“No Parallel in History”: The Los Angeles Aqueduct in “Scientific American,” 25 May 1912

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been noted here in a pair of previous posts, Scientific American is the oldest continuously published magazine in the nation, having made in debut in 1845 and issued as a weekly until 1921, when it was published monthly. Tonight’s highlighted artifact in the Homestead’s collection is the 25 May 1912 edition, which features a cover photo and short article on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the engineering marvels of its time.

It is worth briefly noting some of the other contents of the issue, however. For example, there is an editorial about “A Woman Pioneer in Education,” this being Dr. Maria Montessori, the founder of the method of education which bears her name and which remains widely in practice. Observing that she “is the first woman in modern times to promulgate a new system of education,” the editors noted “it is not yet clear to what the great popular interest in the Montessori method is due.”

Perhaps it was that “we are all so much dissatisfied with the results of our educational efforts” or that Montessori was the beneficiary of ways of publicizing such efforts “not available to educational reformers of earlier times.” The editorial continued that:

Whatever the cause, the interest is well deserved. Here is a woman, scientifically trained, with a broad love of humanity and high educational ideals, who has devoted years of her life to developing what she considers a rational and effective method of educating children between the ages of three and six. She uses, to a great extent, methods that have been successful in the training of detectives. Applying them to normal children, her results have been truly remarkable.

It was acknowledged that Montessori’s renown was such that her “critics and enthusiastic admirers have both done her injustice,” with the latter scored for claiming that she was “absolutely new and original” and an educational savior. It was added that “we have with us John Dewey” whose famous The School and Society, published in 1899, “is a harbinger of the Montessori plan” in terms of its emphasis on experiments in which “children were given freedom and activity.”

Montessori’s system, the piece went on, would need to be evaluated and modified, as “no system is complete, nor do we want a complete system; there must be opportunity for adjustment to changing conditions.” Vitally, “we can make use of the spirit of Maria Montessori, without which the materials and the methods are barren” and it was added that “the student of child nature can find no gap in the development of the child corresponding with the gap in our methods.” It ended with the statement that “we must give serious consideration to any earnest effort to improve the methods for the education of the young” and Montessori deserved a prominent place in that continued work.

Because of the continued rapid growth of the use of the automobile in America, the editors also called for a recognition that “the wholesale method of doing things which is characteristic of this county, has led us into methods of road maintenance which are diametrically opposed to those which have been followed so successfully in Europe—methods which have caused our thoroughfares to fall into that state of chronic disrepair which characterizes so large a part of our highway mileage.”

Maintenance and repair were not handled on an ongoing basis, but, rather, when the state of disintegration was fully advanced and “when the road has been so badly wrecked as to be unusable.” In Europe, however, crews were constantly at hand with rocks, sand and other material and repairing roads while inspectors were found plying the highways and byways for signs of wear. The editors then wrote,

it would be the height of wisdom to set apart a portion of the appropriations for the training of a competent body of road-,asters, whose course of instruction should include a visit to Europe to study the methods of road repair there employed. To these men should be entrusted the work of organizing and instructing a road-repair force, which should be maintained continuously upon the job and held at the high standard efficiency which characterizes the section gangs, to whose care in [is] entrusted the upkeep of our steam railroads.

Other articles included reviews of the the New York Aero Show, further demonstrating the rapidly advancing world of aviation; the opening of a vastly improved Naval drydock in Brooklyn, which foresaw the development of others, including at the Port of Los Angeles, especially in the quick and massive deployment of resources with America’s entry in World War in five years later; proposals for reinforced concrete dikes along the Mississippi River to mitigate the perennial problem of destructive flooding; the problem of celluloid motion picture film, liable to catching fire easily, and work on recording on glass plates; the French invention of a tricycle street sweeper; “an ever-flowing coffee-pot;” and much more.

In the wake of the disaster involving the Titanic, which sank just a little more than a month prior, there were two articles that referred to that horrific event. One noted that “since the steamship ‘Titanic’ disaster, not only the governments of all nations and steamship companies, but the general public as well, are deeply interested in the question of safety appliances on shipboard.” It was added that the doomed craft “was equipped with the excellent Welin davit” which lowered lifeboats into the water “and which operated admirably during the moments that preceded the sinking.” The magazine featured a similar system from Fred Martin of Toronto which swung far enough outboard and lowered craft smoothly to be the most efficient and safe of such devices.

Elsewhere, it was inquired “If the ‘Titanic’ Had Been Equipped with Steam-electric Drive?” That is, given initial studies into the disaster, “an English paper directs attention to the advantages of the steam-electric propulsion of vessels in the quickness with which the vessel may be stopped. The enormous Titanic’s steam system did not allow for a rapid shutdown and reversal of course, but it was averred that electric generators for steam turbines and propeller shafts could allow for “the simple throwing over of a switch [which] would give a retarding torque at the motors equal to the full power of the plant.” The question was whether such a system would have averted the disaster.

With respect to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, author Burt A. Heinly, an engineer with the city, provided a one-page summary packed with technical detail, about the project. He began with the note that:

Simultaneously but on opposite sides of the continent, water works projects are under way such as have no parallel in history: The Catskill Mountain Aqueduct, ninety-two miles in length, which is to serve the metropolis of New York, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 240 miles long, to supply the city of Los Angeles.

Heinly offered that, aside from the forty-seven miles of tunnels utilized in the system bringing water through deserts and steep and canyons and mountains from the Owens Valley of Inyo County in eastern California, “probably the most interest feature of this great enterprise . . . is the construction of twenty-two inverted steel siphons.” These devices would ensure that “the flow of the aqueduct will be borne across deep canyons and broad valleys.” Only examples at Niagara Falls and near Madrid in Spain were larger, as the siphons were from just over 600 to more than 15,500 feet in length (totaling almost 50,000 feet for the entirety of the aqueduct) with diameters ranging from 8 1/2 to 11 feet.

He continued that “where the depressions are shallow and the head is light” at certain canyons, “siphons constructed of concrete, heavily reinforced with steel, are used—this because of the cheaper cost.” This added about 14,000 more feet to the total utilized, which translates to over nine miles. As to the total amount of steel employed, it was some 14,500 tons and “loaded 40,000 pounds to the car, it requires 700 cars or 35 trains of 20 cars each to transport the material from Eastern steel factories to the various destinations along the Mojave Desert.”

The cover photo and the two accompanying the article show elements of the longest of the siphons which spanned Deadman Canyon near modern Santa Clarita. Heinly wrote that “this siphon at its northern end consists of a concrete pipe 10 feet in diameter . . . 15,596 feet of steel pipe 10 feet in diameter . . . and 3,414 feet of 10-foot concrete pipe at the southern end.” He added that “all this work is being done 35 miles from the nearest railroad.”

The engineer went on to record that 24-inch gate valves were installed “to insure stability when open, obviously are used for cleaning purposes,” but they had a crucial safety reason, as well. That is, “damage to the aqueduct from slides or other causes” meant that “these gates will therefore serve, in case of accident, to divert the flow of the aqueduct into the natural channels of the canyons where the hydraulic force will be without disastrous consequences.” Owens Valley farmers and others angry with the “siphoning” of local water later targeted siphons for bombings to demonstrate their rage. Concern with cost is reflected in the commend that the expense incurred in building this siphon was “cheaper than the work could have been done by contract.”

The short piece ended with the prognostication that

The completion of the aqueduct, unless unforeseen financial delays should intervene, will be accomplished during the early months of the year 1913 at a total cost of $24,500,000, and it is expected that the siphon work [discussed here] will be in place by November of this year.

There were, in fact, the almost inevitable delays with the opening of the project taking place on 5 November 1913 (the 71st anniversary of the arrival of the Rowland-Expedition in our region, not that anyone gave that any thought that day!). William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and mayor of Los Angeles during 1887 and 1888 and the famed Boom of the Eighties, was city treasurer from 1901 to 1907.

When voters approved bonds for the purchase of land for the aqueduct project, Workman traveled to New York City to sign bonds for sale to raise the funds and it was remembered by his son, Boyle, who was the assistant city treasurer, that “Uncle Billy,” as he was commonly known, was so fixated on his task that he did not realize how strongly he shook his pen of excess ink until a significant spattering was observed on the light-colored carpet around the desk!

With the completion of the aqueduct, Los Angeles seemed supplied with a nearly illimitable supply of water and the unstoppable growth of the city and region, enhanced by later long-distance delivery projects from Owens Valley, the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta, continued over subsequent decades. What we grapple with now, however, are problems in water supply with massive growth in the western United States, the effects of climate change, and other issues and the latest drought is a reminder both of what was thought possible and enduring more than a century ago and the challenges we face going forward.

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