Monday, April 26, 2010

Salt Tram & the LA Aqueduct

Salt Tram history is rapidly disappearing, and we are striving to rediscover the efforts of our forefathers in order to give proper recognition to their hopes, dreams and abundant sweat from an era that is rapidly fading from our memories. We are actively seeking out information about the mining of Salt in Saline Valley between 1903 and the 1950's, including: documents, photos, articles, stories, artifacts, etc. If you can help us out, please email us at the address above - Thank-you! --Tim and Brian Waag, the Waag brothers (aka E. Clampus Waagus).
Caution (PLEASE READ): Climbing around on the tramway is dangerous because its really old and defnitely unsafe, so don't even think about it. Shoot, just getting to it requires some perilous hiking, and if you don't believe me, just take a look at the Zig Zag Access Trail (or what's left of it). Plus, climbing on it weakens it and endangers your life. Also, the Saline Valley Salt Tram is on the National Register of Historic Places and should be treated with the respect that it deserves. What little remains is of great historic value, and should not be disturbed in any way. Heck, its probably against the law to move parts of the tram around, and certainly a crime to take home some of the few bits of it that remain (though you'd have to ask your friendly local BLM agent for details). So please treat it with the respect it deserves, so that future generations can enjoy whats left, without you messing it up. Really. Please. You can see its listing on the National Register of Historic Places at these web links:
National Register of Historic Places 1          National Register of Historic Places 2

QUESTION1: Note added 12/1/2010: upon re-reading this material, I find it hard to see how it directly relates to the Salt Tram. We know that the Salt Tram got power from hydroelectric power plants running off of Sierra snow melt. I'll need to check on the exact facts, but the company running these hydroelectric plants in the early Salt Tram era were local plants (Sierra Power? or something like that), and not LADWP who runs them now. I'll leave this in here for now, but need to do some followup on it.

QUESTION2:  In August [what year?], the Watterson brothers (whose bank dominated the valley economy) were arrested for embezzlement; they were later convicted on 36 counts. White Smith was married to Margaret Watterson; Brian will investigate what ties she had to this Watterson Bank embezzlement story.

From the beginning of our research, it became clear that the destiny of Salt Tram and the coming of Hydroelectric Power generated from the Sierra snow melt, along with the Los Angeles Aquaduct, were intertwined. We have much research still to do in this area, but Brian found an interesting article at:

California Scheming

Here's a brief excerpt from the above link (this article appears to have been OCD'd into text, so we have corrected this excerpt). We will highlight any particularly applicable excerpts.

Tensions between city and valley grew. Litigation ensued, but stalled in the courts. The city bought more valley land, displacing farmers and ruining more local businesses. Finally, valley frustrations reached another boiling point. On May 20, 1927, several men detonated explosives outside Mojave, 100 miles north of L.A., destroying a part of the aqueduct. A few days later, more blasts rocked the aqueduct farther north and, on June 4, still another. A train filled with L.A. detectives armed with Winchester carbines was sent to guard the aqueduct.

Though the detectives had no legal right to do so, they placed Owens Valley under martial law. It didn't help. Over the next two months, seven more blasts occurred at sites along the aqueduct, from Mojave in the south to Bishop in the north, damaging pipes and a power plant and downing telegraph lines.

In the end, what broke the valley's spirit was malfeasance by two of its own. In August [what year?], the Watterson brothers (whose bank dominated the valley economy) were arrested for embezzlement; they were later convicted on 36 counts [note: White Smith was married to Margaret Watterson; Brian will investigate what ties she had to this Watterson Bank embezzlement story]. Some said the brothers had merely been trying to stay afloat financially, and helping others stay afloat, by moving money from one business account to another, recording deposits never made and debits already paid. Their defenders pointed out that none of the money ever left Inyo County. The state's prosecuting attorney, an Owens Valley local and a friend of the brothers, was said to have cried while delivering his final argument. The Wattersons were sentenced to ten years in San Quentin and their five banks closed. Posted on the door of one was the message: "This result has been brought about by the last four years of destructive work carried on by the city of Los Angeles."

Fred Eaton, whose plan to sell his Long Valley ranch was stymied by the city, now had worse problems. His son Harold had mortgaged it to the Wattersons' bank in loans totaling $320,000. When the bank failed, the ranch went into receivership and the city purchased it-for less than the $500,000 Mulholland had offered ten years earlier.

Eaton died in 1934 at age 78, his dreams of fortune unfulfilled. "He was bitter," says his grandson John Eaton, "because he felt he'd been made the goat for all the troubles that came to [ail?] the Owens Valley, and because he felt he never got the proper credit for his role in the creation of the aqueduct."

Mulholland, for his part, died a chastened man at 79, a year after Eaton's death. A dam that Mulholland had built in San Francisquito Canyon, outside Los Angeles, collapsed in 1928, less than 12 hours after he had inspected it and pronounced it sound. A wall of water l00 feet high roared down the canyon, sweeping away trees, homes, cars, a railroad trestle and animals, and killing at least 400 people. Mulholland, although cleared of wrongdoing, blamed himself. He soon retired from the water department and became a virtual recluse, a "stooped and silent" old man, Catherine, his granddaughter, says. (In the 1990s, David Rogers, a forensic geologist who studied the dam rupture, concluded that while there were some flaws in the construction, it was a massive landslide that felled the dam.)

Today most of the people residing in the Owens Valley make their living from tourism, with the majority of skiers, fishermen, campers and so on coming from (where else?) Los Angeles. Some ranches and farms still exist, but most of their fields are leased from the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The bulk of Owens Valley land is empty, its former vitality reduced to groupings of shade trees where houses once stood; long, V-shaped ditches, once used to water fields, now dusty and weed choked; an occasional concrete silo surrounded by sagebrush.

The aqueduct was extended north another l00 miles in the 1940s, to a second large body of water, Mono Lake. Another entire aqueduct was built in 1970 alongside Mulholland's. Almost 100 years have passed since William Mulholland ruled the roost, but for L.A.'s Department of Water and Power engineers, the mandate is still the same: keep the water coming.


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