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LA County 101, Part 4: The Pattern is Set – Movies, Water, Innovation and Growth

LA County 101“What exactly do County Supervisors do?”

No matter where I go in LA County’s Third Supervisorial District and environs, this is the second most frequently asked question.

What is the first, you ask? Of course! “What do counties do?”

So, I set out to craft an ongoing set of essays on this amazing pastiche of 10 million souls, as well as the responsibilities of the five County Supervisors for health, safety, transportation, children, families, the impoverished, jails, juvenile camps, county schools, Head Start, museums, parks, the Music Center, the Bowl, public safety, fire fighting, land use and preservation, environmental protection, water quality, and so much more, as well as municipal services for the one in ten County residents who live in unincorporated areas.

In the first three essays, I explored some of these areas under County supervision—as well as detailing some interesting bits of County history. These essays may be found here. Check them out.

So here’s essay number four, the last I’ll write about the early history of a County larger than all but seven states, with a population of almost 10 million people, speaking 140 languages and dialects, and a budget of almost 25 billion dollars, (overseen by five Supervisors). This one only scratches the surface on our history relative to the beginning of the movie industry and the struggle (and intrigue) on bringing water to a perpetual desert, but I hope you enjoy it.

LA County 101, Part 4: The Pattern is Set—Movies, Water, Innovation and Growth


Hollywood and Movies: the world’s dreams move here

In 1853, an adobe hut stood at the center of the little piece of land we now call “Hollywood.” This virtual center of the dreams and imagination of our culture was originally part of an agricultural community located in the Cahuenga Valley, named for the pass just to the north. (A digression: the Native Americans who lived here–the Tongvas—called the center of town—now our Plaza area–Yang-Na, while the hills above it were called Cahueg-Na).

The name Hollywood was purportedly coined by H. J. Whitley who attached the name to the 500-acre ranch he attempted to purchase from E.C. Hurd. Others think it was named after the holly-like manzanita plants on the grounds, or by Hurd’s wife in imitation of the name of the estate of a friend in England.

By 1900, the area boasted a post office, a newspaper, the Glen-Holly Hotel on Yucca St. and two markets. The City of LA was 10 miles east and a single track streetcar ran from Hollywood to the City, with very infrequent service and a travel time of two hours.
The Hollywood Hotel opened in 1902 though no one knew at the time it would become a glamorous center for the new cadre of stars growing up in the new industry. In 1903, Hollywood became its own city and immediately banned the sale of alcohol, except for “medicinal purposes”. It also banned movie theatres, after the first such establishment opened in 1902 in Los Angeles. In 1910, in order to gain access to the new source of water being brought in by the City of LA (see below), Hollywood merged with Los Angeles and Prospect Avenue became Hollywood Blvd.

The Birth of a Notion

Before the turn of the 20th Century, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers’ inventions had birthed a new and exciting way to capture human experience, but its use was bulky and not very widespread. To bring filming out into natural light and utilize great vistas, film adventurers like D. W. Griffith and others descended on the Hollywood part of Los Angeles. With no need for artificial light and sets, filming was cheap and people flocked to the area to set up “movie studios” in droves. Griffith shot the first film made in Hollywood, a 17-minute short.

The Nestor Film Company built the first studio on the corner of Sunset and Gower and, by 1912, a number of companies had set up shop nearby.

The first feature-length movie was made here by Cecile B. DeMille in 1913 and the industry was off and running.

Water Water Everywhere, But How To Get It Here?

Early on, the only water available to the rapidly growing area of Los Angeles County was the Los Angeles River and groundwater replenished by the minimal yearly rainfall.

Those who envisioned the fortunes to be made if the area could only expand and grow understood that water was the key. In order to make certain that the population clamored for more water, entrepreneurs like LA Times Founder Harrison Gray Otis published fearful stories about the dangerously low levels of water in the area and pushed for huge engineering and legal solutions that would bring water south and make massive development possible.

Otis and his son-in-law and successor, Harry Chandler, bought up acres of cheap land in the San Fernando Valley in preparation for the rapid-fire growth that would come with an adequate water supply. They then brought in the chief engineer of the LA Water Department, William Mulholland, along with J.B. Lippencott of the US Reclamation Service, to survey the possible routes. No one knew that Lippencott, who was doing the water surveys for the Reclamation Project, was also being paid by the City of LA.

About 250 miles north of LA, a long and narrow desert area called the Owens Valley held the Owens River, a permanent stream of fresh water filled by the melting snows of the Sierra Nevadas. Fred Eden, Lippencott’s agent and a former Mayor of LA, persuaded farmers in the Owens Valley to pool their interests and surrender their water rights to 200,000 acres of land to him.

But How To Make The People Clamor For It?

By 1905, the Times was warning the people of LA that the city would dry up unless they voted for bonds to build the longest aqueduct in the world to bring water from the Owens Valley. To enhance the myth of the inadequate water supply, water was run into the sewers at night to lower measurable supplies in the reservoirs while, at the same time, residents were told not to waste water on their lawns.

The people of LA, spooked by manipulated tales of impending drought, approved 22.5 million dollars worth of bonds. With this money, and a special act of Congress allowing cities to own property outside their boundaries, the city built the aqueduct. It opened November 5, 1913.

To secure even more water to the growing county, a number of huge engineering projects were approved, including the Hoover Dam. This not only allowed water to be channeled from the Colorado River, but also provided a source of electricity to LA County residents.