The 33rd Mayor of the City of Los Angeles (1898–1900). The first Mayor, and until the last three, the only LA Mayor actually born in Los Angeles. He was born in a converted adobe jail on top a small hill below Fort Moore just above the Plaza. He was baptized at the Plaza church with the name "Federico" by the Italian priest. His mother died when he was a small child and his father went back East for few years, returning with a new wife.
Fred grew up on the violent streets of Los Angeles under the protection of his aunt, Louisa Hayes Griffin, wife of Dr. John Strother Griffin. His father was a Harvard educated lawyer who was an early District Attorney but went back into engineering because, like the Zanjero, it paid more. At age 13 Fred Eaton showed a talent for mechanical drawing and designed the Plaza for the LA Water City company, though it was not implemented until many years later when he was City Engineer. His engineering plan still exists in the Los Angeles City Archives. The Eaton and Hayes family were welcomed into Los Angeles political juntas because they were educated, Catholic, and quickly learned to speak Spanish.
He briefly attended Santa Clara College, but soon went to work of the LA City Water Co, and was its Superintendent by age nineteen. He then went to work as LA City Surveyor and was elected City Engineer. While City Engineer he developed the first comprehensive sewer plan which included the expensive but needed ocean outfall and he built most of the major public parks that we have today. While in private practice he built the Burdick Block at the NE corner of Second and Spring and launched a small development near West Lake Park, now MacArthur. He served as a consulting engineer on many water projects throughout the West and become friends with the leading American engineering experts on long camping trips to study the "conquering of arid America." He also served as Chief Engineer for the initial electric railway in Los Angeles, which replaced the then LA cable cars system. This became integrated into the Henry E. Huntington system, until it was replaced by buses and freeways. For a time Fred was president of the local Architects and Engineers Association which would get together at his house to discuss the latest ideas.
In 1892 he was invited to consult on a project of Stafford W. Austin, then husband of future writer Mary Austin, to take the excess waters of the Owens Valley around the salt lake to the Ridgecrest and Antelope Valleys. This project was unfeasible for financial reasons, but on a subsequent camping trip the following year while on top of Mt. Whitney with his family he realized the waters could actually be carried by gravity all the way to Los Angeles which had an all year growing season, but a limited source of water in the Los Angeles River. In the 1890s the family bought a ranch outside of Independence and continued to vacation there. Close cousins relocated to the area.
As a champion of municipal ownership of water systems, he ran for Mayor at the time of the expiration of the 30-year lease with his former employers, the privately owned LA City Water Company. Once public ownership had been secured, he proceeded to further develop his plan and design for a future aqueduct for Los Angeles. He invested his time and money in a detailed design outlining reservoirs and routes, electric power generation, and also future growth for the system extending North to the Mono basin.
He and his son Harold, just out of Stanford Engineering, personally secured the the land ownership necessary to implement the project, however negotiations with the City and Federal government and an appeal to him to be a "good native son" forced him to take much of his compensation in Inyo and Mono real estate and cattle. Fred took his detailed plans and showed them the Teddy Roosevelt to secure Federal support of a City project. Once this was done and the citizens of Los Angeles voted for bonds sufficient to fund the project, he turned his design over to William Mulholland to build, though he was now pushed out of several ways to make a profit such as the electrical power that would be generated. Enough positive credit is not given to J.B. Lippincott for insisting on total public ownership.
Now in his sixties, he then dedicated much of the remaining portion of his life to improving the Inyo Mono economy through the "Good Roads" program and building one of the largest poultry farms in the world outside of Big Pine. As local mining declined, he recognized the future of the area was tourism. Fred built the Whitmore Hot Springs for his daughter Helen to run as a resort to relax after fishing. Other Eaton properties were sold for dude ranches and Summer resorts. This was before the late 1920's when skiing began to become the economic force particularly in Mono County.
Fred Eaton gave a speech in the Owens Valley where he said the future of this region is just how many automobiles we can get to come up here every day.
In the end he sided with the land owners, such as himself, of the Owens Valley rather than the City of his birth. He had moved to Santa Monica by that time. Unfortunately, for him, he invested much of cash flow into local Inyo bankers who were publicly leading the fight but privately embezzled the Valley's funds possibly with the secret knowledge and complicity of other forces to destroy the remaining Owens Valley farmers all at once.
Fred Eaton had retained ownership of the key Long Valley reservoir site which was a part of the the original Reclamation Department design, which he had participated in, throughout these many years as the City of LA would not meet his price or they claimed a dam in the Long Valley Gorge was unsafe. Instead William Mulholland built downstream reservoirs in the San Fernando Valley one of which collapsed due to just the unsafe geology they claimed was in Long Valley. Both Mulholland and Van Norman said that a Long Valley dam would "Leak like a basket" which was clearly a lie. Sadly, the St. Francis Dam killed around 500 people. Afterwords following the Inyo bank failure and the later Depression, the humbled DWP were able to purchase the Mono County lands from the now broke Fred Eaton and build what is now Lake Crowley. The geology in the gorge seems to suit the dam fine.
The engineering consensus on the St. Francis Dam is that there was no way they could have known it would fail from a landslide though later studies have shown it was improperly designed and built based on existing standards and may have survived had it been built correctly, however nothing has been said why they were wrong about the Long Valley dam not failing after these many years though an earth filled dam in the confined gorge is a different design.
Fred Eaton's word to Mulholland and Van Norman was "the main difficulty. as far as I can determine, is Bill Mulholland's animosity towards me. Petty personalities should not be permitted to enter into a matter like this that vitally affects the life of two communities." Not being asked to review Mulholland's engineering work after the aqueduct was completed Eaton had no way to know the magnitude of the impact. Mulholland's reason to hate his old friend Eaton has been never publicly stated.
In the end Fred Eaton reconciled with his old friend before he and assistant Mulholland who was known as "Uncle Bill" to the Eaton children before they both passed away. As for the City Fred said he love the city of this birth like most men loved their country. Fred had taught Mulholland the rudiments of hydraulic engineering after work on a blackboard kept in the family home. One wonders how a much personal dispute led to hasty public policy decisions which led to the drowning of hundreds of people and cost far exceeding just paying the Owens Valley residents the value of their land, not for agriculture but for water resources for a thirsty City.
After Mulholland was disgraced, Eaton continued to fight it out, though the new Mayor, John C. Porter, who was against paying Eaton even if sent to a impartial arbitration board to determine the price. Porter was a also a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Eaton was a man from the 19th Century when a handshake was as good as a contract. Many of the City officials, newspapers, and developers during this later era fit the corrupt noir narrative.
In many ways Fred Eaton continued and expanded the early hydraulic engineering of his father, B.S. Eaton, in Los Angles and the SGV, replacing wooden pipes and bucket wheels with gravity pressurized cast iron pipes from reservoirs designed with just a dumphy level and aneroid barometers. The Eatons had envisioned eventually taking waters from the Colorado River, though the pump technology to do so was just being developed.
Eaton was never an extremely wealthy man or big developer, but was mostly a working engineer attuned the new technologies and also dedicated public servant willing to risk his own money for the public good and the chance of personal gain. Unlike Mulholland Fred Eaton never bought land in the San Fernando Valley, but was forced to make the best of his Owens Valley holdings.
He ran for Mayor primarily to secure public ownership of the water system and had no interest in politics. Though as a Mayor, Fred was a social progressive and integrated African Americans into the LAPD and Fire Department, though the following Mayor reversed his policies. During hard economic times he worked for free to supervise paid work crews employing those without jobs on public projects. Fred Eaton had the support of the Latino community, because they both shared common roots in early LA and were inter related.
Like most Americans in Nineteenth Century, he was a believer in progress mastering the environment. He was called the "Ideal Westerner" and the "The Genius of the City" in the press. One wonders how he would view things today. Fred never viewed it as Owens Valley vs Los Angeles but worked to create a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Fred Eaton was drawn to the Owens Valley partially because of the beauty of its mountains and streams where much of his family continued to live. Most are buried here.
(Statement of conflict-of-interest. Written by a great grandson. Do not use without permission and a spell check. 2012)
Mary Alice Helena Eaton Johnston