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How Mountain Spring Water Became Big Business in Old Los Angeles

In the late 19th century, decades before anybody figured out how to slice an entire loaf of bread at a time, industrious Southern Californians did something just as exciting: They discovered how to tap into one of our many natural resources and bring it to the masses.

It may sound silly now because of how widespread this “product” has become, but in 1894 when a company named Puritas started bottling (distilled) water, it would change our drinking habits for 123 years to come.

Puritas (named so from the Latin for “purity,” in a hat tip to the unmolested riches of the San Bernardino Mountains) would later be acquired by a water company we still know today: Arrowhead.

And, thanks to Arrowhead’s aggressive marketing campaigns (which dovetailed with those promoting California as a tropical paradise that drew visitors from all over the country), water from our mountain springs that you could purchase and have delivered in bottles – even in the lowlands – became very much the rage in the early 1900s.

That was a time when Southern Californians were fascinated with our mountain ranges and, in a fit of “mountain fever,” flocked to our mighty peaks for hiking, adventuresome trolley rides, dancing, stargazing, and more. Those with the money and the wherewithal to make the trek to our mountain resorts and retreats were romanced by the ruggedness of the Old West and intoxicated by the fresh mountain air and clear mountain creeks that seemed to run all year.

Trolley and automobile parked outside Arrowhead Water Company, Arrowhead Springs, ca.1914
Trolley and automobile parked outside Arrowhead Water Company, Arrowhead Springs, ca.1914, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

The spring water business was thriving enough in 1917 to warrant the opening of a state-of-the-art bottling facility near downtown Los Angeles on Washington Boulevard and Compton Avenue, reported by the Los Angeles Times to be one of the largest establishments of its kind in the West at the time. (Now Arrowhead’s Cabazon facility is its largest.)

A century after first opening, that Arrowhead bottling plant is one of the oldest continuously operating manufacturing facilities in L,A,, and Arrowhead (owned since 1987 by the global beverage company Nestlé) is still the top-selling brand of bottled water in Los Angeles.

It wasn’t just that our mountain spring water tasted better. Even that wasn’t enough to sell glass bottles of water to regular people who probably normally wouldn’t allow themselves such extravagances.

In fact, it wasn’t even enough for the water to be “pure,” since many waters at the time could have been considered pure.

But this water… this water that was worth traveling for, and that had traveled many miles just to get to you… was “healthful.”

Circa 1930s Arrowhead Spring Water billboard
Circa 1930s Arrowhead Spring Water billboard. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Arrowhead Water billboard, Southern California, 1931
Arrowhead Water billboard, Southern California, 1931. Photo courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
Undated photo of an Arrowhead Spring Water billboard
Undated photo of an Arrowhead Spring Water billboard, courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

In fact, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel in the San Bernardino Mountains, where the bottling of the local water first started, was once a destination for rest and repose because of its hot mineral springs, whose waters were even said to cure tuberculosis.

Arrowhead capitalized on the popularity of drinking for health – like the tonic water that had become so popular in the mid-19th century – by advertising that doctors recommended its particular type of water for its mineral content (reportedly seven grains of mineral salts to the gallon).

“More doctors use Arrowhead Spring Water than any other bottled water in Los Angeles,” its advertisements read. So, “Ask your doctor about Arrowhead Spring Water.”

The minerality content was so high in one of their water products that the company marketed it for its laxative properties (and named it, appropriately, “Arrowlax”).

If you don’t get the water for yourself, the company argued, do it for the children! When they drink the water, they’re building “their growing bodies” and protecting their “existing good health.”

Arrowhead Springs Hotel pool, circa 1925-30
Arrowhead Springs Hotel pool, circa 1925-30. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
Arrowhead Springs Corp. building, circa 1933
Arrowhead Springs Corp. building, circa 1933. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection ​– Los Angeles Public Library.

That explains why the people of LA bothered to pay for water delivery in glass bottles after the Los Angeles Aqueduct had already started importing plenty of water – even through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In 1932, Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water became the “official water supplier” of the Los Angeles summer Olympic games – and all manner of Olympic and Arrowhead co-branded swag and merchandise ensued. (The brand also held that distinction for the 1984 Summer Games, though there’s been no word yet on the impending 2024/28 Olympic Games.)

By 1939, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel had been rebuilt by L.A. architect Paul Revere Williams after being destroyed by fire (multiple times, actually) – and, at the same time, it had become quite the celebrity playground. Its bungalows, swimming pool, and landscaped grounds attracted the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (who honeymooned there with her first husband in 1950), Judy Garland, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers, and other members of the Hollywood elite.

 

Arrowhead water truck, Southern California, 1935
Arrowhead water truck, Southern California, 1935. Photo courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

 

Arrowhead water railcars
Undated photo of Arrowhead Spring Water railcars, courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
View of Arrowhead Water Company trucks and drivers, 1930-1940
View of Arrowhead Water Company trucks and drivers, 1930-1940, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
Undated photo of an Arrowhead Spring Water deliveryman
Undated photo of an Arrowhead Spring Water deliveryman, courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Water delivery
Undated photo of a home water delivery by Ralph Morris, courtesy of the Ralph Morris Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

 

Today, though, there’s not much else left up there in Arrowhead Springs to tell the story of how bottled water first came to LA, thanks to the Panorama Fire (which destroyed tanks, tracks, pipes, and other relics of the operation as it burned the greater part of Waterman Canyon for a week in 1980). That is, besides the hotel itself – which has been bought and is being restored by The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, to whom the springs are sacred for both physical and spiritual healing. No plans have been announced to grant any public access to the property once its restoration is completed.

Some of the company’s 100-year-plus history has been preserved, however – including a few remaining pieces of railroad ties from the “water train” along the old Pacific Electric right-of-way, and an old Arrowhead truck that sometimes gets taken out on the road by its caretaker, a man named Ruben who still works at the facility in Ontario, CA.

Smaller artifacts (like a collection of now-defunct glass bottles) were literally gathering dust for decades in the basement of the Los Angeles Arrowhead bottling facility. They only saw the light of day again when a veteran Arrowhead staffer named Geneva Green – who goes only by the name “Ms. G” – decided to bring them upstairs and put them on display in an empty space nobody was using, right next to the copy machine.

"Mrs. G" (right) in front of a collection of artifacts from Arrowhead's past
"Mrs. G" (right) in front of a collection of artifacts from Arrowhead's past. Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein.

This little makeshift museum isn’t open to the public – though Ms. G says she would be tickled to find out if anyone but Arrowhead employees would be interested in seeing her little collection, which includes various ephemera from when Arrowhead more broadly defined their role in the beverage business to include products like creamer and sugar, as well as ginger ale and a “champagne-style” orange soda.

For the more than 150 employees who work at Arrowhead now (100 or so of which probably walk by this collection every day), many of them have such a lengthy tenure (some, including Ms. G, for over four decades) that they actually remember some of those old bottles, crates, and other contraptions, as well as the advertisements and propaganda that so characterized Arrowhead’s place in L.A. history.

Of course, by the products’ name and labels (which have always featured the image of the natural arrowhead-shaped landmark on a nearby mountainside), you might think that Arrowhead Springs is the only source of refreshing and ready-to-drink spring water. While it’s a major one – 36 million gallons reportedly sourced from there in 2015 – the Arrowhead company actually sources its water from several local springs, including nearby Deer Canyon Springs and Long Point Ranch Springs. It also dips its proverbial straw into the water supply of further locales as well, such as Southern Pacific Springs in Riverside County and Palomar Mountain Granite Springs in San Diego County.

But after years of drought and only one relatively wet season, it begs the question whether bottling and selling our local water is so antiquated that it perhaps should have gone the way of the Pacific Electric.

That question hit a fever pitch in October 2015, when the water level at Strawberry Creek -- one of the sources the Nestlé-owned company taps into less than a mile northeast of the Arrowhead Springs Hotel – hit a record low.

Bottling water at an Arrowhead plant, 1931
Bottling water at an Arrowhead plant, 1931. Photo courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
Bottling Arrowhead water
Undated photo of an Arrowhead bottling plant, courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

That’s also when no less than three advocacy groups (the Center for Biological Diversity, the Story of Stuff Project, and Courage Campaign) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that had granted a special use permit to Arrowhead in the past but, since 1988, had failed to properly document its approval of subsequent renewal applications.

Based on a decision from a federal judge in September 2016, Arrowhead can continue to remove water from the San Bernardino Mountains – legally – until such time that the Forest Service officially revokes its permission.  

According to Arrowhead, the company collects only water that’s naturally available at any given time at Arrowhead Springs (rather than, say, pumping into the groundwater supply). Its team of biologists, hydrologists, geologists, and local engineers monitors the area for compliance to sustainability.

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After all, it behooves the company to not let the well run dry, as it were.

We do love our bottled water in California. Each Californian consumes, on average, 75 gallons per year (about a gallon and a half a week) compared to an average of 39 gallons per person per year in the rest of the country.

According to Arrowhead, the vast majority of the water extracted from these California springs – 80 percent – is bottled specifically for California customers, not shipped off to some other area of the country whose water supply is far more plentiful.

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