Aqueduct Centennial Field Trip
Commemoration of a Celebration

3352 DWP tent set up at the Cascades for the commemoration. CLUI photo

ON NOVEMBER FIFTH, 2013, the Center was on hand at the Cascades to witness the celebrations and commemorations of the centennial of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The opening of the L.A. Aqueduct a century ago was of course of great importance to Los Angeles, and to the development of the West. It was the moment the city gave birth to its future, and the day that its claim to the resources of its vast hinterlands was realized. It could now become a regional mega-city, capable of massive expansion. Over the years, this embrace has extended, through high-tension lines and more aqueducts, to cover all of the watersheds west of the continental divide.  But November 5, 1913 is when it all began.

To understand this, truly, we would have to go back in time, which is sort of what happened during the commemoration event, organized by the DWP. The tour group departed from the CLUI office on a chartered bus, and arrived at the Cascades to witness a scaled-down re-enactment of the events there, a century ago.

That was then . . .
100 years ago, nearly 40,000 were in attendance to watch the water get turned on for the first time. They came to this spot, at the north end of the San Fernando Valley, by car, horse, buggy, and train. They were encouraged to bring cups, suggesting they could scoop up the newly arrived Sierra water as it flowed down the hill.

Sandwiches and commemorative pennants could be had for ten cents, though the event was emphatically free, paid for by city banks and the Chamber of Commerce. Los Angeles Times called it “the biggest and most heartfelt celebration ever held in Los Angeles.”

Bands played, speeches were made, and anthems were sung. Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, introduced Ellen Beach Yaw, a famous singer of the time, known as the California Nightingale, who then sang her composition “Hail the Water.” George Pardee, the former governor of California, said that the L.A. Aqueduct “ranked higher than the bloody accomplishments of all the Caesars.”

After two hours of music and speeches, it was time to turn on the water. The aqueduct’s engineer, William Mulholland, took a position next to a concrete wall of the aqueduct, and addressed the crowd. “This rude platform is an altar,” he said, “and on it we are consecrating this water supply and dedicating this aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children for all time. That’s all.”

A flag was unfurled, signaling the valve operators, high up on the hill, to open the gates. As the water began to move towards them, Mulholland turned to the mayor, and said his most famous line, “There it is, take it.” Then, according to the Los Angeles Times, reporting the next day, “40,000 people cheered long and lustily. Shout after shout went up until the hills rang again and again in echoing response…Cheering hand-clapping and noisy congratulations continued for twenty minutes, while the murmur of the onrushing water sang a comforting and harmonious obligato to it all.”

. . . This is now
Since that time the area has been transformed by changes the aqueduct provoked. The Cascades are now dominated by an Interstate highway, a housing development called “The Legends at the Cascades” and a second aqueduct next to the old one. Across the highway is one of the city’s largest landfills, and a much expanded waterworks.

The city had filled in, and there was not much room left for its citizens to gather for the centennial celebration at the Cascades. Attendance at the event was limited to invited guests, while being simulcast via satellite to the DWP headquarters downtown, where the throngs could congregate, if they desired.

The CLUI group, arriving by bus, found closed streets and access control, but since we had been invited to attend, we found our way in, and joined a few hundred DWP employees, officials, and journalists, who were assembling in a large white tent to witness the ceremonies.  

In the tent was a stage, behind which the aqueduct was visible through a clear plastic wall. On stage sat a row of persons and personalities facing the crowd, whom they addressed, in turn, through one of two microphones, one for those playing historic roles, and the other for those playing contemporary roles.

3353 Watermaster William Mulholland, returned from the past to speak at the commemoration. CLUI photo
An actor playing Ellen Beach Yaw, the California Nightingale, stood at the historic microphone, and lip-synched to a screechy early recording of the national anthem, initiating the volley of anachronistic dissonance that was to follow through the production.
Next to take the stage was President Theodore Roosevelt, who expressed his regrets for missing the event 100 years ago, and proclaimed “What is the ultimate good for the greatest number of people? The Los Angeles Aqueduct–the culmination of effort, ingenuity, integration, and a free government at work–is for the greater good of America!”

Applause followed. He then introduced William Mulholland (played by the actor Rich Skidmore), who said to Roosevelt, in a rehearsed aside as he took to the microphone, “Great job on the Panama Canal, by the way.” His brief speech gave thanks to those who helped make the aqueduct, and proclaimed that “the future will justify the efforts of the city in doing it.” He spoke of the toll his five years of absence, working on the aqueduct, took on his family, then introduced the next speaker as “the real Christine Mulholland,” which it was.

Ms. Mulholland took the stage, saying “Thank you great-grandfather, it’s about goddamned time I got a chance to talk to you.” She had been handed the mantle of family spokesperson for the Mulholland family by her aunt, the historian and author Catherine Mulholland, who passed away a few years ago.

She was followed by an actor playing Mayor Fred Eaton, who devised the plan for the aqueduct with Mulholland, but who differed with him about how the department should operate. The former mayor then introduced his real great-grandson, John Eaton, who spoke briefly, then introduced the current mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, who started by declaring “I come to you today from the future,” by which he meant the present. Then and now fully merged.   

Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who developed a real estate empire in Southern California and profited immensely by its development, spoke next, then introduced his great-grandson, also named Harry Chandler. Senator Frank Putnam Flint, another politician, developer, and aqueduct proponent from a hundred years ago, also spoke. So did Whistling Dick, an aqueduct worker who led 52-mule wagons pulling 30-ton sections of steel pipes into Jawbone Canyon, more than a hundred years ago.

3356 And here comes the water to the awaiting crowd. CLUI photo
We were finally released from this temporal maelstrom, propelled by jaunty flapper jazz over loudspeakers, into a windy bright day, outside the tent, for the final stageplay. Here, at the aqueduct’s edge, the “crude altar,” Mulholland waved the flag, triggered the opening of the floodgates on the hill–the very same structure that was used a hundred years ago–and the water fell towards us. There it is, Mr. Garcetti, take it.

People milled around, posed for photographs, reporters did their on-camera reports for the TV news, and others went back to the tent to eat aqueduct cake. The CLUI crew collected at the bus and drove around to the other side of the dried up and abandoned Cascades Golf Course, to Stetson Ranch. Here we visited 100 mules and their respective handlers, who had been at the Cascades briefly during the commemoration, but had since moved on, and were taking a break at the ranch.

The mules had been walking the length of the aqueduct over the past few weeks, as a separate and independent commemorative activity by Metabolic Studio, a group led by the artist Lauren Bon. Mules, who of course helped build the aqueduct, make an evocative bridge between the pre-industrial past and the post-industrial future. They also represent a kind of organic indigenous industry in the Owens Valley, as pack animals enabling trips into the deep nature of the Sierras. It makes sense for the mules, in this historical tipping point, between the last 100 years and next, to finally come down to the city, to see the great spectacle their figurative ancestors helped create.

Centennials are just numerals lining up nicely, but they do bring people together to consider the significance and legacy of a shared person, place, or thing. Though November 5, 2013, may have been a day about history, more than it was a day where history was made, this was the first and last time the centennial of the Los Angeles Aqueduct would be celebrated, and it was way more historic than that day in history, 100 years ago. ♦

3386 Mulholland, as cut-out, and Ron Nichols, current General Manager of LADWP. Both were to leave the agency in disgrace–Mulholland in the 1920s, in the wake of the San Francisquito Dam disaster, and Nichols, a few weeks after the centennial, due to financial scandals at the department. CLUI photo