Pueblo to Metropolis - A Short History of LA Water

The following essay describes the history of water in early Los Angeles from the days of the Pueblo to a period when the City was considered a Metropolis. Written in 1945 by an unknown author, it was found deep within the archives of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and is presented here in its entirety without edit.


(1889)^ – View looking south on Broadway toward 2nd Street showing a cable car full of passengers in the foreground. Horse-drawn vehicles are parked along the curb on both sides of the street. On the SE corner (left) stands the First Presbyterian Church with the 1888-built City Hall situated further south at 226 S. Broadway.  To the right, on the SW corner, is the California Bank Building. In the distance can be seen Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church, located on the west side of Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets. Note: Broadway was known as 'Fort Street' until 1890.  


A Short History of Water in Los Angeles

Between 1850 and 1870 the city’s population had grown from 1,000 to 4,500 and since 1870, with but one exception, the population has doubled or better during each ten-year period. Thus, despite the repeated expansion of the water system, and later the power system also, as each extension was completed the need for newer expansions was discernible. Perhaps this growth will be more graphic in terms of utility requirements if it is pointed out that today, or any day during the past 70 years, you could stop people on Broadway with reasonable assurance that every other one had lived here less than ten years.

In 1868 two private corporations entered the local field of water distribution. Probably they were attracted by the ever-increasing number of consumers, but it may be suspected that the city fathers looked with a degree of favor upon the sharing of responsibility, because the river had begun to strike back by repeatedly washing out the dam and water wheel. In any event, contracts were drawn under which the companies acquired distribution rights but none in the river or zanjas.

In this early period some of our present reservoirs were constructed and we first encounter several names later identified with the municipal system. To mention but a few: Fred Eaton, Thomas Brooks, George Read and William Mulholland. It was during this period that several reservoirs were first constructed, in Elysian Park, at College and North Figueroa, at Lucille and Bellevue, and the Crystal Springs development was started, as also the dam which eventually gave us the lake in Echo Park.

It was also in this period, about 1871, that the first cast iron water main was laid in the city, along Eternity Street. Eternity Street was the name appropriately given to the street which ended in the cemetery, one of that graphic group of street names which included Grasshopper Street and the trio, Faith, Hope and Charity Streets. When fastidiousness came to the inhabitants, Eternity Street became Buena Vista and then North Broadway; Grasshopper became Pearl and then Figueroa, and well-to-do families along Charity Street, tired of being reminded that they lived “on charity,” went full circle and selected Grand Ave.

Since we have already noted some of the personalities identified with the Los Angeles City Water Company, it may not be amiss to note that the total personnel for years consisted of 12 – four laborers, two ditch keepers, two reservoir keepers, a combination bookkeeper and collector, a superintendent, an assistant superintendent, and one assistant to the assistant superintendent. A modern bank would have called him the vice-president.

The foreman was paid $75 per month and the laborers $2 per day for a ten-hour day, six days a week. Their hours may have been long, their work hard, but there was at least some compensation. Thomas Brooks, in his notes, relates that the customary manner of making a service connection was to drill into the main, remove the drill under full main pressure and drive in a corporation cock. Although he tells us that it was customary to request shopkeepers and occupants of nearby premises to close all windows and doors and to warn all pedestrians, you can appreciate the possibilities, for the man with the sledge sometimes became nervous and the first failure was usually followed by a second and third. At least Brooks admits that the curiosity of pedestrians of both sexes was frequently rewarded.

Numerous other private water companies also came into the local development, but the larger number in time were absorbed by the Los Angeles City Water Company and were added to the municipal system when the city exercised the option to purchase contained in that company’s 30-year lease. Although the lease expired in 1898, and public opinion favored wider municipal endeavors, appraisals and litigation delayed the transfer of properties and personnel until February, 1902, when the city took over with a board of seven water commissioners.

Several years before the city acquired the water company, Fred Eaton saw the eventual necessity of going to Owens Valley for future water sources. After he had served as City Engineer and as Mayor, he began acquiring water rights in the valley and in 1904 suggested a joint municipal-private water system. The city water commissioners insisted upon exclusive municipal ownership and initiated complete surveys of local water sheds and of Owens Valley.

These surveys demonstrated that the city would have to go north for water, and very shortly. They also disclosed the feasibility of generating power by the falling water. Mr. Eaton sold his options to the city and materially assisted in the acquisition of other rights; Congress, the President, the Secretary of the Interior and various bureaus gave invaluable assistance and information and the project rapidly moved toward reality.

The size of the project and the probable future of the municipal utilities in an ever-growing city indicated the necessity of a separate city department to manage these enterprises, hence the city charter was amended in 1911 to create the Department of Public Service, consisting of two bureaus, the Bureau of Waterworks and Supply and the Bureau of Power and Light. William Mulholland was named chief engineer of the former and E. F. Scattergood of the latter.

Actual construction work for the aqueduct had been commenced in 1908, and on November 5, 1913, the gates were opened to let the water cascade down the spillway in San Fernando Valley. The rush of those waters dramatically marked the conclusion of a great engineering feat and, in a way, their rush ended the story of the pueblo and heralded the metropolis.**

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History of Water and Electricity in Los Angeles




More Historical Early Views



Newest Additions



Early LA Buildings and City Views


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References and Credits

* Huntington Library Digital Archive

**LADWP Historic Archive


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