Historic water pipeline to Virginia City

Nevada’s famed Comstock bonanza fizzled out in the 1880s, but during its heyday it spun off historic engineering marvels that still survive today. Brilliant solutions for many of the Comstock’s most challenging problems were overcome with imagination, hard work and innovative technology.

Jewish, German-born engineers were among those making dangerous mining safer in western Nevada. Philip Deidescheimer invented square-set timbering, a new method to support unstable rock when large lodes of rich ore were excavated from far below the surface. Adolph Sutro, a visionary engineer from Prussia (Germany), overcame significant financial and political obstacles to complete the six-mile Sutro Tunnel in order to solve a myriad of risks and difficulties associated with deep excavation in the active, geothermally heated environment that characterized Comstock mining.

The water pressure in the lower portion of the pipeline that plunged out of the mountains would be extreme, close to 1,000 psi. In the history of the world, there had never been a pipeline constructed to handle such enormous pressure.

In the early 1870s, when the booming frontier town of Virginia City outgrew its meager water supply, the owners of the Virginia & Gold Hill Water Company hired Hermann Schussler, another Prussian-born engineer. Graduated from the Prussian Military Academy of Oldenburg, Schussler went on to attend civil engineering schools in Europe and immigrated to the United States in 1864. Working as Chief Engineer for the Spring Valley Water Works in California’s Bay Area, Schussler designed and built several dams and tunnels in the region. His work was impeccable. Two Schussler-engineered dams built near the dangerous San Andreas fault survived the violent 1906 quake that destroyed significant infrastructure in the region.

In 1871, Schussler had heard that Virginia City was desperate for high quality drinking water and he sent a letter to the Virginia & Gold Hill Water Co. outlining an ingenious plan to bring the precious commodity from the Sierra to Virginia City. Schussler was generally familiar with the Comstock as he had previously surveyed the alignment of the Sutro Tunnel in 1869 and later became the lead engineer during construction. The water company directors were acutely aware of the man’s esteemed professional reputation and they hired him as Chief Engineer. Schussler was in the vanguard of hydraulic engineering, but this Nevada project would be his most challenging job yet.

In its early days, the inhabitants of Virginia City and nearby Gold Hill had relied on natural springs to provide sufficient supply for the relatively few people living in the two mining camps. As the population grew, however, several tunnels were run into the mountain west of town and the water they accessed was stored in large wooden tanks at various locations. The system barely met demand and the water was charged with minerals, often lending a bitter taste.

The closest potential water supply for Virginia City were the small, snow-fed lakes and creeks 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 holding tanks several hundred feet above Virginia City.

Schussler knew that he had a monumental task in front of him, but he also had the vision to overcome it. First, a diversion dam had to be constructed on Hobart Creek high in the Carson Range and the stored water behind the dam would be flumed to a pipe system that ultimately snaked across Washoe Valley before climbing to Virginia City. Schussler realized that the water pressure in the lower portion of the pipeline that plunged out of the mountains would be extreme, close to 1,000 psi (pressure per square inch). In the history of the world, there had never been a pipeline constructed to handle such enormous pressure.

Schussler’s workforce built a 4.6-mile-long wooden flume to carry the diverted water from Hobart Creek across the east face of the Carson Range to a tank at the pipe head. At the end of the flume the water poured into the open pipe, basically an inverted siphon. Where the line transitioned from a nearly vertical alignment to the relatively horizontal aspect on the valley floor static pressure increased to explosive levels. Schussler overcame that problem by using wrought iron plates bent into a cylindrical shape and riveted to form a pipe with walls of varying thickness that could withstand the different pressure ranges.

Sheets of iron of were shipped from Scotland to San Francisco in 3 by 10 foot plates. Manufacture took place at the Ridson Iron and Locomotive Works in San Francisco where the plates were cut and rolled into cylinders. Before shipment by rail to Nevada, each separate segment of pipe was plunged into and rolled in a hot gooey mixture of asphalt and coal tar for a coating inside and out. The pipeline was loaded onto Central Pacific railcars headed east to Reno. At Reno, the material was transferred to the recently completed Virginia & Truckee Railroad line for transport to the Carson Valley.

In the field, a trench had been dug from 2 to 4 feet deep for pipe placement. The ends of each pipe were designed to overlap and accommodate a wrought iron ring to secure each junction between sections of conduit. Two lines of rivets were driven into the collar and the ring caulked. One million rivets and 35 tons of caulking lead were used to link the long pipe together. Each section of pipe was designed for one unique location in the system, based on pressure and topography. Fabrication of the pipe started March 1873 and within five months it was installed and water flowing. When completed this ingenious system was more than 21 miles in length and delivering 2.2 million gallons of water to Virginia City. Every 24 hours.

It was one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering, but demand for water continued to grow and a second pipeline-flume system installed two years later doubled capacity. At this point the water being stored by the diversion dam at Hobart Creek was insufficient to meet the requirements of the Comstock boom. On the other side of the ridgeline, however, was Marlette Lake, a small natural pond that had been damned earlier for a logging operation. Originally named Goodwin Lake, it was later renamed Marlette after the first Surveyor General of Nevada.

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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.