The word spread that there were heavy construction jobs
near Los Angeles. An
itinerant army of “bindle stiffs”, and for the bundles of bedding
they carried on their backs, descended on the Mojave and spread out to
the work camps up the line. It
was fall, 1908.
Drawn by the promise of a long, good paying job, they were
a tough, hard-drinking mix of nationalities: Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Montenegrins,
Swiss, and Mexicans. They
worked hard, many of them saving their wages against their eventual
return to their homelands. In
one situation, the loyalty of these men to their homelands actually
caused a labor shortage in the 1912 aqueduct work force.
When war began to seem imminent in the Balkan states, some 1500
Serbs, Bulgarians, and Montenegrins left Mulholland’s ditch and their
$2.25 per day jobs to return home to fight.
The work was hard and the conditions were rugged, but the
men were provided with shelter, food, and medical care.
In an ear before compensation benefits were a condition of
employment, the Bureau of the Los Angeles Aqueduct instituted a medical
care plan for its workers at a fee of one dollar per month for those
making $40 per month and fifty cents for those making less.
Benefits included “Medical, Hospital and Surgical Service
when needed, except for venereal disease, intemperance, vicious
habits, injuries received in fights, or chronic diseases acquired before
Dr. Raymond C. Taylor, the aqueduct’s medical director,
described life on the line. “In
the winter, it was just as windy and bitter cold as it was hot in the
summer. However, we had
practically no heat prostration, although I think I have seen in places
in some of the big ditches in the lower Owens Valley that were 15 feet
deep and 30 feet across the top, where the temperature in the bottom of
the ditch must have been close to 130 degrees.”
Accident and death figures for the project differ slightly
from one account to another. However,
the most authoritative summary appears in the “Complete Report” of
1916. The total number of
accidents resulting in death were 43, in permanent, injury, one, and
miscellaneous accidents of a trivial nature, 1,282.
When Dr. Taylor met his counterpart for the New York Aqueduct, under construction at the same time, the two compared notes. Taylor said he lost about ten men per year to fatalities. The New York doctor said he lost one man per week.