Water has always been the center of life in Ojai and surrounding areas
By David Mason
“In 1825 the San Buenaventura Mission owned 37,000 head of cattle, 600 head of horses, 200 yoke of working oxen, 500 mules, 30,000 sheep, 200 goats, $25,000 in silver and gold coin and no hogs.”
— The Ojai, Aug. 15, 1894
Since the earliest settlement of Ventura County, water has been an important part of the county’s development. Water form the Ojai Valley would even play a major role in the life and times of the San Buenaventura Mission.
The mission was first built in the 1700’s, but was destroyed when a sudden rise in the Ventura River flooded the area. A second mission was erected on an elevation that was securely above any such danger.
The clear, healthy and abundant water flowing to the ocean from the Ojai Valley was very much needed at the mission, not only for drinking, but also for irrigation, so the early settlers could plant crops and trees.
Many attempts had been made to divert the water to the mission site, but they were all unsuccessful. It was a very grave problem for the padres.
A solution was finally decided upon — an aqueduct running from the Ojai Valley might, indeed, do the trick, but how was this incredible task to become a reality?
The valley Indians, Chumash as we know them, had enjoyed the occasional visit from the Spanish during Father Serra’s time. The Spaniards had recognized the Chumash’s talent for craftsmanship and their strength and agility. The answer was to train these industrious people in the techniques necessary to build the much-needed aqueduct.
Stonecutters and stonemasons were imported by the Spanish government in 1770 to serve as laborers and instructors to the Indians. The elaborated seven-mile aqueduct was then constructed by the Indians with the new skills that they had learned from the Spanish artisans.
When it was finished, the aqueduct channeled water from the San Antonio Creek, near the Arnaz adobe (now just below Oak View) and wound along the Ventura Avenue area, finally ending at the mission. The wonderful supply of water was instrumental in making San Buenaventura a viable community.
The aqueduct served the mission and surrounding area for about 80 years. It withstood the 1857 earthquake that destroyed the mission’s roof and walls, but the precious water that it had so successfully brought to the mission would become its downfall when, in 1862, a major flood brought an end to this great waterway.
The aqueduct represented an impressive technical accomplishment and occupied an important position in the complex early California water system.
The water coming out of the Ojai Valley had been clear and at a cool temperature. It flowed off the Topa Topa mountains, down through Senior Canyon and across the valley floor. The Senior Canyon had been named for the early pioneer Edwin Senior, who was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England in 1847. He came from a very proper and highly respected family, his father being an old-fashioned Yorkshire schoolmaster.
By the age of 14, Senior was working as an apprentice in a wholesale Italian warehouse. A few years later, he went into the dry goods business for himself. Business had been good to Senior, but in 1883, when his health was beginning to fail, his doctor advised a change of climate: he decided to come to California.
Upon his arrival to this state, he first settled in Santa Paula, where he bought a 10-acre ranch. He only stayed there for one year and sold out. He used the money from the sale of his ranch to buy cattle and immediately went into the stock-raising business, having as many as 70 or 80 head of stock, which he herded in the Sespe.
While cattle ranching, he built a small log cabin for him and his only companion, his dog. After a few years, loneliness took over and Senior left the Sespe and settled on 160 acres in what is today Senior Canyon.
In writing about the water in the Ojai Valley, Patricia Fry, in her book “The Ojai Valley, An Illustrated History”, said, “Early Ojai settlers were pleased to discover artesian wells abundant here. These naturally flowing wells served households, stock and crops sufficiently at first. Some landowners utilized water directly from the creeks.”
Many of the early ranchers drilled wells for their water. Gridley, while drilling for water, actually struck gold. Before the word could spread through the Ojai Valley, Gridley filed a claim with the county on his gold strike, but he never mined for the gold. He was mush more interested in finding water than the precious metal.
In 1912, Edward D. Libbey, the cut glass manufacturer from Ohio and Ojai benefactor, was instrumental in forming a group of prominent men to secure the Gridley water rights.
According to Fry, “Water was a highly valued element. It was a farmer’s livelihood and a family’s lifeblood. History teaches us that where something is in demand, but in short supply, greed abounds — and so it was in Nordhoff (now Ojai).”
In 1944, the Ventura County Flood Control District recommended a $3 million bond issue to construct a dam in the Matilija Canyon, just above the Matilija Hot Springs Resort.
Fry wrote that, “The Matilija Dam project met with major problems. Unexpected delays, rising costs and heavy criticism plagued the job. Clay began oozing from under the dam foundation and the carpenters walked out. The dam was eventually deemed unsafe and a lawsuit against the engineering firm ensued.”
The dam was finally finished in 1948, after it was proved to be safe. But as though to add insult to injury, the magnificent lake that the dam would have formed, stood empty. The Ojai Valley had been in a three-year drought. Fry wrote that, “During the winter of 1951, a storm produced enough rain to fill the reservoir to capacity and the first spill occurred the following January.”
Fry also added, “By March 1952, 44,960 acre-feet of water had been lost over the Matilija Dam spillway to the ocean. It was evident that a larger facility was necessary, especially when considering the long-range water picture. In the meantime, geologists tested a dam site on Coyote Creek. A possible fault caused the project to be canceled, but after further investigation, this decision was reversed. Consultants for the Flood Control District recommended a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir on Coyote Creek to stop the Matilija overflow, and the project was approved. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation completed Casitas Dam in 1959.”
Today, the Casitas Dam is going through a reconstruction process, using modern technologies to provide for more earthquake safety.
The Matilija Dam is being studied for possible removal for environmental reasons. If it is removed, it would be the largest dam to have ever been removed in this country.
As for the mission aqueduct, a small portion remains today and is clearly a significant structure in the county and in Western American history.
There is little doubt that these remnants constitute one of the oldest man-made structures in the state. Time and the elements have destroyed much of the remaining sections of the structure, and almost total destruction has been accomplished by man’s development of the area during the past 60 years.
This local landmark is a heritage of the cultures that built the great state of California. It is a registered national, state and county landmark. The longevity of the Canada Larga section, and the fact that it represents a tremendous engineering feat in its time and place, establishes its historic value to California mission life.
The remaining part of the aqueduct is a few feet from the Ojai Freeway, and any additional traffic and ground work in the area adjacent to this national treasure must be kept at a minimum if this important part of Ventura County’s history is to remain for the next generation.
This article is written in loving memory of my friend Carla Bard, who was a longtime environmentalist and a former member of the California Water Conservation Commission.
The above column originally appeared in the Ojai Valley News on January 21, 2000. Republished with permission.