Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Part 41 - Building the LA Aqueduct

The sparkling clear water looked refreshing and I’m sure many a hiker, as well as local residents over the years have been tempted to take a swim in the chilling waters, but the flowing water also looked incredibly dangerous.  Once in the water, exiting from the canal would be perilous.  The cement banks are sloped and covered with slippery moss, and even though safety ropes and exit ladders had been placed every few hundred feet along the walls of the canals, hypothermia might make it extremely difficult to pull oneself up out of the freezing water. 

Within two miles, the trail took a left turn and crossed over the open canal on a bridge that also served as a road for connecting traffic.  After another left turn I found myself walking, not alongside of, but on top of a different section of the aqueduct, one that is rather famous in hiker photographs – the steel pipe section that snakes its way across the waterless desert.  

When originally constructed, the steel pipes were placed in a trench and covered with dirt, but over time, in certain areas, the dirt covering has eroded away exposing a small portion of the pipe.  In researching the construction of the aqueduct, I learned that the pipes were manufactured in both Midland and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and shipped by rail to Cinco, California, now a virtually nonexistent town on Highway 14.  Each section was thirty-six feet long, weighed twenty-five tons and the individual plates of the thirty-six-foot-long pipe were riveted together with a gazillion rivets, each rivet weighing five pounds.  (Water)   

To haul these steel behemoths to the jobsite required teams of fifty-two mules.  Hoping that mechanized tractors might outperform teams of mules and, thus, lower costs and speed up construction time, William Mulholland, chief engineer for the project, purchased twenty-eight Holt 45 gas-crawling tractors.  However, the brutality of the Mojave Desert proved too much of a challenge for these early gas engine tractors, which frequently broke down and were costly to repair.  They were eventually abandoned and work resumed with the tried and trusted mules.  When Mulholland observed these tractors in action, he is credited with saying,

“They crawl like a caterpillar,” (Water)   and, thus, the Holt crawling tractors became known as the Holt Caterpillar Tractors, a name which survived even after the Holt Company merged with its largest competitor – the C.L. Best Company.  (East Peoria)

As I walked along on top of the exposed steel plates, I noticed repair patches had been welded to the plates.  I guess the steel plates rust from the inside and eventually spring leaks which need repairing.  Alongside the pipe was a service road, and during my walk I observed a service truck driving slowly up and down the road looking for any malfunctions with the aqueduct.  At one point in my walk, the steel aqueduct spanned a large ravine and was supported by several concrete pillars.  Now I could see the immense diameter of the pipe, which from pictures I had seen in history books about the construction of the aqueduct, was large enough to drive a Model T Ford through. 

Here is an exposed section of the original steel pipe laid down in 1922.

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