This is the battle that made Los Angeles -- and a great newspaper war

The history of L.A.'s relationship with water and growth is also the story of the birth of a great American paper

By Marc Weingarten

Published February 7, 2016 2:00PM (EST)

Excerpted from "Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water and the Real 'Chinatown'"

The Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the anti-aqueduct opposition was comically, outrageously biased. When the people of Bishop mounted their formal protest against Fred Eaton, the paper was quick to point out that “the utmost care was taken to see that no one would be wronged” as a result of the plan, and that “in the distribution of the precious waters of the river, the greatest good should accrue to the greatest number.” The story was also dismissive of the protest; instead of taking a formal head count, the story estimated that “probably thirteen” people at the most attended the rally. This was not an editorial; this was how the Times reported the story in its news pages.

This pro-aqueduct editorial stance came directly from the Times’ owner and publisher, Harrison Gray Otis. Of course it’s absurd to even ponder such a thing now, but there was a time when newspapers wielded enormous political and cultural clout in cities like Los Angeles, and few newspapers knew how to navigate the city’s shifting landscape of power as dexterously as the Times’ owner. Otis, a man who wielded outsized appetites for power, money, and land, used his newspaper as a noisy Klaxon for his own self-interest while building an empire. And it all derived from the Los Angeles Times, the most powerful media outlet any publisher could wish for.

Harrison Otis regarded Los Angeles with the same optimism for the future that William Mulholland held as an article of faith. Like Mulholland, he was an outsider who had arrived in California in 1875 and declared it “the fattest land I ever was in.” He also understood that continual economic growth was the engine that would sustain this city that he had fallen in love with; anything less would result in economic death.

Thus, growth at any cost was the paper’s philosophy, and it was to be found all over the paper’s editorial content, which attacked enemies of business and praised the heroes of capitalism. There was only way to think, and that was Otis’ way. Anything else was anti-Los Angeles, anti-American, anti-Otis.

Harrison Otis came from hardy stock. His parents were farmers who had moved from Vermont to the Ohio River Valley in 1800 in search of green space. Rejecting the Methodist dogma of his parents, who valued education above all, Harrison at fourteen found a job as a printer’s apprentice in Sarahsville. Hard labor suited Otis, and he traveled around the Midwest for five years working as a typographer in print shops and newspapers. He loved the work: setting the type neatly in their frames, reading the results of his handiwork as it came off the press, the paper redolent of burning metal and wet ink.

In 1859, Otis married Eliza Wetherby of Lowell, Ohio, the daughter of a wool manufacturer who had founded Wetherby’s Academy, where Otis briefly boned up on his business education. The Otis’ moved around the Midwest for a time, and Harrison had the good fortune to be an apprentice delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention from Kentucky, doing his small part to nominate Abe Lincoln for president.

The military life was in Otis’ bones. His grandfather was James Otis, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a decorated leader. So when the Civil War began, Otis enlisted and was billeted to the Twelfth Ohio Volunteers, where he was injured on the field of war on two different occasions. (On July 24, 1863, while fighting in West Virginia, he suffered a gun shot wound in his right leg.) Otis rose through the ranks until he commanded his own Union regimen. Otis was no sideline dilettante: he saw heavy action at Bull Run Ridge, Antietam, and other fields of battle. For nearly five years, Otis fought with the fearlessness of a true Union loyalist.

After the war’s end, Otis was brevetted with the rank of lieutenant colonel by his commander Rutherford B. Hayes, who commended Otis for his “gallantry and meritorious services.” (William McKinley was his captain.)

To give a man like Otis a military honorific was to prop up an already healthy ego with strong ballast. From that point on, Otis would insist on being called Colonel Otis. Later, when he ran the Los Angeles Times, Otis kept fifty rifles in his office. He took meetings in his uniform, appearing at public events with his epaulets glinting in the sun. He referred to his home as “The Bivouac.” During his twilight years, Otis thought he had devised a master solution to global warfare, and printed his goofy and vainglorious “World-Embracing Plan to End Wars” in his newspaper. All of this would have been written off as genial eccentricity had Otis not backed it all up with his military record—and a growing newspaper empire that no one could stare down.

The newspaper business suited Otis; it gave him a big bullhorn. Otis had started a newspaper in Murrieta, Ohio, but small-town gossip was hardly the kind of fun he was looking for. In 1876, he moved West and borrowed six thousand dollars from an old war buddy to buy a newspaper called the Santa Barbara Press. Because Otis’ local competition, the Santa Barbara Daily News, was staunchly Democratic, Otis leaned the other way, and leaned hard. He never lost an opportunity to blast the “hags, harlots, and pollutants” of the Left in his news stories.

In 1877, Otis’ career took an odd turn when his old comrade-in-arms Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president. Figuring he would nab a plum military appointment, perhaps even an embassy job as an ambassador, Otis instead found himself in Alaska fending off poachers as the Treasury Department’s representative of the Seal Islands.

Otis didn’t return to California until 1881, when he visited Los Angeles during a brief hiatus from his government job. He was happy to enjoy the warm weather, and was enamored of its natural beauty, but he was more intrigued by the changes happening there. Six years earlier, the Southern Pacific had made its incursion into Southern California, and the great influx of exiles from other states had begun. Los Angeles was taking on the contours of a boomtown. He would need to stake a claim and help himself to some of that money.

With the small profit of one thousand dollars that he earned from the sale of the Santa Barbara Press, Otis bought a 25 percent stake in the Los Angeles Daily Times. Three years after Otis purchased his piece of the paper, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroads moved into the region, and the competition for railroad customers grew fierce. A ticket price war broke out. The Santa Fe cut its one-way fare from points Midwest to Los Angeles five dollars to ninety-five dollars. The Southern Pacific followed suit. Soon, the price bottomed out to one dollar for the price of a ticket from Kansas to Los Angeles.

New towns sprang up whole from the soil. Los Angeles had morphed from a backwater into a city on the make. Land speculators needed a place to advertise their property, and retailers needed to let the people know about the products they sold for the new moneyed residents of Los Angeles. Blacksmiths, psychics, and plumbers also needed an advertising outlet, too.

Otis had their backs.

When Otis bought his first quarter share of Los Angeles Times, he had three other partners: Jesse Yarnell, Thomas J. Caystile, and S. J. Mathes. Then Caystile died without warning in 1884. Otis’ mourning period didn’t last for long; he found a businessman from his old home state named H. H. Boyce to buy out his partners and incorporated all of the newspapers’ operations under one banner. Boyce and Otis split their forty shares of stock evenly, and called their new venture the Times-Mirror Company.

Boyce wanted a say in the editorial content of the paper, and furthermore, he wanted Otis to pump the brakes on his virulent anti-union, pro-business philosophy.

With business growth came labor unrest, as employers increasingly relied on cheap labor in a town that didn’t yet have a strong union presence. Boyce was sympathetic to labor, unlike Otis, who regarded unions as obstructionist and anti-business. The Los Angeles Times was an “open shop”: no union organizing allowed. Now Boyce had designs on loosening the reins somewhat, and Otis fumed.

A clause in the partners’ contract stated that unless Otis could come up with twenty-seven thousand dollars by a certain finite period, Boyce could buy him out and take complete control. For a while, it looked as if Otis was going to lose out, but at the twelfth hour, he scraped the money together from the bankers that he had written about so reverentially in the Times. (Otis dropped “Daily” from the paper’s name in April, 1886.)

Whether Otis’ buyout of Boyce was good for the paper is a matter of debate, but it was certainly very good for Harrison Otis. He would answer to no one now. His wife Eliza could publish her poetry in the paper, and no one could edit her doggerel.

What Otis didn’t anticipate was that H. H. Boyce would return as his nemesis. Otis’ erstwhile partner took the twenty-seven thousand dollars that Otis used to buy him out and started the Los Angeles Tribune, a newspaper that seemed to exist strictly as an antipode to Otis’ Times. Boyce lacked Otis’ resources—he had no access to the Associated Press wire service, for starters—but he could publish more editions than his rival. Before the Tribune arrived, no newspaper published on Monday morning or any holiday morning. Boyce changed that, and forced Otis to follow suit. Thereafter, Otis would refer to Boyce as a “coarse and vulgar criminal.”

Thus began the pas de deux of a great two-newspaper city rivalry. If Boyce threw his weight behind a pro-union politician, Otis defamed the candidate as a boozer and a pederast. Soon, the two publishers resorted to personal attacks, slandering each other with impunity in their respective newspapers.

When Otis took over the Los Angeles Times, its circulation was around one thousand. He wanted it to be a lot higher than that, but there were other newspapers in the city that were fighting for readership, among them the Los Angeles Herald and the Tribune. Free market competition only went so far: Otis decided that he needed to physically block the Herald and the Tribune from reaching their readers.

In the early years of the twentieth century, newspaper circulation routes were controlled independently of the papers themselves. The papers franchised out the delivery business in exchange for a sales percentage. For the Times, the man in charge of circulation was Harry Chandler, a young entrepreneur who had gone into the business because it kept him outdoors and shored up his fragile lungs, which had been damaged when Chandler dove into freezing vat of starch on a dare at Dartmouth College.

Chandler was young, handsome, ambitious, and bristling with ideas: he was, in short, the kind of arriviste who could make a killing in Los Angeles. Chandler’s charm would conceal his guile; his fresh-faced schoolboy persona was a perfect cover for his fierce ambition. The rapid, upward trajectory of his career was like nothing anyone in Los Angeles had ever seen before. It was as if Larry Ellison had sauntered into a small town as a newspaper delivery boy and then in short order wound up owning everything in the town. Chandler’s power and economic reach would eventually eclipse Otis’.

But to start, Chandler found a job as a clerk earning twelve dollars a week. Using his earnings, he began to buy up delivery routes for the Los Angeles Herald, the Evening Express, and his own employer’s paper, the Times. Chandler was very proficient at newspaper delivery, a talent he had honed delivering fruit to northern wheat threshers. Arriving in Los Angeles the spring of 1882, the infirm Chandler was taken in by a sympathetic doctor who put him to work on farm land that he owned in the Cahuenga Pass. In addition to his salary, Chandler received a percentage of the proceeds from the oranges and grapefruits he picked. Any excess fruit was his to do with as he pleased. And so every time a bumper crop materialized, Chandler loaded up a wagon and shipped the fruit to the threshers. After a while, his earnings started to add up. Using the lessons he learned from his fruit enterprise, Chandler thrived quickly in the newspaper circulation business.

The twenty-one-year-old Chandler was quietly taking over more and more delivery routes, and he shared Otis’ appetite for ever greater control. Eventually, he owned the routes for all three major Los Angeles newspapers. Chandler surmised that, of the three papers, the Los Angeles Times was primed for great things, mainly due to Otis’ boundless ambition. With an eye toward his own future, Chandler approached Otis with the notion of becoming the paper’s circulation manager. He then told Otis about his plan B: choke off the Herald and Tribune’s delivery routes—the routes that Chandler himself controlled.

Suddenly, subscribers seemed to be receiving their copies of the Herald later in the day, or not at all. If a subscriber to the Los Angeles Herald decided to discontinue his subscription, Chandler made sure they reupped with the Times. Chandler used the full power of his distribution network to move as many readers away from Otis’ competition as possible. The Tribune folded soon after, and Chandler bought the paper’s plant and its subscription lists for a small fee through a third party. When Otis got wind of it, he asked Chandler to find out who the silent partner might be. “I won’t have to go far,” Chandler told him. “I bought it myself.”

Chandler had endeared himself to Otis the only way anyone could: by making money for him. Soon, he would rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles Times to become the paper’s business manager. Chandler was not even thirty at the time. In June 1894, Chandler married Marion Otis, one of Harrison’s three daughters. A few months later, Chandler was promoted to business manager. A incipient newspaper dynasty was beginning to take shape.

Consolidation of the city’s newspaper readers meant nothing for Otis if the city itself wasn’t thriving. His mantra was growth at any cost. What was good for the city’s welfare was good for his business. In his paper, he hammered home his pro-growth philosophy: “Let our wide pasture be changed into highly improved farms. Let the arid wastes be provided with an abundance of water. Plant new orchards and vineyards. Build new railroads.” He might have also included the freedom of businessmen to hire non-union workers at petty wages.

Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington’s Southern Pacific had been the biggest spur toward Los Angeles’ transformation from Western outpost to metropolis, but now Otis wanted to bend the mighty railroad to his will, too. There were limits to the city’s growth as it was presently constituted: without a deep-water port, trade would plateau and fall behind other Western states with thriving shipping routes. Los Angeles needed a bustling port to export its goods.

But building a port was difficult in a city with no natural harbor. There was talk of constructing a port in San Pedro, a fishing town twenty miles south of Los Angeles. Otis thought this was a sensible idea and aligned the newspaper’s editorial voice behind it.

Huntington wanted to build a pier in Santa Monica on the west side of the city, and had the endorsements of a few key elected officials in Washington to back him up. He wanted a port for his pier, and no one said no to Collis P. Huntington. Except Harrison Gray Otis.

Huntington had national political muscle behind him, but Otis had the Los Angeles Times’ readership, and he knew when to tap into that base when it best served him. Otis formed something called the Free Harbor League, “a lobby for the people, by the people.” It was not much of an organization, but it sounded impressive enough. Without explicitly tipping his hand, he urged the paper’s readers to take “concerted and vigorous action” in favor of a “free harbor” that would “benefit all citizens and interests involved,” including the “railroad interests that are now so strenuously opposing the project.”

Otis framed the dispute as a battle between the petty greed of the industrialists in favor of a “private harbor, for which the people have not asked,” as opposed to an “open harbor” endorsed by all citizens. Naturally, Otis also saw the hidden hand of union agitators at work. A typical article blasted the “effort of (the pro–Santa Monica port) individuals to have the labor element endorse the nefarious scheme,” which was a “further insult to the intelligent workingmen” of the city.

Otis’ paper pleaded with readers to attend rallies in favor of the San Pedro harbor, and asked them to contact their congressmen and demand a stop to Huntington’s Santa Monica project. He got the backing of former mayor H. T. Hazard and grocery store magnate J. R. Newberry, and pumped his own money into flyers and direct mail literature—the “Free Harbor League” at work. It took years, but Otis finally got what he wanted when Congress passed a $2.9 million appropriation for a harbor at San Pedro.

For a newspaper man to square up against Collis P. Huntington and emerge victorious was an unprecedented event. But the only ethic by which Otis abided was “to thine own self be true.” Otis was convinced that his fortunes were tied to the fortunes of the city, and that the Times would not only report the news, but shape the collective mindset of its citizenry, get things moving along the righteous path.

Otis and Chandler became the city’s proselytizers of the Golden Dream. The Los Angeles Times Midwinter Annual was an artfully-produced quarterly supplement that touted the glories of the Southern California lifestyle, and it was distributed all over the nation as a clarion call. Every January, readers of the Bedford Times in Tennessee, the Buchanan Banner in Virginia, and the Ketchum Keystone in Idaho found in their newspapers a supplement of roughly ninety pages that plumped for the advantages of farming in a temperate climate, and living in a place that was “America’s ideal Summer as well as Winter Resort.”

“The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and all of us are doing all we can to have this Midwinter number sent all over the United States,” Otis’ friend Moses Sherman wrote a colleague in 1915.

Meanwhile, Chandler was quietly buying more and more land with his earnings from the Times, forming syndicates with local businessmen in order to cash in on the fantasy he was disseminating all over the country like dandelion spores. Chandler made sure that all the gears of commerce were properly greased. When the Chamber of Commerce complained that hotel owners were charging prohibitive rates, Chandler formed something called the All Year Club, a booster organization subsidized by the city that was created to encourage as much tourism to the state as possible. Ever the master huckster, Chandler had convinced local government that the growth of private enterprise was in its own best interest. Subsidies to the All Year Club continued for the next thirty years.

The aqueduct project fit right in with Chandler and Otis’ dreams of civic imperialism. It was the big cog that would keep growth moving at a good clip for many years to come, and Los Angeles Times would stand beside Mulholland and his team every step of the way. The paper would become the project’s most vocal advocate, doing everything in its power to sway public option toward passage of the initial $1.7 million bond measure.

When the Times scooped the competition with the aqueduct story—which they promised they wouldn’t do—it confirmed all of the suspicions that Owens Valley residents had harbored about Eaton, Lippincott, and the massive land grab. The Inyo Register, a newspaper that had chronicled the Owens Valley since 1870, railed against Otis and Lippincott, calling the latter a “Judas” for using the power of the federal government to despoil “the very lands it was supposed to reclaim.”

Otis’ competition would not forgive him for undermining what had been a collective agreement to not go out early on the Owens River story, but Otis hardly cared; he had other priorities in mind, such as land in the San Fernando Valley that needed water to prosper. Otis was still a member of the syndicate that had purchased George Porter’s land, and he had an eye on the big cash-in.

The Los Angeles Examiner, a paper owned by press magnate William Randolph Hearst, decided to do a little research of its own regarding the aqueduct project and Otis’ interest in its completion. Examiner editor Henry Lowenthal assigned a team of reporters to look into the public recorder’s office. After considerable digging they found what they thought was a smoking gun. On August 24, 1905, the paper went public with its findings.

The story detailed the acquisitions of The San Fernando Mission Land Company, the syndicate that had taken an option on 16,200 acres on George Porter’s property in the San Fernando Valley in 1903—with Otis, Moses Sherman, and others patiently waited for their just reward. Thus, the aqueduct deal reeked of self-gain for the city’s power elite. “That these persons are moved by self-interest in the matter does not, of course, show that the project itself is bad, but it does weaken the force of what they urge, since the motive impelling them is merely mercenary.”

Naturally, according to the Examiners’ logic, Otis had been tipped off to the aqueduct scheme long before it was made public, thus allowing him to buy up as much barren valley land as possible—land that would be made profitable with the advent of the Owens River water. In turn Otis would bring the full weight of his newspaper’s influence to bear in order to insure that the public was squarely behind the aqueduct project.

It appeared to make perfect sense on its face, but Hearst was overreaching. In fact, the syndicate had purchased the options on the San Fernando land in 1903, well before Fred Eaton brought William Mulholland to the Owens Valley. The options were exercised in the spring of 1905; the deal was square and aboveboard. There was no conspiracy of silence; the original deal for the options had in fact had been reported in Otis’ own newspaper at the time. It was a public transaction, not a back-room deal.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t undying love for Los Angeles that drove Otis to endorse the aqueduct with such chest-thumping alacrity. It was self-gain, pure and simple. Hearst was spot-on in that regard; he just chose the wrong angle. What the Examiner might have investigated instead was the effect the aqueduct would have on Harry Chandler’s ever-expanding land holdings. Using a network of syndicates, Chandler was sweeping up lots from as far south as Baja California up to Reno. By the mid-teens, he would be the largest landowner in Los Angeles. It would be Chandler, not Otis, that would benefit the most from the newly-acquired water. But neither man could have possibly known about the aqueduct plan two years before it was announced. It only followed that the biggest real estate players would reap the biggest rewards from the Owens River water. In the end, that would turn out to be Harry Chandler.

But neither Chandler nor Otis could write a check for the bond measures that would bring the aqueduct to Los Angeles. That was for the city’s citizen’s to decide. And the long, contentious campaign for the bond measures was just beginning.

Excerpted from "Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water and the Real 'Chinatown'" by Marc Weingarten. Published by Rare Bird Books. Copyright 2015 by Marc Weingarten. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Marc Weingarten

Marc Weingarten is a writer in Los Angeles. He is the author of "Station to Station: The History of Rock and Roll on Television" and "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote and the New Journalism Revolution."

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