Wo/men at Work with “The Intake,” Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, September 1926, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A prior post here covered a special “Picnic Issue” from September 1926 of The Intake, the employee publication of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP or DWP, for short, which was formally established in 1937 after a merger between the bureaus of Water Works and Supply and Power and Light), a powerful presence in the Angel City’s municipal government then and definitely so nearly a century later.

As a recent Los Angeles Times editorial on the glacial pace and exorbitant costs of new housing put it, “in a city infamous for business-squelching bureaucracy, no agency is more maligned than the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power,” and the piece observed that “he DWP’s convoluted process can add so much time, money and uncertainty to a project that some businesses decide to build elsewhere, costing the city much-needed investment, particularly in housing.” Newly announced policies to streamline approval processes were welcomed by the paper, though it cautioned that more needed to be done to lower costs and improve the time stamp for approvals on new housing projects.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 1 September 1926.

This post features the regular September 1926 issue of the publication and the main article concerned a history and description of the construction division of the department’s Bureau of Power and Light. Warren S. Baird, the entity’s executive assistant and chief clerk, provided the essay and began by noting that,

On July 1, 1911, there was born into the official family of the City of Los Angeles a new Bureau, for on that date there came into being the Bureau of Los Angeles Aqueduct Power, which was placed under the supervision of the Department of Public Works. This Bureau was the parent organization of what is now called the Construction Division of the Bureau of Power and Light.

Bewildering as the bureaucracy of the burgeoning burg could be, the basic point here was that the imminent completion of the engineering marvel that is the Aqueduct, completed in fall 1913, not only delivered the precious fluid that enabled future growth in Los Angeles but provided enormous quantities of hydroelectric power to facilitate development.

San Pedro Pilot, 2 September 1926.

Yet, as Baird noted, the origins of the division were humble, comprising “a small corrugated iron warehouse, two one-room houses, a half dozen tents, a few picks and shovels, and a wheezy one-cylinder gas engine used for pumping the camp’s water supply,” along with a work force of twenty men. Superintendent John Gray, already at work building tunnels for the Aqueduct, was charged with completing a nine-mile one in the Santa Clarita area north of the city and, inside of two months, had 1,500 men working on nine construction camps for the project.

Shortly afterward, C.L. Hoon began work on San Francisquito Power Plant No. 1, with 200 workers laboring on tunnels unearthed in what was called record time, while others were busy on the plant, which progressed rapidly until the end of 1913 “when it became necessary to suspend operations due to insufficient funds to complete the work.” H.C. Gardett then came in after the tunnels were finished and remained in charge of field operations, so that, when the plant construction project was resuscitated in 1915 and then given priority, the facility was placed online in April 1917, adding 37,500 horsepower to the supply of the Angel City.

Los Angeles Express, 4 September 1926.

Several divisions were established under the umbrella of the bureau, including for operations, construction of distribution stations, new business, and one for “the Generation-Transmission Construction” side—this being under Gardett’s leadership for the San Francisquito plant. Later in 1917, a new project was launched with the River Power Plant, a 4,000-horsepower facility since replaced by a larger one on what was then Diaz Avenue, now Coldwater Canyon Boulevard. While the structure was finished at the end of the year, “due to war conditions,” that is, America’s entrance into the First World War, no generation and transmission work was undertaken until 1919, after the conclusion of the conflict.

Baird also recorded that a plan to create a major power project in the Owens Valley, source of the Aqueduct, was undertaken in the last half of the Teens, though stopped “due to litigation . . . attacking the City’s rights on the [Owens] river.” By spring 1919, there was a shortage of electricity in Los Angeles and Los Angeles Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison could not address the supply needs, so the City undertook work on a second San Francisquito power plant. Despite the fact that “never in the history of construction work were labor conditions as chaotic as during that period immediately following the war,” 1000 men were hired for tunnels, the digging of a surge chamber, the building of a dam for a regulating reservoir and more.

Despite the challenges, it was noted that “during the months of April, May, June and July of 1920, the job practically never closed down day or night” and the author recounted the lugging of massive equipment to the rugged site, ten miles from the Southern Pacific Railroad line, and the fact that, during breaks, “meals were served at all hours in the mess house.” Baird commented that “in spite of all the adverse conditions under which this work was carried on, one unit of the plant was in operation July 7, 1920, and the second unit, August 8, 1920” and he added, “the energy was delivered to the City in time to avert a cessation of the prosperity and industrial activity which Los Angeles was at that time experiencing.” So much for delays in approvals and escalated costs, such as was discussed in the Times editorial of a couple of weeks ago!

The following year, 1921, came another landmark project, the construction of the Franklin Power Plant in the canyon of that name “just back of Beverly Hills” and which provided 3,000 horsepower to the city’s supply. With that work done, the crews were then immediately sent to Big Pine Creek in the Owens Valley to build a dam and here were more logistical challenges for hauling material and equipment to the site at a 10,500-feet elevation using pack mule trains after trains delivered items and trucks took them to horse-drawn freighting vehicles which then got to the 7,500 foot mark where the animals were stationed for the remaining four miles to the construction site.

Another local project was at the San Fernando Power Plant, where the 8,000-horsepower facility was begun in March 1922 and completed seven months later. This is now the Foothill plant at the junction of interstates 5 and 210 in Granada Hills near the MWD’s Jensen water treatment plant, the Van Norman Reservoir. As the phenomenal growth of Los Angeles came during yet another boom in the early Twenties, peaking in 1923 (when Walter P. Temple’s Town of Temple, renamed Temple City, was founded), 12,500 horsepower was added to the San Francisquito plans in June of that year.

Baird observed that, to date, none of the division’s work had actually been conducted within City of Los Angeles boundaries, but, with the dramatic growth in the metropolis, it was decided to add to the existing Central Receiving Station on North Main Street before that thoroughfare crosses the Los Angeles River into Lincoln Heights. A reinforced concrete structure just a little smaller than the existing building, along with an expanded warehouse, machine shop and transportation structure, were then built at the site.

Another problem concerned the Aqueduct’s supply origins at the Owens Valley, so that, during this boom period, which included some drought years, the DWP “was compelled to depend on underground water to maintain the City’s supply,” but the writer continued, “the pumping of this water took a great amount of electrical energy. In early 1925, it was deemed necessary to begin work on the third power plant at the aforementioned Big Pine Creek.

Assisting Gardett in supervising the department was R.R. Robertson and the division included civil, electrical, mechanical and structural engineers in the wide scope of its work and the civil engineering section, headed by A.R. Arledge, handled all the projects for that type of engineering in the Bureau of Power and Light. Another section for mechanical and structural work was led by junior mechanical engineer W.A.S. Harmon and the design, construction and installation of penstocks, which are pipes or channels conveying water to the power turbines in a station, and hydraulic machinery, was under its purview.

C.P. Garman, junior electrical engineer, oversaw the electrical section embracing all design and installation of equipment related to this vital area, while junior civil engineer A.J. Ford supervised the Transmission Line Right of Way section in the handling of high tension transmission lines. He worked closely with John T. Martin who was agent for rights of way and land purchases and the two disposed of existing structures on acquired properties, as well.

Baird mentioned that this section “is just completing the clearing of the right of way for the proposed high tension transmission line from the Central Receiving Station [in downtown] to Wilmington” and that “there were 276 houses to be removed from this right of way, not including a great number of garages, sheds, chicken houses, etc.,” though it was noted that “the greater number of these houses were sold and moved away by the purchasers. For division field work, there were foremen handling reinforced concrete, steel pipe (including those penstocks as well as structural steel elements), and electrical installation. The article ended with the comment that “an extensive construction program is being contemplated for the very near future” with plans being developed to bring the work to fruition soon.

A separate short piece discussed the imminent construction of a new receiving station at Wilmington, which was annexed to Los Angeles in 1909 as the city expanded to take in the gradually growing harbor region. Situated at Lecouvreur, now Eubank Avenue, and Reyes streets, today’s Lomita Boulevard, just a short distance north of the historic house of “Port Admiral” Phineas Banning, now the Banning Museum, the facility was to begin with 75,000 horsepower, but have a capacity of over three times that amount, or a quarter million.

Notably, it was mentioned that

This receiving station will become an integral part of the high power transmission system being built by the City and which will eventually describe a loop around the entire City.

At twenty-one-and-a-half acres, the station was to have a first phase expenditure of some $700,000, but, when at capacity, the cost estimate was pegged at somewhere between $4 and 5 million, while it was noted that “rights of way for the high tension transmission line have already been secured” as well as the land purchased.

On the last day of August, a primary election was held and also included on the slate were proposals for bonds for water and power generation of $10 and $11 million, respectively. When City Clerk Frank Dominguez released the results from the 1,414 precincts in Los Angeles, the former passed with 81% of the total, being more than 123,000 votes in the affirmative and under 29,000 in the negative, while, for the latter, there were just under 150,000 ballots cast and the ayes were 78% at not far below 117,000 votes and just under 33,000 voted no. When the San Pedro Pilot editorialized its congratulations to Los Angeles citizens for their overwhelming support, it mention the Wilmington transformer plant and the city-circling power line to allow for “the growth of greater Los Angeles, the wonder of the world.”

There are other items of interest in this issue of The Intake, so we will return for part two very soon—please check back for that!

Leave a Reply