The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1986, Volume 32, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

by Robert E. Melbourne
First Prize, Copley Books, San Diego History Center 1986 Institute of History

Images from the Article

Civilization began at a spring;
The story of man is the story of water;
And the story will end when the spring runs dry.1

Humorous photo of Fred A. Heilbron about 1942 These favorite lines of Fred A. Heilbron represent the fundamental belief that motivated him throughout his long life to fight a continuous battle for an adequate water supply for San Diego. If left to the natural state of its water resources, San Diego could support not more than 50,000 people, and in those inevitable years of sparse rainfall, the traditional Saturday night bath might lose its priority. The history of San Diego, as we know it, would have ended in the 1890s.2

Fred Heilbron’s parents, cast of solid Teutonic stock, devoted themselves to industry, commerce, and the development of their ten children into useful and respected citizens. Fred’s father, J.H. Frederich Heilbron, born in Hanover, Germany, in 1843, graduated from the German School of Architecture. As a young man of twenty-three, he came to California in 1866 by way of the Isthmus of Panama and settled in Sacramento in time to help build the first railroad shops in that town for the Central Pacific Railroad. A popular man, very much involved in civic and fraternal affairs, he engaged in the retail and wholesale meat business. Heilbron assisted in the organization and later led the Sacramento Hussars, a crack cavalry troop of the California National Guard.3 Family humor had it that their father came to America to avoid military service, but soon after arrival, he started his own army.4 In 1873, this thirty-year-old business man married Caroline Dietsch, an immigrant from Baden-Baden, Germany, who had made her home with an uncle in Sacramento since the early 1860s.5

Born in Sacramento on August 24, 1877, young Fred moved to San Diego in 1888 with his family. His father became successful in a number of business endeavors. The senior Heilbron established the first cold storage butchering establishment in San Diego and a wholesale liquor business. Sick just a few days, he died in 1896 at the age of fifty-four from pneumonia, a complication associated with “la grippe,” now known as influenza. Mr. Heilbron had acquired a sizeable estate by most standards of that day but one that had to be carefully stretched by a widowed mother with seven of her ten children under seventeen years of age.6 The San Diego Union reported the funeral as “the most imposing ever held in the City.7

When eleven-year-old Fred arrived in San Diego, the city, although dry and drab, bustled with activity, and its pioneer citizens had great expectations for the future. Contemporary photographs show that trees were sparse.8 A few wells produced brackish water, while regular purveyors hauled water in horse-drawn wagons and barrels from the San Diego River and sold it for as much as twenty-five cents a pail.9 There wasn’t a lawn in the entire city that I know of,” Fred remembered in later years. “It was a grisly-looking place. Those who had money left town – those of us who stayed behind became experts on water.”10 In 1888, the city’s population had reached 35,000, but the land boom collapsed, and a year later it shrank to 16,000.11

Heilbron attended the local public schools in San Diego and completed his formal education upon graduation from Russ High School, the forerunner of San Diego High School. About 1890, at the age of twelve or thirteen, he sold newspapers first on the downtown streets and then on a route which he walked. In 1968, the San Diego Union honored him as the city’s oldest living newspaper boy.12 In the 1890s, the recently completed Hotel del Coronado held Sunday concerts, and seventy years later, Heilbron admitted that he and his friends “used to go over there and spark the girls.”13 3 He played some baseball with considerable enthusiasm in his early years, and these Sunday afternoon games cost him several broken fingers. But a poorly-set broken arm dashed his hopes of an appointment to West Point and a career as an army officer. Fred’s father insisted he learn a trade and “decided that young Fred wanted to be a plumber.” One of his fellow apprentices in a local plumbing store, Ed Fletcher, went on to play a large role in the development of San Diego.14 Heilbron advanced to master plumber before he turned twenty-one, although in later years he said, “I never did want to be a plumber, I wanted to be the boss.”15

Denied a military experience by way of West Point, he joined the Seventh California Volunteer Infantry at the onset of the Spanish-American War in May, 1898. Heilbron soon rose to the rank of sergeant of Company B, and after duty in San Francisco, he was mustered out in December, 1898. He continued to take an active part in the California National Guard and played the trombone in its band in 1903.16 Heilbron maintained membership in San Diego Musicians Local 325 and held a charter membership in the Bennington Camp, Spanish-American War Veterans.17

Fred Heilbron’s life took new directions in 1902 when he married Charlotte A. Proutt, the daughter of a San Diego pioneer, and in the same year started his own plumbing and heating business. Operations began at 1446 Fifth Street and continued from this location for over eighty years as a family enterprise. The firm installed the plumbing and heating for many of the finest residences in the county, many downtown hotel and office buildings, and the World War I facilities at Camp Kearny and Rockwell Field.”18 The Heilbron firm enjoyed a fine reputation for the quality of its work and the skill of the employees. Heilbron, the inveterate joiner and organizer, served as president of many business and service organizations.19 During these early, active years, he began getting headaches, and his doctor advised him to play some golf and relax more or he would not live long. He took his doctor’s advice and played golf every week into his nineties.20

Ready to undertake a new challenge, Heilbron began the study of law in 1914 under the guidance of Fred Lindley.21 At family gatherings on Sunday afternoons, “Uncle Fred” was to be left undisturbed in the parlor to study his law books.22 He passed the Bar in 1916 and scored the highest in the state-wide examination. This came as a surprise to many friends as his reserved nature gave no hint he had been a serious law student.23 Heilbron added membership in the San Diego County Bar Association to the long list of organizations in which he actively participated. When offered membership in the prestigious University Club, the new Attorney refused on the grounds that he did not qualify.24 Never a practicing lawyer, he put his legal training to great practical use over the years of his business and public life.

In 1917, plumber-lawyer Heilbron ran for the City Council on a platform of more water for San Diego and lost. The military and naval build-up during World War I brought in new work for the plumbing business and heavy demands on its owner. Nonetheless, Heilbron and some associates organized a company to manufacture potash by burning sea kelp on eucalyptus wood.25 Apparently the end of the war ended this venture’s chance of success, and Heilbron used his legal expertise to terminate the corporation.

Just shy of six feet six inches tall, yet a dynamo of energy, Heilbron could not keep a low profile. Elected to the City Council in 1919 on a water platform, he became a leader on a progressive council. A stalwart Republican and delegate to the 1920 Republican National Convention, Heilbron did not draw the party line when it came to local politics. He initiated what became a very successful tree-planting program along the main thoroughfares of the city. By 1922, twenty-four miles of trees lined the streets of San Diego. Best known for his crusades to provide a reliable and adequate water supply to the city, he promoted many other improvements as well. The harbor, the roads, and the zoo benefited from his attention, and he urged the hiring of John Nolen, a well-respected city planner with a national reputation.26

Heilbron found time to run, without success, for the California State Senate in 1924.27 and to play a humorous and lanky Little Bo Peep in an Elks Club benefit. In spite of all the civic and business activity, Fred Heilbron found time to be a concerned parent but believed that parents should allow children to develop naturally.28

Important issues before the San Diego City Council in the 1920’s related to the development of an adequate water supply. One concern centered on the siting of a dam on the San Diego River. Heilbron and the Council, along with City Manager of Operations Fred A. Rhodes and City Attorney Shelley J. Higgins, lined up in favor of building El Capitan Dam east of Lakeside which would impound a deep reservoir filled with “pure mountain water.” Mayor John Bacon, engineer Hiram N. Savage, and a large group of prominent citizens led by Colonel Ed Fletcher advocated the construction of a dam in Mission Gorge, a good dam site, but its shallow reservoir would inundate valuable farm and ranch land that would contaminate the water and cause excessive losses to evaporation.29

Heilbron and Ed Fletcher had been close friends for many years, but this bitter fight over the location of a dam left scars.30 On September 10, 1924, the voters defeated the bonds to finance the Mission Gorge project. The election for the $4,500,000 bond issue to build El Capitan, set for November 18, 1924, rallied the antagonists once again. The Heilbron forces prepared a silent motion picture that contrasted the relative desirability of the two sites and ended with a picture of a huge lake captioned: “El Capitan Reservoir as it will appear when full of fresh, pure, unadulterated, sparkling, clear, and cold mountain water.” All of the local theaters showed the film throughout the week before the election, and along with a whirlwind of speeches around the city by the El Capitan Dam proponents, these efforts produced a 3-to-1 victory at the polls for the large dam.

Before the start of construction of the dam, the men on the City Council most responsible for the success of the project were swept from office. Heilbron and the two other incumbents became victims of a rise in the valuations of taxable property and the ambitions of several politicians. When the City Auditor and Assessor, H.L. Moody, announced a thirtyseven percent increase in property valuations, and before the Council could establish a lower tax rate which would result in no increase in taxes, the opposition candidates launched a vicious attack on the Council. Their 1927 campaign to “throw the rascals out” succeeded, and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Heilbron took a trip abroad.

At the dedication of El Capitan on February 22, 1935, many stepped forward to take credit for the accomplishment. The bronze plaque that commemorated the event lists Hiram N. Savage, then deceased, and many others who had worked long and hard for the defeat of the project. The names of Heilbron and the others who fought so hard to build the largest dam in San Diego’s water system remain conspicuous by their absence.31

Back in April 15, 1926, the City of San Diego, at the request of Councilman Heilbron, filed an application with the California Division of Water Resources for a permit to divert 155 cubic feet of water per second from the Colorado River. To many, including at least one well-respected hydraulic engineer, the transportation of water from the Colorado River to San Diego had no basis in reality.32 When the first water from the Colorado arrived in San Diego in 1947, it would establish Fred Heilbron as “Mr. Water” of San Diego County.

The heavy concentration of World War II military activity in San Diego and the rapid depletion of stored water advanced the timetable to bring Colorado River water to San Diego. The Roosevelt Administration took the necessary measures to design and construct the San Diego Aqueduct which would join Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River Aqueduct at San Jacinto. In anticipation of the end of the war when these facilities would be returned to civilian control, the San Diego County Water Authority was organized on June 9, 1944, under the leadership of Heilbron and included a number of coastal and foothill communities.33

The war ended soon after the construction contracts for the aqueduct were signed, and the government implemented a policy to cancel all of its wartime contracts. San Diego Mayor Harley Knox sent Heilbron to Washington to save the project as the city faced drought conditions. Heilbron did a superb job and got the construction back on track. Water Attorney William Jennings credits Heilbron as “being just the right man to get the bill through in spite of very touchy circumstances.” He went on to say that he came across as grassroots, a man who represented the people, and expressed his views in a clear, forthright manner that won the support of influential senators and congressmen.34

Heilbron led the Water Authority as its chairman for almost thirty years and conducted its affairs with a combination of iron hand, wit, and benevolence.35 His sincerity and good nature, along with his command of statistics, sold people on the importance of water to San Diego. One interviewer described him as a “sort of beardless Abe Lincoln.”36 Although a representative of the City of San Diego on the Authority Board of Directors, he looked beyond the special interests of the city to the greater responsibility of a reliable county-wide water supply. As one of the Authority representatives on the Metropolitan Water District’s Board of Directors, he served as its secretary for seventeen years and had great influence with his fellow Metropolitan directors.37

The press often noted Heilbron’s energy and vigor in spite of his advanced age.38 When most men had long since retired, he launched the Water Authority and led it with great effectiveness. During these senior years, he fought for three additional pipelines into the county and for the construction of the State Water Project. These projects, each completed in time to avert an impending water shortage, are a tribute to his leadership.

In 1968, Charlotte, his wife of sixty-six years, died, but the support of his daughter, Charlotte Heilbron, enabled him to continue his active business and public life. He liked to say that he preferred to wear out rather than rust out.39 When a reporter called in 1970 and asked about his past, Heilbron asked, “Are you gathering information for my obituary?” The reporter admitted he was. “Don’t worry about it,” Heilbron said, “I’ve outlasted four reporters who were assigned the same job.”40 Three years after this interview, Fred Heilbron died at his Mission Hills home on February 14, 1973 at the age of ninety-five.



1. These words from an unknown author grace the commemorative plaques on the Water Authority’s San Diego office building and the Fred A. Heilbron Operations Center in Escondido. It did not originate with Fred Heilbron as this identical phrase is included in H. Austin Adams’ book, The Story of Water in San Diego, Chula Vista, Denrich Press, date of private publication unknown but written prior to 1920, and describes the development of John D. and Adolph Spreckels’ Southern California Mountain Water Company, which the City of San Diego purchased on February 1, 1913.

2. An inadequate water supply plagued the Spanish founders of the Mission San Diego de Alcala, first located in the vicinity of present-day Old Town. Father Francisco Palou, a close companion of the mission founder Father Junipero Serra, described conditions in the early 1770’s in an official report which is quoted in Richard F. Pourade’s Time of the Bells (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1961):

As this mission lacks water for irrigating the extensive and fertile land which it possesses, the inmates must suffer want, unless the crops turn out well. The first two years have proved this. In the first year, the river rose so high (though it has running water near the mission only in the rainy season), that it carried away all that had been sown. In the second year, planting was done farther back of the stream. During the greater part of the season, however, the water was scarce so that the plants perished.

Five years after the founding of the mission, the Padres relocated to a permanent site six miles further inland and closer to the San Diego River.

3. Samuel F. Black, San Diego County California, Volume 11 (Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913), 533-4. Although J.H. Frederich Heilbron and most of the young men in Germany received military training, many left to avoid the three short wars fought under the leadership of Otto von Bismark, prime minister of Prussia, to unify Germany and strengthen Prussia. The first of these little wars was fought in 1864. The Seven Weeks’ War or the Austro-Prussian War took place in the summer of 1866, and the Franco-Prussia War began in 1870 and ended with the fall of Paris in January, 1871.

Carl H. Heilbron, (ed.,) History of San Diego County (San Diego: San Diego Press Club, 1936), 282.

4. Interview, miss Charlotte Heilbron, daughter of Fred Heilbron, and granddaughter of J.H. Frederich Heilbron, with R.E. Melbourne at Pine Hills, October 6, 1985.

5. Heilbron, History of San Diego County, 282-3. Caroline Dietsch Heilbron was born in Baden-Baden, Germany, in October, 1853. She came to Sacramento, California, in the early 1860’s where she lived with an uncle until her marriage in February, 1873.

6. The reported financial condition of Mrs. Heilbron depended upon the telling. Black’s San Diego . . ., states he left the family in “very comfortable circumstances,” while Heilbron’s History. . ., said Mrs. Heilbron was “burdened with the responsibility of ten young children, and very little means, . . .”

7. San Diego Union, May 30, 1896, 2:4. The obituary of John Henry Frederich Heilbron, one of the most respected and well-liked men in San Diego, was carried in the San Diego Union on May 30, 1896 and provides the details of his death and his business activities in San Diego. He was a member or officer of the following: Retail Liquor Dealers’ Association, San Diego Brewing Company, Concordia Turnverein Society, Odd Fellows, Masons, Ancient Order of United Watermen, Knights of Honor, Sons of Herman, and Ancient Order of Foresters.

8. Booth, Olmstead, Pourade, Portrait of a Boom Town, San Diego in the 1880’s (San Diego: San Diego History Center, 1971). This little book provides a number of good pictures of San Diego in the 1880’s.

9. Federal Writers’ Project, San Diego a California City (New York: AMS Press, 1975), 46, 48. There are several early pictures that show a water barrel on a wagon to deliver household water.

10. San Diego County Water Authority, biographical material on Fred Heilbron. Fred Heilbron often mentioned the collapse of the land boom in 1888 in these terms.

11. Neil Morgan and Tom Blair, Yesterday’s San Diego (Miami: E.A. Seemann Publishing, Inc., 1976), 61. Even with this drastic reduction in the city’s population, it was still six times the 1880 population.

12. The San Diego Union in an October 10, 1968 article quotes Fred Heilbron as he discusses his newspaper boy experience of nearly eighty years before.

13. San Diego Evening Tribune, March 7, 1968. The interpretation of “spark the girls” in the Victorian era of the 1890’s would be “flirt with the girls.” In this feature article, Mr. Heilbron does some reminiscing about his early days in San Diego.

14. San Diego Evening Tribune, March 7, 1968. Ed Fletcher did not last long as a plumber. After working a very short time, he fell from a ladder in the store and smashed a number of fixtures ending his plumbing career. Fletcher went into real estate and water development throughout San Diego County, and his engaging and forceful personality made him a leader in shaping San Diego’s future.

15. San Diego Union, June 13, 1968. This feature article headlined, “In San Diego County, ‘Heilbron’ Means Water.” Heilbron’s background is reviewed and wanting “to be the boss” says a lot about the motivation behind his accomplishments.

16. Leland G. Stanford, Tracks on the Trial Trail in San Diego (San Diego: unpublished, 1963), 275-6. The chapter on Fred Heilbron gives a delightful image of him as a family friend for many years. The trombone remained a part of Heilbron’s family and social life over the years, as he played for church, lodge, and social gatherings accompanied by his wife on the piano.

17. Heilbron, History . . _ 286, and other biographies mention Fred Heilbron’s continued association with this veterans’ group. A newspaper picture in the family scrapbook shows him at a 1918 reunion of the Spanish-American War veterans of the California National Guard.

18. Camp Kearney was a temporary army camp built in the vicinity of the present-day Miramar Naval Air Station. In the early 1930’s, the author went with his father driving the family car with a trailer to haul lumber salvaged from the camp.

19. Clarence A. McGrew, City of San Diego and San Diego County, Volume 11 (Chicago and New York: The American Historical Society, 1922), 474-6. This biography lists Heilbron as a founder of the Plumbers Local 230, the San Diego Merchants’ Association, the Master Plumbers Association, the Rotary Club, and he had served as president of the State Master Plumbers Association, the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Young Men’s Christian Association.

20. Telephone interview, Charlotte Heilbron with R.E. Melbourne on October 10, 1985

21. Stanford, Legal Tracks. . ., 276. Fred Lindley, Heilbron’s principal instructor, operated the Hamilton and Lindley Law School.

22. Telephone interview, Robert Heilbron, nephew, with R.E. Melbourne on September 30, 1985.

23. San Diego Union, October 1, 1916. Probably no one could believe that even a person of Heilbron’s energy could add the successful study of law to his active family, business and civic activities.

24. Interview, Hans H. Doe with R.E. Melbourne at San Diego on October 2, 1985. Fred Heilbron felt he did not qualify for membership in the University Club because he never graduated from college.

25. Leland G. Stanford, “San Diego’s Eucalyptus Bubble,” The Journal of San Diego History, XVI (Fall, 1970). There was a demand for potash during World War I for it was used to manufacture explosives.

26. In 1908, City Planner John Nolen presented a plan to the directors of the Chamber of Commerce that would establish the city’s municipal center along the waterfront rather than the haphazard industrial development characteristic of most cities with a waterfront. By 1909, interest in the plan was lost but in 1925, Mr. Nolen, at the request of city leaders, prepared a new plan for the orderly development of the city. These new guidelines were generally followed in the development of the waterfront, the airport, and other areas of the city.

27. San Diego Sun, July 13, 1922.

28. San Diego Union, February 28, 1970, 131:4-5. The Little Bo Peep role was confirmed by Charlotte Heilbron in an interview. A lean six foot six inch Bo Peep probably “brought the house down,” Miss Heilbron said that her father “had energy enough for the whole family.”

29. Shelley J. Higgins, The Fantastic City of San Diego (San Diego: City of San Diego, 1956), 194-8. Higgins, city attorney during these interesting years, provides a vivid description of the water controversy and the personalities involved.

30. In a March 7, 1968 Evening Tribune article, Heilbron stated: “One of the biggest hassles we had was trying to keep some of these idiots from building a dam in Mission Gorge.” In a series of letters written by Ed Fletcher to a business associate in 1924, the deterioration of his relationship with Heilbron is clear. In an interview with Charlotte Heilbron, she said that years later Fletcher sent a letter of apology to her father, and they became close friends again. Heilbron is not mentioned with other prominent friends in Colonel Ed Fletcher’s Memoirs of Ed Fletcher, San Diego, Pioneer Printers, 1952.

31. Higgins, Fantastic . . , 203-4, 216-8. The 1927 valuation of taxable property of $222,000,000 was $60,000,000 above the 1926 valuation. Former city Chief of Police Stuart P. McMullen led the opposition candidates for the council. He attacked the water developments as unnecessary and too expensive.

32. Heilbron often quoted Engineer John R. Freeman, a consultant to the City of San Diego in the 1920s, as he said, “For the people of San Diego to expect to take water from the Colorado River – it would be like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

33. San Diego County Water Authority, Annual Report, 1946, VIII, The original member agencies of the Water Authority were: Chula Vista; Coronado; Fallbrook Public Utility District; Lakeside Irrigation District; La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley Irrigation District; National City; Oceanside; Ramona Irrigation District; and San Diego.

34. William H. Jennings: Water Lawyer, Oral History Program, Department of Special Collections, University of California at Los Angeles, 1967. William Jennings, an attorney specializing in water matters, made significant contributions in the management and organization of San Diego County water agencies and served as Secretary and General Counsel to the Water Authority for 26 years. His oral history is a straightforward and reliable assessment of the difficulties and triumphs in providing water for San Diego County.

35. In an interview with R.E, Melbourne on October 31, 1985, Linden R. Burzell, former General Manager and Chief Engineer of the San Diego County Water Authority, men- tioned this experience with Heilbron:

Shortly after my appointment as General Manager of the Water Authority, I had an appointment with Fred Heilbron to have him sign several months of board meeting minutes. He kept me waiting some time in the outer office before he called me to his desk. He hardly looked up as I sat there, and he reviewed in- voices and other papers relating to the plumbing business. After a while, he came across a tire invoice, and in a fit of temper, he called one of his sons in, who was over sixty years of age, and began to rant and rave about not asking him before buying these tires. After some minutes of this, the son was dismissed. Fred Heilbron then looked at me and calmly said, “And what can I do for you?” Ap- parently he had a purpose in all this.

36. Erwin Cooper, Aqueduct Empire (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1968). This book covers the California water picture in a general way.

37. In a special tribute to Heilbron on the occasion of his being honored by the Irrigation District Officers’ Association of San Diego County, all of the Metropolitan directors signed a statement that acknowledged long and effective service, his vision, constructive thought, practical experience, and leadership in the field of public water supply. Date of the document is April 21, 1960.

38. San Diego Union, August 25, 1970. On the occasion of his ninety-third birthday, Columnist Frank Rhoades commented about Heilbron driving to work everyday.

39. Interview, Charlotte Heilbron, October 6, 1985.

40. Evening Tribune, Neil Morgan’s column, date unknown but about 1970.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from the San Diego History Center’s Title and Insurance and Trust Collection.