Throwing the waters, a real throw-down near El Monte

August 4, 2008 § 3 Comments

 

Lexington Wash/Rio Hondo, and the San Gabriel River bed, between Bassett and El Monte.

Scene of the fight: Lexington Wash/Rio Hondo, and the San Gabriel River bed, between Bassett and El Monte. Source: USGS circa 1900

You’ve all probably heard the Mark Twainism, “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’.” Here’s a tale that brings the phrase to life.  “Turning” or “throwing” the waters, i.e. the digging of ditches, placement of dams, or other methods to redirect river flows out of one’s property – and onto someone else’s – was apparently not unheard of. In 1867-68, the San Gabriel River took over the Lexington Wash (which joined, or was part of, the Rio Hondo), with serious consequences for some.  From the James P. Reagan interviews of 1914, in which George H. Peck sets the stage:

“…(t)he place is still known as the Old Peck place.  It was a mistake to have bought the land on the river, but we did not know it at the time.

In 1868 our troubles began with the river.  We lost about 150 acres that year, and each succeeding flood took its quota of spoils until there was barely 150 acres left of the original 480 acres which my father bought.

Lexington Wash was commonly known in those days as Lick Skillet Wash.  In those days and even now the river bed was higher than the land on each side.  When the floods came down it was no difficulty to direct the water to either side of the river bed.  The water would flow readily either way if left alone it would usually split and go in each direction.  However, it was not left alone.  

In our case, the water began washing away our land and we wanted to protect our place and get rid of the water.  Many times I have gone up the river, taking a few Indians with me to move a few boulders about and get the water going the way we wanted it to.  By placing a double row of boulders across the stream it would raise the river water level enough to throw the water over the other way.  

Of course, it brought opposition for people on the other side did not want the water either.  It finally became serious, and when a man wanted his work to stand it was necessary to stay with it, armed with a double-barrelled shot gun…

Mr W. R. Dodson complains of his bad neighbors:  

In 1889 he had a house washed away and quite a piece of ground.  The house stood just above where the bridge is now.  He says the principal cause of the big water in 1889 in the west of El Monte branch of the San Gabriel river was on account of the people on the east or Bassett side of the San Gabriel turning the water over into the west branch. 

He says sometime in about 1890 himself and others built a rock dam about half a mile above the Peck place, to keep the water over in the old or east channel of the San Gabriel.  The dam was some 300 or 400 feet long, and about two to two and one-half feet high.  He himself paid about 50 men for 2 or 3 days work, and he claims parties from down Downey way — the Scott people and Jim Durffy – came up and turned the water back into the west branch, and helped the water to tear down their dam.  He claims their dam stopped the water from coming down the west side, and would have continued to do so if the other parties had left the water alone. 

He says another time he had about twenty men working up there and 3 or 4 from the other side came to turn it back.  Says he had a shot gun with him, and told his men to go ahead, and the other parties to beat it, and they beat it.

He says there has been more or less fighting and turning of water for the last thirty years; the people of the east side turning the water to the west side, and the people of the west side building dams and trying to keep it from coming that way.

He says they had more water in the Rio Hondo at El Monte in 1914 than every before.  Says Davis, the rock quarry man, was mostly to blame; took all the rocks out of the stream and on this side of the Santa Fe for about a mile, and that naturally made the water run to the westerly, or El Monte side.  

Mr. Walter P. Temple recalled the events:

..(t)here were efforts by various parties to turn the river back to its old channel but there were other parties who wished it to continue to the westward and who would undo or help to undo the work of the first parties.  It became serious for a time and force was used in the way of shot guns to maintain the levee built…

Mr. Victor Manzanares chimed in:

…(t)here used to be some trouble between the Americans who then were trying to turn the river either to the east or the west. Sometimes some men would go up above El Monte where the river divided, and put a dike or bank across the river to turn all of the river to the east or back to the original bed. Other men would find it out and go up there and tear their work down and turn the water down the west side, which would come down and join the Rio Hondo. There was some bad feeling about turning this water from branch of the river to the other and some times it was necessary to guard the work with a gun to get it to stay there.  I know three men who were sent up there at night to break one of these levees…

And Mr. Jose Silva:

I never knew much about the changing of the San Gabriel river to the west of El Monte.  We have always known the San Gabriel to pass over to the Bassett side and think that is where a river has always been and where it belongs, although there are a good many people who think that it should go over west of El Monte, and who will object to all of the water being cut off and turned to the Bassett side.  

…I have heard that many of the old time Americans have put small levees of sacks and sand to turn the water from one side to the other according to where they wanted the water to go.  Mr. Peck used to turn the water to the west while Mr. Dodson wanted the water to go through the east side.  There was some strong words about it and sometimes a man would have to stay on his work with a shotgun to insure its staying there.  I have heard that Mr. Durfee was interested too, but I do not know any of the men who did the work…When the water was running it was easy to turn the river either way and a man with a pick or shovel could easily turn the water…”

Here’s Mr. Durffy’s side of the story:

Mr. Durffy says that about 1889 the water from San Gabriel Canyon broke out of the old bed just below the Santa Fe tracks, where the steel bridge is, and went westerly toward Duarte, and then down on the westerly side of El Monte.  The Santa Fe and some of the people down at El Monte decided to turn it back into the old channel one Sunday, and he, and others interested did not say what the names of the others were, did not get wind of it until Saturday afternoon, and he came to town to get an injunction, but County offices were all closed up and he could not get an injunction out.  The Santa Fe (b?)ought out quite a bunch of men and quite a number came up from El Monte early Sunday morning and commenced building a dam to turn the water back into the easterly branch, or where it had run before it broke out.  He and some others that were interested in keeping the waters over on the westerly side as it had gone over there from natural causes, and it was the lowest side, found by experimenting with a shovel, and as the other side has all the disadvantage of a direct drop from 2 to 2 ½ feet, that one man with a shovel was worth more than 50 men on the other side building up, and they decided they did not need an injunction.  He says part of the water has gone there ever since. 

He says he does not know anything about the rock dam Mr. Dodson built about half a mile above the Peck place, and claimed that some people from Downey and the Scott people and himself helped the water tear down.  He thinks Mr. Dodson is mistaken; and anyway the dam he built could not have amounted to much in keeping the water from going over El Monte way, as it was too far south to help much; that most of the water went over on the west side before it got down that far.

We know the river was a difficult neighbor – I’m not so sure about some of these people either!

 

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§ 3 Responses to Throwing the waters, a real throw-down near El Monte

  • Nancy Steele says:

    What a great story. The lesson seems to be (but say it ain’t so!): tear out the concrete and we’d be back to rocks and shotguns.

  • Joe Linton says:

    LOL! Yesiree… git out yer shotguns!

  • lee e washburn says:

    Hell thats the first place i ever shot a gun some 60 years ago. what was the name of the wash that came down out of Monrovia we would fish the holes after floods.{ cat fish} than they rip raped it later came the cement.early 50S/ I still play in rivers on drift boats but up in OREGON. fun to read your works thanks brings back better times. i still reminber the floods after the fires.and planting trees as a boy scout. and yes the man made dams of rocks were still in the rivers back then. I always wondered that the story was.thanks again LEE

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