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July 18, 2017

Eaton's Water: A nearly forgotten episode in Altadena history

In 1874, Benjamin Eaton laid 3-miles of iron-pipe for a pressurized system that moved water from Devil's Gate to what would soon become Pasadena. 132 years later, Sally Levi, then an undergraduate at the Art Center School of Design, made Eaton's Water, a film about this largely forgotten episode in the area's history.

Benjamin Eaton is a seminal character in our local history. He was a Harvard-educated lawyer who worked as an journalist, engineer, and horticulturalist. In 1864, Eaton purchased acreage near the Arroyo where he raised cattle and cultivated a vineyard. He was later named president of an early Pasadena land development syndicate, became Los Angeles District Attorney and then a Justice of the Peace. As if that wasn't enough, he hauled the first telescope up to Mount Wilson.

Incidentally Eaton's son, Fred, was a prime mover in the development of the LA Aqueduct and is reputed to have been an inspiration for some of the characterizations in Chinatown.

The Eaton's Water project began when Michele Zack, the notable Altadena historian, convinced the Altadena Foothill Conservancy that Eaton's legacy should be remembered. She thought a short docu-drama would provide an entertaining way for 7th and 8th graders to learn about local history. Under Zack's guidance the Conservancy asked Art Center to take on production. Based on the advocacy by the Conservancy and a $5K contribution from Altadena Heritage, Art Center agreed on the condition that a student would volunteer. Sally Levi did.

We learned about Eaton's Water thanks to a suggestion from Altadena Heritage. What could be a more appropriate topic for AF that a film about Altadena?

Correction: Michele Zack has generously send along a few corrections to the original posting.

She points out that most of Eaton's Water takes place 5-10 years before Eaton laid the iron pipeline system. The ditch depicted in the film was built between 1865-70 as part of the San Pasqual Plantation land development. By 1870, the San Pasqual Plantation failed. It would be another four years before the iron pipe system was started.

Our post, as written, incorrectly suggests that Eaton's Water is about the iron pipe and not the San Pasqual Plantation irrigation ditch. In fact iron pipe system is only mentioned near the end of the film.

Ms. Zack also pointed out the the "Pasadena land syndicate" mentioned above was actually the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association which preceded the founding of Pasadena by 10 years. In fact it was not until 1886 that area was incorporated and the name Pasadena was selected.

Eaton's Water (14 minutes, 2006)

Eton's Water Production Notes

Ms. Levi wrote and directed "Eaton's Water." The script is based on a short story by Ms. Zack. Despite a mere $15K budget, Ms. Levi had an ambitious vision for the production: full cast and crew, authentic sets, horses, saddlery, authentic costumes and a full-on post production effort including original score, foley sound effects, animated stills and titles. Thanks to generous support from family, friends and colleagues, and more than a little gumption, she succeeded. Ms Levi's sister was the cinematographer. Her father portrayed one of the characters. The horses and wranglers were donated, as were the costumes which were originally made for 'Back to the Future Part III.' The film has a look of a production with a substantially larger budget.

The principle photography was done in 2006 on 16mm film. There was a five day shooting schedule. The house scenes were shot at the Reid Baldwin adobe in Arboretum. The country scenes were shot in Eaton Canyon. Additional photography was done in Old town Pasadena. Post production took nearly a year.

The film was written up in the LA Times and is still shown in Pasadena school rooms.

Correction: In an earlier version of this posting, the financial contribution from Altadena Heritage was incorrectly attributed.

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