As a real estate speculator aver for Los Angeles, clearing the way for William Mulholland to bring the river's water to thend former Los Angeles Mayor, Fred Eaton was the mastermind who acquired the Owens Riir booming city.
Born in Los Angeles in 1856, into the prominent family that had founded Pasadena, Eaton taught himself engineering and was the superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company by age 19. Elected Mayor in 1898, Eaton created the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and, together with his friend and former employee William Mulholland, advanced the idea of building a gravity-fed aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.
The first obstacle to this plan was the brand-new federal Bureau of Reclamation, which had promised to help the farmers and ranchers of Owens Valley improve their irrigation system. Eaton pulled strings in California and even traveled to Washington to meet with advisers to the conservation-minded President Theodore Roosevelt and convince them that the Owens River would yield a greater bounty flowing from Los Angeles faucets than into Owens Valley orchards and fields. The Bureau of Reclamation project was cancelled.
Next Eaton went to the Owens Valley and began buying up water rights and land options. Never opposed to mixing public service with private gain, Eaton also purchased large parcels of Owens Valley land for himself, with the hope that he would become rich when the city of Los Angeles had to buy his land to complete the project.
In the end, Eaton's desire to enrich himself drove a wedge between him and Mulholland, whose desire above all else was simply to build. They broke off all contact when Eaton set a price of one million dollars for a piece of land needed for a storage reservoir dam; Mulholland considered Eaton's demand extortion. It was a deadlock that would ultimately destroy both men.
While holding out to sell the dam site at his price, Eaton's finances crumbled, and in 1928 collapsed altogether with the failure of the Owens Bank. Meanwhile, Mulholland's refusal to purchase the dam site had forced him to order a further appropriation of the Owens River, which sparked renewed violence and sabotage by Owens Valley residents. He was forced also to build his dam on a different site, and because the project had been delayed, he built it too quickly for safety. When the dam collapsed in 1928, Mulholland's career ended in failure as well.
Fred Eaton died in 1934.
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz|
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA