Claremont’s water history spans more than 200 years

by John Neiuber

As I sit down at the desk in my study looking out onto Indian Hill Boulevard, I am prepared to write about a totally different topic, but the first sizeable rainstorm of the season has arrived and it is taking my attention away from the computer screen.

Our dog, Gus, is fascinated by the downpour, not to mention the squirrels that are scrambling for cover.  The traffic is slowing to a crawl, as sheets of windblown rain compromise visibility and thunder rolls across the valley.

It is difficult to think about being in the middle of an historic drought with all that rain pouring down, the Japanese maple outside my window and the elms on Indian Hill already budding and leafing-out, having been completely fooled during most of the winter that spring had arrived. I begin to think about the water and what difference it may or may not make to our current drought situation, and that gets me to thinking about the local water company and the city’s efforts to acquire the water service.

Water has been a crucial aspect of the history, growth and development of California and the west, and no less to the history, growth and development of Claremont.

More than 200 years ago, before the missions, before the land grants and ranchos, and before the Santa Fe Railroad envisioned Claremont, artesian springs were common and year-round streams flowed through what is now the city. The Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, who lived in a village they called Torojoatnga, did so because a stream flowed past Indian Hill Mesa.  Springs bubbled up in and around where Memorial Park and Sycamore School are now located, and a stream created by the springs flowed across what is now Eighth Street, down Seventh Street and into a swamp that is now occupied by Pilgrim Place. Young men from Pomona College hunted ducks in the swamp for recreation.

As the city developed, and as the citrus industry burgeoned, wells were dug that lowered the level of the groundwater, drying up the springs and the swampy areas.  As late as the 1980s and into the 1990s, heavy rains have occasionally caused artesian wells to flow again, especially along Seventh Street and in and around Pilgrim Place.

The source of the local water that creates the large aquifer that Claremont and the valley sit upon is San Antonio Creek. The Cucamonga and Palomares ranchos were the first to use the water from the creek after being established in the 1830s. Like most western states where water was a scarce commodity, the claim to the land was created by first usage—one settles the land and establishes water rights. The Palomares family dug a seven-mile ditch from the mouth of the canyon for their irrigation needs that yielded water year-round, albeit only a trickle during the hottest parts of summer. But then severe drought hit in the 1860s and the water dried up. The drought caused economic hardship as cattle and other livestock literally died of thirst. The Palomares rancho never recovered and, in 1862, the worst year of the drought, a smallpox epidemic devastated the Gabirelino-Tongva tribe.

During the boom of the 1870s, the water rights to San Antonio Canyon were purchased by the Revered C.F. Loop and A.R. Meserve from the Palomares family. They also acquired more than 2,000 acres of land in what is now south, west and central Claremont.

In 1882, Rev. Loop and Mr. Meserve contracted with M.L. Wicks and Cyrus Mills to transfer the majority of the water rights to San Antonio Canyon. The condition of the sale required Wicks and Mills to construct, at their own cost, an aqueduct for the purpose of supplying water to Pomona. The agreement required them to build the aqueduct out of concrete, stone or iron and also required them to deliver water to the Loop and Meserve land holdings—all within 18 months of the execution of the contract. The system was completed for $65,000 in 1883, a large sum in those days.

Out of this deal, the Pomona Land and Water Company was born. The company, however, was not the only one with claims to the San Antonio Canyon water. Before the company could begin in earnest, the water rights had to be settled. The Chaffey brothers, who owned the land upon which Ontario is now located, had claimed the entire flow of the canyon. The claims were settled to everyone’s satisfaction, giving Pomona and Ontario each a half of the natural flow. Water was plentiful at the time and, even with half, each side was left with plenty of water.

By 1886, the Pomona Land and Water Company had 61 artesian wells in operation, ranging in depth from 100 to 200 feet, and maps of the day show the majority of those in what is now Claremont.

Unfortunately, most of this “Claremont water” flowed south, given that Claremont did not exist at the time when the valley water rights were structured. Had Claremont existed, perhaps most of the underground and canyon water would have served the city rather than Pomona. On the other hand, if Pomona had not fought for the Santa Fe Railroad line, Claremont would not have been established during the boom of 1887.

Domestic water became an issue once the city began to grow. The townspeople did not have the benefit of a citrus ranch well and by 1898, the need for a domestic water system was on everyone’s mind. The Union Water Company of Pomona made a presentation to the residents of Claremont during a town meeting. The company promised a water system, complete with those “new-fangled meters.” The water supply, or lack of it, would soon be a hot topic of conversation, which Pomona College’s The Student Life newspaper reported was “always a very dry subject in Claremont during the summer.”

The Union Water Company, however, soon could not meet the needs of the growing community. A local company was established and authorized during a Town Meeting of 1902. Thus, Claremont had its own city water company. It was known as the Citizens’ Light and Power Company; however, the name was changed in 1904 to the Claremont Domestic Water Company after it abandoned its attempt to provide hydro-electric power.

The city operated the water company for 27 years until it was purchased by the American States Water Public Service Company and Southern California Water Company in 1929. The company, an investor-owned utility, produced water from local wells and continued to expand by purchasing wells and small mutual water companies as residential development replaced the citrus industry.

Eventually, the company changed its name to Golden State Water Company, which is now a subsidiary of American States Water Company with operations in California and Arizona. The city’s water comes from two sources. Sixty percent comes from local groundwater supplies, which Golden State Water Company maintains, and the remainder is imported from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California by way of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District.

The rain subsided for a bit, but has begun pouring down again. Gus has lost interest in the goings on outside, now that the squirrels have found shelter from the storm. I am thinking about all this water coming down and all this water history.

The history of water in Claremont has, indeed, been crucial to the development of the city. As I have researched this, I am struck by the difference between the establishment of Citizens’ Light and Power Company that was created by a town meeting to fulfill a basic need for the citizens and American States Water Company, which “is committed to maximizing shareholder value through a combination of capital appreciation and cash dividends,” whose mission is designed to “deliver superior financial performance for our shareholders.” 

Okay, I am a capitalist, I don’t have a problem with people making money, but…this is water, this is the stuff of which life is made, the stuff that sustains us. Shouldn’t the higher purpose here be about people and the quality of life, not capital appreciation, cash dividends and shareholders?

The music streaming over the Internet from my computer is The Beastie Boys and so, with apologies to them, perhaps a city does need to “fight for its right to water.”


[Acknowledgements are due to Judy Wright’s, Claremont: A Pictorial History and Frank Wheeler’s Scrapbooks, available online through the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.] 





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