Wo/Men at Work (Labor Day Edition): Workers on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, ca. 1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today being the Labor Day holiday, it seems appropriate to post this pair of remarkable photos from the Homestead’s collection of work crews on one of the world’s great engineering projects of its day: the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Conceived by former Los Angeles mayor Fred Eaton and the city’s water engineer, William Mulholland, along with Mulholland’s colleague, J.B. Lippincott, the aqueduct was a 200+ mile conduit of Sierra Nevada snowmelt taken from the Lower Owens River (the catchment of which, Owens Lake, was so full of water at times that steamboats traveled across it) and directed towards an ambitious city yearning and hungry for massive growth.

After the boom of the late 1880s, it was apparent to planners that local water sources were being maxed out and that something drastic needed to be done if greater Los Angeles was to expand.  Eaton, familiar with the eastern California landscape and water capacity, took Mulholland on a trip up the Owens Valley in 1904 and convinced the engineer that the ample supplies of water could be transported south by gravity.

Mulholland reported to the city’s Board of Water Commissioners that a project with the channel, tunnels, reservoirs, and the like could be completed in five years at a cost of abot $23 million.  The funding was made available from bonds issued by City Treasurer William H. Workman, nephew of William Workman, longtime owner of the Homestead, and mayor of Los Angeles during its famed 1880s boom, and largely sold in New York.

Construction started in September 1907 and was completed early in 1913, pretty much on time and on budget, which was a testament to Mulholland’s management skills.  Of course, to keep on track, the engineer and his managers, supervisors and foremen had to be tough taskmasters on the thousands of workers, peaking at just under 4,000, who labored on the project.  Conditions could mean searing heat, dust storms, freezing temperatures and, before much government regulation, poor protection and meager services in case of injury.

LA Aqueduct construction 3
This circa 1910 photo from the Homestead collection shows workers pouring concrete for the channel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an engineering marvel of its time and the reason Los Angeles could expand so dramatically to over 1 million people by 1930.

There were dozens of work camps along the route and laborers came from ethnic groups from around the globe.  Pay was about $2.25 a day, though meals were 25 cents each, cutting significantly into their compensation (at least the income tax didn’t come until the project was done–in 1913!).  Digging and hacking with standard hand tools, dynamiting in difficult spots, building and erecting over 2,000 associated permanent and temporary structures, pouring huge amounts of cement, these unsung heroes did remarkable work.

The dangers were considerable.  Aside from often brutal weather conditions, they had to contend with falls, rock slides, embankment collapses, explosions gone awry, falling materials, vehicle crashes and illness.  Nearly four dozen workers were officially listed as killed during the course of the work and an untold number were injured or ill.  It is not known how many men walked off the job.

At the official dedication in November 1913, Mulholland famously uttered the terse admonition, “there it is—take it!” as the gates were opened at Jawbone Siphon in Sylmar where today Interstate 5 meets State Route 210 and the precious water flowed to herald the phenomenal growth that has taken place in greater Los Angeles since.

The City of Los Angeles alone expanded its area by three times before the end of the decade was over.  By 1930, the city exceeded 1 million residents.  The suburban expansion of the San Fernando Valley, most of which is in the city, simply could not have happened without the aqueduct (and some of the region’s more powerful titans of industry, like Henry Huntington and Harry Chandler used their foreknowledge of the aqueduct to buy up cheap land in the valley and then sold dear for massive profits once the water flowed.)

Controversy, however, had marked the aqueduct since its conception and construction.  Owens Valley residents protested the loss of their remarkable river, lake and ecosystem, turning the area into a virtual desert.  Dynamiting of the aqueduct was frequent, including a particularly active period of bombings in 1927.  In recent decades, even as reliance on the aqueduct has declined as other sources, such as the Colorado River and Sacramento Delta have been tapped, there have been greater concerns over the limits of expansion in greater Los Angeles, the need to restore portions of the Owens Valley, and the effects of climate change on water supply.

LA Aqueduct construction 2
Some 5,000 men worked over five years amid harsh weather and often dangerous conditions to build the aqueduct.  This photo from the Homestead collection shows crews digging out the channel for the massive water-delivery project.

The common belief of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that growth in greater Los Angeles was virtually unlimited was reflected in many ways, including with the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  Challenges abound now about how we deal with what space is left to expand, how we deal with maintaining systems in our massively built up area, and what climate change will bring, among other factors.  Our understanding of history can help us as we confront the future by planning and execution in this key aspect of living in the region.

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