TOO MUCH WATER

Claudine Burnett

Water has become a valuable California resource, and conservation is the buzz word today when it comes to water usage, but many would be surprised to learn that our area once had too much fresh water. There has been much talk lately of the devastating 1861-1862 winter flood that saturated the western states.

In February 1862 the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Rivers merged and a solid expanse of water covered the area from Signal Hill to Huntington Beach, a distance of approximately 18 miles. This was followed by a drought which lasted from 1862-1865. Grasslands dried up, cattle died and landowners were forced to sell their property.

The Rancho days, which began in 1784, were over. The land was sold and those such as the Bixbys and Flints purchased properties, raising sheep, who needed less grass than cattle. However, history may have been much different if drought-stricken Rancho owners had known about the vast artesian fresh water wells that lay beneath the earth.

Before 1868, water was drawn almost entirely from rivers. Periods of drought meant dry riverbeds and calamity. Though the drought erased surface streams, it had little effect upon the underground reservoirs. These subsurface basins were finally tapped in August 1868, when workers employed by former Governor John Downey drilled a hole into the ground some two and a half miles west of the village of Compton, and water came gushing out in a fountain four feet high.

They had bored Los Angeles’ first free-flowing artesian well. The results were astounding, as former Civil War General Edward Bouton soon found out.

In November 1887, Bouton made what the Los Angeles Times described as “one of the largest and most important real estate transactions ever made in Southern California,” when he purchased 7,136 acres of Rancho Los Cerritos from the Flint/Bixby consortium (comprised of Jotham and Llewellyn Bixby and Thomas Flint) for $713,600 ($21 million in 2021). The huge transaction included all but the area around the Bixby home.

Bouton, with Eastern backers, dreamed of making it one of the largest developed sections of the county. The General (as he liked to be called) planned on making improvements to the arid acres of bean fields on the land before placing it on the market.

He made sure the deal was not completed until arrangements were made with the Los Angeles and Ocean Railway, a company he headed, to run a rail line through the development so people living along the line could do business in Los Angeles and go home to the country every night. He planned to sell land in parcels of 10 to 40 acres to also encourage farming.

In July 1888, Bouton plotted a townsite to be known as Bouton for the area north of what is now Carson and east of Cherry. Though there were already six artesian wells on the purchased property (Los Angeles Times 12/5/1887), the General decided he needed to assure buyers of an even more plentiful source of water.

He hired Dr. Crandall a “waterwitch” with a divining rod, to locate this valuable resource. Bouton’s first well (with the aid of Dr. Crandall) was discovered in 1891, a second in in 1893, 300 feet from the first. (LA Herald 4/4/1897) Bouton was a fast thinker. He soon abandoned plans for a town, forming the Bouton Water Company instead, incorporated and financed by the sale of bonds.

In July 1898, he drilled again and hit the water well known as “Big Bouton” just north of Carson east of the now Union Pacific Railroad. Folks from miles around flocked to see the well perform. The well “ran wild” and formed what was to be known as Bouton Lake. When the unruly giant was capped, it still spouted a geyser 80 feet into the air from a two-inch pipe. When the sun’s rays hit it right, the geyser-like column could be seen as far east as Whittier.

The railroad ran tourist trains from Los Angeles to view the huge water spout which many claimed was probably the greatest artesian well ever drilled anywhere in the world. Long before the well could be capped it had formed a lake, which extended more than a half mile in a northeasterly-southwesterly direction and was 500 feet wide.

Only one-fourth of the flow was utilized and the remainder ran into Lake Bouton, then into a slough which finally emptied into the ocean through Alamitos Bay. A strange freak of the underground river turned Alamitos Bay into an excellent oyster bed. Fishermen also claimed there were places in the ocean a mile or so off Long Beach where the water was perfectly fresh. Many thought this was above where the underground river tapped by the Bouton wells came to the surface.

In July 1898, Bouton entered into an agreement with the City of Long Beach to provide water to the town. On August 20, 1899, the water from the Bouton well was turned into the Long Beach supply pipe sufficient to serve 20,000 people.

However, Long Beach folk received an added bonus. Bouton’s water had wonderful medical qualities, according to the Los Angeles Herald of June 30, 1901. The water did not reach the air before entering the pipes and was described as being in the “purest possible condition, soft as rainwater with an extremely pleasant taste.”

This was not all. On Terminal Island the water allegedly cured two people of rheumatism and other diseases. A sample sent to the State University College of Agriculture (now UC Berkeley) for analysis reported the water to be “remarkably pure for all purposes.”

Carson Street and the westerly extension of Harvey Way pass across what once was Bouton Lake. The lake also attracted ducks and hunters who organized the Cerritos Gun Club. Besides the slough which emptied into Alamitos Bay, a creek flowed out of the lake across the site of the former Douglas plant and the Municipal Airport to reach Los Cerritos Channel.

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California, which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.

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