Harriet Russell Strong was a brilliant woman who overcame personal heartbreak and financial catastrophe to become an agriculturist, a noted inventor, and an innovative pioneer in water storage and flood control.
Like so many others who called California home in the 19th century, she came from someplace else. Harriet Russell was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1844, moving to California with her parents and older sisters when she was eight years old. She was educated by private tutors, and at the Young Ladies Seminary at Benicia, the forerunner of Mills College. The Russell family moved again in 1861, this time to Nevada Territory. There Harriet met and, two years later, married Charles Lyman Strong, who had made a fortune in banking and publishing; and more recently, as a mining engineer. Their first two daughters were still young when Charles—intending to slow down because years of supervising seven mines had affected his health—relocated his family to what is now Whittier, California. They purchased 325 acres from Pio Pico, the state’s last Mexican governor, built a house, and began ranching. They called their home Rancho del Fuerte.
Charles Strong’s good intentions only lasted until, bored with ranching, he wanted another chance to strike it rich in the mining business. Without telling his wife, he borrowed against Rancho del Fuerte to buy into unsound investments. After a number of failed ventures Charles committed suicide in 1883, leaving Harriet with enormous debt and four daughters to raise alone. Determined to find a way to earn enough money to keep the ranch and support her family, she decided to grow walnuts, a stable cash crop.
Learning that walnuts require constant moisture, Harriet designed an irrigation system. From this beginning, born of need, she developed an interest in water conservation and flood control. In 1887, she was granted a patent for a dam and reservoir system for a valley or canyon watercourse. Harriet obtained another patent in 1894, on a new method for impounding debris and storing water. In 1917 she appeared before a congressional committee on water power, with a plan to store the floodwaters of the Colorado River. Meantime, three of her other inventions were of a more domestic nature: a device for raising and lowering windows, and for hook and eye latches, both patented in 1884; three years later, a patent for a window sash holder.
She had plenty of other interests. A talented composer, she published a number of songs, and was a vice president of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra for a number of years. She belonged to several clubs, advocated for women’s rights, and founded Ebell of Los Angeles in 1894, a still-active nonprofit organization created for the purpose of advancing women in the study of literature, art and science.
Harriet Strong died in a car accident in 1926. She was 82.
March is National Women’s History Month