“To Repulse With Deadly Force”: Newspaper Coverage on a War on Los Angeles Aqueduct Bombers, 28 May 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A century ago this year, the Colorado River Compact was signed by representatives of seven states to provide for an equitable distribution of the water from this vital source, but a great deal has changed since 1922, with exponential growth in most of the states countered by the stark realities of climate change, most dramatically reflected in recent news about the historically low water level at Lake Mead. How future water supply will be distributed through this and other massive and vital systems will be an enormous challenge.

For the City of Los Angeles in the Roaring Twenties, its main supply of water was through the extraordinary Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913, though, while it allowed for largely untrammeled future growth in the Angel City, controversy continued, especially among residents of the Owens Valley, source of the precious fluid transported by the system. Many town dwellers, ranchers and farmers in the sparsely-populated area of eastern California were embittered and one of the more extreme manifestations was the bombing of sections of the massive pipes utilized for the Aqueduct.

The featured objects from the Homestead’s collection for this post are the 28 May 1927 editions of the Los Angeles Express and Los Angeles Herald, both of which had blaring headlines about the issue, with the former noting “ORDER ‘DEATH WAR’ IN BOMBING OF AQUEDUCT” while the latter had “WAR ON L.A. AQUEDUCT BOMBERS.” The accompanying articles specifically concerned a statement made by Reginaldo F. del Valle, president of the Water Works and Supply and Power and Light bureaus of the City of Los Angeles, about countermeasures adopted to bring a swift and decisive end to the attacks.

In the Express the feature began with the statement that “with the identity of the dynamiters who, early today, destroyed two sections of the Los Angeles aqueduct near Big Pine, after having blasted another section near Little lake yesterday, known, President R.F. del Valle . . . announced what is virtually a ‘war to the death’ against the raiders.” It was added that a half-dozen police detectives from the Angel City were on their way “under instructions to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone found loitering about the great waterway in either Inyo, Mono or Kern counties.”

Beyond the fact that anyone found near the aqueduct could seemingly be killed without any immediate provocation, it was added that del Valle stated that there would be no request of Governor C.C. Young to declare martial law in Inyo County, which was another potentially extreme step to take, even as the chief executive “announced he would give serious consideration to such a plea, if it were made.” Los Angeles City Council member Ralph Criswell was to meet with Water and Power Commission members to discuss “the calling out of militia.”

The plan, though, developed by chief engineer William Mulholland (whose legendary reputation and stature would be largely ruined by the St. Francis Dam disaster less than a year later), his assistant Harvey Van Norman, chief electrical engineer Ezra F. Scattergood, and attorney William B. Mathews, to deal with “the raiding ranchers of the Owens valley” who asked too much money for their lands was adopted and forestalled any requests to Young and his administration. Del Valle’s statement included:

Extraordinary measures designed to bring to justice the criminals responsible for the attacks that have been made upon Los Angeles’ water and power systems and to protect these systems against further outrages have been taken . . . the department is prepared to employ every measure within the bounds of its authority to repulse with deadly force any attempt to continue the present campaign of outlawry.

It was added that there was secret information concerning the identities of those who were said to have carried out the bombing of the Aqueduct and del Valle told the press, “the criminals consist of a very small group,” as he assured Owens Valley and Inyo County residents that they were not considered “outlaws,” and went on to assert “I can name them, I am sure. We will be able to handle them.” When reporters asked for specifics on the number of alleged attackers, he answered “the number is much less than 50—and [I] stress the word much.”

Assured as del Valle was, it was reported that Mulholland told Dr. John Randolph Haynes, a water and power commissioner, that further attacks were expected in the short term. The Express also noted that there were some views by Los Angeles officials that Inyo County authorities were not to be trusted to handle law enforcement requirements, though del Valley expressed confidence in the sheriff, Tom Hutchinson, who told reporters that he did not know who conducted the bombings.

After providing some detail on the discovery of the damaged sections, the paper reported that Mulholland, Van Norman and Scattergood were clear that the water supply was not in danger as reservoir storage was sufficient to provide Los Angeles for at least 100 days. The main issue, however, was with the delivery of electricity as the Big Pines plant had to be shuttered and it was not known whether there would be problems for some customers, including farmers, while at Little Lake delayed repairs could affect the power plant at San Francisquito Canyon (where the St. Francis Dam was located) “with the result that Los Angeles’ industry will suffer.”

A water and power board statement added that it “intends to go to the full limit of its authority to apprehend and punish the guilty parties” including adding to Aqueduct patrol complements because, it stated, “the dynamiters had first overpowered two of the city’s guards on duty” at one location.” This meant that “more drastic steps must be taken to protest [Freudian slip?] the city’s property.”

It was added this was the fourth dynamite attack on the Aqueduct, the first taking place almost exactly three years before near Lone Pine and the article ended with the assertion that “the dynamiters have always been careful to perform their acts of violence in Inyo county, where it is almost impossible to obtain a conviction of them, or, as a matter of fact, even to bring them to trial.” Even as changes were made to security since the 1924 attack, “still there are those who hold real or fancied grievances against the city.”

In an editorial, the Express thundered,

The mob which committed the latest dynamite outrage on the Owens river aqueduct must not escape punishment. The members of the mob must be dealt with for what they are, a band of cowardly assassins whose attack is directed against the health and the lives of a million and a quarter inhabitants of Los Angeles, all depending for water on the aqueduct. Their aim is to deprive the city of water. They are criminals beyond the pale, deserving sympathy from no man.

Already there had been too much toleration of this lawless elements in Owens valley and their backers and those who incite them to commit crime . . . Because they have remained apparently immune from arrest and punishment, they have boldly repeated their attacks and attempts to destroy the aqueduct . . .

Mob terrorism has prevailed in the valley . . .

It was averred that prosperity was greater in Owens Valley than previously, despite the demands for “reparations” for injury purportedly caused by the diversion of water to the Angel City. Los Angeles, the piece went on, paid a majority of Inyo County’s taxes, provided for road construction, and encouraged greater tourism, “but the city has refused to pay tribute practically at the point of a gun, hence the mob attacks and dynamiting.” It was only through “swift and certain punishment” of the mob that peace could be obtained in Owens Valley.

As to the coverage of the Herald, it was stated that the measures referred to by del Valle in his statement were purported to include “machine guns, gas bombs, automatic rifles and all the weapons of modern warfare” to counter the attackers. With respect to them, it was stated “apparently committed to a policy of open warfare, the dynamiters are expected at the water and power bureau to set off one explosion a night during the next few days to bring the city to their terms.”

In its discussion of the attacks, the paper reported that “the mob, which comprised 10 heavily armed men, escorted two city guards at rifle point to a place in the hills away from the siphon” when the bombing was perpetrated and that the attackers said, “we’ll take you for a walk, there’s going to be a dynamiting here” as well as “you stay here if you don’t want to get into trouble.” Beyond the half-dozen detectives being sent by the Los Angeles Police Department, there were said to be 100 armed guards “stationed at strategic points” along the system, while “extraordinary precautions have also been taken to protect the San Francisquito municipal power plants.”

The paper went into more specifics about the reported nature of the bombings and added that Mulholland predicted that repairs to damage to the water siphons would take about three weeks or less, while steel was already ordered for new pipe sections and was expected to be delivered within ten days. Also reported was the passing of a resolution by the water and power commissioners asking the City Council to offer a $10,000 reward to capture of the attackers and that the latter passed a resolution asking the federal district attorney to seek charges for the cutting of telephone wires, being part of interstate commerce.

In his feature “Jingles from the News Jungles,” Everett Hollingsworth provided pithy four-line verses on contemporary matters, including foreign affairs, Charles Lindbergh’s visit to Belgium after his epochal trans-Atlantic flight just a week earlier, and the Aqueduct bombing, leading Hollingsworth to versify:

Those daring dynamiters of the L.A. aqueduct

Caused damage, but they failed our water system to obstruct.

Such tactics never won a triumph, as will soon be found;

Upon their heads the feeling they engender will rebound.

The contents of the two newspapers feature much else of note. For example, Los Angeles city prosecutor Dr. E.J. Lickley met with infamous oil promoter C.C. Julian, who claimed that a quintet of bankers and institutions were involved in “usurious loans” as investigators were examining what happened with some $12 million of extorted funds from his firm.

On 23 May, while in Philadelphia for surgery, the 77-year old rail tycoon and art and rare books and manuscripts collector, Henry E. Huntington, died from complications of the procedure. Both papers noted the arrival, by private train, decorated with mourning emblems, of his body and that the car, called the San Marino after his ranch, was placed on a spur track that ran from the Southern Pacific line directly to his estate and the casket taken directly into the opulent mansion that is now the main art gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. Huntington was then laid to rest in the mausoleum containing the remains of his second wife (and aunt, being previously married to Huntington’s uncle, Collis) Arabella.

In sports news, the national collegiate track and field championship (this was before the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or N.C.A.A.) was held in Philadelphia and Leland Stanford, Junior University, or simply Stanford, took the laurel easily over Penn State and Yale, with the University of Southern California placing fourth. In major league baseball, Babe Ruth went 3 for 4 and smacked his 12th home run of the season in a 8-2 win by the New York Yankees over the Washington Senators. Ruth would go on to club 60 homers, breaking his record of 59 set six years earlier and that standard was maintained for 34 more years.

With Monday the 29th being Memorial Day, the editorial page of the Express quoted an official of the committee planning the ceremony in the Angel City as saying that “the least that a patriotic person can do is attend this Memorial Day parade and service in the Coliseum.” The paper added that “none can fail to agree with his sentiment!” while continuing that “Memorial Day is the most sacred of American holidays” and “dedicated to those of America’s sons who offered their lives so men might be free and the Union preserved.” Given this “day upon which those for who they gave so much may pay them the tribute of grateful memory,” the piece ended with the repeated admonition that “surely the least a patriotic person can do is to attend the service next Monday.”

The Herald offered a series of photos with the headline of “Etiquette of Old Glory / Told for Memorial Day / Approaching Flag Day” and which Corporal Thomas D. Vernon of the Detached Enlisted Men’s List (this was for military personnel not assigned to a specific branch) showed Marie Stillwell how to hang a flag on a wall so that the star field is at the left, while one hung from a staff with that field “drawn clear to the peak of the staff.”

When the American flag was displayed with another flag, with the example shown being that of the Army’s recruiting service, the former was to be on the left and in front of the latter. The heraldic code of the Army dictates that the flag must hang with the stars at the highest point and at the left because, in heraldry, a sword is held in the right hand. Finally, if a flag was on a staff on a platform for speakers, it should again be at the left and “should have the position of honor as the heraldic right.”

A separate article noted that there were at least a half-dozen major Memorial Day services in the offing, with the official Los Angeles one at the Coliseum at 1 p.m., at which time some 50,000 persons were expected to pay tribute to the nation’s soldiers who gave their lives in defense of the country and during which a parade, featuring veterans dating back to the Civil War, was to be conducted. About the same number were anticipated to attend services at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. where a cenotaph for the unknown war dead was to be dedicated across from the Little Church of the Flowers.

Speaking of flowers, there were to be drops of these from airplanes taking off from the Griffith Park Air Unit and which were to “fly over the city for two hours, strewing flowers on graves in a number of cemeteries,” while another craft would leave from Aero Corps (precursor to TWA) field on the west side of Western Avenue north of Century Boulevard (that is, 100th Street!) “and circle the city, showering the graves of Southern California’s dead fliers with flowers.”

Other Memorial Day observations were in Hollywood, Venice, Westlake Park, Oakwood Cemetery in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, Rosedale Cemetery, Patriotic Hall on Figueroa Street, and in Whittier. For the 28th, however, the biggest news of the day in the Angel City was definitely the “death war” regarding the Aqueduct and tensions in the Owens Valley, while not as violent, continued on and off for decades more.

Leave a Reply