Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The California Water Wars/ The St. Francis Dam Failure And 1920's L.A. Noir

Los Angeles is America's second largest city. If you have the opportunity to visit L.A. you will never have difficulty finding interesting things to do. The L.A. area is home to Hollywood studios and the celebrities who make it what it is. There are many California historic sites and Los Angeles has many of them. You might sign up for one of the many tours of the star homes located all throughout Beverly Hills, Brentwood and the Hollywood Hills area. You may add a trip to Disneyland as part of your L.A. travel plans. You also will want to go to the beaches and possibly take a ferry boat to Santa Catalina Island just a short distance off shore. The interesting travel stops in Los Angeles are almost never ending. Don't forget Mulholland Drive which winds it's way through the hills to the northwest of the city. Mulholland Drive is named after a man named William Mulholland. In the 1920's Mulholland was the superintendent and chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water Department, then called the Bureau of Water Works and Supply. At first glance, that position wouldn't necessarily propel a man to widespread notoriety nor would it preserve his name on a major road artery through the city. It probably also wouldn't explain how the position of chief engineer for the water department would prompt the dedication of a fountain (photo below courtesy of WikiMaps) and a plaque in his honor. To understand why these monuments to Mulholland exist, you need to know about Los Angeles's past and what was important for it to grow into America's largest west coast city. You also need to know why the 1920's were L.A. Noir in true life. It's quite an interesting story.


The picture below the Mulholland Fountain photo is what Los Angeles looked like circa 1861. Like many towns in the once Spanish occupies southwest, there was a central plaza. Take a southwest American road trip and you will find these plaza's in many towns. I suppose they were the Spanish answer to our eastern town squares. Santa Fe, Taos, Las Vegas, NM....all of these have beautiful central plazas.

The L.A. area was first a settlement for Native Americans which really were the first inhabitants of all parts of America. After the Native Americans came the Spaniards with the first mission being built near Whittier in 1771 by Friar Junipero Sera. Years later Los Angeles was made the capitol of Alta California.


There were many things that made this area of North America desirable and not the least being the climate. Sunshine, warm temperatures and relatively low humidity made this area a good spot for settlement. The weather in Los Angeles ranks among the best in the country. Also ideal weather for growing citrus. We love those California oranges.

The one thing about Los Angeles that differs from the majority of early settlements was that there really wasn't a geographic reason for it's existence. As a comparison, San Francisco sits at the door to San Francisco Bay which is arguably the finest seaport in the world. St. Louis, MO was a busy Mississippi River port when the Mississippi was the main thoroughfare for American commerce. Houston, TX is a gateway to Gulf of Mexico commerce.New Orleans sits near the mouth of the Mississippi River.  Los Angeles had no natural water supply that a growing city requires and Los Angeles had no natural harbor to compete with other west coast seaports. It had to pay to have one built. The San Pedro port was man made.

Above all other things, the need for a reliable water supply is an absolute necessity for any city to grow. This was Los Angeles' problem from it's inception and with the population growing in leaps and bounds beginning with the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1876 and oil being discovered in 1892. Los Angeles advertised through the Southern Pacific to lure people to the City of Angels. Th advertising pointed out the cheap land available along with the mild climate. Many people migrated to southern California believing that the climate would help with certain ailments. The population rose to 102,000 in 1900. Newspapers sprung up everywhere including the Los Angeles Times which is another interesting story in itself. The Los Angeles Times building even became one of Los Angeles' historic buildings. The need for more and more water was front and center. As a comparison, San Francisco had a natural water supply from the American River flowing out of the Sierra Nevada's into the Sacramento River. The two main usages of water were of course for the growing population and agriculture. Agriculture in southern California was a major industry and in the case of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley just to the north. At the start of the 20th century the San Fernando Valley was filled with farms and ranches. This population explosion was even before Hollywood became a destination. The film industry didn't move to the area until about the 1917-1920 period. The weather and the scenery was more to their liking compared to what they left behind in New York and New Jersey. We hear much about the California Gold Rush but the need to find water was Los Angeles' equivalent to digging for gold. It was really a life and death struggle for the city. It's with this backdrop that you can appreciate how the position of chief engineer for the Los Angeles  Department of Water and Power was not just any public service job.

The California Water Wars erupted when the water department, to satisfy their needs, planned on diverting water from the Owens Valley, located northeast of the city. They would divert water into resevoirs and channel it into Los Angeles via an aqueduct. One big problem however was that there were farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley and they too needed water and weren't in the mood to give it up. Many of these farmers and ranchers had traveled to California for mining but when that didn't work out turned to agriculture.

The California Water Wars had it's beginnings when Frederick Eaton
( picture below left) was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1898. Eaton's good friend, William Mulholland was then appointed superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Both Eaton and Mulholland were self taught civil engineers. The water department was created by the new mayor. Both Eaton and Mulholland knew that there was a large amount of water runoff from the Sierra Nevada's into the Owens Valley. Their idea was that this water could be trapped and sent to Los Angeles by a gravity propelled aqueduct.

The story continues where Mayor Eaton, with inside information from a friend, knew of some irrigation projects in the Owens Valley involving the federal government. With this information he bought up land in the valley as a private citizen with the intention of selling it back to the city of Los Angeles at a huge profit. Additionally, Eaton lobbied President Theodore Roosevelt successfully to cancel the government local irrigation project. Meanwhile, Mulholland misled the people of the Owens Valley into believing that Los Angeles wanted it's water only for domestic purposes, not for it's own agricultural pursuits. While this was going on L.A. was buying up as many water rights they could, sometimes using bribery and intimidation. By 1905 they had enough water rights to enable construction of the aqueduct. This was not without alot of bad feelings mostly that the rights and land were purchased at unfair below market prices. Many believe Los Angeles paid less for the rights than they actually budgeted for. Some of this ill will resulted in violence such as  the attempted dynamiting of the aqueduct. The picture below right shows authorities discovering dynamite caches.

Supposedly the farmers who held out selling until 1930 received the highest prices for their water rights. That points out just how long the resistance lasted.


As part of the L.A.'s water supply transit system, the city built the St. Francis Dam in the mountains 40 miles northwest of the city. The construction lasted during 1924-1926 and was overseen by William Mulholland.


Just a few minutes before midnight on March 12th, 1926 the dam failed and what ensued was a catastrophe like non other the Los Angeles area had ever seen. Ironically, Mulholland had been at the dam site just a few days prior to the failure and this fact went on to haunt him for the rest of his life. In fact, during the prior year there were some cracks found in the dam and a bit of leakage however Mulholland and his crew felt that all was in safe limits. When the dam gave way, 12 billion gallons of water rushed through the San Francisquito Canyon and headed west to it's natural outlet in the Pacific Ocean. This deluge carried with it blocks of concrete, trees and homes. A deadly combination for anyone in it's path. Below left is a picture of the dam before the failure.


The result of this was the loss of life of 450 to 500 people. It ranks as the worst dam failure in U.S. history and the second largest disaster after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Blame was placed everywhere. The ill will from the Water Wars had many placing the blame on Mulholland for alleged bad construction management. After many hearings into the disaster, Mulholland was exonerated of all blame. The court of public opinion sometimes takes it's own course and regardless of the hearings outcome many continued to place the blame squarely on Mulholland and his political friends. The official blame however was placed on the geology itself. The hearing board came to the conclusion that the quality of the rock at the dam site was the culprit.

The end result of the California Water Wars was that Mayor Eaton was investigated but cleared of wrongdoing for his role in buying up Owens Valley land and water rights. His later supposed asking price to the city of $1 million for his Owens Valley holdings was the final blow that ended his friendship with Mulholland.  As for Mulholland, the St. Francis Dam failure marked the end of his career.

You may also be interested in our article on our Trips Into History website regarding the Hetch Hectchy dam and reservoir controversy in California.

The classic movie "Chinatown" which many of you may have seen is based on the California Water Wars during the 1910's and 1920's and is set in 1937 L.A  There was also  a sequel made called Two Jakes.

William Mulholland's legacy is controversial  only in as much as he was connected to the St. Francis dam catastrophe which a good a many people felt he was not responsible for. The positive side of the legacy was that he led the effort to bring much needed water to Los Angeles. It is with this legacy that he has been honored as the leading architect in the city's early growth.

When you explore the history of California you have to place William Mulholland on the list of important figures. Another interesting story about Los Angeles is the Doheney Teapot Dome Scandal.


When you're driving on Mulholland Drive L.A. you will know a bit more about the man whose street bears his name. The aqueduct system also has 107miles of bike paths which are enjoyed regularly by thousands of people. The Mulholland Fountain designed by Walter S. Clayberg in 1940  is located at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Blvd. in Los Feliz. It was declared a Historic-Cultural Monument in the City of Los Angeles in 1976.

(Photos are in the public domain)

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