The Three Fathers of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

(August 6, 1906)* - The three fathers of the LA Aqueduct - left to right: Joseph B. Lippincott, Fred Eaton and William Mulholland. This photograph appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 6, 1906, less than a week after Lippincott's resignation from the Reclamation Service became effective.  


From the LADWP Historic Archive

Three years had not yet passed since the city of Los Angeles had taken over the management of its own water system, when the City Council was astounded, on the morning of July 21, 1905, by Attorney Oscar Lawler’s appearance before them with the request that they allow the citizens of Los Angeles to vote on a charter amendment that would permit the city to again lease its water system to private parties. Mr. Lawler stated that he represented clients with ample means to “properly” run the system, which he stated was becoming too difficult for the city to handle.

But the astonishment of the members of the Council was nothing compared to that of the people of Los Angeles a week later when, upon opening their newspapers on Saturday morning, July 29, 1905, they read the greatest news that had ever been transmitted to them regarding the welfare of the city.

The front page of Part II of the Los Angeles Times that morning was given over to the first intimation ever made to the people of the city about the projected aqueduct to bring Owens River to Los Angeles.

It was a page full of strange words, strange news and a map of a country little known to most of the townspeople.

At the center of the top of the front page of the Times was a three-column box with this most interesting news:

The times announces this morning the most important movement for the development of Los Angeles in all the city’s history – the closing of preliminary negotiations securing 30,000 inches of water, or about 10 times our present total supply – enough for a city of 2,000,000 people. In brief, the project is to bring the water to Los Angeles from Owens River in Inyo County, a distance of 240 miles, at a cost of about $23,000,000.

Options on the water-bearing lands have been closed by the city’s representatives, and a series of bond issues will be asked of the voters. This new water supply, immense and unfailing, will make Los Angeles forge ahead by leaps and bounds, and remove every spectra of drought or doubt.

With such an enormous stream of the purest mountain water pouring in here, Los Angeles will have one of the best supplies in the land; she will have water to sell to the San Fernando Valley and even to San Diego; she will have assured her future for a century. There is no doubt that the bonds will be forthcoming.

In a double-column box at the top of the left-hand side of the paper was an exclusive dispatch from Independence, California, dated July 28, 1905, giving this story to the people:

Agents representing Los Angeles City have secured options on about 40 miles of frontage along Owens River, north of Owens Lake. Fred Eaton, ex-mayor of Los Angeles, and the superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Works were in the Valley in an automobile the early part of this week. Two days ago they closed the last outstanding options. The price paid for many of the ranches is three or four times what the owners ever expected to sell them for. Everybody in the Valley has money and everyone is happy.

Three months ago Eaton bought the holdings of the Rickey Cattle Company, comprising about 50,000 acres of water-bearing land. It was then thought that Eaton was going into the stock-raising business here, but it has since been learned that he was securing options for Los Angeles City. Eaton has made every option solid and secured all the land the city wanted. The deal is riveted.

On the front page, too, was a portrait of William Mulholland, then superintendent of the City Water Works, as well as a group picture of the Board of Water Commissioners: President J. J. Fay, J. M. Elliott, M. H. Sherman, William Mead and Fred L. Baker. Across the right side top of the page was a two-column map of the Owens Valley and the route the aqueduct would probably follow to the city. A two-column headline said:

Titanic Project to Give City a River ---- 30,000 inches of Water to be Brought to Los Angeles ---- Option Secured on 40 Miles of River Frontage in Inyo County --- Magnificent Stream to be Conveyed Down to the Southland in Conduit 240 Miles Long --- Stupendous Deal Closed.

Then followed a story of a trip made into the Owens Valley by Mayor McAleer, Superintendent Mulholland, City Attorney Mathews and Commissioners Fay and Elliott, by stage from Mojave to Independence by a short time before.

There Mr. Elliott had collapsed and Mr. Fay had to take him over the narrow-gauge Reno and Carson City Railroad into Nevada and from thence to San Francisco, where he lay in the hospital for three weeks before recovering.

The article went on to say that 30,000 inches of water meant more to Los Angeles than all the gold hidden away in the California Mountains. Among other interesting remarks, their conjectures as to the original course of the Owens River stated:

The engineers now all agree on what he (Fred Eaton) first surmised: that the water of the Owens River centuries ago flowed down through the arid valley from what is now Owens Lake, passing near the present site of the Mojave, and finally entering into what is now the Los Angeles River in the San Fernando Valley. But a series of mighty upheavals dislocated the ribs of the lesser Sierra, threw mountains across the path of the stream, and for 10 centuries at least the river has emptied into Owens Lake.

An interview with Mr. Mulholland was given in full, and quotes him as saying:

“Fred Eaton did it. He has been working on it for 13 years. He is the greatest natural engineer the West has ever known. He has made it possible for us to accomplish the greatest scheme of water development ever attempted in this country.

Thirteen years ago Fred Eaton told me that Los Angeles would one day obtain its water from Owens Valley. I laughed at him. The Los Angeles River was then running 40,000,000 gallons of water daily, and we had less than 50,000 population. ‘We have enough water here in the river to support the city for the next 50 years,’ I told him. ‘You are wrong. You have not lived here as long as I,’ said he, ‘and seen the dry years – watch and see.’

Four years ago I began to discover that Fred was right. Our populace climbed to the top, and the bottom seemed to drop out of the river. Then – I turned my attention to the Owens Lake country.”

(What Mulholland did not say was that it was he who made it possible for Eaton to finance his plan; that he has made five trips on foot along the lines of the proposed canal; that he has five times climbed the dangerous spurs of the Owens River mountains and has personally inspected every piece of land purchased by the city.)

Two full columns were devoted to “The Daring of the Financing.” The articles were continued on page 7, where four portraits were reproduced, portraits of four men largely responsible for the launching of the project: Mayor McAleer, City Attorney Mathews and the tow engineers, Fred Eaton and J. B. Lippincott.

A full column was given to Lippincott’s interest and aid; predictions were made of the power to be developed, and the article declared: “Owens River will be to Los Angeles what Niagara is to Buffalo.”

So, on July 29, 1905, with all the showmanship of front-page journalism, the Los Angeles Times^ told the people the first story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.**

^ Note: To read the account in the original newspaper article click one of the following links: Los Angeles Times or Los Angeles Express


Click HERE to see more in Construction of the LA Aqueduct




Click HERE: (PART 1 - PART 2) to read an insightful interview with Robert V. Phillips, Chief Engineer and General Manager of LADWP 1972-1975. Both Mr. Phillips and his father knew and worked with Mulholland and Van Norman.





References and Credits

* DWP - LA Public Library Image Archive

**LADWP Historic Archive

..Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1905 Article: Titanic Project to Give City a River

..Los Angeles Express, August 4, 1905 Article: Fred Eaton Back from Owens River


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