Ticket to the Twenties Themes: Water and Power For Los Angeles, August 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Next weekend, the 6th and 7th from 3 to 7 p.m., the Homestead hosts its annual Ticket to the Twenties festival, featuring music, silent movies, lectures, house tours, vendors, crafts and much more.  As we ramp up for the event, this week’s posts will feature artifacts from the Homestead’s collection that touch the themes for a display in the Workman House focusing on the astonishing growth and development of greater Los Angeles.  Today’s post looks at an important element of infrastructure: the provision of adequate supplies of water and power for a burgeoning region.

As Los Angeles grew from a remote and isolated frontier town on the western edge of the United States to a major metropolitan city over the decades through 1930, a critical need was water, given our semi-arid climate (no, we are not in a desert!)  The natural water supply in this area, give or take periods of severe drought or occasional heavy rainfall and floods, was not nearly enough to get the area past a relatively small population.

Initial water supplies were drawn directly from rivers, creeks, washes and other watercourses or from wells.  In the town of Los Angeles, for example, the Spanish and Mexican era zanjas, or ditches, were still in use for years after the American era began around 1850.

Sells Floto Circus Clowns LA April 1908_20181001_0001
This and the images below are from an August 1928 pamphlet in the Homestead collection outlining the wonders of the water and electrical supply systems of the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles and its bureaus of Water and Supply and Light and Power.

By the next decade, a private company, the Los Angeles Water Company, headed by William G. Dryden, the county judge and a friend of William Workman from New Mexico, built a pretty rudimentary delivery system taking water from the Los Angeles River north of town, using a water wheel to run the fluid into wooden pipes through the main zanja and storing water in a brick reservoir in the Plaza.  This system did not survive the massive floods of the winter of 1861-62, when the water wheel was washed out, not to mention the ongoing problems of the leaky wooden pipes.

A couple of other attempts were made in the first half of the 1860s to revive the system, including by vineyardist Jean Louis Sainsevain and by David W. Alexander, another close friend of Workman, but both gave up.  Sainsevain and Damien Marchessault, a former mayor and member of the Common [City] Council, tried once more in 1867, but another winter of heavy rain and floods ruined the effort.  Marchessault, mired in debt and with rising personal problems, committed suicide in the council chambers in 1868 (his story, illustrated by what looks to be the only known portrait of him, from the Homestead’s collection, has been told here.)


As the city entered its first sustained phase of growth in the late 1860s, a trio of investors formed the Los Angeles City Water Company and secured rights to the city’s water in exchange for implementing a reliable delivery system.  The men were Dr. John S. Griffin, who came to Los Angeles with the invading American army in 1846-47; merchant Solomon Lazard, and Prudent Beaudry, a real estate developer and future mayor.

Los Angeles City Water Company controlled almost all of the water distribution within Los Angeles for the remainder of the century and, in 1878, a young engineer was hired named William Mulholland.  Yet, the firm was in nearly constant disputes with the city over water quality, reliable service, prices and other issues.  Under the administration of Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman of the Homestead, the 1888 city charter called for municipal ownership of the system, but the lease still had about a decade to go.

Sells Floto Circus Clowns LA April 1908_20181001_0002

The city council, in 1897, asked the city engineer to devise the mechanism for a new city-owned water department and informed the water company that the lease would not be renewed.  Negotiations for the takeover of the private firm ensued and, in 1899, city voters approved a $2 million plus bond issue for the purchase by a huge margin.

Yet, the water company dragged the matter through litigation for a few years.  Finally, in early 1902, the formation of a city water department formally was inaugurated, with Mulholland selected as its superintendent, and most of the old firm’s employees joined him.  Soon, a Board of Water Commissioners was created to oversee the system, with rate approval ultimately decided by the city council.

After completion of a reservoir at Elysian Park, improvements to a pumping plant, and purchase of the sole remaining private firm in the city, attention turned to the urgent need to import water.  Mulholland and ex-mayor Fred Eaton (a leading player in the formation of the department during his administration at the end of the 1890s) lead in the devising of the Los Angeles Aqueduct to bring water 225 or so miles from the Owens Valley of eastern California to the city.

Voters approved a 1905 bond of $1.5 million to fund a study and then another two years later of $23.5 million to pay for the system.  The city treasurer responsible for the management of the bonds was ex-mayor William H. Workman and a story of his signing the large number of the securities will be told here in the future.  Construction began in 1908 and took five years, comprising one of the great engineering feats of the era.



In 1911, the city amended its charter to create a public service department with bureaus for water and supply and power and light.  Two years later, the Aqueduct was finished and brought on line, marking a dramatic change for regional development, even as the project was criticized for enriching wealthy land investors and on other grounds.

Through the 1920s, the City of Los Angeles expanded dramatically through annexation, essentially tripling in size and population, and there was enough water to supply the massive growth.  Other annexations concerned the acquisition of many private water companies in these areas brought within the city.

As for electricity, the first system was implemented in Los Angeles in 1882 by the California Electric Light Company (quickly renamed the Los Angeles Electric Company, later Los Angeles Gas and Electric.)  The city held the distinction of being the first in America to forego gas for electric lighting. In 1896, a new firm is founded to serve the city’s growing west side but is soon merged with another fledgling company, the Los Angeles Edison Electric Company.

This latter firm implemented the first underground delivery system of electric power in 1897 and, later, Los Angeles Gas and Electric and the city’s Bureau of Light and Power would follow suit.  Another innovation was importing electric power from hydroelectric sources in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains, which Los Angeles Edison Electric achieved in 1907.  The 188-mile long line was the longest in the world and is a kind of parallel to the aqueduct, construction of which began the following year.

20181001_184824 (5)

The Aqueduct did not just bring water to Los Angeles, it involved hydroelectric power, as well, and did this initially to support the construction project—the first time this had been done.  In 1910, Los Angeles voters approved a $3.5 million bond for the electrical supply portion of the aqueduct project and the first local power plant to generate electricity from the water flow started work the next year and was completed seven years later.  In 1916, $6.5 million more in bond funding was approved for power plants, transmission and distribution lines, and other elements for the growing municipal grid.

The Bureau of Water and Power also acquired, in 1917, a few competitors that started hydroelectric projects in the early 1910s, and five years later, acquired the Edison company’s system of power distribution within Los Angeles city limits.  Along with the Bureau of Water and Supply, the city had what seemed like limitless resources for growth.

This leads us to today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a pamphlet issued by the Department of Water and Power in August 1928 to inform customers of the work the entity was providing.  A bright orange cover with lightning bolts over which is the dramatic phrase, “that two million people may live,” draws the eye.

20181001_184824 (2)

Two panels inside tout “dependable service and low rates” giving lots of information about the water and electric distribution capabilities of both bureaus.  For example it was noted that the water system “supplies the city with pure snow water” through the longest aqueduct in the world and stored the nectar of life in 29 reservoirs with a capacity of 47 billion gallons.  There were over 3,200 miles of water mains (with a few hundred added every year) and 257,000 separate service connections.

Moreover, purity was safeguarded by rigorous testing in the department’s own laboratories so that “this tireless vigilance” meant no typhoid cases were yet reported.  The bottom line was that the system only cost 13 cents per 100 cubic feet of water, five cents per unit lower than the average in over 180 American cities.

As for electricity, there were five power plants along the aqueduct route, generating energy over 110kV transmission lines with over 40 distribution stations.  There were some 10,000 miles of overhead lines and 400 miles of cables underground, so that the entire system, with a capacity of 118,000 horsepower, provided 92% of all industrial power in Los Angeles and in 245,000 service connections.  Rates were the lowest “to be found in any American city of comparable size.”

20181001_184824 (3)

The pamphlet noted that the bonds to finance the systems and extensions “do not cost the taxpayers one cent.”  All interest was paid from the earnings of the city-owned utilities.  Photos of the aqueduct, both open canals and pipes, a reservoir, a power plant, and two distribution stations, along with a view of the snow-capped Sierras from Owens Valley are on the main inside section of four panels.

More text notes that, while the population was then 1.3 million, it was expected that there would be 2 million soon (hence, the phrase on the outside cover) with 100,000 migrants each year.  This demanded “an unfailing and abundant supply of water” and the corresponding amount of electric power.  So, that these two million “may live and prosper,” the department and its bureaus were “operating successfully the largest municipally-owned electric utility in the United States,” comprising assets of $161 million.

The document brims with the pride and optimism that marked the interminable march of growth and perceived progress of early 20th century Los Angeles.  Just as the city loved to boast of its booming population, expanding industrial might, lucrative agricultural production, dominant film industry and other attributes, the provision of large-scale water and electric supplies were a sign of strength and in a new way, through massive municipal investment and ownership.

20181001_184824 (4)

A little more than a year later, the Great Depression struck.  Despite the economic woes and the associated challenges of maintaining these enormous infrastructure systems, the department, officially renamed the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in 1937 grew with the huge Hoover Dam project along the Colorado River with the first supplies of water and power coming to the area just prior.  This allowed for more virtually untrammeled growth in the post-World War II period until, for areas outside Los Angeles where suburban growth provided most new development, the State Water Project and California Aqueduct came along in the mid-1960s providing water for much of southern California and elsewhere in the state.

A half-century or so later, we are grappling with issues of water and electrical supply due to growing populations and use, climate change, environmental issues, conservation, alternative energy sources, agricultural demands, and other elements that make water and power management more complex and politically charged.

In greater Los Angeles, the perceptions of unlimited abundance of space and supply are altering by necessity, if slowly.  What will the future hold as we work with these existing systems of infrastructure to meet the demands and needs of future residents?






Leave a Reply