The Water War That Polarized 1920s California
When a "Scofflaw Carnival" Occupied the L.A. Aqueduct
At 1:30 on the morning of May 21, 1924, a thunderous explosion rocked the Owens Valley near the town of Lone Pine, echoing against the stark rampart of snowcapped Sierra to the west. Centered on a lonely stretch of the Los Angeles Aqueduct north of town, the explosion—caused by the detonation of 500 pounds of dynamite—shattered one wall of the carefully engineered conduit channeling water to the distant city. By the time investigators arrived on the scene the next morning, millions of gallons of the precious stuff had been wasted, and more was running out of the aqueduct with each passing minute.
News of the explosion came as a shock to most Angelenos. True, tensions had been simmering in the Owens Valley for some time, but until now the trouble hadn’t advanced beyond threats, bluster, and inconclusive standoffs. But the May 21 bombing signaled an escalation of the conflict to a new, more violent plane. As William Mulholland, who heard about the bombing in an early-morning telephone call, told an emergency session of the L.A. City Council: “We had heard of threats from disgruntled persons, but going on the theory that barking dogs do not bite, we did not pay any attention to them. Last night they bit.”
In response to the bombing, the city sent a team of law enforcement officials north to assist the local sheriff’s office in the investigation, followed by a gaggle of newspaper reporters and photographers. Over the next few days, as water department workers moved to repair the damage, it became clear what had happened in that remote stretch of the valley.
Fresh footprints and tire tracks around the blast site indicated that a caravan of some 40 people had been involved in this act of domestic terrorism. And although the L.A. papers at first speculated wildly about the source of the conspiracy—attributing the bombing to anarchists, Wobblies (members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World union), or even private power companies seeking to disrupt the city’s attempts to develop hydroelectric capacity—the perpetrators were soon revealed to be local residents. Detectives traced the dynamite to a nearby warehouse that just happened to be owned by the Watterson brothers, leaders of the Owens Valley Irrigation District. Mulholland dispatched several private investigators to Lone Pine and offered a $10,000 reward for information, but the guilty parties could not be found. As detective Jack Dymond later remarked, “Every resident of the Owens Valley knows who did the dynamiting, but no one will tell.”
The cause of this lurch toward violence was not difficult to determine. Some 10 days before the blast, Mulholland, frustrated with the persistent stalemate, had persuaded the city to file suit against the Owens Valley interests to recover the water from the McNally and Big Pine canals. As the Chief saw it, the water department had legally purchased those two properties back in 1923. The continuing diversion of those waters away from the L.A. Aqueduct—by armed vigilante groups like George Warren’s—constituted an outrageous affront to the city’s legal rights, especially as the drought continued to worsen in the entire region. The Owens Valley farmers and ranchers were incensed by the city’s lawsuit, especially since some of them were named individually as defendants. According to Owens Valley Herald editor Harry Glasscock, who was emerging as one of the most vocal leaders of the resistance movement, the city’s action was brought “mainly for the purpose of demoralizing this county, frightening the people, and depressing land values. . . . The defendants in this case, the water owners and users of this section, are the men who helped build the west.”
This familiar trope of heroic western pioneers divided and undermined by conniving city slickers was played up in a series of articles written for the San Francisco Call by staff writer Court E. Kunze (who just happened to be a brother-in-law of Wilfred Watterson). Under the title “Valley of Broken Hearts,” the series was hardly a paragon of dispassionate reporting. “Fear, suspicion, and bitter hatreds have pitched their black tents in every crossroad” ran a typical passage. “Neighbor no longer trusts neighbor. Rumors of sellouts or suspected betrayals are the chief topic of conversations,” and so on. Second in vehemence only to Glasscock’s intemperate diatribes in the Owens Valley Herald, Kunze’s series did much to embolden the perpetrators of the May 21 bombing.
And this “western standoff” narrative was soon generating real-life plot twists worthy of one of the Hollywood westerns being shot in the Alabama Hills. In one incident, a local resident named L. C. Hall, perceived by his neighbors as sympathetic to the city’s cause, was literally run out of town—kidnapped one night by a group of vigilantes and nearly lynched on a cottonwood tree before being told to leave the valley and never come back. (He was saved from hanging, according to one account, when he flashed a secret Masonic distress signal, which convinced some Masons in the mob to reconsider their plans.) Aqueduct employees and other city representatives received threats and intimidations of their own; Glasscock himself promised to shoot a reporter from an L.A. newspaper if he didn’t stop asking questions. But when Mulholland received an explicit death threat—a letter that claimed he would be killed if he set foot in Bishop—the Chief responded in classic movie-western fashion: “They wouldn’t have the nerve,” he snarled. “I’d just as soon walk the whole length of Owens Valley unarmed.”
Now that the bombing had earned them the city’s undivided attention, the Wattersons and other valleyites did some hard bargaining. In a proposal presented to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, an entity perceived as more sympathetic to their situation than Mulholland and his water department, the valley interests gave the city of Los Angeles a choice: either restore the valley’s agricultural potential to what it was before Mulholland started pumping groundwater and secretly buying water rights in its upper reaches, or else buy out the entire valley, “not at your price, not at our price, but at a reasonable price fixed by a competent board of appraisers.” This latter idea seemed reasonable to the chamber, which wrote a report suggesting the creation of an independent board of arbitration to set binding prices for property in the Owens Valley. But Mulholland and the water board ignored the report, claiming that the Wattersons and their contingent did not represent the majority of valley people. The chamber chose not to argue with this logic and left the matter there. “The president of the Chamber of Commerce is an old friend and former business associate of mine,” an increasingly rigid and imperious Mulholland explained. “The chamber will never do anything to hurt me.”
Frustrated by the failure of their proposal—and after rejecting a subsequent counterproposal by the public service commissioners as “the same old bunk”—the Owens Valley activists decided to take more dramatic action again. Shortly before dawn on Sunday, November 16, a contingent of between 70 and 100 men set out from Bishop in a caravan of Ford Model Ts and drove south to the Alabama Gatehouse, on a stretch of the aqueduct about six miles north of Lone Pine. Led by banker Mark Watterson, Karl Keough, and other members of the Owens Valley Irrigation District, the vigilantes forcefully removed the two watchmen on duty and proceeded to occupy the surrounding waterworks. Once in control of the gatehouse, they turned the great wheels inside that opened the metal floodgates, releasing the aqueduct’s flow of water down a concrete spillway, where it streamed out onto the valley floor. Then, in a show of defiance perhaps more symbolic than practical, they laid barbed wire at the foot of the hill on which the gatehouse stood—as if in preparation for a lengthy siege.
Inyo County sheriff Charles Collins arrived on the scene sometime after daybreak, but his sympathies were clearly with his fellow valley residents; after issuing pro forma demands that the crowd disperse— demands that were cheerfully ignored—he merely took down the names of all of the men involved. Eager to be publicly associated with this act of defiance, they gathered around the lawman, shouting out their names and making sure he spelled them right.
More meaningful opposition came a few hours later, when Edward Leahey, the local representative of Los Angeles in the valley, drove up to the gatehouse and parked his car at the foot of the hill. As he climbed the slope beside the roaring spillway, a noose allegedly dropped from one of the windows of the gatehouse and dangled in front of him. Leahey wasn’t intimidated; he was angry. He was met at the gatehouse door by Mark Watterson and several others. After satisfying themselves that Leahey wasn’t armed (and, curiously, after offering him coffee), they delivered their ultimatum: “You can tell [water department attorney] Mathews and Mulholland that we’re going to stay here till they settle with us.” And when Leahey expressed his determination to stop the wanton waste of city water they were perpetrating, Watterson warned him, “If you try to close these gates, we’ll make our own gates”—a not-so-subtle threat to dynamite another hole in the aqueduct somewhere else.
Needless to say, when Mulholland heard about the takeover, he was apoplectic. Thanks to a reservoir he had built at Haiwee, lower in the valley, the vigilantes’ actions did not threaten L.A.’s immediate water supply. But the diversion would cost the city upward of $15,000 a day until it was stopped. Determined to end the siege immediately, he and Mathews dispatched two carloads of detectives and investigators from the city. When news of the approaching posse reached the Owens Valley, a crowd of local men gathered outside the Watterson hardware store in Bishop, demanding weapons to hold off the intruders. Sheriff Collins, fearing bloodshed, jumped into his car and sped south to intercept the oncoming detectives. He met them somewhere south of Lone Pine and warned of the brewing resistance. “If you go up there and start any trouble,” he allegedly told them, “not one of you will get back to tell the tale.” The detectives, perhaps wisely, decided to postpone the confrontation until tempers in the valley cooled off.
Meanwhile the scene at the Alabama Gates had taken on a festive aura, as more and more people gathered to show solidarity or merely to see what was going on. First came the inevitable corps of news reporters and photographers from the city—welcomed with open arms by the protesters, since one of the principal goals of the takeover was publicity. The press was followed by family members and sympathetic neighbors of the men holding the gatehouse. At noon on November 17, the day after the incident began, a group of some 20 women arrived from Bishop with hot dogs, potato salad, and other picnic supplies, and soon the siege resembled nothing so much as an outdoor community supper.“Soon there was singing, dancing, and a barbecue under way—all while the precious lifeblood of aqueduct water drained unused into the ground.”
By Tuesday the 18th, the crowd at the remote spot had grown to more than 700 people—most of them from in and around Bishop, where a hastily painted billboard at the town’s main intersection now read “IF I AM NOT ON THE JOB, YOU CAN FIND ME AT THE AQUEDUCT.” Cowboy film star Tom Mix, who was at the time filming a western in the Alabama Hills nearby, visited with a mariachi band that was part of his cast, and soon there was singing, dancing, and a barbecue under way—all while the precious lifeblood of aqueduct water drained unused into the ground.
City officials, of course, were not idle during this scofflaw carnival. S. B. Robinson, Mathews’s assistant in the water department’s legal office, came north and demanded an injunction from Inyo County superior judge William Dehy. The judge did issue a temporary restraining order, but when Sheriff Collins attempted to serve it, the insurgents merely tossed the documents into the still-raging spillway. “No, Sheriff,” one of them said, “we won’t leave here until the state troops come in and put us out.” A group of them calmly lifted the sheriff up onto their shoulders and carried him back to his vehicle.
Not to be discouraged, Robinson insisted that Judge Dehy issue arrest warrants for the men known to be the main instigators of the siege. But here again he got no satisfaction. Dehy recused himself from the matter, claiming to be disqualified “by personal interest.” Since there was no other judge to be found in this remote jurisdiction, Robinson had no choice but to give up his legal challenge.
But as the occupation went on, it became clear that something had to be done. Sheriff Collins appealed to California governor Friend Richardson to send in the state militia. This was exactly what the insurgents wanted, since the resulting news stories would give their cause worldwide visibility. Even absent a confrontation with armed troops, the story of their rebellion was making headlines nationwide (and even in one Parisian newspaper), and public support for the local militants was high. Through reporters, the people of the Owens Valley were finally making their plight known to the wider world, and their demands were clearly articulated: Los Angeles must make amends to all of the people harmed by its depredations in the valley.
For the farmers and ranchers, the terms were the same—either restore the agricultural viability of the properties remaining in valley hands, or else buy them all out at once, at a fair price to be determined by an independent authority. But now the insurgents also sought reparations for valley town-dwellers whose businesses had been hurt by the city’s actions. According to the Wattersons, local merchants, professionals, and members of the service trades had seen drastic declines in their livelihoods as the city bought up properties and their former occupants left the area, depressing the local economy. According to one calculation, merchants in Bishop had seen drops of over 50 percent in their volume of business. To compensate for these losses, the valleyites were now demanding a total of $12 million, a figure that included $5.5 million in reparations and another $6.5 million for the purchase of all town properties by the city.
It was an extravagant sum, and yet the general public outside Los Angeles—moved by news stories about closing schools, unemployed laborers, and struggling general stores in the valley—was proving sympathetic. Even some of the L.A. newspapers were expressing solidarity with what they called “a depressed pioneer community.” According to the Los Angeles Daily News, “the city can afford to be liberal in a settlement with these pioneers, whose work of half a century it will undo.”
Unfortunately for the occupiers of the Alabama Gates, Governor Richardson ultimately refused to send the militia to Lone Pine, denying them the publicity coup they wanted. But he did agree to dispatch State Engineer W. F. McClure to the valley to conduct a special investigation into the valleyites’ claims. Meanwhile an organization of L.A. bankers (known unmemorably as the Los Angeles Clearing House Association) rushed in where the Chamber of Commerce feared to tread. Worried that the standoff would go on indefinitely unless the city made some goodwill gesture, the bankers’ association offered to mediate the dispute between valley residents and the city water department—but only if the unlawful occupation of the Alabama Gates ended immediately.
It was a well-timed offer. Now in its fourth day, the valley’s act of civil disobedience was losing momentum. And so, after a final barbecue to which all residents of the Owens Valley (even employees of the city water department) were invited, the insurgents set the machinery in motion to close the gates once again, stopping the roaring cascade down the spillway and restoring the full flow of water to the aqueduct. Then they peacefully dispersed, ending the four-day crisis. But they left with a caveat. “If the Clearing House [Association] fails to keep faith,” Sheriff Collins warned, “I look for hell to pop.”
For Mulholland, the important thing was that “his” water (minus the ongoing illegal diversions perpetrated by certain groups in the valley) was once again flowing toward Los Angeles. The proposed figure for reparations struck the Chief as both unjustified and ridiculously high, but ultimately the decision on whether to pay would belong to the public service commissioners, not to him. His job was to make sure the city had enough water to continue growing, which he did by resuming his unpublicized purchases of properties and water rights while the negotiations dragged on. Hoping to relieve the “hysteria” that had gripped the water department during the Alabama Gates incident, he also set out to build enough reservoir capacity around L.A. to ensure that any future aggressions by the Owens Valley extremists would not significantly threaten the city’s supply.“As more individual landowners succumbed to financial pressures and sold their properties to the city, their diehard neighbors felt only more bitter and betrayed. Some resorted again to dynamite.”
His immediate goal was to build reservoirs enough to hold a full one-year supply of water for the city at its current size, and to do it as quickly as possible. A small reservoir in the Hollywood Hills was completed in 1925, and two more were planned for Tinemaha and San Gabriel. But the key element in his plan was a dam in the San Francisquito Canyon northwest of the city, where the terrain and lack of settled population would allow a much larger reservoir to exist. Mulholland had originally intended to build a small hydroelectric dam at this location, but that was before the events at the Alabama Gatehouse. Now he moved to build a 175-foot-high concrete dam in the remote canyon above Santa Clarita. In his haste, and with a characteristic confidence in his own abilities to match any challenge, he broke ground without extensive consultation with geological experts. While already pouring concrete at the site, he decided to make the dam 20 feet higher than originally planned, so that the reservoir behind it could hold as much as 38,000 acre-feet of water. That way, by his calculations, the city’s needs could be supplied for months if necessary, no matter what disruptions the Owens Valley vigilantes might cook up.
Mulholland’s concerns proved to be well founded, because matters in the valley did not improve. The L.A. bankers association, after some halfhearted attempts to negotiate a solution, abandoned their efforts, leading many to conclude that their promise to intervene had been merely a ploy to end the Alabama Gates occupation. In the spring of 1925, the valley got at least some good news when the California legislature—after an intense lobbying effort by valley interests—passed a bill making cities legally responsible for damages to business or property values caused by water diversions. Valley landowners quickly put together claims for several million dollars in damages—but the water board would not budge. So sue us, they essentially responded; any claims that held up in court would be paid. But since any such effort would involve a too-long, too-expensive legal challenge, the frustrating stalemate continued.
As more individual landowners succumbed to financial pressures and sold their properties to the city, their diehard neighbors felt only more bitter and betrayed. Some resorted again to dynamite. In April 1926, a city well near Bishop was blown up; in May, a ten-foot hole was blasted in the aqueduct wall near the Alabama Gates. The city hired a corps of Pinkerton private detectives to move into the valley to spy on possible conspirators. Then, in response to a rumored plan to attack the Haiwee Reservoir, city representative Ed Leahey fortified the entire area. “It would be a terrible situation if you sent men with rifles to Haiwee,” he told the alleged attackers through an intermediary, “because I’ve got three machine guns here.”
By early 1927, the city’s patience had run out. In a March advertisement placed in the Bishop newspapers, the water board set a May 1 deadline for purchases of valley properties. Until that day, the city would buy any land offered at appraised prices (considered far too low by the landowners); after that day, the deal would be off the table. Ed Leahey, who knew that ongoing negotiations were the only thing preventing allout rebellion in the valley, disapproved of this ultimatum. “If you do that,” he told the board, “they’ll start dynamiting again.”
But the board was adamant. So, too, were the valley diehards, who proceeded to ignore the deadline. Five days after it passed, the city added fuel to their fury by formally denying any claims for reparations. For many in the valley this was the final indignity. In the Owens Valley Herald, editor Harry Glasscock made no effort to hide his anger: The aqueduct “would run red with human blood,” he predicted, “before this trouble was settled.”
From The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles. Used with permission of Crown. Copyright © 2018 by Gary Krist.