Historic water pipeline to Virginia City, Part II

In the late 1860s, the boomtowns of Virginia City and Gold Hill in Nevada’s Comstock mining district were running out of water. To address the issue, the directors of the Virginia City & Gold Hill Water Company hired Hermann Schussler, a noted hydraulic engineer known for big water projects in California, to find a way to bring water from the Sierra Nevada Carson Range more than 20 miles away.

Schussler had previously designed and supervised the construction of a 30-inch pipeline 12,100 feet long, which crossed a branch of the Feather River near Oroville and which was subject to a pressure load of about 400 pounds per square inch. Due to distance and elevation changes, the Virginia City project would require a pressure force more than double that, meaning that Schussler would be up against the greatest challenge yet of his professional career.

READ MORE: Read Part I – Historic water pipeline to Virginia City

The closest potential water supply for Virginia City was Hobart Creek more than 20 miles west in the upper elevations of the Carson Range on the eastern margin of the Tahoe Basin. The distance wasn’t even the hardest part. Virginia City’s elevation exceeds 6,300 feet, about 1,500 feet above the Washoe Valley to the west. Water brought from the Sierra via pipeline would have to be under sufficient pressure to raise it from the valley floor to wooden holding tanks several hundred feet above Virginia City. Fabrication of the pipe started March 1873 and within five months it was installed with water flowing. When completed, this ingenious system was more than 21 miles in length, delivering 2.2 million gallons of water to Virginia City every 24 hours.

The work was an engineering marvel. The project required nearly 15 miles of wooden flumes to transport water, in addition to 7 miles of pipe. Working from Schussler’s specifications, each 26-foot-long length of pipe was custom made, designed for one specific location based on terrain and pressure. At each point where there was a depression in the pipeline, a blow-off valve was installed for the removal of sediment and at the top of each ridge, an air valve was placed for releasing air when water was first let in. Remarkably, it took workmen with mules just six weeks to install the complete piping system.

When the water started flowing in late July 1873, residents could trace the progress of the flow by the sound of the blow-off valves opening to release trapped air. Virginia City journalist Dan DeQuille wrote: “Compared with what was heard when these cocks blew off, the blowing of a whale was a mere whisper.”

The Virginia City Evening Chronicle summed up the joy and relief felt by local residents: “The Sierra Nevada water was turned on last evening and ran into the flume for some time. It took the pumped fluid six hours to reach Bullion Ravine. The water will probably reach the Divide before morning.”

A Mining and Scientific Press article about Schussler’s Nevada pipeline stated: “After three months of use, the pipe has proved wonderfully successful. It is worthy of remark, as showing the kind of pipe turned out by the San Francisco contractor Risdon Works, that there was absolutely no leakage in the pipe joints, it only occurring at the lead joints where the pipes are joined together.”

The Virginia City & Gold Hill Water Co. rectified the leaking rivets by hiring all available blacksmiths in the region to forge specially designed clamps to fit over the 5-inch collar were the pipes were connected. These permanent brackets were clamped down over the rivets, which forced the lead back into place. It required thousands of these customized brackets to quell the leaks, but once in place they were effective.

By Aug. 2, 1873, the new municipal water system was up and running without a hitch. A Virginia City newspaper reported: “The pouring into this city and Gold Hill of a large stream of water from the Eastern Summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at 6:45 last evening, marked an epoch in the history of the Comstock, and was the signal for a general jollification and rejoicing of 12 or 13 thousand people. Bonfires and rockets girdled old Mt. Davidson for hours and cannons continued to roar until a late hour in the night. A stream of about 1,717 gallons per minute poured through the flume at Bullion Ravine, between this city and Gold Hill. The water was turned into the pipe on the Sierra at noon yesterday and reached here in 6 hours and 45 minutes. It had been estimated that it would take the stream 8 hours to reach here, a distance of 20 miles.”

By 1876, the volume of water flowing through the pipeline became insufficient due to the explosive population growth on the Comstock. The Virginia & Gold Hill Water Co. received permission from Nevada to draw water from Marlette Lake in the Carson Range near Lake Tahoe. A dam was built at Marlette to create more water storage and the small lake grew to nearly 2 miles long and more than a half mile wide. The lake was on the wrong side of the ridge though, so a 3,994-foot-long tunnel was bored through the granite that separated Marlette from the Hobart Creek fluming system. Wooden flumes transported Marlette water to the tunnel, after which it flowed to the east face of the Carson Range into the 1873 flume network. Near the site of the original diversion dam, a large reservoir was built and designated as Hobart Reservoir. When completed, the water supply system included three reservoirs, more than 21 miles of pressure pipes, 46 miles of covered box flume and the Marlette tunnel. The two projects combined cost $3,500,000.

When the second pipeline was up and running, there was plenty of water for residential use, as well as fire protection. In June 1875, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise noted: “One of the boasts of the Comstock is that in this land of barrenness — of shifting sands and burning alkali, we have the purest and best mountain water and plenty of it. Nor is the boast lightly made. There is no place in the world where so many natural difficulties have been overcome and so many triumphs achieved as in bringing the pure, fresh and soft water of the Sierra to our communities.”

Amazingly enough, this system has steadily supplied water to Virginia City since its creation and is currently the sole source of water for the city.

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Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.