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Building the Aqueduct

The Los Angeles Aqueduct is among the most ambitious feats of engineering in California state history. Utilizing man, mule, and machine power, it completely reshaped California infrastructure. Cities and towns across Owens Valley and the Mojave Desert were reshaped and impacted. Without the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Lancaster and Palmdale would likely look very different from the cities that we know today.

In the 1890s and 1900s, severe droughts pushed Los Angeles to its very limits. With a swelling population, the city desperately needed water that it just did not have. It was either get more water, or let Los Angeles dwindle into a ghost of itself. With few options, Angelinos sought to bring water from outside of Southern California.

They eventually set their sights on Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains, roughly 250 miles away. There was a massive amount of controversy around this decision. Owens Valley residents did not want their water siphoned down to Los Angeles, and it was only through chicanery that J.B. Lippincott and other L.A. officials got farmers to sign away their water rights and leases. Despite the protests of the Owens Valley people, Senator Frank Putnam Flint appealed directly to President Theodore Roosevelt on behalf of Los Angeles and the project was approved. Roosevelt felt that it was of greater importance to California, and to the United States as a whole, that Los Angeles receive water at the expense of Owens Valley. Since then, the Aqueduct has been seen as both an example of visionary action as well as the worst case of water piracy in California history.

Workers at the Owens River section of the aqueduct.
Owens River Aqueduct Workers

Whatever side of the controversy you land on, the Los Angeles Aqueduct is an engineering marvel. Construction began in 1908, the same year as the Panama Canal, and was completed in 1913. Though it was often overshadowed by the Panama Canal, the Los Angeles Aqueduct brought innovation and ingenuity to new heights. And perhaps most astonishingly, the project finished within its projected timeline and also came in under its allotted budget of $24.5 million.

William Mulholland stands in a field with survey equipment.
William Mulholland conducting a field survey.

Heading the project was William Mulholland. He was born in Belfast, Ireland and immigrated in 1877. When he arrived in California, he initially worked as a well digger but eventually became a “Zanjero,” or Water Steward for Los Angeles. Though Mulholland never received a formal education in engineering, he learned quickly and was named the Chief Engineer of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply in 1911. Under his supervision, Los Angeles laid its first iron pipeline. Mulholland was an inventive and hardworking person who believed deeply in the American Dream. Intimately familiar with the water situation in Los Angeles, Mulholland brought an important perspective on the infrastructure that would be needed to bring water across 250 miles of desert and mountains to the city.

Rows of tents at Little Lake for aqueduct workers.
Little Lake Worker Camp

Building the aqueduct required 24-hour, seven-day-a-week work from the beginning to the end of the project. It was a monumental task that required the construction of not just the aqueduct, but also 500 miles in roadways, 120 miles of railroad, and over 350 miles of telephone lines. A whole new infrastructure of communication and transportation was needed in order to bring the aqueduct to reality. The thousands of men working on the project became known as Mulholland’s Army, due to their numbers (over 6,000) and organization. Whole contingents of men were assigned to their own tasks, and given strict deadlines for each project, which included the construction of a cement factory in Tehachapi and a tufu (an ingredient in enriched concrete) mining and processing plant in Fairmont.

Railroad and buildings used in the processing of materials.
Processing plant used in the Aqueduct Project.

A rock quarry in Mojave.
Mojave Rock Quarry

Though it was hard work, men lined up to join Mulholland’s Army. They were paid $2.25 a day (about $63 in today’s currency). Additionally, the men that worked on the Aqueduct Project were provided with shelter, food, and regular medical care. The Bureau of the Los Angeles Aqueduct provided health coverage to the workers for between $0.50 and $1 a month, an incredibly generous offer at the time. Men were treated promptly for injury or disease, and the medical director, Dr. Taylor insisted on cleanliness in both work sites and medical facilities. Because of this, fatalities on the project were minimal. The 1916 “Complete Report” of the project listed only 43 injury-related deaths, and only 1 permanent injury.

Men oversee a team of 52 mules hauling aqueduct pipes.
52-Mule team hauls pipes.

Though men and mules performed the bulk of the labor, newly developed technology was brought in to assist them in their work. Gasoline powered crawler tractors were used in excavation. Mulholland is said to have likened the tractors to caterpillars, giving name to a brand that still works construction today.

Dipper dredge used for excavation.
An electric dipper dredge.

In addition to the sheer volume of manpower that went into this project, Mulholland’s Army was able to accomplish miraculous tasks, one of which was the Elizabeth Tunnel. With two crews working simultaneously on opposite sides of the Portal Mountain, they needed to coordinate it so that they met exactly at the designated spot. Two holding reserves were built, one in Fairmont and one in Bouquet Canyon, and a full five miles of the tunnel is underneath Elizabeth Lake. Specially manufactured steel pipes had to be constructed to manage the water flow. These pipes were transported by teams of mules and welded into place by hand.

A group of men stand in a tunnel with excavating equipment.
Crew excavating the Elizabeth Tunnel.

These projects totally transformed the landscape, and for the Antelope Valley, the aqueduct was a financial boon. Farmers here had also been suffering from drought, and the aqueduct promised flowing water. The project provided full-time employment to many Valley men. And as more workers were brought in, people put down roots in Lancaster, Mojave, Elizabeth Lake, and Palmdale. Though some were only temporary residents, many people chose to settle down permanently. Even William Mulholland, the lead engineer of the aqueduct, stayed for a time in Elizabeth Lake, using the Munz Ranch as his headquarters.

A hillside with the aqueduct pipeline visible.
Aqueduct pipes traversing a hillside.

When construction finished in 1913, Angelinos celebrated. Water flowed from Owens Valley through the Mojave Desert and allowed Los Angeles to thrive and grow into a megatropolis. Meanwhile, the Antelope Valley grew and blossomed as more people found home along the aqueduct’s path. Today, the aqueduct is still a feat of human engineering prowess and has undergone only minor alterations to increase its capacity.

11/30 Edit: This post describes the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. A previous version of the post mistakenly named the California Aqueduct, which was built in the 1960s and travels from Stockton in the Central Valley to the Antelope Valley.


MOAH Collections

Gossard, Gloria. “The Los Angeles Aqueduct,” Mojave, June 1991.

Historical Society of Southern California. The Los Angeles Aqueduct: 1913-1988.


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