There was a carnival atmosphere when 30,000 people gathered on a dusty hillside 75 years ago to see water carried almost 226 miles through the city's new Owens River Aqueduct from the eastern Sierra Nevada.

"There it is! Take it!" shouted William Mulholland, the city water superintendent.Los Angeles took it, and more.

Conceived with foresight, planned with guile, built in determination and surrounded by profiteering and hyperbole, the aqueduct, which opened Nov. 5, 1913, has spun a compelling history.

"The aqueduct to the Owens Valley was the foundation of the modern megalopolis. It allowed Los Angeles to invent itself," said William L. Kahrl, whose 1982 book "Water and Power" is considered an authoritative history of the project.

"What was done in the early 1900s is still very much with us," said Abe Hoffman, whose book "Vision or Villainy" is another definitive study. "The city of Los Angeles has been on a growth mentality really all the way."

Water allowed Los Angeles to make the desert bloom.

It made arid real estate in the San Fernando Valley suddenly valuable and led to widespread speculation.

But water diverted southward to Los Angeles also prevented the Owens River Valley from blossoming into the center of commerce that its turn-of-the-century residents wanted it to be.

Los Angeles officials ensured this by buying land in the Owens Valley - at first covertly to acquire the water rights and later imperiously to take irrigated farmland out of production and save even more water for the city.

Valley residents reacted by repeatedly bombing the aqueduct, and armed night riders took to the roads. The city responded with truckloads of armed guards.

Today, Los Angeles owns about 300,000 acres in Inyo and Mono counties along the Nevada border.

Storytellers sympathetic to the ranchers portrayed the Owens Valley as a democratic Eden and the sinuous aqueduct as the evil serpent causing their ruination.

Nor could Hollywood resist the temptation of embellishing the tale with John Wayne in the 1935 film "New Frontier" and Jack Nicholson in the 1974 movie "Chinatown," a tale of graft and greed.

"I would classify `Chinatown' as a fine film and a great story - but not good history," Hoffman said.

Mulholland, the self-educated ditch digger who masterminded the aqueduct, had a tragic downfall.

He pronounced the new Saint Francis Dam northwest of the city safe, hours before it collapsed in 1928. More than 400 people were killed, homes and businesses were washed away and Mulholland resigned in disgrace.

Kahrl and others have concluded that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was neither benevolent nor malicious in its treatment of the Owens Valley. It was just coldly practical.

"The irony," said Mulholland's granddaughter, Catherine, now 65, "is that all the land Los Angeles acquired in the Owens Valley is pristine and gorgeous and it's Los Angeles that's been trashed."

"So many mini malls. I think the developers have gotten away with murder in the last 20 years."