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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Movie Will Tell Story of an 1800s Visionary

Pasadena's Benjamin Eaton brought water to the area and introduced drought-resistant crops. Schools will get the film.

September 24, 2006|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles, May 1861. Newlyweds Benjamin and Alice Eaton arrive in the dusty little pueblo just before the Civil War.

Standing in front of her new home -- which a decade earlier had been a jailhouse -- Alice looks around in disgust at the dirt floor and the patched wall where a cannon blasted a hole during the Mexican-American War. There are no shade trees; cactus is the main horticultural embellishment.

Then there are the home's intangible faults: It is where her husband lived with his first wife until her death, and where his two children refuse to return. The setting dispels any romantic notions she might have had about the Wild West.

Dust kicked up by incoming riders awakens her from her reverie. She looks confused.

"Cut!" someone shouts, ending the filming of a scene from "Eaton's Water," a 15-minute docudrama intended to make local history and the environment more interesting to sixth- and eighth-graders.

In production for the last year, the film is a project of the Altadena Foothills Conservancy and the Pasadena Art Center College of Design. Sally Levi, a film student, directed it and wrote the screenplay. The conservancy plans to give copies to local schools and nonprofits.

Benjamin Smith Eaton, a Los Angeles lawyer and engineer, was the mastermind behind the first iron-pipe pressure system that bought water to the arid Pasadena area in 1874.

"This is how the West was won -- in Pasadena," said Michele Zack, an Altadena historian who wrote the story upon which the film is based.

Three decades after Eaton's accomplishment, his son, Fred, hatched a wildly ambitious plan to solve Los Angeles' water crisis: an aqueduct to divert water from the Owens River, 233 miles to the north. Fred Eaton served both as mayor and head of the city's water agency, along with water engineer William Mulholland. But the elder Eaton saw the future first.

"Ben Eaton's water projects dramatically transformed our environment: Students can look around today at the same land; it's hard to believe it's the same place," Zack said. "The film illustrates that humans always impact and change the environment. This is as true now as when Eaton faced the particular set of challenges of his time."

Zack wants to set the record straight about Pasadena's visionary. "I get offended when people call Eaton 'Pasadena's first real estate agent,' " she said. Besides being a brilliant engineer, he was a journalist, a Harvard-educated lawyer, the Los Angeles County district attorney, a judge and a pioneer of drought-tolerant agriculture. Yet he was "practically written out of Pasadena's history."

Behind Zack's desk in her Altadena home office hangs Eaton's family tree and a map of the early Pasadena area, when it was known as Rancho San Pasqual. Here, in the 1860s, Eaton channeled limited water to what was considered a "wasteland." People laughed when he planted grapevines with little or no irrigation, then oranges so close to the mountains. But the grapes were successful and commanded a high price, and he proved oranges could grow at a higher altitude. A decade later, he tapped the Arroyo Seco, and Pasadena farmers began duplicating his efforts.

The film opens with an elderly Alice Eaton sitting by a stream, reminiscing with her granddaughter about when she was 23 and in love with Benjamin Smith Eaton, 38.

Her strict New England upbringing had made her what some folks called "uppity." A descendant of Mayflower pilgrims, she grew up in Rhode Island. Her family and the Eatons of Plainfield, Conn., were acquainted.

When Alice was 9, Eaton went to Harvard Law School. After he graduated in 1846, he headed to Missouri, working in a law office and then as a newspaper reporter. In Missouri, he met and married Helena Hayes of Baltimore, whose brother, Benjamin Hayes, had just moved to Los Angeles and become its first judge.

In 1850, Eaton went west to make his fortune in the Gold Rush, leaving his wife and newborn daughter in Missouri. He had little luck.

In 1852, he headed to Los Angeles, where he lived with his brother-in-law, Hayes, and another brother-in-law, Army physician John Strother Griffin. Eaton ran for Los Angeles County district attorney in 1853. "Family connections most likely aided Eaton in his successful run," Zack said.

With a steady job but a meager salary, he sent for his family. In the meantime, to make ends meet, he used engineering skills he'd learned working for a railroad back East: He built a road from Temple Street to the cemetery atop Fort Moore Hill, which is now across the freeway from Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral. In lieu of money, he was paid in property -- the abandoned jailhouse southwest of the pueblo, where his son, the future mayor, would be born.

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