This article was posted on Saturday, Jan 01, 2022

Overview:  Frederick Eaton and William Mulholland grew up in entirely different worlds. Mulholland was born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a low-level guard of the Royal Mail. William ran away from home when he was 15, spent seven years wandering about as a manual laborer first on a trans-Atlantic cargo ship, then in the American Midwest, and then to a job as a ditch digger (zanjero) in Los Angeles. 

Frederick Eaton was the son of a socially prominent family and “born to the silver”. He and William met when both were in their early 20’s, remained friends for decades and accomplished grand things. They died fifty years later, in their middle 70’s, estranged and disgraced.

Frederick Eaton’s Story

Frederick Eaton was the scion of a socially notable family that was partially responsible for establishing the city of Pasadena, a nexus of political power in those days. His father, Benjamin, arrived in Los Angeles in 1851, established a law practice, became the district attorney, and then a judge. Later, as the first president of the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association, Judge Benjamin Eaton was appointed to develop an adequate water supply to the neighborhood orange groves. This was accomplished by diverting a portion of the flow of the Los Angeles River via gravity feed into a series of ditches and pipes to a holding facility behind what is now the Norton Simon Museum (early renaissance paintings, south-east Asia collection, Rodin sculptures, complimentary admission from 5pm to 8pm on first Friday of each month). Judge Eaton worked for his community as much as he did in his profession, and accrued great social credit. Eaton Drive, Eaton Canyon, and Eaton Falls were all named after the Judge, whose success in delivering the water necessary to the orange growers in what is now Pasadena previewed his son Frederick’s approach to a similar problem decades later.

- Advertisers -

Pasadena was where the powerful and the influential lived. The cool kids of Pasadena grew up observing that political power gravitated to wealthy families. Their adolescent and post-adolescent years became an apprenticeship in applying this knowledge.  

Today, the great families of Pasadena have largely moved on and the Pasadena Effect is now only a shadow of what it once was, but not too long ago it was, in various ways, made obvious to all. For example, it was not an accident that the first freeway in the United States was the Arroyo Seco Parkway, opened in 1940 and briefly called the Pasadena Freeway between 1954 and 2010, which connected Pasadena to the business district of Los Angeles. 

Fred’s mother died when he was five. Benjamin remarried and started another family. Fred, mother dead and father gone, making him a functional orphan, was sent to Los Angeles to live with his prosperous (but not extravagantly so) aunt and uncle. It is not unreasonable to imagine the doting older couple frequently discussing Judge Benjamin’s political successes, heavily elaborated upon, over the dinner table just for little Frederick’s ears. The aunt and uncle could not control whether or not Frederick felt diminished by his father’s rejection, but they could help little Freddie understand that he held the honor of being scorned by the best.

Los Angeles City Water Company

Notwithstanding Frederick’s brief time in Pasadena, he seems to have carried the effect with him. As evidence, by his 19th year (1875) Frederick Eaton was already superintendent of the (then, privately held) Los Angeles City Water Company, which had the contract to take water from the Los Angeles River, reservoir it and, through a network of ditches, distribute the water to those who had paid for water permits. 

The population of Los Angeles in 1875 has been estimated at about 8,000. The water from the river, properly rationed by a permit system, was sufficient for their needs. By 1898 the population had exploded to very near 50,000, and the water / population equilibrium had grown precarious.

Per person water consumption in the United States is (currently) about 100 gallons / day for domestic and public needs, net of industrial and agricultural requirements. The world average is 16 gallons / day. The low end of water requirements for developing countries in arid climes has been estimated at 4 gallons. Presuming that Los Angeles reflected the (present) world average of 16 gallons / person / day for all non-industrial and non-agricultural uses, in 1875 the city’s daily water needs would be 128,000 gallons (8,000 people @ 16 gal / day). As population grew to 50,000 in 1898 the water needs climbed to 800,000 gallons per day. Less in winter, perhaps, but more in summer. 

Not immediately, but prior to 1898, it is reasonable to speculate that Frederick Eaton, the former superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company, would recognize that (i) at some point the City would be unable to support the water needs of its growing population by relying only on the Los Angeles River, that (ii) a significantly more abundant source of water must be found to augment the LA River, and (iii) water supply was a business separate from water distribution. (Nota bene: Selling water rights (supply) to the city would become an important driver in Eaton’s future.)

City Surveyor/City Engineer

Improving the city’s water supply required access to an enormous source of money, and that meant elected office. Politicians hold the keys to public borrowing. For Eaton (referring now only to Frederick, as Benjamin walked out of the picture), that meant starting with a relatively easy office to acquire, but one in which he could become a public name. Over time perhaps he could gain successive offices, each with a larger budget. Politics is often an incremental process.

He sought appointment as the City Surveyor. It was not an election, he was simply appointed, possibly a penumbra of the Pasadena Effect. Experience in that office was necessary to qualify for the responsibility of City Engineer, to which Frederick Eaton would be appointed in 1887, the year he met William Mulholland. The election to City Engineer was also a formality, since he was the only candidate.

Achieving the office of City Engineer provided access to the engineering budget, which allowed him to redesign and renovate the very public Los Angeles Park (now known as Pershing Square), and MacArthur Park (formerly, Westlake Park), which in turn gave him the name recognition necessary for a higher office and even bigger budget. His apex achievement during this period was his design of a new sewer system for the city, including a 12 mile drain to the ocean that would carry the city’s sewage into Santa Monica Bay. That, as one would suspect, brought him a lot of name recognition on those hot summer weekends.


In 1898, the same year that Col. Griffith J. Griffith presented Griffith Park to the City of Los Angeles, Frederick Eaton, after two appointed positions but now with his name thoroughly recognized, campaigned for the office of Mayor on the platform of acquiring the private Los Angeles City Water Company, of which he was superintendent twenty-four years prior, as a municipal water delivery system to be owned, maintained, and expanded at need by the City of Los Angeles (incorporated 1850).

Those dinner discussions featuring his aunt and uncle may have had something to do with his ripening decision to bring water not just to the odd orange grove here or there, as did his illustrious father, but to all of Los Angeles. He would follow his father’s syllabus, or as much of it as he could. Maybe he’d get something named after him.

Although he ran on the platform of purchasing the Los Angeles City Water Company and turning it into a municipal water service, it still took his entire first year in office to convince the city to find the money. Eventually, a bond measure of $2,000,000 (in then-money, $66,500,000 in today-money) was floated and fully subscribed. The purchase was made and suddenly the City had full responsibility for the only large scale water delivery system in Los Angeles. It took water from the Buena Vista Reservoir (built in 1869, fed by the Los Angeles River, and displaced in 1956 by the Pasadena Freeway) in Elysian Park and, for a fee, delivered the water to its customers through a system of first ditches, then wooden pipes, and finally to metal as we know them today.

Possibly due to the influence of Eaton’s businessmen neighbors, or perhaps to avoid politicization, the company was (i) supervised by a committee of businessmen, (ii) had its own budget, independent from that of the city, and (iii) was funded not from taxes but from bonds and the revenue from water sales. 

Sourcing: Notwithstanding a large upfront investment for the initial infrastructure, a proper aqueduct system would avoid most of the recurring costs associated with a growing city population: ever more ditches, pipes, and field employees. The appeal is that once the aqueduct is in place, as demand increases it is only necessary to send somebody upstream with a note, “Lucas, we need some more water down here. Turn the tap a little more.”

Aqueducts: Neither Los Angeles nor Rome are technically in arid climates (defined as annual precipitation less than 10 inches). Both cities are within a Mediterranean climate zone (average worldwide 20 inches precipitation) characterized by (i) high seasonality, (ii) warm, dry summers, and (iii) mild, wet winters. The difficulty the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association had was watering the orange trees during the hot, dry summers. Securing water during the seasonal dry periods is a problem characteristic of the Mediterranean climate. The Romans, three centuries before Christ, had the same problem and solved it with aqueducts. Water was sourced from the mountains and allowed to flow downhill to population centers. At its peak Rome had nearly 500 miles of aqueducts (only about 30 miles being above ground) delivering 300 million gallons of water per day for various public hygiene, household, and agricultural purposes. And, of course, to serve the famous fountains (see Roman Holiday, 1953, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck). 

In 1892, at the age of 37 and well before his term as mayor, Eaton made an extensive on-site study of the Owens Valley. He determined that its excess water could credibly support Los Angeles, and that simple gravity-fed aqueducts, functionally indistinguishable from the aqueducts of ancient Rome, would be an adequate transport system as the most likely route was all downhill. Frederick Eaton now turned his mind towards, first, acquiring the necessary water rights and second, building the means to transport it to Los Angeles. The needs came in that order because if he could not get rights to the water, the aqueduct would be quite unnecessary. And if he had the necessary water rights, funding for the aqueduct would be nearly effortless. Eaton assigned the task of gathering water rights to himself. The job of building the 230-mile aqueduct he left to his long time friend and mentee, William Mulholland.  More, later.


This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as professional advice. Klarise Yahya is not a financial planner. Nothing in this article is presented as investment guidance. For specific circumstances, please contact an appropriately licensed professional. Klarise Yahya is a Commercial Mortgage Broker specializing in difficult-to-place mortgages for any kind of property. If you are thinking of refinancing or purchasing real estate, perhaps Klarise Yahya can help. For a complimentary mortgage analysis, please call her at (818) 414-7830 or email [email protected].

Read more articles from the January 2022 edition of the AOA Magazine