Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct


The first Owen River Los Angeles aqueduct was one of the greatest fabricated landmarks of the 20th century. The magnificent structure has served the city of Los Angeles for over one century.

This paper examines the events that led to the need to construct the aqueduct, the process of construction, and the outcomes of the project. The paper analyses both the successes and the failures of the project. The project sufficiently supplied water for LA for over 50 years. The paper concludes by remarking how the project would have been made better in the current century.


Los Angeles is a city located in California in the United States. The climatic condition of the region where the city is located in semi-arid. The population growth of Los Angeles in the 20th century was massive (American Society of Civil Engineers par. 1). Several resources were strained by this sporadic population growth. Water was one of the resources that were seriously strained during the early years of the 20th century. This demanded the establishment of a water supply project that would ensure the sustainability and growth of the city. In 1904, three great engineers of the early 20th century (J.B. Lippincot, Frederick Eaton, and William Mulholland) developed the First Owens Valley Aqueduct plan (American Society of Civil Engineers par. 1).

They came up with a proposal for developing the 233-mile aqueduct. This aqueduct was to run from River Owens to Los Angeles (LA). The estimated cost of the aqueduct was about $23 million. The citizens of the city approved this project. Construction of the channel immediately commenced. This development was considered one of the greatest technological milestones of that time since it was able to supply huge amounts of water to the city and its environs through the force of gravity (Stansbury 581). Therefore, it was one of the best and most efficient projects ever accomplished in the early 20th century (Caso 102).

Summary of the event

Los Angeles was founded in the 18th century. The Los Angeles River was the major source of water for the city for over two centuries. The increased population growth and the drought witnessed in the early 20th century resulted in an inefficient supply of water to the city since it became a key metropolis city in the United States (American Society of Civil Engineers par. 3). The Los Angeles City Water Company privately owned the city’s water supply for many years. In 1902, the city’s municipality bought the company and thereafter paved the way for a greater future for the city’s water supply system (Gottlieb 103).

William Mulholland, the then superintendent of the company was retained and became the head of the revamped Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Mulholland was a great, self-trained engineer. He began his career as a ditch cleaner but eventually rose in the ranks to the position he was when the company was bought. At this time, he was 30 years old. The city’s board of water authorized Mulholland to initiate a search for alternatives that would ensure the sustainability and growth of the southern city. His former boss by the name Fred Eaton, helped him to identify a potential source of the city’s water supply (Stansbury 581).

To achieve this great ambition, several human activities that were located in the Owens Valley had to be significantly affected. This valley was home to ranchers, farmers, and other ordinary residents. They also had initiated a program targeting the waters of Owen River. They were determined to reclaim the vast lands in the valley using water from the Owen River. However, in 1905, Mulholland and Eaton managed to purchase huge tracts of land along the rivers as well as the rights of the waters flowing through the river. This completely incapacitated the planned project by the inhabitants of the valley. The construction of the channel was now effectively on course as the major hindrance had been dealt with accordingly (Stansbury 583).

The two engineers moved further in developing the position of the aqueduct linking the river and the city. Several other powerful business people and the president backed the project. It was visualized as an exemplary image of national development. It was now ready to be initiated once the public approved the funding. The project received overwhelming public support. It agreed to release $1.5 million bonds needed to initiate the project in 1905 (Gottlieb 117).

The residents of LA officially put the project on course with the approval of $23,000,000 bonds in 1907 (Stansbury 581). Construction was officially started in 1908. This project employed over 4000 laborers, both skilled and unskilled. This project outsourced some of its labors outside the United States. Some of these laborers were Bulgarians, Greeks, Swiss, Serbs, Mexicans, and Montenegrins. Several new technological developments were also utilized in speeding up the process of construction of the tunnel.

The caterpillar tractor was the most significant mechanization that boosted the whole process. The use of advanced steel cutting technologies was also vital in the construction process. This process was therefore one of the well-paying long-term construction jobs in the United States. It attracted several people from all over the world (Stansbury 133).

The aqueduct was 3.7 meters in diameter and 359km long. It was mainly made up of steel pipes. Several other infrastructural developments emerged as a result of the project. Some of these developments included the two hydroelectric power stations, 190 km railway line, 270 km power lines, cement plant, 240 km telephone lines, and 800 km road networks (American Society of Civil Engineers par. 4). Most of the projects that directly depended on the water were very efficient and cheap to maintain since the water system was designed to work under gravity as the only driving force.

At the time of its completion in 1913, it was the largest water project in the world. It withstood the test of time and is currently still in use. However, the project received setbacks when the St. Francis dam broke its banks in 1928. This destroyed the lives and property of many residents of the modern-day Santa Clarita Valley. Furthermore, resistance from the residents of Owens valley in the development of the project posed several dangers to the existence of the project.

They sometimes interfered with the tunnels that carried the waters. The resistance resulted because the original settlers of the Owen Valley felt that they were short-changed since their resources were taken (Gottlieb 99). They were bitter because they felt that Mulholland manipulated the federal government is declining to fund the development of their agricultural project. The outbreak of the California water wars marked the peak of the resistance. Farmers from the Owen valleys attacked the aqueduct infrastructure severally in an attempt to diverge the waters from the tunnels to their lands in the 1920s.

Moreover, the San Fernando Syndicate which was composed of investors who purchased the lands in the San Fernando Valley before the construction of the aqueduct was part of the negative side of the project. They maliciously used the inside knowledge of the planned project for selfish interests. Eaton and Mulholland (the engineers who build the aqueduct) were amongst the businesspeople who acquired large tracts of land in the valley (Gottlieb 121). They have been long condemned for the hidden tactics for self-enrichment. In addition, this project was catastrophic in the development of Owen valley as an agricultural region in the state of California.

It also affected the ecosystem in Owen Lake. This happened because almost all the water in the river was redirected to a new destination namely the San Fernando Valley. Apart from a few negative effects that came with one of the greatest artificial landmarks, it still speeded up the growth of LA during the era of the Second World War (Gottlieb 130). This infrastructural development has been altered a little to accommodate the rising population. However, it is still a major source of water for domestic and agricultural use in LA and its environs.

At the end of the project, several infrastructural developments had taken place. Most of the inverted siphons are sustained above the ground on the docks. From Owens Valley, the canal passes through mountains, foothills, and the Mojave Desert into LA (Gottlieb 96). This water was enough to supply a population of two million for a lifetime without any constraints. Until the system needed further extension, migration of Americans into southern California was the highest in the United States.

How the Aqueduct was built

This project was one of the largest construction projects of the early 20th century in the United States. It took about 6 years to complete the entire project. It involved the use of both skilled and unskilled labor. Latest construction pieces of machinery as of that time were also employed in the project (Gottlieb 97).

The project was divided into various construction units. An engineer, whose responsibility was to ensure the area allocated to him/her was fully completed within the allocated time headed each unit (Water and Power Associates par. 3). Several bodies and individuals were responsible for the construction of this historical landmark. Firstly, funds needed for the project were made available by the public works department. Secondly, the chief engineer of the project was William Mulholland. He supervised all the processes to ensure the successful completion of the project within the stipulated time and budget. His assistant was J.B. Lippincot. They worked for hand in hand in managing the project (Water and Power Associates par. 5).

Moreover, other engineers were also appointed to oversee specific constructions within the project. This canal was located in the Owen Valley. O. Phil Wintz ensured that the southern dam walls were effectively constructed. F. J. Mills engineered the construction of tunnels and pressure pipes in the Grapevine division. Louis Mesmer built the Freeman Division while A. C. Hansen was in charge of constructing the Mojave division and the Jawbone division. W. C. Aston constructed the steel pipes and tunnels of the southern portal of the Elizabeth tunnel (Water and Power Associates par. 6). The power plant was built by E. F. Scattergood.

He was an electrical engineer. The cement mill on the other hand was constructed under the management of Roderick MacKay. He was also a major source of information on the operations of heavy construction machinery. Finally, E. W. Bannister maintained all official records of the construction process (Water and Power Associates par. 6). The combined efforts of the above engineers resulted in the greatest landmark of the early 20th century.

Several pieces of machinery were needed to help in overcoming the numerous hurdles encountered during the construction period. For instance, the rocky topography around the Sierra Mountains demanded the construction of numerous tunnels that would carry large amounts of water from the river through the tunnels (Hundley 150). This was achieved by the use of machine drills. In addition, the construction of the Elizabeth tunnel that passes through the hard granitic rocks was also quite challenging.

However, with the use of heavy drills and a caterpillar, the tunnel was successfully made. In fact, it became one of America’s longest drills through hard rocks, covering a length of over 26780 feet. This tunnel was dug within one month (Hundley 167). Other machineries such as aerial trams were used in delivering the construction materials in the mountainous regions.

Since the water was a necessity of the construction process, it posed a major challenge during the entire process. Most of the areas where the aqueduct passed were arid and semiarid. The city of LA was forced to channel water upwards along the aqueduct. This was achieved with the construction of a water pipeline with several reservoir tanks. Apart from the general construction process of the tunnels, water was also used to facilitate the construction of several concrete structures and the cement plant. These were major requirements needed for the successful completion of the project.

The Southern Pacific Railway line was completed by the year 1910. It was a major boost to the general transportation of heavy construction materials to the site. Some roads were constructed to link the construction site with the rails and other sources of construction materials. These roads covered about 550 miles (Hundley 109).

The use of humans and mules became too expensive in the process of hauling. The city opted to use caterpillar tractors. The city purchased one caterpillar that proved to be very efficient. This resulted in the purchase of 28 additional machines to speed up the operation. However, the cost associated with the maintenance of these pieces of machinery was more expensive than anticipated. The chief engineer reverted to using mules and humans.

The power needed for the construction process was generated from the hydroelectric plants that were built along the aqueduct. These power stations were eventually increased in numbers to cater to the supply of electricity needed by the city of LA.

The monolith was the source of the cement needed for the construction. It was a very large area. This factory was very efficient. It produced about 1000 barrels of cement every hour (Hundley 107). Tehachapi Mountains provided much-needed building materials such as sand and limestone.

All these processes indicate the efficiency of the construction process. Most of the construction materials were sourced from within and therefore minimized the cost of transportation. Power was a necessity for joining the steel pipes. It was generated alongside the project line. This resulted in the general infrastructural improvement of the region. Industrialization was also not left behind by this project. The largest cement factory in LA was constructed to supply cement for the project. The factory is still operational up to date.

The construction of this aqueduct came with very many criticisms and complaints. It was perceived to have broken the law that required the federal government to finance the reclamation of 20 regions in the south through irrigation. Owen Valley was part of the area to be irrigated (Hundley 118). The people that were sent by the federal government to access the viability of the project had self-interests in the first Owen river aqueduct.

This is the major reason why the irrigation project in the Owen valley was abandoned. Furthermore, LA used its influence to legally steal from the settlers of the Owen Valley. It was even more disastrous to realize that as much as the city invested heavily in obtaining the water resource, most of the water was directed to the San Fernando Valley (Hundley 8). Business people who had prior knowledge of the planned project had purchased most of the land in these valleys. From the estimations, almost two-thirds of the waters from the river ended up in this valley.

From my assessment, I realized that the project was well planned. However, a lot of bureaucracy negatively affected the actual intention of the project. It could have been possible to supply enough water to the city, and at the same time supply water for irrigation in the Owen valley (Caso 250). Implementing the irrigation project in the Owen valley was simpler than the enormous project of channeling water from the river to LA.

The project could have involved the construction of a dam that would supply water into the Owen Valley. Since the original intention was to supply the city of LA with enough water, the amount of water in the river was enough to handle both the city and Owen valley effectively (Hundley 746). Such an approach could have prevented the water wars of the 1920s. The diversion of the initial objectives of the project was detrimental to the entire process.

If this project was implemented in the modern-day, it would have been an icon of perfection. Currently, several pieces of machinery are available. Humans have also advanced in the study of geology and construction techniques. Incidences such as the collapse of the St. Francis dam in LA would have been avoided. The dam collapsed simply due to structural weaknesses that could have been effectively dealt with in the 21st century (Hundley 308).

The modern-day environmental protection laws are very strict. The structure could have been adjusted to ensure strict adherence to the environmental laws and policies (Gottlieb 95). Effects such as the destruction of Lake Owen, and the complete deviation of the river affected various life forms could have been reassessed. A viable option that ensured water is availed to LA in the most economic, sustainable, and ethical manner could have been adopted.

In conclusion, it is vital to affirm that modernity has enabled humanity to understand the importance of preserving the environment. The project destabilized several natural systems.

Works Cited

American Society of Civil Engineers. First Owens River – Los Angeles Aqueduct: Mono County to Los Angeles, California Constructed 1907-1913, 2013. Web.

Caso, Frank. Freshwater Supply. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Print.

Gottlieb, Robert. Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Hundley, Norris. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water -a History. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2001. Print.

Stansbury, Jeffrey. Organized Workers and the Making of Los Angeles, 1890—1915. Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest, 2008. Print.

Water and Power Associates. Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 2011. Web.

Cite this paper

Select style


Premium Papers. (2022, April 8). Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Retrieved from


Premium Papers. (2022, April 8). Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Work Cited

"Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct." Premium Papers, 8 Apr. 2022,


Premium Papers. (2022) 'Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct'. 8 April.


Premium Papers. 2022. "Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct." April 8, 2022.

1. Premium Papers. "Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct." April 8, 2022.


Premium Papers. "Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct." April 8, 2022.