A water supply for San Francisco

A large amount of money had been expended in the hope that fresh water could be introduced to San Francisco as early as gaslight. In June of 1851 a contract had been issued to Azro D. Merrifield to provide water to the city. With the idea of bringing in the water of Mountain Lake, a large spring fed pond about three and a half miles west of Portsmouth Square, excavations were made and tunnels dug, but when it was found that the project was impractical and would not pay it was given up.

Topo map of Lobos Creek 1895

In the early days a little water had been collected from small springs and shallow wells along the hillsides but in the case of houses at any distance from one of these sources the water had to be carried by an animal or on a wagon. As the city grew the business of carrying water became a lucrative occupation that employed many men. Artesian wells were sunk, but, like the surface water, was not very good. Those who could brought in water known for its sweetness and purity from springs in Sausalito in Marin County.

Water flume at Black Point 1870, Greg Gaar Collection

After Merrifield’s plan collapsed it was not until 1858 that John Bensley succeeded in bringing into the city the first fresh water from Lobos Creek, a small stream that flowed northwest from Mountain Lake. The line Bensley built consisted of a wooden flume that ran from the mouth of the creek, around Fort Point and the Presidio, then along the bluff beside the bay to Telegraph Hill where the water was pumped up to a reservoir and then distributed to the city in pipes. This was the beginning of a complicated system known as the Spring Valley Water Works that supplied San Francisco for many years.

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