Centennial Gems: 1912 - La Mesa’s 'Busy' First Year On its Own (Part I)

Water, streets, schools, business, community service, and continued development all marked a bustling Progressive young city’s first year.


From the popular, but somewhat contentious, struggle to become a city over the winter of 1911-12 (see 3 part series on La Mesa’s incorporation), the brand new City of La Mesa jumped into "the challenging deep end" of local self-government during their first fateful year of 1912.

Part I: Getting to the Main Issue…

On Tuesday afternoon April 30, 1912 the citizens of the new City of La Mesa, and many of their neighbors, packed the La Mesa Opera House on the northeast corner of Lookout and Palm.   Unfortunately the standing room crowd was not there to partake in live entertainment. 

After several months of struggles joining in California’s Progressive politics to gain local control of their civic destinies through incorporation on February 16, 1912, most of the community’s landowners and businessmen packed the largest venue in town to discuss the major issue they felt was key to their young City’s fate.

That issue was water—and the evening’s attraction was a public hearing of the recently re-empowered California State Railroad Commission. 

The Railroad Commission, originally formed in 1879 to regulate the monopolistic Central and Southern Pacific Railroads, had gained new powers during the Progressive, reform-driven California election of October 1911. 

The election confirmed the State Legislature’s constitutional amendment to provide the Commission with regulatory power over all public utilities in the state—including water companies (in 1945 it would be rechristened the California Public Utilities Commission—its name today). 

Three key members of the Commission, including President John Eshleman of El Centro, had arrived in La Mesa on April 25.  They had come in response to numerous complaints on the operations and practices of the Cuyamaca Water Company—in addition to the Company’s formal request to raise rates on a majority of its customers.

During the next few days the Commissioners met with Company representatives, inspected the system’s facilities and also met with the La Mesa Improvement Club (future La Mesa Chamber and current East County Chamber) and the La Mesa Heights Chamber of Commerce, as well as individual customers from La Mesa, La Mesa Heights, El Cajon and Spring Valley.

The local concerns were in stark contrast to two years earlier.  That was when local promoter and developer Col. Ed Fletcher (owner of the Grossmont Tract and Mt. Helix properties) along with Montana capitalist James Murray had purchased the struggling company from its trusteeship in 1910.  

Originally known as the San Diego Flume Company it had failed to provide its customers of El Cajon, La Mesa, Spring Valley and Lemon Grove with consistent service since completion of the 33-mile long wooden flume and tunnel system in 1889.  The great capital costs of building the system, along with far less customer base than expected and an extended drought, starting in 1897, had led the Flume Company into foreclosure by 1899.

Fletcher and Murray’s purchase in 1910 had elicited a glimmer of hope that this key necessity to La Mesa’s agricultural and urban development would finally be consistently provided.  Within a year, under Fletcher’s management, and Murray’s capital influx, the Company completed initial repairs to the line and constructed the new Murray Hill storage reservoir (now site of Griffin Park).

As good businessmen, Fletcher and Murray soon realized that the capital improvements needed to modernize their renamed Cuyamaca Water Company (CWC) would require significant investment (more than $1.5 million in 1912 dollars) to become profitable—definitely more revenue than the company’s rural customer base could produce.    

Thus in the autumn of 1911 Fletcher and Murray hinted that they would be willing to sell the system to the City of San Diego and its much larger market—or as Murray would declare—to perhaps a local irrigation district that could fund its proper operation.  

With such rumors the leaders of La Mesa Springs were moved to consider incorporation to protect their civic independence—and protect their rights to the scarce but essential water resources of the arid county.

This was especially the case when, hedging their bets for a rapid sale, the Company applied to the Railroad Commission to allow for a general increase in rates (in most cases doubling the per unit cost of the water), as well as converting many of the original service contracts from the lower cost agricultural rate to the more lucrative “residential” rates.  Fletcher and his associates documenting that most of its customers were not practicing agriculture anymore but were suburbanites.

Thus in February 1912 as La Mesa voted to incorporate, the Cuyamaca Company outlined plans for a large dam in El Capitan Valley to provide storage for both urban San Diego and its “East County” service area.  At the same time, long-time El Cajon rancher M.C. Healion filed the first of several “test case” lawsuits against the CWC for failure to uphold his original Flume Company contract for water—and at the original agricultural rates listed in the nearly twenty-year old contract.

The State Hears La Mesa and Neighbors

It was within this tense scenario that Eshleman, and his California Railroad Commission colleagues Alex Gordon and E. O. Edgerton of Los Angeles and Max Thelen of San Francisco, held their hearing that afternoon at the Opera House.  In addition to the customer complainants, Ed Fletcher himself and James Murray’s attorney, San Diegan A. H. Sweet, attended.

The first to speak was La Mesa Rev. Hugh Marshall.  Marshall was well known to the community.  A resident of the area since 1893, he was the outspoken leader of the La Mesa incorporation opposition.   Marshall now spoke for a majority of residents in his distain for the treatment afforded the customers from the Flume Company and the CWC.

Marshall railed that his original water contract was nothing less than “a gold-brick, cut-throat contract.”  He had paid $1,200 in 1893 for his service rights with payments of $80 per year in perpetuity to receive his water allotment. 

His recollections of how he had rarely received his full allotment from the Flume Company over the years and was now faced with an ultimatum from the CWC for increased rates and only a “domestic supply” allotment had placed his poultry and ranching operation in jeopardy.

Other complainants including La Mesa Heights resident Lincoln Mansur, C. S. Preston of El Cajon and James F. Weatherbie of Spring Valley made similar testimonies to the commissioners.  

Additionally El Cajon irrigation expert Harvey Culbertson questioned the value of the CWC’s recent repairs and the expense of the Murray Hill Reservoir.  Culburtson inferring that the new reservoir only helped Fletcher and Murray supply their own lands (Murray had recently purchased the area now known as Fletcher Hills in 1910) at, according to Culbertson, the expense of customers in El Cajon Valley. [Note: this would be one of the issues pushing El Cajon to incorporate in Nov. 1912] 

La Mesa attorney Lester Welch, the legal architect of the new City’s incorporation (and soon to be hired by El Cajon) also spoke about the Company’s non-performance in relation to its contracts and called for the Commission to direct a uniform rate fair for all customers.

After the litany of complaints, President Eshleman asked Ed Fletcher to make his presentation in response for the Company. 

Fletcher opened with the following statement to note his empathy for the local residents:

“As the largest land owner and the second largest owner of water rights in the district, I think I am entitled to say something as a consumer, as well as a part owner of the company.” 

He also noted that he would only be too happy to find a solution to the question at hand.  Especially since he stated that he “went into the water business against the advice of his friends and family, with the purpose of doing some good for this section.”

Fletcher then began to direct his comments to addressing the charges against the company.  He noted that they had not overextended the capacity of the system, and could meet all demands for water under contract.  Fletcher also reminded the Commission that the vast majority of requests received were for domestic service, mostly for those building houses and not farms.

He then responded to Mr. Culbertson’s critiques of the company’s recent improvements.  Fletcher defended the expense and modernity of the Murray Hill Reservoir and its importance to providing uninterrupted service for all of La Mesa in case of emergencies such as a collapse of any of the aging, and leaky, wooden flume sections to the east.

Fletcher then expounded on the trials of making the aged system function—and even to make it break even financially.  He declared that with the costs of repairing long-deferred maintenance and honoring the old agriculture rate contracts, the Company had been losing at least $1,000 per month to operate.  

Fletcher closed with the point that the old rates were unfair to the Company as almost all customers were now only using domestic service but being charged the much lower agricultural unit rates.

At the conclusion of his testimony, the San Diego Union reported that Fletcher received “a hearty round of applause” for his presentation.

Eshleman and the Commission thanked all of the presenters and noted that all parties would have to wait for the formal decision on the company’s application for increased facilities, supply and rate increases.  The hearing ended with the knowledge that Mr. Murray, who was out of town at the time, would also meet personally with the Commission in San Francisco later that year.  

In addition both sides agreed that no further binding legal actions would be undertaken and that both sides would abide by the Commission’s ultimate ruling.  They certainly didn't realize how long that would eventually be.

The Locals Act for Water, and Civic, Independence

The Commission held its initial formal hearing to consider the CWC’s request on July 9, 1912.  But due to the voluminous evidence provided by both the Company and the customer’s team of lawyers, the hearing was delayed to August 22nd.  Part of the Commission’s challenge was the customers filing of a counter petition to deny the CWC’s petition for additional facilities in lieu of necessary system repairs and more efficient service.

Not waiting for the postponed hearing the locals again took action.  On July 10, 1912 the residents of La Mesa along with many of their neighbors from Lemon Grove and Spring Valley met to consider moving forward to create a new municipal water district.   

These “Cuyamaca Consumers” petitioned the Board of Supervisors for the District’s formation under provisions of the Wright Act.  According to the supporters, state law would allow the District the powers to condemn dam sites, water sheds and property within the district boundaries—including potentially those of the privately owned Cuyamaca Company system.

On August 24th the Railroad Commission hearing for the “Cuyamaca Case” began.  Arguments stretched out for nearly a week before the hearing was delayed again to September 9th

President Eshleman was quoted as to perplexing situation of whether or not the original Flume Company contracts were to be upheld. 

The hearings continued again with many expert witnesses for both sides, finally closing on September 21st.

In the meantime back home, on September 9th a special election was held, and on a vote of 429 to 1 the locals established the La Mesa, Lemon Grove, and Spring Valley Municipal Water District.   

The Board of Supervisors approved the election and on November 15th a membership election confirmed J.H. Halley of Lemon Grove, Lincoln Mansur of La Mesa Heights, J. A. Thompson of Spring Valley, Bank of La Mesa cashier L. Sperbeck and La Mesa Mayor Charles Samson as Directors of the municipal district.  The City of La Mesa Trustees appointed real estate developer Sherman Grable as their representative.

With such an organization they hoped to raise the funds for the potential condemnation or purchase of the Cuyamaca Water Company improvements and property, and confirm their future civic independence with a consistent water supply.

Unfortunately this was not exactly the happy ending of their water independence story. 

What the locals were apparently not aware of, in a municipal district, only lands within the incorporated boundaries of the municipality could be used for raising bond funds.  So, all the district property in unincorporated La Mesa Heights, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley could not be used to finance purchases or improvements.

Over the next few months, as the Railroad Commission struggled with, and then approved the CWC’s rate increase requests, with the requirement of making over $1 million in improvements to justify the increases.  Conversely the Cuyamaca Customers moved to re-organize into a more financially inclusive  “irrigation district" instead of a municipal district.

Thus finally on October 17, 1913 the La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley “Irrigation District” was formed (the predecessor to today’s Helix Water District).  La Mesa “mayor” Charles Samson was named its first president. 

The new irrigation district however was a “dry district” with no source of water but from purchase through the CWC. 

Interestingly it would take another 12 years before the District membership could rally support for a bond act that would afford for its purchase of the Company that Fletcher and Murray had considered selling back in 1911-12.

Yet, in the community's initial efforts in 1912, the seeds of its civic independance were sown.

In the next installment of La Mesa’s First Year we will look at other infrastructure, institutions and developments of 1912 that set the foundation for La Mesa’s first century.

For those wishing to wrap up the City’s Centennial Celebration Year in style, this Saturday January 12, 2013 the City Centennial Committee will be presenting “The Party of the Century.”  This event will feature period music, décor, dancing, gourmet food and commemorative items and opportunity drawings.  Individual tickets are $100 a piece and proceeds will go to kicking off the fund raising campaign for the “The Legacy Project,” a permanent public art monument and time capsule to commemorate the City of La Mesa’s 100 year anniversary. 

For more information contact Ann Baker (619) 447-1776 or Carol Klich (619) 464-8363 or go to LaMesa100@la-mesa.ca.us

Craig Maxwell January 10, 2013 at 05:59 PM
"Progressive" with a capital P, Jim? Really?
James D. Newland January 11, 2013 at 03:49 AM
Craig Progressive as in Progressive Era, Movement, etc. Jim N.
Craig Maxwell January 11, 2013 at 06:11 PM
Thanks for the clarification. Fine article. Looking forward to your next.


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