Harriett Russell Strong – WOMAN of ACTION™

 

A Celebration of Women™ 

is honored to pay Tribute to another icon of America, a Woman!  Her perseverence and intelligence created many great inventions; and her forsight of the necessity of water, inspired many of today’s solutions of irrigation and general water supply.

A True testiment to the Power of a Woman!

 
 
 

WOMAN of ACTION™ 

 

 

Harriet Russell Strong

 

THE PINK AND WHITE, HELPLESS prettiness; the delicate, fainting, clinging doll is fast becoming a thing of the past,”  Harriet Williams Russell Strong advised fellow members of the Ebell Club of Los Angeles in 1895. Although she herself was described as dainty and fragile, Harriet was by no means helpless. Widowed at the age of thirty-nine, with four daughters to support and no experience in business and agriculture, she took over the management of the 220-acre Rancho del Fuerte (“Strong Ranch”) and built a reputation as the most successful woman rancher in California. At the time of her death, the land produced some $25,000 a year.

 

 

 EARLY YEARS

Harriet Strong was born in 1844 in Buffalo, New York, but spent most of her life in the West. Her family moved to California in 1852 and settled in Plumas County, in the northeastern part of the state, near the town of Quincy. For two years, Harriet studied in Benicia at the Young Ladies’ Seminary of Miss Mary Atkins, forerunner of Mills College. In 1861, lured by news of a silver bonanza on the Comstock Lode, her father relocated the family to Carson City, Nevada. There she fell in love with Charles Lyman Strong, superintendent of the fabled Gould & Curry Mining Company. The couple married in 1863 in Virginia City, Nevada. Four daughters were born to them: Harriet Russell (1864), Mary Lyman (1866), Georgina Pierrepont (1868), and Nelle de Luce (1873).

In 1864, his health mined by overwork, Charles suffered a breakdown, resigned his position, and for several months underwent treatment at Warm Springs in Alameda County. Harriet also had health problems, due to a disorder of the spine, and frequently was bedridden. Not until 1883 was her health completely restored. Charles, meanwhile, was well enough by 1865 to begin working again and accepted a job offer to examine unexplored mines along the Pacific coast, reporting on the most promising ones to several New York investors. After a disappointing two years, he wrote to Harriet from Hardyville, Arizona, “I wish I might never hear of another mine.”

In 1867, Charles returned to California and settled as a farmer on Rancho del Fuerte, the 220-acre property that the Strongs and Harriet’s brother, William Henry Russell, had just purchased from Don Pio Pico, the last governor of California under Mexican rule. The property, in what now is the city of Whittier, was semi-arid and unplanted except for eight acres of seedling oranges. The farming venture of Strong and Russell proved a failure, however, due to drought and unsuccessful attempts to supply the ranch with water.

Charles returned again to mining in 1872, trying his luck in Arizona, Nevada, and California.

His frequent absences, his continued illness, and Harriet’s poor health put a serious strain on their marriage.

During their time apart, the couple corresponded regularly, and Charles expressed anxiety when he did not hear from Harriet. His letters–sometimes addressed to “My precious wife” or “My darling wife” and signed “Your loving husband”–express concern about her health and their precarious finances.

In a letter addressed to “My dear Husband” but never mailed, Harriet wrote, “I have always dreamed & wished & prayed for the wealth of human love which belongs to a good woman. It was mine for a few months only. Why no longer I shall never know in this world…. To think that I who have been loved always should live an unloved wife.”

After one misunderstanding, Charles wrote from Nevada, “Truth is we have no business to live so apart. If it is absolutely necessary that I should live here, then here should all mine be with me.” About a week later, he conceded, “Had ten to one rather be as we are now that as we were a year ago.”  Unfortunately, Harriet’s letters from this period have not survived. Apparently her husband burned them before his death.

In 1882, Charles invested in a gold mine in Auburn, in California’s gold country, anticipating great financial rewards. Upon learning that the mine had been salted, he became desolate. Life was not worth living if he could not succeed, he told a friend, and in 1883 he killed himself. Harriet, now thirty-nine, received the news while a patient of the famed neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell in his Philadelphia clinic, where she was being treated for her spinal troubles.  Urged by her daughters, she remained in the clinic for several months more.

 

 WALNUTS AND PAMPAS GRASS

Restored to health after six months of a strict regimen in Dr. Mitchell’s Philadelphia clinic, Harriet remade her life on Rancho del Fuerte. By 1883, when she inherited the estate, it had been planted in wheat, rye, and barley–crops that proved disappointing due to drought and unsuccessful efforts at irrigation. The estate also was encumbered by a lawsuit brought by one of Charles’s associates in the failed Auburn mine. Not until 1891–eight years after her husband’s death–was the litigation settled in Harriet’s favor. Meanwhile, she worked to make the ranch profitable. She studied scientific books and periodicals on horticulture, called on successful ranchers in the area, and asked questions about water, soil, suitable crops, and marketing. “I had the courage of ignorance and plenty of determination to back it up,” she told a reporter.

 

 “My attitude was that of a humble searcher after the truth.”

 

Deciding that walnuts would yield the most profit, although requiring much water, Harriet laid out fifty rows, each a half mile long. She also installed an irrigation system based on an invention she had patented in 1887. Harriet Strong was the first to plant walnuts on mesa land and to give the trees winter irrigation. Her 150 acres of walnuts, the basis of her fortune, gave an average yield of $295 an acre. By 1895, she had become known as the Walnut Queen of Whittier. In addition to walnuts, she planted pecans and chestnuts; olives, figs, oranges, and lemons; pineapples, pomegranates, and guavas; apples, plums, pears, and dates.

A 1911 newspaper article acclaimed her as a capable farm woman and one of the largest taxpayers in the county.

Although it was customary to plant corn between young walnut trees, Harriet Strong planted pampas grass. She found a ready sale for the decorative plumes, both in the United States and abroad. They even played a role in political conventions: in 1892 and 1896, the Democrats waved plumes in a natural cream color, mounted on red staffs tied with white ribbons, while the Republicans preferred plumes dyed red, white, and blue. Harriet gained additional publicity after convincing John Wanamaker, owner of the leading department store in Philadelphia, to decorate the store throughout with her pampas plumes.

 

  INNOVATIVE DESIGNS

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893  brought Harriet Strong into national prominence. She won several awards, including one for the spectacular Pampas Plume Palace she designed and helped construct, which featured pampas grass on the exterior and interior details of the Moorish-style building. Her innovative designs for dam and reservoir construction also won awards: the design patented in 1887 involved “a series of reverse arched dams built one above the other in an inclined channel, water course, or valley so that the water in each lower dam acts as a brace and support for the dam above, the whole being connected by gates.”  A subsequent design, patented in 1894, provided “for a convenient, cheap, and effectual impounding of debris from hydraulic mines, settling the water, and storing the same so as to allow it to be used for irrigation or other purposes.

The storage dams were not Harriet’s first inventions. Earlier she had patented a design for an ingenious device to raise and lower an upper window sash, an idea she had conceived of while lying in bed, suffering from spinal problems. Despite being a semi-invalid, she was eager to do as much for herself as possible.

 

 FEMINISM

In addition to exhibiting at the Columbian Exposition, Harriet Strong addressed a women’s congress meeting there. Her talk emphasized the importance of business training for women. Eight years ago, she pointed out, she had to assume business responsibilities without any preparation. It took her six years to learn never to sign a contract without first consulting an attorney. The business world is the man’s world, she remarked on another occasion, but “it is quite possible for every gentlewoman to make herself familiar with business methods, papers, etc., to prepare herself for any and all emergencies; so that if the head of the house be removed, the home that he has established may be kept intact, may be preserved on its financial basis.

On a subsequent occasion, Harriet suggested that every city should have at least one dry-goods store and one bank owned by women. In these establishments other women could receive practical business training that would make them highly eligible for jobs with full pay. She argued, furthermore, that every year one male member of the bank’s board of directors should be retired and replaced by a woman.

In 1893, Harriet Strong and city librarian Tessa Kelso became the first women elected to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Miss Kelso soon moved from California and dropped her membership.

Harriet remained a member for nineteen years and in 1918 became the first woman delegate to the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, representing the Whittier and the Los Angeles chambers.

A staunch supporter of votes for women, Harriet Strong was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She sometimes spoke on the same program as Susan B. Anthony, and in 1895 Miss Anthony was a guest at Rancho del Fuerte.
 
 
 

In 1911, the year in which California women won the vote, Harriet traveled to New York as the guest of Alva Belmont, president of the New York Political Equality League.  There she discovered that opposition to woman suffrage was “due to the presence of personal prejudice in favor of the old way of doing things–the prejudice of those who are in sheltered homes, with fathers, brothers, husbands and sons to stand guard chivalrously, to do everything for them, even to the expression of opinions in great and grave matters.” 

Portraying the condition of those with no one to protect them or care for their interest, she observed “how illogical it is that the women of America should have no citizenship and no legal place or position, save in the matter of obedience to law and subjection to its penalties.”

 

IRRIGATION AND FLOOD CONTROL 

From the time she took over management of Rancho del Fuerte, Harriet Strong had a compelling interest in water problems: storage, irrigation, and flood control. In 1900, she incorporated her Paso de Bartolo Water Company to serve a thousand-acre tract she had purchased on nearby Rancho San Antonio. Half of the acreage was leased to farmers growing vegetables for the Los Angeles market. Irrigation water came from artesian wells bored between the San Gabriel River and the Rio Hondo, near the Old San Gabriel Mission. A steam-operated pumping station carried water to the mesa land. A few years later, she sold the property at a considerable profit.

Described as “one of the earliest agitators for flood control in this county,”  Harriet served on numerous water committees, lobbied for water legislation, and in 1918 testified as an expert witness on water power before a congressional committee. The destructive power of floodwaters was made dramatically clear to her as early as the winter of 1867-68, when the San Gabriel River overflowed its banks and cut a new channel to the sea. Floodwaters washed away several rooms in the adobe belonging to her neighbor, Don Pio Pico. In 1884, the river again overflowed. Floodwaters destroyed part of the adobe, which had to be extensively remodeled.

In 1905, Harriet wrote a paper advocating the formation of flood-control districts and construction of a system of storage reservoirs, as described in her 1887 patented design. In “Source Conservation,” her article published in The Woman Citizen, she again appealed for storage reservoirs in streams or mountain canyons. The storage dams, she pointed out, would hold back floodwaters, provide more water for irrigation and manufacturing, and produce electricity as a valuable by-product. She argued that money made from the sale of hydroelectric power should go to the government and not to speculators, “and an effort be made thus to lift the burden from the laborer, the taxpayer, the bond holder and the returned soldier.”

In July 1914, when her article appeared, southern California still was recovering from the disastrous rains and flooding that had occurred five months earlier. The deluge began soon after midnight on February 18 and continued until February 22. Rains came down in Los Angeles at the rate of an inch an hour. Headlines in the Los Angeles Times gave a dramatic picture of the local situation: “City in the Grasp of Swirling Water” (February 19); “Gorgeous Costumes for the Bachelors’ Ball Held Up by Washout” (February 20); “Raging River Razes Bridges and Rips Banks” (February 21); “Dozens of Homes Caught in Whirling Torrent” (February 22). Property damage amounted to ten million dollars, and almost two thousand acres of farmland were destroyed.

Within a week of the disaster, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors convened civic leaders from all of southern California. This meeting led to the formation of the Los Angeles County Flood Control Association, with delegates from more than a hundred organizations. Harriet Strong represented the Whittier Chamber of Commerce. The role of association members was to help draft state legislation to establish a county-wide flood-control authority. One divisive question was how to finance any flood-control project. Delegates from Los Angeles favored a special assessment on properties that would benefit most directly. Delegates from outside the city considered a more equitable district-wide tax.

Deputy County Counsel Charles Haas drafted legislation to create the special assessment district favored by Los Angeles and its chamber of commerce. “Then Mother got busy,” Harriet’s oldest daughter recalled. “And Mother’s getting busy was very busy indeed…. I never saw such expert wire-pulling in my life. Harriet helped organize the San Gabriel Valley Landowners’ League, which hired Glendale attorney Frederick Baker to draw up alternative flood-control legislation. His bill called for a district-wide property tax to finance flood-control projects. Although both bills passed in the legislature, only the Baker bill was signed into law. Much credit for its passage was given to the San Gabriel Valley Landowners’ League. As Harriet’s daughter observed with satisfaction, “The difference between Mother and other people…

During her remarkable career, Harriet Strong played a variety of roles that reflected her commitment to innovation and independence. As a suffragist, she wrote and spoke eloquently on the subject of voting and business opportunities for women and founded four influential organizations for women. As an inventor, she held patents for three household devices and two ingenious designs for irrigation and flood control. As a rancher, she planted specialty crops that earned her a fortune, due especially to her successful marketing schemes.

A pioneer in the struggle for women’s rights, Harriet Strong demonstrated in her own life what a woman of vision and courage could accomplish. Active in many civic and cultural organizations, she used her influence to promote her ideas and put them into practice in a meaningful way. Through her campaigns for conservation and flood control, she not only helped to bring water and electricity to southern California, but also improved the safety and well-being of those living in the flood-prone Los Angeles basin.

 
 
 

A Celebration of Women™ 

sends our thanks for this woman’s

example in perseverence and work for women’s rights.

 

We give you the credit you are due!

Rest in Peace

Brava Harriett! 

 

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