"Gentlemen, today you can walk out that door, turn right, hop on a streetcar and in twenty minutes end up smack in the Pacific Ocean. Now you can swim in it, you can fish in it, you can sail in it--but you can't drink it, you can't water your lawns with it, you can't irrigate an orange grove with it. Remember--we live next door to the ocean, but we also live on the edge of the desert. Los Angeles is a desert community. Beneath this building, beneath every street, there's a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we'd never existed!"
--Chinatown (1974, Paramount Pictures; Robert Towne, screenwriter)
American western historiography has produced a certain creation myth to explain Los Angeles's turn-of-the-century rise to national prominence. That is, the city's transformation from a town of 200,000 people to a full-fledged metropolis of one million is attributed to the vision and initiative of a select group of wealthy and politically powerful western individuals. (1) Henry E. Huntington, William Mulholland, and Harrison Gray Otis have been heralded as urban entrepreneurs, resourceful and resolute, inheritors of the western pioneer spirit. No event better encapsulates this perception than the construction of the z33-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct, a mammoth project that remains one of the most controversial and storied episodes in the city's history. In the words of historian Kevin Starr, "A small oligarchy ... put together press, transit, water and politics in the service of real estate speculation. Los Angeles grew, and they prospered." (2)
Nevertheless, there remains a distinct thread of Los Angeles history that promotes the notion that the aqueduct project was truly a "rape of the Owens Valley," a cover for the "scandal of the century." (3) These more recent histories focus on the so-called oligarchy in an explicitly negative light, emphasizing an injustice done to Owens Valley farmers at the hands of southern Californian land barons. (4)
Much of Los Angeles's infrastructure certainly can be attributed to the leadership of these men. In the case of the aqueduct, western minds did conceive the project's logistical details and engineering. But the story of Los Angeles's growth is much more complex than an account of urban entrepreneurs and land barons. It is a story neither of pioneers creating a city at the far corner of the country nor of land speculation and political corruption. Rather, it is an integral part of a national narrative formed by an extensive transcontinental network of railroad companies and eastern banking houses that had crystallized during the height of railroad expansion in the mid-nineteenth century.
In every major history of Los Angeles and the aqueduct, there is rarely more than a mention or footnote concerning the eastern capital essential to the city's development. As a result, those critical figures--the eastern banker, the railroad executive, the industrial capitalist--have not been given proper voice.
This article extends the scope of the story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct beyond the emphasis on western figures...