"The Last Spike is Driven..."

“The last spike is driven…the options are secured.”
William Mulholland
July 29, 1905

In March 1905, Fred Eaton went to the Owens Valley to buy land options and water rights.   The major acquisition of this trip was the Long Valley Reservoir site.  Eaton paid $450,000 for a two month option on ranch lands and 4,000 head of cattle.  All in all, he acquired the rights to more than 50 miles of riparian land, basically all parcels of any importance not controlled by the Reclamation Service.

On March 22nd, Mulholland reported to the Board of Water Commissioners.  He had surveyed all the water sources available in Southern California and he recommended the Owens River as the only viable source.  Immediately following Mulholland’s presentation, Fred Eaton made his proposal that the City acquire from him whatever water rights and options he had been able to secure to further the project.

While in the valley, Eaton had conducted some business for Lippincott as well.  The bulk of Lippincott’s staff had been diverted to the lower Colorado River.  The floodwaters of the Colorado River had broken through temporary irrigation barriers and had carved a new channel southeast to the Salton Sink.

Lippincott knew Eaton was headed to the Owens Valley.  Several power applications were pending for projects on the Owens River.  Lippincott required information about who the owners were, the use to which the power would be put, and the potential of these projects to interfere with the Reclamation Service’s activities.  Lippincott asked Eaton to do this work.

This trip became the source of conflict between the Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles.

Eaton visited the Independence Land Office to do Lippincott’s research.  There he met Stafford Wallace Austin, the Land Register.  The impression Eaton left was that he was there to do work for the Reclamation Service, and his subsequent land acquisition activities were interpreted in that light.

Whether deliberate or not, this impression caused anger among residents of the area, most notably Austin, when they discovered that Eaton was not acting on behalf of the Reclamation Service.  To the people of the Owens Valley, selling water rights and land for a desired federal project was far different from selling land to Eaton and water rights to the City of Los Angeles.

Austin embodied the people’s feelings of betrayal and anger.  They were afraid that the Reclamation Service intended to abandon them, serving the interests of the City of Los Angeles instead.  Austin wrote to the Commissioner of the U.S. General Land Office and to President Theodore Roosevelt to protest.

Meanwhile a serious decision faced the Reclamation Service.  It was required to make a recommendation to the Secretary of the Interior regarding the feasibility of a project in the Owens Valley.

The Board of Engineers who were to make that recommendation met on July 27, 1905.  From an engineering standpoint, the project was viable.  One of the commissioners had previously met with Austin and made sure discussions about the project gave serious consideration to his protest.  However, the economic feasibility of the project was in question.  The Board saw Los Angeles’ ownership of the Long Valley Reservoir site and 50 miles along the river as a great impediment to proceeding with a Reclamation Service project.

The Secretary of the Interior, the cabinet member responsible for the Reclamation Service, made no decision until much later.

Mulholland returned from a car trip to the Owens Valley not two days after the Board of Engineers had met.  His statement, “The last spike is driven…the options are secure.” Was the City’s verdict on the project.

It seemed irrelevant that the Reclamation Service had made no decision when on July 29, 1905 the Los Angeles Times headlines bannered “Titanic Project to Give City a River.”

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