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The scar on the Mountain

The Spirit of Tehachapi


My brother, just four years older than I, considered himself an "information, please" person from which I could gain facts and bits of history. One day when I was about nine, I asked him what made the scar on the timbered Tehachapi Mountain Range south of town. He told me it was an old lime kiln which once was used to take lime ore to the cement plant east of town. That was good enough for me, I just wanted to know why the scar was on the mountain.

Some years later, my eldest brother, nine years older than I, told me that the lime ore had been carried to the cement plant by a narrow gauge railroad that traveled diagonally across the valley. Even though the mining of lime from that site ended in 1912 there was still evidence of the route of the old tracks in 1923 when my family moved here. My brother was old enough to remember seeing the remnants of the train tracks. The old lime quarry was forever silenced but will be there to make visitors ask about it.

I grew up knowing about the cement plant at Monolith and, as before, that was good enough for me. But, the roots of that cement plant takes one back to the City of Los Angeles and their need of the ever important, ever needed commodity, water. There was no way for the growing population of the Southern California city, with its mild, sunny clime, could subsist on their own ground water supply. What to do about the situation found the "city dads" putting their heads together to bring water from other places by means of an aqueduct. An adventurous plan was hatched. It was an idea that would involve legal maneuvers, careful planning, and possibly a bit of subterfuge.

William Mulholland, an engineer, and a genius with a photographic memory, was the guiding light in the giant project. As early as 1904 the City of Los Angeles had been buying Owens Valley property, including water rights. The inhabitants of the valley were promised a "say-so" in the distribution of the water to the southland. Tradition tells us that the "say-so" did not materialize to their satisfaction.

Meanwhile, in 1908 the citizens of Los Angeles had voted in a giant bond issue to secure water from the Owens Valley to be delivered by aqueduct to the L.A. Basin. A cement mill was completed in the Tehachapi Valley because Mr. Mulholland rejected using cement from five existing mills in Southern California saying they could not supply him with the tufa cement he required for the project.

Thus, the City of Los Angeles built the small community of Aqueduct City, later to be called Monolith, to house the 250 workers assigned to the operation of the mill. It included dwellings, bunkhouses, service buildings, streets and sewers. The living accommodations were rented by the workers but were also segregated with the Mexican and Indian families living on the north side of the railroad and the Caucasian on the south side in small dwellings. The water source was artesian water from a depth of 120 feet.

Many of the families later moved from Aqueduct City housing to Tehachapi. It was a distance of nearly four miles but with sharing rides they could live where they could own a home and find shopping for items that the Company Store did not have.

Production began in 1909 and in two and one half years of operation the plant produced 1,200,000 barrels of cement with a brand name of Monolith. Of the 1,200,000 barrels, 900,000 barrels went to the aqueduct project. In keeping with the product name, Monolith, the city was renamed Monolith, California in 1910.

By 1912 property had been secured and three parcels of land just west of the mill would provide a new lime quarry on Jameson Mountain. The ore would be taken to the plant by railroad cars on a narrow gauge railway pulled by a Plymouth Diesel electric engine. The workers called the engine "The Dinky". The company soon, thereafter, entered into an agreement with the oil tycoon, J.W. Jameson providing that for a period of one hundred years Monolith had the exclusive rights to the limestone and clay from specified properties in such quantities as Monolith desired.

As the building of the aqueduct proceeded some disgruntled Owens Valley citizens were known to object to their water being transported in such quantities as to change the topography of the land. They said it had changed the physical and natural features of the valley. There were a few instances where an area of newly laid pipeline would be dynamited by disgruntled citizens.

With the completion of the aqueduct in 1912, the mill was shut down. Then, in April of 1920 three businessmen, Coy Burnett, Fred Ballin and Aman Moore obtained a five-year lease of the property from the City of Los Angeles to manufacture waterproof cement under the business name of United States Potash Company. Within the year they obtained exclusive rights to the manufacture of waterproof cement. It became a signature product for the company. The Board of Directors changed the name to Monolith Portland Cement Company on June 30, 1921.

Ballin and Moore were to sell their share to Burnett who would run Monolith Cement for years until just before his death at age 83. He had a paternal attitude towards his employees and the residents of the Tehachapi Valley. Donations of land for churches and other public buildings would date back to the ever generous Monolith Cement Company. Children of employees of Monolith were treated to an all expense five day trip to the Island of Catalina with good food, lodging and supervision. My friends at school only took extra spending money. Alas, my dad did not work at Monolith!

To cap off a long, long story, too long for this piece, the cement plant changed hands and became Calaveras and then Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. For well over a century the plant has provided a livelihood for Tehachapi families.

All I wanted to know was what made the scar on the Tehachapi Mountains!

(Information on Monolith obtained from local citizen, Socorro Barrera Schmidt.)


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