Carleton Watkins, Late George Cling Peaches, c. 1887-1888. Albumen print from wet-collodion negative. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

As much as any of his more famous landscapes of Yosemite or Mount Shasta, Carleton Watkins’ Late George Cling Peaches is a masterpiece. The picture, in the collections of the Huntington and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, shows a box of peaches, a subject so paradoxically obscure and familiar, that nowhere in 19th-century art, neither in America nor in Europe, is there anything like it.

To put Late George Cling Peaches into its proper context, to understand why it holds our gaze, we need to go back 500 years. Since at least the thirteenth century, Western art has been significantly interested in how a two-dimensional medium, such as painting, might realistically present the third dimension. In the late 1200s, a Florentine painter named Giotto helped introduce life into art, or, as we might put it today, for painting people in a manner that was lifelike and that gave volume to the human figure. Around 1425, another Florentine, Filippo Brunelleschi, composed images of Florence’s buildings, its cityscape, using what would later be called ‘linear perspective,’ the painterly use of geometry to create a realistic simulacrum of depth, and a believable representation of reality. More simply, Giotto and Brunelleschi pioneered making paintings of things that looked less like an outline or a colored shadow, and instead look more like something real.

For most of the next 500 years, between the late dark ages and the dawn of modernity, artists tried to present depth more and more realistically. Typically art historians attribute the birth of modern art to the coming together of two seemingly unrelated artistic interests: Artists began to take contemporary life as a subject, and, once that turned out to be something fairly easily done — look, a cabaret! look, boaters on a river! —  they made clearer their break with centuries of the past by now working to eliminate depth and perspective for which half a millennium of their predecessors had fought so hard. Steps toward this new idea are evident in the late 19th-century paintings of Cezanne and then in the turn-of-the-century paintings of Gustav Klimt, but the elimination of depth and painterly perspective reached its apex a few years later, when Henri Matisse led the way toward a colorful style known as fauvism and when Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque purged color from their work in a bid to birth cubism.

At least that’s how it happened in painting. For photography, perspective and the presentation of depth is a trickier question. While in the early days of the medium many photographers looked to painting for ideas and inspiration — Briton Roger Fenton, arguably photography’s first master, was trained as a painter, and it shows in his pictures — few took on the concerns of the painting avant-garde as their own. Instead, 19th-century photographers, be they portrait daguerreotypists, scientists or landscape photographers, concerned themselves with capturing images of what was before the camera and doing so as clearly and as attractively as possible. Sure, the artist composed the image to the best of his ability — some better than others — but depth or perspectival space wasn’t an issue for photographers the way it was with painters. It was just part of the camera-captured, chemically processed image.

In part, this was because the presentation of depth was effectively built in to photography’s early technologies. Early ways of making pictures, such as the wet collodion process which was dominant through the 1860s, often resulted in images wherein the objects or landscape that was further away from the camera printed ‘lighter.’ Voila: For photographers, the depth for or against which painters fought was created as the result of chemical inevitability. By the late 1870s, as cameras, lenses and chemistry improved, that effect was nearly eliminated and the distant background and the foreground often melded together in the finished image. While the foreground was now clearer and richer, the background was too, and typically it was every bit as clear and rich as the foreground. Many photographers hoped that the viewer would understand that the camera, and thus the photograph, would necessarily flatten the image, that the foreground would appear to be pasted onto the background, and that the viewer would use her imagination to conjure the space between what was nearest the camera lens and what was farthest away. While it’s not clear how many painters realized it at the time, improvements in photographic technology brought painters to where photographic technology already was. Or to put it another way, what painters were fighting to advance toward — the flattening of pictorial space — was effectively built in to photography from the early 1870s onward.

Which brings us back to Late George Cling Peaches. It is a photograph of peaches packed in four horizontal rows of six. A deep cleft runs two-thirds of the way around each fruit, nearly halving it. They are babies’ bottoms in a box. The photograph is so detailed, so precise, that you can see light wrapping its way around each individual peach, pausing between each slightly upraised pore before vanishing into the empty black space between each fruit. The edge of the photograph is the edge of the box in which the peaches were shipped, unless the edge of the box is the edge of the photograph. That flattening of pictorial space that technical advances in photography had built into the medium? With Late George Cling Peaches, Watkins defeated it, showed that a skilled artist could win out over the march of technology.

The picture is not just a masterpiece of formalism. Late George Cling Peaches was a picture the celebrated a late 19th-century miracle: man’s hubristic transformation of southern California desert, in this case Kern County, into fruit orchards.

A few years before Watkins took Late George Cling Peaches, Kern County was one of the hottest, driest, most inhospitable desert landscapes in America. A few years before that, it was an inland sea, covered in floodwaters so deep that steamboats were able to paddle through it. On one hand, these cycles of extreme weather had been going on for centuries and probably for millenia. On the other, the floods brought rich soil to the valley floor. Where there was rich soil, there was the potential for agriculture. This wasn’t lost on San Francisco businessmen who, after a couple of decades of benefiting from the mining booms in California and Nevada, were flush with cash and looking for places to invest it. They realized that if they could somehow control the rivers coming out of the mountains on either side of California’s central valley, if they could normalize and regulate the flow of water that created the floods and thus eliminate the hydrological extremes that had made even low-density agricultural settlement and agriculture in most of Kern impossible, that they could make millions. In short, they believed they could manage nature and make the desert bloom.

As a San Franciscan with close relationships to the wealthy men who invested in railroads and land throughout California, Carleton Watkins was engaged with these desert reclamation projects from almost the beginning. Watkins was especially close to the San Francisco land barons who controlled Kern. In the late 1870s, those men sued each other over Kern water rights. One set of partners, James Ben Ali Haggin and Lloyd Tevis, hired Watkins to make pictures that they could use in court to support their claims against the other team, Henry Miller and Charles Lux.2 The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became a landmark water-rights decision. The most important outcome of the suit was that it effectively confirmed that Miller, Lux, Haggin and Tevis controlled the water supply for almost all of the agricultural land in Kern County, and by their control of water they controlled the future of lands much larger than that. Haggin and Tevis had plans for all that water: They plowed their capital into re-shaping their new land, moving rivers, building canals, and filling-in marshes and lakes.

This was no small project: Kern County is bigger than New Jersey. At first, as often as not, they got it wrong and powerful Sierra-snowmelt-driven floods destroyed their earthworks. They kept trying: The potential rewards were too great for them to give up. Eventually their engineers figured it out, and their irrigation projects played a key role in the conversion of California’s once-inhospitable Central Valley into the global agricultural powerhouse it is today.

By 1888, Tevis, Haggin and Billy Carr, their politically connected local land agent, had finally figured out how to make their 375,000-acre patch of Kern bloom. (That acreage is equivalent to about 500 square miles of land, an area equivalent to 11 San Franciscos.) They formed the Kern County Land Company, whose waterworks fed a series of large farms on which they grew crops such as alfalfa and grain, and raised cattle. That was all well and good, but Carr and Haggin realized that the fastest, largest profits could be made from land sales, from breaking up their massive acreage and selling plots to individual farmers. However, there was an obvious problem: There wasn’t anyone in Kern County to sell to. Before Haggin and Carr transformed it, the Southern Pacific Railroad hadn’t even bothered to build its San Joaquin Valley line all the way to Kern’s county seat in Bakersfield. The county was home to no more than couple thousand recently arrived Oklahomans, Texans, Louisianans and Mexicans. Many were seasonal laborers already employed by the Kern County Land Co. Kern was so hot and dry and miserable that no one really wanted to live there.

Haggin, Tevis and Carr understood that the settlement of Kern — and thus their profits — would have to come from the East and Midwest, the two parts of the country that had fueled Western migration for several decades. But how to convince potential farmers in Pennsylvania or Illinois to move west, to take a chance on a bold, never-before-attempted reclamation project in a recently former desert wasteland? Answer: Hire Carleton Watkins. There’s no surviving record of what Haggin and Tevis told Watkins to do, but the resulting pictures make it clear: Make Kern look like somewhere you’d want to live, raise your family and farm. Make it look like a safe investment, like a place you could raise both crops and your family.3 Sure there were plenty of other photographers they could have hired, including one in Kern who worked for half of what Watkins charged, Haggin and Tevis knew how good Watkins was. He was money well-spent.

Part of the reason Watkins was a great artist — and part of why his life’s story and work are so fascinating — is that he had a particular skill for composing chaos into inevitability. No body of work demonstrated this skill better than the hundreds of photographs he made of Kern County. Here Watkins’ pictures would transform Kern’s withering desert and hydrological extremes into the land of cornucopia that Haggin and Tevis needed it to be.

In today’s terms that would make Watkins little more than a maker of slick marketing images, a PR-motivated shyster. But in the 19th century, that was de rigeur. For decades, American painters had cranked out idyllic landscapes, pictures that were too perfect to be real. If the land was blessed by Providence — and Americans believed that their place on the continent surely was — artists had to make the land look Providential. Watkins knew that his pictures had to fit an ideal, but he was a Westerner, more interested in serving capital than in serving the Lord. In Watkins’ Kern, the landscape wasn’t prepared by the Lord in advance of manifest destiny, it was built by man. That made Watkins the perfect artist for his time, and also the ideal artist for his clients and customers, railroad titans, land barons and bankers, men whose livelihoods depended on presenting the West as tamed, as a place safe for investment and relocation. In Watkins, modernity always wins.

Late George Cling Peaches is either the first or more likely the last of as many as nine pictures Watkins took of Kern orchards between 1881 and 1888. While it’s impossible to know exactly how Watkins intended the pictures to be seen, the way he numbered his pictures suggest that Late George Cling Peaches is the culmination of a group of pictures meant to be considered as a narrative. The first picture was probably an 1881 view of the Kern River as it exits the steep foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada and enters the central valley. Watkins’ message: There is a lot of water here, and there will continue to be, because the mountains and their snowpack provide it. The next several pictures shows the Kern County Land Co orchards, from a distance, then close-ups of an individual tree, a branch heavy with fruit, then on a cluster of peaches. The final image is the boxed peaches, likely shipped to Watkins’ San Francisco studio for photographing, just as they’d be shipped to Chicago or New Orleans for consuming, were intended as evidence of how you, a prospective migrant to Kern, could make farming in Kern pay off.

In any context, Late George Cling Peaches is an astonishing picture. How did Watkins make each individual fruit look so soft? Just as remarkable as the intensity of Watkins’ image is that it’s impossible to tell whether the box is lying flat with Watkins’ huge mammoth-plate camera above it, pointing down into the box, or whether the box is on end, across from Watkins’ camera.4

One way or another, the peaches are stuck in place, on a grid. Here, in 1889, Watkins has built a picture around a grid and by so doing has flattened space in a way that the European avant garde, which had been slowly, steadily working toward this — and toward the grid — since late impressionism, wouldn’t achieve for another 20 years. Another major innovation of modern art was that it made everyday life, the commonplace, into a subject of high visual art. What could be more ordinary than a box of peaches? One measure of Watkins’ importance as an artist is that he was alone among American artists of his period in making the seemingly mundane a subject of intense compositional experimentation.

Huntington photography curator Jennifer Watts has called Late George Cling Peaches “the first “modernist masterpiece.” The only other known copy of the picture is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for whom photography curator Sarah Meister acquired it in 2010. “If I died tomorrow and I never brought another work into the collection, knowing that Late George Cling Peaches is here, that’s certainly my proudest accomplishment,” Meister told me after installing the picture for the first time. “You can’t look at Marcel Duchamp the same way after seeing that Watkins picture. I think it radically changes how you see the nineteenth century, which then reverberates through the present.”


Tyler Green is an award-winning art journalist and the producer and host of The Modern Art Notes Podcast, America’s most popular audio program on art. He is writing a book (UC Press) on Carleton Watkins, the greatest American photographer of the 19th-century and arguably the most influential American artist of his time. The Huntington is home to the one of the most important collections of Watkins’s work.

This post was originally published on the ICW website in September 2015.


Listen to the recording of In Conversation with Tyler Green (Wednesday, May 27, 2015):

Carleton Watkins in California: How an Artist on the Edge of America Impacted American Science, History and Business

You may have heard that Alan Jutzi, Avery Chief Curator of Rare Books, is retiring after a 45-year career at The Huntington. In his honor, I have been asked to pass along the following:


On the Retirement of the Avery Chief Curator of Rare Books, Alan Jutzi

with apologies to Robert Mezey


Who knows his Heber from his Hoe?

His Pembroke, Patton, Pound, and Poe?

Or where the Chew and Chaucer go?

Don’t ask me, ask Jutzi.


When did we get the plant that’s stinkin’?

Who remembers stuff on Lincoln?

Or why de Worde was always Wynkyn?

Don’t have a clue? Ask Jutzi.


Bukowski—was he real or fakin’?

Do we keep much on Francis Bacon?

And why, oh why, was Conrad Aiken?

Search me, ask Alan Jutzi.


How did Henry store his plonk?

Do we have Alchemy, by Franck?

Where did the scholars play petanque?

I don’t know, ask Jutzi.


Who takes on rare books mano a mano?

Who’s every curator’s hermano?

And what the hell’s a zamarano?

You’d better go ask Jutzi.


Whose tennis game is strong and gutsy?

Whose love of fishing’s slightly nutsy?

Who makes the rest of us look putzy?

God only knows—and Jutzi.


Based on Robert Mezey’s “On the Retirement of the Scholar, Thomas Pinney.”

The Aerospace History Project, under the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, is an effort to document the history of the aerospace industry in Southern California and the economic, cultural, and physical effects on the region and beyond. The project collects the papers and oral histories of key individuals and institutions across the aerospace industry, creating a permanent, central resource.

The Director of the Aerospace History Project, Peter J. Westwick, is Assistant Research Professor in the History Department at the University of Southern California. He received his BA in physics and PhD in history from UC Berkeley, and has taught at Yale and Caltech. His research focuses on the history of science and technology in the twentieth century U.S. He is the author of several books including Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004, and The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974. He is also editor of Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California.

In the following interview, Peter reveals how he became involved with aerospace history, some of the most interesting things he came across while working with the Aerospace History Project, and current projects.


ICW: Tell us a bit about your background and how you came by your interest in science and technology.

Peter Westwick: When I was a kid I got my hands on some popular books on astronomy and astrophysics and was transfixed by the images and descriptions of the universe.  So when I went off to college at Berkeley I decided to study physics.  But I also always really enjoyed reading history, and I also liked writing.  After my undergraduate degree I was working as a physicist in industry, and I discovered that there was actually a field, the history of science, that combined my interests – and that Berkeley had a strong program in it, with one of the leading historians of physics.  I decided to give history of science a try in grad school, and I was hooked.


French aviator Louis Paulhan makes record-breaking flight to 4,600 feet in 1910. The balloon in the background advertised the Los Angeles Examiner, which helped sponsor the 1910 LA Air Meet. (photCL Pierce 6298, C.C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library)


Describe the Aerospace History Project: what is it, how did it come about, and what is your role?  

Westwick: The project started when Bill Deverell and I were both at Caltech.  I was working on a history of JPL and wanted to situate it in the context of Southern California, so I went and talked to Bill.  We both realized the importance of SoCal aerospace to our respective fields – me, history of science and technology; Bill, California history – and also that few archival sources existed to support scholarly research.  We also both recognized that a window of opportunity was closing: because of recent mergers and relocations a lot of corporate files were being shredded or tossed; and many individual pioneers were fading from the scene, so we were losing the chance to record their memories and save their papers.  Then Bill got the offer to come to USC and ICW, and we recognized another opportunity: the Huntington Library, with its strengths in history of science, California, and business history, was a natural home for the archive.  That brought Dan Lewis on board as the third member of our little triumvirate. Dan knows the archival landscape and also the practical issues of acquiring collections.  My instinct as a historian is to save everything, and Dan often has to remind me that we have finite space and resources, so that we have to make decisions.  Bill knows everyone in the L.A. area and is constantly coming up with new connections to people or collections.  Bill has also been instrumental in finding funding, and also in finding creative avenues for outreach, for instance through a series of great programs for high-school teachers. He reminds me that it’s not enough just to save stuff; we also then need to help push that history out to the scholarly community and the general public.

My role is to provide the intellectual connection to aerospace history and understand the needs and opportunities of researchers.  I help evaluate potential collections and also handle the oral histories; it helps here that I can speak the language, at least a little, since I have some technical background.  I’ve also mentored the two postdocs we had under an NSF grant (I’m happy to say that they have since landed jobs at Harvard and the National Air and Space Museum).  One of these postdocs, Matt Hersch, worked with me on an exhibit at the Huntington in fall 2011, mostly using materials from our collections, that attracted about 25,000 visitors.  We had so many people come up to us in the exhibit and say that they had friends or family who had worked in aerospace – or that they themselves had worked in it – and thank us for recognizing the importance of this history.  That’s a rare and very gratifying sort of feedback for historians.

Tell us some things about the book you edited on the aerospace industry in Southern California.  

Westwick: When Bill, Dan, and I first started planning the project we had the idea to start off with a conference, as a way to survey the landscape, to figure out what we already knew and where research was neeBlue_Sky_Metropolisded.  We held the conference at the Huntington in 2007, and we got such a great response – not only from the over a hundred people who showed up, but also from people who heard about it through the media coverage – that we decided to bring the material to a wider audience through an edited
volume of papers.  The book wasn’t just a
collection of conference papers, though, since we brought in several more contributors. Bill also had the great idea to include a photoessay, and I had a lot of fun sifting through the Huntington’s photo collections for a few gems to illustrate themes of early aviation.

We really tried to highlight the diversity of topics and historical approaches, so the papers look at aerospace intersections with Hollywood, architecture, labor, women, the environment, and so on.  It’s really an eclectic but, we think, eye-opening perspective on the many ways aerospace shaped Southern California, and vice versa.


Are there particularly important collections that you have helped bring in to the Huntington archives, and what collections are still “out there” that you may know about and are interested in drawing into the archive?

Westwick: Thanks to generous advice from Sherm Mullin, a former head of the Skunk Works, we’re particularly strong on Lockheed: we have the personal papers of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the Skunk Works’ founder, and Ben Rich, Johnson’s successor, and so have a wealth of material on the U-2, SR-71, the F-117A, and other celebrated planes.  We also have several thousand photos on pre-World War II Lockheed from Harvey Christen, one of Lockheed’s first employees, and a systematic collection from Willis Hawkins, a key designer and manager.  We also have a very substantial collection of historical files from Northrop Grumman, and the papers of Tom Jones, who was head of Northrop for three decades.  We have the papers of Bud Wheelon, a major figure at Hughes and in the national-security and space program in general.  We also just received the papers of the Planetary Society, which was formed here in Pasadena in 1980 and has been probably the most important public-interest group for space exploration ever since.

But however we much we collect, we are always driven by the knowledge that so much more remains out there to preserve, and that a lot of it will be lost if we don’t act.


What are some of the most interesting things you’ve found in the archive?

Westwick: One of the more interesting collections is the Al Hibbs papers.  Hibbs got his PhD under Richard Feynman at Caltech and like Feynman had insatiable curiosity and diverse interests: he did underwater photography and kinetic sculpture, flew sailplanes, acted in local theater, made an electronic trombone, applied to the astronaut program, contributed to the Biosphere project — all in addition to being an architect of JPL’s early satellite program, and later the “voice of JPL” for radio and TV broadcasts and an important science popularizer.  He was just a fascinating character, and his papers are full of interesting twists.

The most unexpected thing was probably an item I ran across while I was cataloging the Ben Rich papers.  It was a photo of two bearded gentleman in a barn circa 1907, standing next to a contraption resembling an airplane but of dubious flightworthiness.

The first question was, who were these guys?  They turned out to be Charles and Lyman Gilmore, a couple brothers up in Grass Valley, California.  The airplane was a remarkably ambitious design for the time, just a few years after the Wright brothers: an enclosed cabin in a metal fuselage, big enough for eight passengers, instead of an open wooden framework; a single wing instead of a biplane; and the propeller in front instead of the pusher type used by the Wrights.  In fact it was too ambitious – the steam engine wasn’t nearly strong enough to get the heavy plane off the ground.  Worse yet, they built the plane bigger than the barn door, so they would have had to take off the wings to get it out to fly.

Lyman Gilmore

Lyman Gilmore Jr. and his brother Charles in their barn in Grass Valley, Calif., ca. 1907. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The second question was, what were these guys doing in Ben Rich’s papers?  Of the two brothers Lyman Gilmore was the moving spirit, but he was also an eccentric fellow.  He was obsessed with secrecy, and then at one point he stopped cutting his hair and beard and, worse, gave up bathing – not for a few days or weeks, but for years and eventually decades. Rich was fascinated by Gilmore, so much so that the Skunk Works director, a very busy man, took the time to track down all the information he could on him.  Now, Rich loved a good story, and he was no doubt drawn to Gilmore as a colorful addition to his collection of anecdotes.  But Rich may have also recognized a connection.  Granted, there is no path from Gilmore’s barn to the Skunk Works, no technological lineage from his steam-powered plane to Stealth aircraft.  But Gilmore still tells us something about aviation and California.  It was no coincidence that Gilmore was a gold miner living in the heart of the Mother Lode, or that some of his early investors came from the nearby town of You Bet.  Like the original Gold Rush, aviation attracted romantic spirits, people willing to risk failure in the pursuit of their dreams.  And Rich was one of them.  The first Stealth plane was aeronautically unstable on all three axes, and when Kelly Johnson saw an early model he told Rich, “that goddam thing will never get off the ground.”  Both Rich and Gilmore ignored the doubters and pursued their dreams of flight.


Tell us about the oral histories – how can someone use them, and what’s next on that front?

Westwick: We’ve conducted conducted oral histories with a wide range of aerospace figures:  men and women, design engineers and shop floor machinists, test pilots and CEOs, from huge firms and small machine shops.   These are guided oral histories, conducted either by myself or fellow historians.  We’ve done about fifty oral histories and thirty of them are available on-line through the Huntington Digital Library, here.

The rest of the interviews will be posted once they’re through the transcribing and editing pipeline.  As with the archival collections, we have far more oral history candidates than we have managed to get to, but we sense the urgency to record as much of this history as we can.  There are some fascinating stories in these interviews: personal histories, character sketches, funny episodes, and also illuminating windows on particular issues: African-Americans in aerospace, or secrecy and classification and civil liberties, or antitrust law.


What are you working on these days?

Westwick: My main research project at the moment is a history of the National Academy of Sciences, which is the major honorary society in the U.S. and a major source of science advice to the federal government.  The Academy was created in 1863, during the Civil War, and when it reached its 150th anniversary people there approached a few of us historians (Dan Kevles, Ruth Cowan, and myself) about writing a history.  I’ve also been working for several years now on a history of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, the 1980s plan for missile defense.  I’ve finished most of the research and just need to find time to write it.


Listen below to “Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration” : a roundtable discussion at the biennial meetings of the Society for City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH), which took place in Los Angeles on November 7, 2015.



Becky Nicolaides, Affiliated Research Scholar, Huntington-USC ICW

Andrew Wiese, Professor of History, San Diego State University




Heavy Ground cover

ICW is proud to announce Heavy Ground, the newest book in our Western Histories series published by UC Press and Huntington Library Press, available December 2015. Heavy Ground gives a detailed account and analysis of the March 12, 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam – located in the northernmost reaches of Los Angeles County – which has been called the greatest civil engineering disaster in twentieth-century American history.

We interviewed co-author Donald C. Jackson, the Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania about the book, the research involved, and the impact of this disaster both then and now.

The St. Francis Dam, before its collapse in 1928. From the DC Jackson collection

The St. Francis Dam, before its collapse in 1928. From the DC Jackson collection

How did you first become interested in the St. Francis Dam disaster, and how did you come to collaborate with Professor Hundley?

DC Jackson:   It doesn’t take long for someone seriously interested in the history of California dam-building to come across references to the St. Francis Dam disaster and that was certainly the case for me when I began researching the history of multiple arch dams way back in the 1970s. What struck me early on—and is an issue addressed in Heavy Ground—is the seeming incongruity of how the failure of a concrete gravity dam (i.e. St. Francis) did not spur serious concern about the viability of concrete gravity technology, but in fact precipitated the end of multiple arch dam technology in post-1928 California. The issue was raised in my book Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the American West (1995), but Heavy Ground offered an opportunity to examine more carefully how some key engineering investigations of the St. Francis Dam disaster were oriented towards protecting gravity dam technology and making sure that the failure was not used to attack the proposed Boulder Dam then being considering for approval by Congress.

Norris and I began our collaboration around 2001 when we were asked for some advice regarding a film documentary. Through this, we realized that we shared a perspective on the disaster (and on William Mulholland) and this led to our writing the article “Privilege and Responsibility: William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam Disaster” published in California History in November 2004. After the article appeared we said, “Hey, let’s build upon our already extensive research and write a more wide-ranging book on the disaster,” and we plunged into project. Additional archival work was carried out in 2005-06 and the drafting of chapters began soon thereafter. But professional demands and health issues then slowed work on the project. After a hiatus, in the summer of 2012 I received a Trent R. Dames Fellowship in Civil Engineering History at the Huntington Library and work on the manuscript accelerated. Unfortunately, Norris died in April 2013 after a sustained period of declining health. However, his passing came after much work on Heavy Ground had been done and, although I was responsible for completing the book and preparing it for publication, Heavy Ground stands as a true collaboration. In my view, much of the book’s value derives from how it melds the work of two historians who, in sharing a deep interest in the history of water in the American West, each brought a distinctive perspective to studying the history of the St. Francis Dam.

Why was the dam built in this particular place and time? What does “Heavy Ground” reference?

DCJ:   The dam was built as a component of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water from the Owens Valley to the City of Los Angeles. Financing for the original construction of the aqueduct, which came to completion in 1913, was limited and did not allow for the construction of major storage reservoirs. By the early 1920s the issue of storage loomed large, especially because Mulholland had encountered problems with his hope of building the Long Valley Dam in the upper Owens River watershed. Early plans for the aqueduct never mentioned the possibility of building a large dam in San Francisquito Canyon, but in 1922 Mulholland decided to pursue this option even though it acted to reduce the hydroelectric generation capacity of the city’s San Francisquito Power House No. 2.

“Heavy Ground” is a phrase used to describe the geology of the east side of the St. Francis Dam site. As we explain in the book, the dam’s failure was the result of water saturating the broken schist of the east side foundation; the resulting “uplift” accompanying this saturation destabilized the concrete gravity structure and, under the pressure of a full reservoir, precipitated collapse. Specifically, the phrase is taken from a letter written by Joseph B. Lippincott—Mulholland’s assistant chief engineer during construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct from 1906 through 1913—to the New England-based engineer John R. Freeman two weeks after the disaster. Noting that “The foundations on which the [St. Francis] dam was built were not good,” Lippincott described how

“I was intimately connected with the driving of a series of tunnels for our aqueduct through the range of mountains on which the left or east abutment of the dam rested… The rock that we encountered was a broken schist and a good deal of it expanded when it came in contact with the air and was what the tunnel men called ‘heavy ground.’ We had great difficulty in holding this ground [for the aqueduct tunnel] before it was lined with concrete.”

The “heavy ground” described by Lippincott is one and the same the broken schist that proved vulnerable to “uplift” when the reservoir was filled. And because Mulholland’s concrete gravity design did little to address the problems posed by “uplift” (in contrast to other major concrete dams built in the teens and 1920s), it was highly susceptible to the hydrostatic forces that brought about the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Norris and I agreed that Lippincott’s phrase “heavy ground” spoke directly to the essential cause of the dam failure and also that it evocatively conveyed the somber, tragic character of a disaster that killed some 400 people.

What impact did the disaster have on William Mulholland’s career, and do you think he should he be held accountable?

DCJ:   The disaster brought Mulholland’s career to an end; nominally he remained Chief Engineer of the city’s Bureau of Water Works and Supply until his formal resignation in November 1928, but after the disaster his stature as an engineer was destroyed. However, while Mulholland was no longer active as an engineer after the disaster, his colleagues did not publicly chastise him and most remembrances offered at the time of his death in July 1935 made no mention of St. Francis Dam and its tragic collapse.

The issue of Mulholland’s responsibility for the disaster comprised the focus of our 2004 article in California History and it is also central to Heavy Ground. We believe that Mulholland exercised complete control over the St. Francis design and that he took full advantage of the “municipal exemption” provided in California’s 1917 dam safety law that allowed him to build the dam without the review of, or approval by, the State Engineer. As such, Mulholland was given the privilege to design and build the St. Francis Dam as he wished without any outside review or counsel. As we document in Chapter 2 of Heavy Ground, Mulholland’s St. Francis design fell far short of what contemporary engineers of the 1920s were doing in terms of addressing problems posed by the effect of “uplift” acting upon concrete gravity dams. So yes, we hold Mulholland accountable for the disaster and Heavy Ground explains why.

William Weinland and his family (along with his visiting mother) in front of their San Francisquito Canyon bungalow prior to their death. From the Weinland Collection at the Huntington Library

William Weinland and his family (along with his visiting mother) in front of their San Francisquito Canyon bungalow prior to their death. From the Weinland Collection at the Huntington Library

What are some of the most poignant or interesting stories you uncovered in the research? Did you find the transcript of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Inquest (now preserved at the Huntington Library) to be of special value in your work?

DCJ:    In terms of poignancy, the story of how Lillian Curtis and her son survived the deluge that engulfed the community at San Francisquito Power House No. 2 (located a mere mile and a half below the dam site) is particularly moving. Norris and I recount it in the Prologue to Heavy Ground as a way to highlight the human tragedy brought by the flood—although staying in the same wooden bungalow, Lillian’s husband and her two daughters died that night; a week later they were buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. The story of William Weinland (an operator at Power House No. 2) and his family is also quite poignant, as his parents came up from Banning, CA a few months before the disaster and took photographs of their son, daughter-in-law and grandson in front of the wooden bungalow that would later be demolished by a 100 foot high wall of water. Unlike the Curtis family, the Weinland family all died in the flood and the next morning William’s body was among the first identified at the makeshift morgue in Newhall. His parents were notified of his death in a telegram sent the afternoon of March 13 and they preserved it in memory of their lost loved ones until donating it to the Huntington Library in the 1940s. Heavy Ground features a copy of this terse missive as a way of highlighting the tragic effect of the flood on far flung extended families.

In terms of “interesting stories,” Heavy Ground pays close attention to William Mulholland’s testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest and especially to the context in which he accepts “blame” for the dam failure and then attempts to claim that State Engineer Wilbur McClure approved the St. Francis Dam and its foundation and thus shares some degree of responsibility for the collapse. But the “story” the Mulholland wants to express relating to McClure’s half-day visit to the St. Francis site loses authority when placed in the context of how the State Engineer and his staff reviewed the plans, approved the design, and supervised construction of the Littlerock Creek and Palmdale Irrigation District’s Littlerock Dam (located about 35 miles east of St. Francis) over the six year period 1918-1924. The “story” of the Littlerock Dam’s relationship with the State Engineer’s office (as required by California’s 1917 dam safety law) is one that may appear unrelated to the St. Francis saga, but in fact it provides a telling and significant counterpoint to how Mulholland controlled the construction of his dam in San Francisquito Canyon.

Overall, the book makes extensive use of coroner’s inquest testimony, as this verbatim record provides invaluable access to the voices of people who were involved in the design and construction of the dam, experienced the horror of the flood, or witnessed conditions at the disaster site firsthand (both pre- and post-flood). The inquest testimony is certainly not “The Truth” per se and neither is it always insightful or edifying, yet the words stenographically captured by the court reporters allow historians to experience directly how and what questions were posed and answered in the tumultuous days after the disaster. And we can reflect on why some seemingly key questions (such as why the height of the dam was raised ten feet after construction began and how was the original design modified in reaction to this alteration) were never presented to Mulholland or his assistants. In many ways, what was left out of the inquest—and also from the Governor’s Commission investigation of the disaster—becomes a story unto itself within Heavy Ground.

The book is marked by the inclusion of extraordinary photographs — can you tell us about the image research you’ve done, and do many of these come from your own collection?

DCJ:   I have always been drawn to the physical character of water control technologies, and began collecting photographs and antique postcards more than 30 years ago. I used to do my collecting at paper ephemera and postcard shows (along with antique shops and flea markets). But with the advent of eBay and other online auction sites my collecting took on new life and several images featured in Heavy Ground are from original photographs obtained on eBay. I sought to use photographs, maps, and drawings in Heavy Ground not as mere window dressing, but rather as a means of illustrating important issues and concepts. It is one thing to describe how the daughters of Lillian Curtis were victims of the flood, but to see a photograph of them as smiling, happy children helps bring the tragedy to life. And while I can write a description of what a cut-off trench for a concrete dam might look like, showing a picture of such a trench and then contrasting it with a photo of the St. Francis foundation—where clearly no cut-off trench was excavated—makes the point visually.

The challenge in assembling the more than 150 photographs used to illustrate Heavy Ground was to insure that each image made its own contribution to the complex mosaic of the disaster. Along with drawing upon my personal collection of dam images (that make up about a third of the images in the book) and the wonderful range of photographs held in the collections of the Huntington Library (that make up another third), I spent much time reviewing photographs held by the Los Angeles Public Library, the Los Angeles Times photograph collection housed at UCLA, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power photo archive, all with the goal of assembling a wide range of images documenting the tragedy from a variety of perspectives. And then care was taken to arrange the myriad images so that they connect with, and reinforce, the book’s text. In the end all the effort was well worth it, and I believe that Heavy Ground can engage a wide audience simply because of the way the illustrations have been integrated with the written descriptions and analysis.

Did the failure of the St. Francis Dam permanently change the politics of water in Los Angeles and the West?

DCJ:   Certainly the disaster led directly to enactment of California’s 1929 dam safety law, which eliminated the “municipal exemption” included in the state’s 1917 dam safety law, and this changed how the City of Los Angeles interacted with state authorities in Sacramento. But the political stature of the city (and of the city-dominated Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) remained in place and did not diminish in the 1930s and subsequent decades. The city’s reputation suffered in the aftermath of the disaster, but Los Angeles leaders successfully negotiated contentious issues related to rehabilitation of the Santa Clara Valley and the compensation of victims and their dependents (see Chap. 5 of Heavy Ground). Within a matter of a few years (and in some contexts only months) the disaster disappeared as a subject of public discourse. Viewed broadly, the disaster was never “forgotten” in an absolute sense, but as described in Heavy Ground, supporters of the Boulder Canyon Project Act sought to downplay the significance of the St Francis tragedy so that it would not impede approval of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam. And once the Boulder Canyon Project Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Coolidge in December 1928, there was little reason why BCPA supporters and Los Angeles civic leaders and boosters would encourage memorialization of the disaster.

The dam was built for the benefit of the City of Los Angeles, but the affected communities were in the far reaches of northwestern Los Angeles County and Ventura County. Is it possible to say what the total human cost was?  And do you think the public memory of the disaster is lessened by the fact that it occurred in the metropolitan hinterlands?

DCJ:   In the immediate aftermath of the disaster newspapers reported victim totals approaching 1,000, but these proved wildly off the mark. As described in Heavy Ground, the actual number of dead came to around 400, a figure that accords with accountings made in May 1928 and June 1929 and with recent research undertaken by anthropologist Ann Stansell using detailed records held by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. It is not uncommon for modern-day newspaper and internet stories to report that there were “600 flood victims” but this number cannot be justified by careful historical research.

If topographical conditions had been such that the St. Francis Dam had been built in the upper reaches of the San Fernando Valley near Sylmar and the flood wave had wreaked havoc on slumbering residents in Van Nuys, Reseda and other communities within the City of Los Angeles, then there is no question but that the disaster would be remembered in very different ways, especially by residents of Los Angeles. But because all of the victims were either in a remote part of Los Angeles County or the rural reaches of Ventura County, the disaster remained separated from the direct experience of most Angelenos. City residents contributed to relief funds and were horrified by the tragedy, but the death and destruction remained at a distance. No doubt the long tail of public memory of the disaster among city residents (and the nation as a whole) would have been very different—and likely much more visceral—if the flood had laid waste to the San Fernando Valley and not the Santa Clara Valley. Sad perhaps, but true.

In the book you say, “The collapse of the St. Francis Dam was a tragedy with long tentacles, affecting people across the state and nation who had never heard of San Francisquito Canyon or understood its place in the hydraulic infrastructure of Southern California.” Why, then, is this event not better known today? Is there a public commemoration of the disaster?

DCJ:   In large part, the “long tentacles” of the disaster derived from the fact that the Southern California Edison work crew at Kemp was comprised of young men who were only staying in the Santa Clara Valley for a few weeks. Once finished with building the new Edison transmission line from Saugus to Ventura they would be moving on to other construction projects far removed from the flood plain below the St. Francis Dam. But it was their unlucky fate to be bunked down along the banks of the Santa Clara River on the night of March 12-13, 1928. Eighty four Edison workers housed at Kemp died and their funerals were often held in hometowns far distant from Southern California.

The reason that the disaster is not so well known today can be traced to the desire of the City of Los Angeles and its leaders to draw as little attention as possible to the disaster without offending the sensibilities of the aggrieved or raising the ire of people skeptical of the city’s power as an urban leviathan. In addition, civic leaders in Ventura County were content to work quietly with their counterparts in Los Angeles to insure that reparations were paid for deaths and damage to property without recourse to lawyers or the civil court system. In the past few decades residents in and around Santa Clarita (a newly incorporated city which includes the former communities of Saugus and Newhall) have initiated lectures, tours, and other memorial activities to increase recognition of the disaster. The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, and its president Alan Pollack, has taken the lead in working to win congressional authorization of a St. Francis Dam Disaster National Historic Site (akin to the National Park Service’s Johnstown Flood Historic Site in Pennsylvania). It is hoped that publication of Heavy Ground will help boost these efforts to increase public awareness of the disaster.

Part of the St. Francis Dam after its 1928 collapse. From the DC Jackson collection

Part of the St. Francis Dam after its 1928 collapse. From the DC Jackson collection

Do you think people should visit the site of the dam failure?

DCJ:    Yes, the site of the dam failure in San Francisquito Canyon is worth visiting, but care should be taken to follow the rules of the Angeles National Forest during any trip to the site. I would also advise anyone to go with a group, preferably led by someone familiar with the terrain and landscape. The City of Los Angeles dynamited the remains of the dam in May 1929 and, although there are many surviving concrete remnants, someone unfamiliar with the site may not readily understand how they relate to the disaster.

What do you think the average person living in Southern California should take away from your book?

DCJ:   Technology does not exist in a political or cultural vacuum. Dams and water control systems are both physical and political constructs and, although the character of the 21st Century regulatory state is different from what existed in the 1920s, engineering design—and its regulation—remains in the realm of human endeavor. No one wants to be imperiled by inadequate or unsafe technologies, but how can we be sure that regulation does not blindly block innovation and creative design? There is no easy answer to this question and I hope that the “average person” in Southern California will look beyond the particulars of the St. Francis disaster and the horrific deaths of some 400 victims to consider how Mulholland’s failings as a dam designer might foster deeper reflection regarding our society’s complicated relationship with technology and public safety. In hindsight, it is always easy to perceive a disaster as something that “regulation” should have protected us from. But regulation is no panacea and it can have a stultifying effect on technological innovation.

How would you suggest that this book is a fitting final scholarly contribution by your late co-author, Professor Hundley?

DCJ:   As the preeminent “Water Historian” of his generation, Norris led the way in elucidating how California came to dominate water resources development in the 20th century American West. Norris perceived William Mulholland as a key player (if not the key player) in rise of Los Angeles as a commanding force in the hydraulic history of the arid Southwest. And he also came to recognize that Mulholland’s responsibility for the St. Francis Dam disaster (the event that brought the self-taught engineer’s career to a close) was, at best, poorly understood. For Norris, Heavy Ground represented an opportunity to bring closure to his historical treatment of Los Angeles—and Mulholland—as actors central to the story of the modern American West.

This interview with Donald C. Jackson was conducted through email on November 4, 2015 by ICW Director William Deverell and ICW Administrative Director Taryn Haydostian. Heavy Ground will be available in December 2015 from UC Press.

by Jessica Kim, Visiting Associate Director

El Paso Bridge

October 21, 2015

Scholars in the field of borderlands studies gathered at the Huntington Library earlier this month to explore how gender and borders have intersected from the eighteenth century to the present.  Panelists included Leisy Abrego (UCLA), Veronica Castillo-Muñoz (UCSB), Miroslava Chavez-Garica (UCSB), Celeste Menchaca (USC), and Andie Reid (Cal Poly SLO).  Drawing from their specific research projects while also commenting on the broader field of borderlands history, the panelists addressed innovative approaches to the question of how international borders reshape gender, family dynamics, and sexuality.  In particular, panelists noted the ways in which this important field is developing, from examining gender and medical borders, to technology and gender in the borderlands, to the ways in which families consciously create trans-border communities.

The ICW was particularly excited to host these scholars as it expands programming to include the dynamic field of borderlands history.  Please join us as we continue to explore the landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in the spring of 2016.

a recap by Ryan Fukumori

DEEP LA flyer two

During the first weekend of October 2015, UCLA and the Huntington Library co-hosted a graduate student conference on the history of Los Angeles and Southern California. “Deep L.A.,” as it was titled, was a project over two years in the making, a collaborate effort between graduate scholars at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Plans for the conference began out of discussions from a joint USC/UCLA graduate history course on Los Angeles, co-taught by William Deverell (Professor of History at USC) and Eric Avila (Professor of History, Chicano Studies, and Urban Planning at UCLA). While initial news of the course had suggested an armistice between students from crosstown rivals, “Studies in Urban History: Los Angeles” was more accurately a reflection of the ongoing, dynamic collaborations between historians at both institutions—which have long coexisted alongside the heated matchups at the Rose Bowl and L.A. Coliseum.

Indeed, a cluster of the Ph.D. students who had enrolled in the class was also part of a multi-campus writing group that convened monthly at the Huntington Library. In the summer of 2013, four up-and-coming scholars from this network of historians formalized plans for the conference under the advisorship of Professor Deverell: Daniel Lynch and Max D. Baumgarten, from UCLA’s Department of History; and Celeste Menchaca and Ryan Fukumori, from USC’s interdisciplinary Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.

The theme of the conference, “Deep L.A.,” counterbalanced the spatial, temporal, and topical vastness of Los Angeles history, with attention to the intimate textures and microsocial foci that this historiography demands. That is, centering on the city and region offered the foundation to explore what constitutes a deep historical practice on Los Angeles and Southern California through a heterogeneity of figures, institutions, neighborhoods, landscapes, and movements.

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Deep L.A. ultimately convened eighteen graduate historians to share their work, convening scholars from institutions both local (USC, the Claremont Graduate University, and UCs Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Irvine, and Santa Barbara) and far-flung (the University of Virginia). Both days of the conference—October 2 at UCLA, and October 3 at the Huntington—attracted a diverse audience of students, faculty members, and history buffs to listen to the panelists and contribute to the dialogue.

Fittingly, the conference participants themselves offered a sprawling portraiture of research into Los Angeles’ historical depths. Attendees heard presentations on the postwar histories of mainframe computing, suburban Christmas lights, community film forums, East L.A. muralists, and LSD usage. Other panelists traced the 20th-century transformation of urban and suburban space in relation to beaches, supermarkets, and freeway traffic. Some participants documented the central roles of women in post-WWII L.A. history, from anonymous runaways and counterculturalists to wealthy philanthropists and civic leaders. Scholars at Deep L.A. also spotlighted some of the historical actors buried in the archives, such as Depression-era citizen surveillance groups and the movie studio employees who themselves conducted historical research at the Huntington in the 1920s.

While the majority of presenters opted to focus on the mid-20th century, papers on the pre-1848 networks of Euro-American seafaring traders and Californios, and an 1862 coastal megaflood, offered novel perspectives on the 19th-century history of ecology, commerce, and statecraft in a dense period of conquest, territorial transfer, and settlement. In turn, other presenters explored the deep history of the “shallow” past: symbolizations of the 1992 L.A. uprising in science fiction cinema; unsuccessful secession movements in the San Fernando Valley; Latinidad in the Hub Cities; and contemporary issues around historic preservation in communities of color.

The conference culminated in a keynote speech from Professor Michelle Nickerson (Loyola University Chicago), who offered critical insights from her work on 1950s Southern California housewives and grassroots right-wing politics, Mothers of Conservatism. Nickerson dwelled deeply on the process of research and writing itself, ending the conference less on conclusions than poignant questions for further inquiry: what does it mean to relate and sympathize with one’s subjects, when we either agree or disagree with their own politics? How can historians synchronize storytelling with critical analysis? That is—how is a deep historical practice not merely the introduction of new narratives and subjects, but about examining the tools of narration themselves?

The array of scholars who endeavor to excavate this storied past, including those who offered their intellect and expertise to this conference, continue to grapple with such matters as they give life to their deep appraisals and analyses of Los Angeles history. As such, “Deep L.A.” was also a challenge to consider the forms of collectivity and collaboration that will animate the future writing of local and regional history.

Deep L.A. was made possible through generous support from the Huntington Library, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the UCLA Department of History, and the USC Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.