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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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Early Development of Crescenta Valley’s Water

When we choose a home site in CV today, we think of schools, traffic, proximity to stores or views. But in the late 1800s, the earliest settlers had only one consideration to keep in mind when choosing their home site – availability of water. Thus when the first American pioneers came here, they initially took up residence in the canyons. Water flowed naturally there, particularly Pickens Canyon. Settlers couldn’t depend on our scarce rainfall, nor could they dig a well hundreds of feet down through rocky soil. Some Easterners didn’t understand this – Lanterman and Williams for example. They purchased the entire Crescenta-Cañada valley for what they thought was an amazing bargain, not understanding that there was no water. Coming from Michigan where rain and water wells were plentiful, they didn’t understand how water and irrigation worked here. Their purchase of the valley hadn’t included the canyons where the water was. In order to subdivide and sell property, they had to learn the hard economics of liquid gold. On the other hand, Benjamin Briggs understood Western water, and his first purchase of land was Pickens Canyon.

Property owners in the flatlands initially depended on striking deals with the owners of the canyons to trap water in reservoirs and pipe it down to them. This selling of water quickly became a business of its own, and water companies were formed as middlemen to sell and distribute the water via pipes. The water was purchased from the owner of the canyon and stored in cisterns. The amount of water available was divided by the company into shares and each share was available for purchase. Buy one share and each day you got a certain amount of water delivered via pipeline to your property, enough for drinking and washing. Buy two shares, you had twice as much water and could maybe grow a large garden or water some livestock. The water shares were a separate expense when buying a house, and most homeowners put out the extra cash for at least one or two shares. Shares could also be bought and sold for profit, just like stocks, although that wasn’t common.

The water companies used the profits from selling shares to lay and maintain pipes and cisterns. “Weir boxes” were set in the pipes, which, by raising and lowering wooden dams, could divert the water into different pipes, each one running to different households. It was the job of an employee of the water company to raise and lower the dam in a way that would fairly distribute the water according to how many shares were owned. A property owner wishing to get more than their fair share could sneak up to the weir box in the middle of the night and open the wooden dam leading to his pipes. It’s from these thefts of water that we hear the stories of armed guards being stationed at the weir boxes in times of drought.

By the turn of the century, four of these water companies served the Crescenta Valley. The La Crescenta Water Company piped Pickens Canyon water down to the area from Ramsdell to Rosemont, and as far south as Honolulu. The smaller Goss Canyon Water Company picked up the area from Rosemont to Briggs and down to Foothill, and the even tinier Castle Company served about 80 acres from Briggs over to Pickens Canyon. The Dunsmore Canyon Water Company supplied the area between Pennsylvania and Ramsdell south to Honolulu.

The Le Mesnager family of Dunsmore Canyon made much of their living by selling their water to the Dunsmore Canyon Water Company. In Deukmejian Park today we see the remnants of their water endeavors strewn about. Old 4-inch pipes, some made with ancient riveted iron, can be found rusting along the trails, and hidden in the brush are a couple of crumbling concrete weir boxes. The remains of a crude dam are visible in the streambed.

Next week I’ll talk about the next stages of water development – water tunnels and drilled wells, and the combining of the water companies into a single utility.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

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