“One of the Most Extensive Projects in Water-Supply Engineering That Has Been Undertaken in This Country”: A Review of “Preliminary Work on the Los Angeles Aqueduct” from “The Engineering Record,” 8 February 1908

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the most important acts of Los Angeles City Treasurer and former mayor William H. Workman during his six-year tenure in office from 1901 to 1907 was signing the bonds that were sold in New York to raise the funds for initial work on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that, upon completion in fall 1913, ensured the ongoing dramatic growth of the Angel City.

Drawing from the amply supply from snowmelt and rainfall emptying from the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the Owens River and into the valley of that name of Inyo County in eastern California, the Aqueduct, while incurring the enmity of many residents of that sparsely populated region, delivered its vital fluid well over 200 miles through deserts and mountains in a remarkable delivery system overseen by William Mulholland, the engineer of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water and Power (later the Department of Water and Power).

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s holdings is a report on “Preliminary Work on the Los Angeles Aqueduct,” published in the 8 February 1908 issue of The Engineering Record, now the Engineering News-Record, which dates back to 1877 when it debuted as The Plumber and Sanitary Engineer and took the name of The Engineering Record, its fourth moniker thirteen years later.

The unattributed piece began by noting that, under the auspices of an Aqueduct Commission,

The preliminary construction on the Los Angeles aqueduct has been prosecuted as vigorously as the available funds would permit since the decision to undertake this great work was definitely affirmed early in 1907. This aqueduct is one of the most extensive projects in water-supply engineering that has been undertaken in this country.

It continued by observing that the 215-mile route “follows through a region of rough country, which includes several spur ranges of mountains, while near Los Angeles it passes through the Coast Range Mountains. In determining the reliability of the supply from the river, it was noted that it “can be made sufficient by development to render dependable a continuous flow of 410 cu[bic] f[ee]t per second in years as dry as any that have occurred in the watersheds of adjacent steams in the past seventeen years during which gagings have been made.” The system was geared to continuously deliver 400 cubic feet per second.

The project’s intake was to be at a diversion dam situated forty miles north of the mouth at Owens Lake and a 60-mile long canal was to run along the foothills from the dam to the Haiwee Reservoir. The capacity of the canal increased as it moved south “permitting a large percentage of the flood waters from the mountains to be delivered to the reservoir.” More than 15 miles south is Little Lake and it was noted that some of the drop in elevation was such that electric power could, in the future, be generated from the flow of water, though, “in order to reduce immediate expenditures, however, this 15.5 mile section will be constructed as a masonry-lined open conduit.

Another twenty-five or so miles to Indian Wells, along State Route 14 just south of its terminus with U.S. Highway 395, “the aqueduct must be carried along the steep sides of the valley, 200 to 500 ft. above the highway,” while “a series of tunnels, inverted siphons and heavy bench cuts, largely in sold rock, are required in the distance. South of that, however, for some twenty miles, the project “passes through a smooth, open valley in which the construction will be comparatively easy.”

A section of just over 21 miles “to Red Rock Canyon involves the second section of difficult construction, with several miles of tunnels, a few of steel-pipe conduit and inverted siphons and some ten miles of both covered and concrete-lined conduit.” One of the siphons would become the massive one at Jawbone Canyon, but it was added that the excavation work was in material that was easy to deal with. Incidentally, Red Rock Canyon, now a state recreation area, is best-known today as a shooting location for the opening scenes of the 1993 blockbuster film, Jurassic Park.

After the complications of the section to Red Rock Canyon, it was noted that “the aqueduct will be in level country in the Antelope Valley, through which a canal may be built for 64.5 miles” and there would be only two breaks of about 10% of that distance. With that, “the open canal will terminate in the Elizabeth Lake tunnel, through the Coast Range, and this “is the largest single piece of construction” in the project, with a length of five miles “and a horseshoe-shape cross section.”

At the south end, “the water will for a time be discharged at an elevation of 2,923 ft. above the sea into a narrow precipitous gorge in which it will flow for 11 1/2 miles through the rugged portion of the Coast Range.” It was added that water could be diverted through tunnels and pipes of some 11 miles in length and develop water flow “which can be utilized in two hydro-electric developments of some 50,000 horsepower and 93,000 horsepower, respectively.

After several more miles of tunnels, the longest being 1.5 miles, “the water will be delivered . . . into a reservoir in a canyon.” From there, “a conduit of [430 cu. ft] capacity will be extended from this regulating reservoir for 11 miles to two reservoirs in the San Fernando Valley, not far from the headworks of the supply conduits of the existing water-works system of the city on the Los Angeles River.”

This is the Lower Van Norman Reservoir located south of the widely known Cascades at Sylmar, where Mulholland inaugurated the flow of water from the completed aqueduct in November 1913. Here, the two reservoirs “not only provide a reserve supply at the end of the aqueduct, but also permit the hydro-electric developments above to be operated during the rainy season without wasting water.”

With the initial bond-generated funding, involving Workman splattering ink on the carpet of a New York office while he signed each certificate,

The work done during the past year in prosecuting these plans as outlined has been confined chiefly to making location surveys, developing an engineering and construction organization and starting, or preparing to start, work on the controlling features of the construction. Although sufficient funds had not been made available to undertake construction on a large scale, nor was it advisable to do much heavy work prior to conducting the necessary investigations, much preparatory work has been finished, plans for [a] construction plant have been consummated and construction on several important parts of the project have been well started.

It was added “that the intricate and difficult parts of the aqueduct may be built by the forces of the commission,” while the rest was to be done by contractors. Two major hurdles had to do with the isolation of the route from railroads, so that the cost of providing supplies and materials was increased, as well as the need to power generation.

Not wanting to build its own rail line, the commission negotiated with companies like the Southern Pacific to build lines to serve for shipment of Aqueduct supplies and “provide a new outlet from Los Angeles to the East by way to the Central Pacific [transcontinental] connection in Nevada” as well as open a territory “tributary to Los Angeles” with extensive mining and irrigated agricultural development. By the time the article was readied for publication, though, nothing had yet been worked out, even as there was hope to have something in place for the difficult building mentioned above from Indian Wells to Red Rock Canyon.

Towards the Antelope Valley and into the San Fernando Valley, there was closer access to the Southern Pacific for hauling by teams to be more manageable, especially as the rail giant agreed to charge one-half rates on freight, allowable under Federal law because these rates were made to the City of Los Angeles, along with “the creation of terminal points along the line of construction. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe provided a similar arrangement, but only had access to the Aqueduct project at Mojave. Still, these discounts were expected to save the city some $200,000.

Because of the cost of labor, as well, the use of mechanized equipment for canal digging, boring tunnels, carrying material up mountains and other difficult work was considered imperative and having sufficient hydroelectric power essential. Two plans were built in the upper portion of the route and could reach 90 miles south to Mojave, while the southern area of the route was to be provided with power from the Los Angeles Edison Company on a high-voltage transmission line from the Angel City to a plant on the Kern River. These components were said to provide “ample power . . . so readily as to make any other possible method of supplying power incomparable in cost and convenience.”

After going into some technical detail on power plant construction, the article observed that other work included the delivery and installation of steel pressure pipe, the pouring of the concrete for the conduits, and installing the power equipment and transmission lines. Major construction work also included two earthen dams at either end of the Haiwee Reservoir, with material “delivered in place readily by the hydraulic-sluicing process.” Pipe was also being laid along a 19,500 foot section at the site, with most trenching finished and some of the pipe on the ground, while the rest was at Mojave awaiting delivery.

South of Mojave, the work was “consisting of the construction of wagon roads, the development of water supplies for the construction forces and stock, the erection of suitable quarters for the engineers and so forth.” Because of the desert conditions, finding good water was an issue, so pipelines were laid into the Sierra Nevada forest reserve to tap springs, with much of the fluid used to mix concrete. At Jawbone Canyon, a well was dug and “furnishes a considerable amount of good water” and the delivery of electricity along a commission-built transmission line to a point 10 miles north of Mojave was also mentioned.

The prior September, work was initiated on the Elizabeth Lake tunnels from both ends and most of was done by hand, excepting one air drill, though there were plans to install mechanical plants at each portal and there was talk of driving a shaft midway and then head in both directions. By the dawn of 1908, some 305 feet was dug and supported by timber at the north end and about 250 feet at the south. What awaited determination was whether the work would continue to be handled by the commission or be handed off to contractors. Extensive technical detail followed about the workings of the plants and the equipment.

The piece ended by noting that

The personnel of the organization of the engineering department of the Aqueduct Commission is made up of men of unusually good training and experience in work similar to that which is to be done. Mr. Wm. Mulholland, chief engineer of the commission, has been connected with the water supply system of Los Angeles as superintendent, manager and chief engineer for over 30 years. He has been in charge of the work on the aqueduct since the inception of the preliminary investigations pertaining to the latter.

Mulholland’s principal assistant was Joseph B. Lippincott, a key figure, while the mechanical aspect was handled by Roderick MacKay (who died onsite in 1925 while overseeing repairs to the Aqueduct) and the transmission element was overseen by Ezra F. Scattergood, a towering figure in power generation in the Angel City for many years.

While much of the article, befitting its appearance in a trade publication, is highly technical and detailed in terms of equipment and costs, it has great value in understanding where the Los Angeles Aqueduct was in its very early stages and it helps that there are several excellent photos to illustrate the rather dry prose!

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