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William E. Warne Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
William E. Warne

Chief of Information, Bureau of Reclamation, 1937-42; Assistant Director, Division of Power, Department of Interior, 1942-43; Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation, 1943-47; Assistant Secretary, Department of Interior, 1947-51; Assistant Secretary for Water and Power Development, Department of Interior, 1950-51; U.S. Minister in Charge of Technical Cooperation (Point IV), Iran 1951-55, and Brazil, 1955-56; U.S. Minister and Economic Coordinator for Korea, 1956-59.

Independence, Missouri
May 21, 1988
by Niel M. Johnson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the William Warne oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened February, 1989
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
William E. Warne


Independence, Missouri
May 21, 1988
by Niel M. Johnson


JOHNSON: I would like to begin, Mr. Warne, by getting a little background. Would you tell me when and where you were born, and what your parents’ names are?

WARNE: Yes, I was born in a little place, on a farm really, near a crossroads town called Seafield, Indiana, on September 2, 1905. Seafield doesn't exist anymore; it scarcely existed then. It was about 15 or 20 miles north and a little bit east of Purdue University. It was near the Tippecanoe River, about 10 miles west of Monticello, county seat of White County. My parents were William Rufus Warne and Nettie Jane Williams Warne. They were both born in Ohio, in Pike County, Ohio, in the 1870’s. Dad moved to Indiana and helped drain some of the land that eventually became White County, Indiana.


JOHNSON: Is this a farm?

WARNE: A farm, yes.

JOHNSON: You grew up on a farm?

WARNE: We moved to California when I was eight years old. My dad was a pioneer in the Imperial Valley on the irrigation project that was using Colorado River water in the reclamation of the desert south of the Salton Sea and north of Mexico. So I grew up there. He had a dairy farm. We lived on that farm throughout the rest of my boyhood. I went to a two-room country school called Alamo, and to the Holtville, California, Union High School.

JOHNSON: This was all in the Imperial Valley?

WARNE: All in the Imperial Valley. Holtville Union High School was about eight and a half miles north and west of our farm.

JOHNSON: Do you have brothers and sisters?

WARNE: I have, yes. I have four brothers, three of them older than I, and one younger, but no sisters. One by one, as we graduated from high school, we all went to


the University of California at Berkeley. There was only one University of California then. My oldest brother matriculated there in 1915.

JOHNSON: What was his name?

WARNE: Merrill; he's still living, now at 92 retired in the City of Burlingame, California. My youngest brother graduated in 1929, so we had a good long stretch at the university. He, J. Milton, is an orchidist of more than 50 years standing in Honolulu, known worldwide among orchid breeders.

JOHNSON: All of you got a degree from the University of California at Berkeley?

WARNE: All except the eldest one, who enlisted in the First World War and got married and never went back to finish his education. He had a couple of years at the university, but the rest of us graduated, yes.

JOHNSON: What was your major at the university?

WARNE: My major was English. Dad wanted us all to get into agriculture and come back to the farm. The other four did study agriculture, but none of them went back to the


farm in the Imperial Valley. I was the only one who went into the English Department. I wanted to be a writer, a newspaper man.

JOHNSON: How large a farm was this, by the way?

WARNE: Dad had 160 acres, which was standard in those days.

JOHNSON: Was that under the Homestead Act?

WARNE: The land was originally under the Homestead Act, but Dad got there too late to homestead this particular farm.

JOHNSON: Do you have any idea what he paid per acre for that land in those days?

WARNE: Oh, it wasn’t more than $100. It had a crop of alfalfa on it.

JOHNSON: And you had to milk cows?

WARNE: Yes, I milked 17 cows night and morning and went to high school during my senior year. I was 17 years old at that time.

JOHNSON: Hand milked?

WARNE: Hand milked, yes. We didn’t have electricity in the Imperial Valley during my boyhood. Milking machines came


later. I never had anything but a coal oil lamp to do my homework by until after I went to the university in August of 1923.

JOHNSON: When did they get electricity in that valley?

WARNE: After the Boulder Dam was finished, and the All American Canal. Then the Imperial Irrigation District, under agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation, which built the All American Canal, put power plants in at drops along the canal and electrified the Valley. As a matter of fact, the Imperial I.D. serves power in the Coachella Valley as well. The Coachella Valley is north of Salton Sea. So it's quite different down there now. The Imperial Valley is no longer a desert frontier. Imperial is one of the leading agricultural counties in the country.

JOHNSON: So Boulder Dam, or Hoover Dam, made a real difference, a considerable difference.

WARNS: That it did, and it made a difference to me personally. The first public meeting I ever went to, my dad took me to a Farm Bureau meeting in the Alamo schoolhouse. I must have been ten years old.

JOHNSON: Is it that two-room school you were talking about?


WARNE: Yes, in the Alamo schoolhouse which was about a mile west of our farm. An old fellow got up -- I remember his name was Mark Rose -- he was a farmer and he was, I believe, running for the Irrigation District Board at that time. He said, "We must have a dam on the Colorado River to prevent the floods and to give us water during the dry summers." I had observed what happened when the floods came. I mean, the Colorado was a treacherous river, you know; it used to scare the thunder out of us during spring high flows. Then, the canals might be entirely dry late in the summer. The speech was very thrilling to me. I think it influenced the direction of my life. One of the great occurrences of my life was that I was in the Bureau of Reclamation when we finished the Boulder Dam. As a matter of fact, I made the first draft of the dedication speech that Franklin D. Roosevelt gave at the dam in September of 1935.

JOHNSON: Do you remember what year it was that this meeting took place at the Alamo schoolhouse?

WARNE: I figure that I was about ten years old, so it must have been 1915 or '16.

JOHNSON: So we still have about fifteen years to go before


a dam was completed?

WARNE: The dam was authorized in the Swing-Johnson Act which President Coolidge signed on December 22, 1928. They had started the railroad from Las Vegas, Nevada, out to the dam site in Black Canyon in the last year of Hoover's administration. The construction of the dam really got started when the Public Works Administration came into being in 1933 in FDR's first term. The PWA made an allotment to the Bureau of Reclamation of a sufficient amount of money to enable the letting of the major construction contract to the Six Companies, the contractor that built the dam.

JOHNSON: What was the most important lobby, would you say, that did make that dam possible?

WARNE: The most important lobby that made the dam possible was actually Phil Swing, who was the Congressman from Imperial and San Diego Counties at that time. Well, his district was wider than that, since we had fewer people then. The Imperial Irrigation District was deeply involved, and there was an outfit called, I think, the Irrigation District Association. The state engineers, or water resources directors, of the seven Colorado River


Basin states were advocates. And the City of Los Angeles. They were the main ones, as I remember it. The City of Los Angeles was the principal actor in Southern California at that time. It was interested in a source of power and a future augmentation of its water supply. Los Angeles was a very dynamic, even aggressive city at that time.

JOHNSON: They needed the drinking water, and water for industrial uses, at that time?

WARNE: They were really after power in the City of Los Angeles at that time. But, yes, L.A. and 15 other cities or water agencies on the Southern California Coastal Plain were seeking new water sources. The Imperial Valley farmers needed flood control; the river had broken into the valley in 1905 and formed the Salton Sea. The irrigated lands are all below the elevation of the river, most of them below sea level. Between 400,000 and 500,000 acres are watered in the Imperial Valley.

JOHNSON: Oh, I see. Well, how was Los Angeles getting its water?

WARNE: At that time, Los Angeles was getting water out of Owens Valley to the north, in an aqueduct that the city built in the early 'teens. In 1930 -- that was while


preliminary work on the dam was being started -- Southern California organized to take water from the Colorado River. The City of Los Angeles and some 15 other cities organized the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is the dominant regional water agency down there now. The MWD serves about 11,000,000 people in Southern California today. It was the MWD which built the aqueduct to the Colorado River, and signed the contract with the Interior Department for water from Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the dam. I don't know when the contract was signed; it was fairly early; signed by Secretary Wilbur before the advent of Harold L. Ickes in Interior.

JOHNSON: You got your bachelor's degree, with a major in English from the University of California at Berkeley, in what year?

WARNE: In 1927.

JOHNSON: What did you do at that point?

WARNE: I went back to the Imperial Valley from the university and managed to become the news editor of the Brawley News, a little daily paper. Brawley is one of the


leading towns in the Imperial Valley; it is in the northern part of the Valley. One of my brothers was a teacher in the Brawley Union High School at that time. He spent his entire career in Brawley, eventually retiring as Superintendent of Schools there. He is retired now and living in San Diego.

JOHNSON: And how long were you editor there?

WARNE: Oh, the rest of the year 1927. Then I went to Calexico, which is a border town, as news editor of the Calexico Chronicle, a small daily with a Spanish weekly edition that circulated in Mexicali, the sister city across the border in Mexico. I became the string correspondent for the Associated Press while in Calexico. That's a pretty good news center. The AP didn't have any way of covering northwestern Mexico except by telephone and with me down in Calexico. As a stringer, I think I got ten cents an inch for whatever the AP used, but my pay got significant enough because of many news stories that they thought they ought to take me on their staff. In August of 1928, the AP asked me to come up to Los Angeles to become an editor in the Los Angeles Bureau of the Associated Press. I was with the Associated Press then in Los Angeles for three


years. I was night manager of the Bureau during the last year. I met my wife there in 1928; we were married a year later in July, 1929.

JOHNSON: What’s her name?

WARNE: Her name was Edith Peterson.


WARNE: Yes, she is a Swede. Both of her parents were born in Sweden, though they have lived in California since 1894 or ’95.

JOHNSON: So you are living in Los Angeles now, moving from Calexico to Los Angeles.

WARNE: Correct. While in Brawley and Calexico, I followed closely the progress of the Swing-Johnson bill in the Congress and covered local angles on the campaign for control of the Colorado River.

JOHNSON: Quite a change from Calexico to Los Angeles.

WARNE: Yes. I had a room in Pasadena. One of my university friend’s mother was running one of those -- it wasn’t quite a boarding house; you’d call it a motel now -- but


motels hadn't developed to the extent then of earning a distinctive name. I met my wife in Pasadena.

In 1931 the Associated Press decided to open a bureau in San Diego. San Diego was in many ways much like it is today, except that then it was only about one-tenth as big. I was sent to San Diego to open the new bureau. And again, I did a lot of reporting on the subject of water, as I had in Brawley and Calexico. The Colorado River Aqueduct was going into detailed planning at that time. San Diego had the problem of how it was going to get water that had been allocated to it over the mountains from the Colorado River. I was following the developments pretty carefully.

Then in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt became the President, the whole center of the news world moved from New York to Washington. The moguls of the Associated Press wouldn't leave New York, so they had to beef up the Washington Bureau. Everything was sparking out of Washington at that time. The AP decided to bring into Washi