Movie Will Tell Story of an 1800s Visionary

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.

Eaton served two terms as district attorney and two more as an associate justice at the County Court of Sessions. He also gained a reputation as the "best farmer of the county," said William Wolfskill, Los Angeles' first orange grower, according to Hiram Reid's 1895 book "History of Pasadena."

In 1858, Eaton left the bench to manage the 14,000-acre Rancho San Pasqual, which encompassed much of what would become Pasadena, South Pasadena, Alhambra, San Marino and Altadena.

His wife, Helena, died in 1859. He put his two children, Mary Alice and Fred, in the care of their aunt, Louisa Griffin, and traveled by horseback to Connecticut to see his ailing mother.

On this visit east, he courted and married Alice Taylor Clark. Her family didn't like the match, but she didn't care.

"She threw all counsel to the wind and cast her life into the keeping of the 38-year-old widower from faraway Los Angeles," their daughter, Alice Eaton Smith, wrote in 1898.

The newlyweds settled down in the jailhouse, an adobe hut with an asphalt roof that melted in the summer heat. In these crude surroundings, their first two children were born.

Eaton's older children stayed with their aunt. "They had grown accustomed to a finer sort of life," Zack said.

Eaton was elected judge and then, in 1863, city clerk. A year later, when drought parched the Los Angeles River, he experimented with water-thrifty plants. He put in 35,000 non-irrigated grapevines that, in 1867, produced a wine he claimed "made old manufacturers open their eyes."

He made enough money on the wine to buy a 262-acre ranch called Fair Oaks, which included ancient oaks, a canyon and a waterfall. The couple raised six children here, in what is now known as Eaton Canyon

Eaton began digging a ditch, intending to tap the Arroyo Seco. But his plan became too costly and failed in 1870.

Three years later, Eaton helped sell a large chunk of Rancho San Pasqual to settlers, who hired him as president.

In 1874, Eaton brought water from what is now Devil's Gate Dam, south of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to a nearby reservoir. From there, it was piped to the new settlement, which became known as Pasadena.

He sold his Eaton Canyon property in 1877 and moved to a 60-acre ranch in what is now South Pasadena.

In 1889, in a $1,000 deal sealed with a handshake, he began widening the eight-mile trail to Mt. Wilson so the first telescope could be installed. But when the work was done, the Pasadena Board of Trade refused to pay him because there had been no written contract.

"He walked away with a lot of bitterness," Zack said.

His next venture, in 1891, was the Mt. Wilson Toll Road, a "pay before you go" trail that charged a horseback rider 50 cents and a hiker 25 cents.

He distanced himself from the Pasadena elite, perhaps because of the money dispute. The temperance league's arrival alienated him too; he was a bit of a tippler.

The Eatons eventually moved back to Los Angeles, where Benjamin died in 1909. Alice died in San Francisco in 1920.

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

"Eaton's Water" will premiere at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design at 7 p.m. Oct. 7. For reservations and information, visit altadenafoothills.org or call (626) 791-8458. Tax-deductible donations go toward teaching materials that will integrate the film with California educational standards.

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