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Newspaper Portrayals of the Spring Valley Water Company

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 3087 words Published: 25th Sep 2020

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It is widely understood that large companies were and are still essential to the supply and management of municipal water supplies throughout the United States of America. Perhaps this is most obvious in the American West, where private corporations were essential in the holdings of land needed for the provision of water to the rapidly growing city of San Francisco along with others.

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Interestingly enough, the emergence of such companies as important players in both the expansion and survival of such relatively young urban centers coincided with an era of widespread anti-corporate sentiment. Popular opinion generally sided with the government, for it was regarded as a representative body trusted with the responsibility of looking out for public interests in spite of rapid monopolization and speculation. Public officials were expected to take measures against companies seen as agents of unscrupulous profit-making and extortion.

While it is assumed that local media outlets were unquestionably poised against water companies shortly prior to and during the peak years of San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy acquisition campaign, much less is known about the perception of these companies long before and after such events. Additionally, the portrayal of such companies like the Spring Valley Water Company is relatively unknown outside the realm of greater San Francisco. Laypeople are mostly unaware how such enterprises were viewed by the rest of the country in comparison to their counterparts along the Pacific Coast.

To further enhance my understanding of the general sentiment regarding these private companies, I analyzed primary sources including newspaper reports, editorials, and a letter to the editor from the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times that were published and circulated in the years prior and leading up to the damming of Hetch Hetchy. The scope of this research is mostly centered around such sources due to their presence in the accessible online Proquest Historical Newspaper Database.

In conclusion, it was found that the manner in which the Spring Valley Water Company was portrayed did indeed differ from newspaper to newspaper. The study found that, as expected, the San Francisco Chronicle was clearly the most critical of the company due to several factors dating back to when the city first tried to fix the rate of the company’s water tariff in the late nineteenth century. Interestingly, the New York Times appeared to be the most sympathetic to the company, with one editor even referring to San Francisco as ‘greedy’. And last but not least, the articles from the Los Angeles Times tend to deprecate both company and city in an apparent attempt to lampoon San Francisco’s society and culture altogether, while carefully presenting itself in a manner that would make it difficult for the reader to believe that it supports Spring Valley, conversely. These findings serve to suggest the notion that public perception and presentation of such corporate interests is more nuanced than one might expect during the era of trust-busting legislation and regulatory expansion.


An inviolable truth of our day and age is the concept of globalization. The ability of our world to become more interconnected than ever before brings about sweeping economic change that reaches all of humanity. One of those changes is the birth and growth of the monopolistic multinational corporation. Such a company serves just about every corner of the globe and impacts all of us as a result.

There are few, if any, competitors that can match its ability to provide services with such a large distribution network, and it is mutually agreed upon by consumers and government agencies alike that they hold enormous amounts of power that can significantly improve the quality of life for millions of people. However, when a multinational in some manner malfunctions inadvertently or commits unethical practices that compromises the well-being of its clients, the company will almost always be held publicly accountable due to the combined prevalence of highly accessible mainstream media and consumer communications technology.

Take Facebook, for example. Upon learning that the social media giant secretly sold the personal information of millions of people to data science firm Cambridge Analytica without user consent, the world universally condemned the company and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg for their apparent lack of accountability and discretion. This worldwide response was only possible in the twenty-first century due to the presence of media outlets that are available universally to almost every part of the earth, since its prevalence implies the diffusion of the same information presented in a similar, if not identical manner all across the world.

In contrast, the Gilded Age did not yet see the proliferation of mainstream media that provided instantaneous updates of breaking news to all of humanity. Rather, it saw the birth and evolution of mass distributed print media in the form of regularly published newspapers. The firms that controlled the distribution of such sources of information essentially controlled the way in which such information was presented to a given audience, usually within the radius of large urban centers containing many thousands of potential daily readers.

Because the inhabitants of any one given city could usually only subscribe to one main newspaper, the firm with the most effective publishing and distribution chains that was centered in each large metropolitan area practically commanded a monopoly over mass circulated media within that given domain. As a result, information and thus people’s views regarding any one object or idea was heavily dependent on their regularly subscribed newspaper company.

An item of particular interest from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries is the Spring Valley Water Company. Originally established by the State of California, the Company was tasked with the provision of water and construction of hydraulic infrastructure throughout the rapidly growing communities along the San Francisco Bay Area, especially the City of San Francisco, and was thus granted authority to take the measures necessary to make such service possible. Within a few decades of its inception, Spring Valley became a monopolistic entity that served hundreds of thousands of Californians throughout the Bay. This by design allowed for the Company to become highly profitable very quickly as it soon became one of the successful private enterprises in the state of California. Its tenure, however, was not without turmoil, as the corporation quickly became marred with corruption and conspiracy. It did not take very long until the company frequently found itself at odds with the cities it served along the Bay Area, especially the young, bustling, and burgeoning city of San Francisco.


The scope of this study is concerned with examining how the Spring Valley Water Company was publicly viewed throughout the United States. It is generally agreed upon that the corporation was not viewed in a positive light by the primary newspaper publisher of San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle. However, it is nonetheless important to understand how other major newspapers across the country regarded such an enterprise, especially one as profitable as Spring Valley. It is believed that improving our understanding of their portrayals of the company is instrumental to further enhance our knowledge of what the general public may have thought of this firm, along with other large privately-held providers like it.


The researcher believes that an in-depth examination and analysis of several articles from a number of large newspaper providers will reveal differences in the manner in which the Spring Valley Water Company is presented as the reader moves from one urban center to another. It is generally understood that the monopoly is notorious for its poor service and scandals within the Bay Area. As a result, the researcher also predicts that articles from the San Francisco Chronicle will contain the most critical accounts regarding the Spring Valley Water Company. Due to the important role of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the inception of LA, the researcher predicts that the LA Times will have a favorable view of the city over the corporation.


Proquest Digital Historical Newspapers Database

The Battle over Hetch Hetchy by Robert Righter

Annotated Bibliography

Early issues of The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and The LA Times

Processes and Methodology

The sources used for the analysis of historical newspapers were all obtained from the online Proquest Digital Historical Newspapers Database. While the Database was being used, the terms ‘Spring Valley’, and ‘Hetch Hetchy’ were typed in. At first both terms were typed in separately. It is of interest to note that several thousand results initially surfaced after the search was performed. Following this result, both of the aforementioned terms were typed together with the ‘AND’ indicator providing results containing both terms. This reduced the results for the search down to a few hundred. The number grew even smaller when specifying date ranges, with the number of queries peaking around the 1900s and 1910s before decreasing precipitously in both ways as one would look for articles from the 1890s and 1920s. This procedure was performed repeatedly, first with the articles filtered exclusively from the San Francisco Chronicle and then again filtered from New York Times and then the Los Angeles Times thereafter. Each and every selected article was carefully analyzed and broken down based on topic and meaning. Rhetorical devices were also examined under careful review in the event they allow the researcher to deduce more information from the article about connotations and viewpoints regarding the Spring Valley Water Company. Observations were noted and consequently recorded in the form of summaries stored within an annotated bibliography before being analyzed further.

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The previously outlined method used in the search for suitable materials to analyze consequently led to a variety of interesting results that were deemed appropriate for subject material of this particular study. Three articles from the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times each were incorporated into the study for further examination. It appears the most profoundly opinionated article came out of the New York Times. Ironically, the author of that particular piece was in no way affiliated with the agency and was instead a reader of the publication who sent a letter to the editor in response to claim made in an editorial that was apparently found by the reader to be egregiously incorrect.

In such a rebuttal, the author, identified as a T.T. Williams, points out that the main party at fault is the Spring Valley Water company is at fault for operating a dishonest and unfair monopoly, while paying off newspapers and siding themselves with the likes of unwittingly ‘naive’ John Muir and his Sierra Club. This particular account refutes the notion that implies a consistency between the views promoted by a given newspaper and the beliefs held by their reading audience.

Another common thread that was noticed was how the selected articles featured in the Los Angeles Times all featured two opposing parties or sides, be it Phelan versus McCutcheon before a congressional subcommittee or the Spring Valley Water Company versus the San Francisco Chronicle in federal court. It seems as if the readers of the Los Angeles Times are especially interested in stories of detailed confrontation as opposed to otherwise.

Lastly, there was one particularly interesting piece from the San Francisco Chronicle that is most definitely worth noting because of its opinionated nature regarding whether the Spring Valley Water Company should meet the terms of the City of San Francisco and sell its land at the rate desired by the City. This piece, along with another from the Chronicle, implied that after a given amount of time the Company will eventually be mandated to act in accordance to the City’s demands by legal decree sooner or later. Consequently, posits the author, it would be best for Spring Valley to sell while it can still do so at a reasonable rate.


The purpose of this study was to attain a deeper understanding of the way in which the Spring Valley Water Company is viewed by a range of media sources throughout the nation. It is quite evident that there are slight differences by the way of how the company is presented in a given article. For example, the New York Times articles incorporate less suggestive language than that of the San Francisco Chronicle. The tone surrounding the authors who write such articles, with the exception of the disgruntled reader, tends to be more objective and informative. On the other hand, the mood of the writings in the Chronicle tends to be more passive aggressive and perhaps even a little ominous. A reader can most certainly tell that whoever was responsible for writing those articles had a goal in mind of sending the Spring Valley Water Company a message. Finally, the Los Angeles Times appears to prefer to take a more sensationalist lens. This is evident in how within the article concerning the convicted assessor, the author goes to some length to describe the man’s emotional reaction upon hearing he has been found guilty by the jury. Details like these go a long way in creating a more vivid record, thus making the written account more interesting to the reader. Overall, it was determined that the findings do indeed support the hypothesis.

Future Studies

One way this study could be improved is to find articles containing the perspective of a number of the professionals who are affiliated with the Spring Valley Water Company. It would most definitely be interesting to learn what they would specifically think of their own practices along with the actions and/or media made by the City that pertains to their corporation. Moreover, we could perhaps use this method of analysis in the future to look back and examine the ways in which various agencies viewed the policies mandated by modern day leaders across a large scale. This is especially important as it pertains to the presidencies of both Obama and Trump, two figures who have held drastically different viewpoints with regard to environmental regulation and resource management. It would indeed be interesting to see how various media agencies have competing views with regard to the policies set up by the two officials and analyzing the regional distribution of these opinions over a prolonged period of time.

Works Cited

  • DIRECT WIRE TO, THE T. "PHELAN HEARS WORDS DENIED." Los Angeles Times (1886-1922), Jan 22, 1909, pp. 1. ProQuest,                                                                                                                 https://search.proquest.com/docview/159272776?accountid=14496.
  • "LIBEL ACTION AGAINST PAPER UP TOMORROW." Los Angeles Times (1886-1922), Feb                             23, 1919, pp. 1. ProQuest,                                                                                                                                             https://search.proquest.com/docview/160516892?accountid=14496.
  • "MAY COMPEL SPRING VALLEY WATER COMPANY." San Francisco Chronicle  (1869-Current File), Feb 28, 1911, pp. 10. ProQuest,                                                                                     https://search.proquest.com/docview/573940352?accountid=14496.
  • "POLITICAL PILLAR FOUND GUILTY OF TAKING BRIBE." Los Angeles Times  (1886-1922), Jul 15, 1911, pp. 1. ProQuest,                                                                                                                 https://search.proquest.com/docview/159614520?accountid=14496.
  • Williams, T. T. "HETCH-HETCHY FIGHT DUE TO WATER TRUST." New York Times (1857-1922), Jan 02, 1910, pp. 11. ProQuest,                                                                                                   https://search.proquest.com/docview/97046796?accountid=14496.


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