.
But surely the Owens Valley episode offered Angelenos little cause for pride. At the beginning the city used questionable political methods to kill federal reclamation efforts in Owens Valley, gain rights of way, and hold water filings; it failed to build a reservoir at the head of the aqueduct that would have prevented the water crisis of the 1920’s; and for several years it pursued a policy of buying only the water rights it needed, without accepting responsibility for the effect of this invasion on either the economic life or the morale of the Owens Valley community.
By the mid-1930’s Los Angeles was moving to write the last chapter to its adventure by correcting an early mistake. Long Valley, the reservoir site, was purchased from Eaton and his associates, and the big dam was constructed in the gorge. Completed in 1941, it created Crowley Lake, which stores enough water from year to year to have supplied both city and valley back in the turbulent twenties. At the dedication ceremony one valley spokesman looked back over a generation of tumult and pronounced a weary finale:
“We cannot but regret that this enterprise was not constructed long ago; there would have been less of history to forget…”
Poetic justice would be served if it could be reported that the Long Valley Dam has made possible the rebirth of Owens Valley—that the farmers have returned to the land and are pushing back the sagebrush with orchards and green fields. It is tempting to declare that the one million dollars Fred Eaton had demanded for his reservoir site would have been cheap compared to the millions paid for Owens property.
But the relentless growth of Los Angeles has blasted the chances of any such conclusion. To provide more water for the mushrooming city, the aqueduct was extended farther north to Mono County; and although the total water supply is far more than even Eaton and Mulholland first visualized, the city’s insatiable thirst has likewise grown. There is still insufficient water for a guaranteed supply to Owens Valley farms. What little agriculture is attempted depends upon short-term leases that permit the city to withhold the water at any time. Though early construction of the Long Valley reservoir might have averted a water war, Owens Valley would eventually have been sacrificed anyway.
Today the valley is sustained by the stock-grazing economy it knew before the farmers dug their canals— and by a growing tourist trade, for eastern California has become a year-round playground for the very people who once were its worst enemies. Because of Owens Valley water, Los Angeles grew to the two million population promised by Mulholland. Now the valley’s contribution to the city’s growth is coming back in the form of tourist dollars. Angelenos, once afraid to identify themselves in the valley, are welcomed as paying customers. Supported by this commerce, Owens Valley today boasts more permanent residents than it did before it came under the shadow of Metropolis. But it is no longer the home of frontier farmers breathing the exhilarating air of self-reliance. It is a tributary province to the city it helped to build.