Image courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
The O’Shaughnessy Dam provides water for millions on the Peninsula.
The process of getting drinking water in San Francisco in the mid-1850s was simple — find a spring or a pond and use the water. It was drinkable in the early days.
After the Gold Rush population increase from a few hundred people to more than 50,000 residents, the available spring and lake water became very contaminated and unfit to drink.
Water imported from Marin County sold for $1 per gallon. In the early 1850s, six disastrous fires destroyed the city due mainly to inadequate water. In 1851, the Mountain Lake Water Company was granted a franchise to deliver water from Mountain Lake (in the Presidio) to downtown San Francisco but it was inadequate water flow for the fires that devastated the city. In 1857, the San Francisco City Water Company started delivering water from Lobos Creek in San Francisco. In 1857, the Spring Valley Water Works was franchised by state legislation.
The SVWW did not have to furnish free water to the city because it could deliver only 5,000 gallons of water a day and that was inadequate to supply the city. This loophole in the franchise was to become a gold mine to the SVWW as the city now had to pay this private company for water. Due to the great demand for water, SVWW decided to expand water collection into the newly formed San Mateo County. By 1860, the San Francisco population reached 78,000 but San Francisco still had not constructed a municipal water system.
In 1860, the SVWW took over the Islas and Salinas Water Company that had collected water from Mount Hamilton area. In 1861, the SVWW began construction of the Pilarcitos Dam, west of Skyline Boulevard (in the San Francisco watershed) and increased its water delivery system greatly. The SVWW now rivaled the delivery of water of the San Francisco City Water Works and, in 1865, SVWW bought its competitor. SVWW was now the largest supplier of water to San Francisco. In 1868, SVWW bought the San Andreas Valley and constructed the San Andreas Dam that could store 6.19 billion gallons of water. By 1868, SVWW had the water rights to Lake Merced. In 1870, the SVWW was paying a 59 percent return of dividends to stockholders in the company. In 1875, the dividends amounted to a 61 percent return. The monopoly of the SVWW was so strong that San Francisco was paying 25 percent of its annual income for water. The city of San Francisco had tried to in 1873 to buy the SVWW but the voters failed to pass bonds to fund a purchase.
San Francisco began to realize that it must develop its own water system and began the process of buying land and water rights on the east side of the Bay on the Calaveras Creek (Alameda County/Santa Clara). After much foot dragging by San Francisco, SVWW bought the land and water rights and created another source of water for delivery to the Peninsula. In 1875, San Francisco offered to buy out SVWW but the price was deemed too high. In 1876, Upper Crystal Springs Dam was built followed by Crystal Springs Dam on the San Mateo Creek. San Francisco began looking for other sources of water and in 1891 surveys are made of the Tuolumne River and Hetch Hetchy as a potential water source. In 1900, the city of San Francisco was authorized to begin a municipal water system and $45 million in bonds was to be used to construct dams and acquire water from the Yosemite Park/Hetch Hetchy area using the Tuolumne River as the main source. In 1912, M. M. O’Shaughnessy was hired by Mayor James Rolph to be the city engineer.
The land which became so important to the Peninsula’s water supply was originally part of the Sanchez inheritance. The Rancho Buri Buri’s southwest boundary point was a rock long buried by the reservoir waters of the San Andreas Dam that was begun in 1868, five years after the Pilarcitos Creek was dammed in the watershed. In the 1860s, the Spring Valley Water Company (later the San Francisco Water Department) obtained a right-of-way to build a flume (water pipe) to transport water to the Peninsula and San Francisco. The flume was constructed through western Millbrae (Millbrae Meadows), over Jose de la Cruz’s heirs’ property, proceeded down the hills into San Bruno and along San Mateo Avenue. The flume paralleled the east side of San Mateo Avenue and was covered by a wooden walkway. It was put underground in 1916. In the late 1800s, the company built a pumping station on about 15 acres of land between El Camino Real and the railroad tracks in Millbrae.
In the late 1800s, the water department acquired 50 acres south of Ludeman Lane on what is now Saint Dunstan’s Church, McDonald’s, numerous other businesses and housing. They built a high, derrick-like tower, which functioned as an overflow device when water and pressure built up in the water pipe. A reservoir to contain the overflow was dug near the present site of the Green Hills Elementary School. This reservoir provided a lot of entertainment for kids to swim in and supplied water for the flower businesses. Much of this land was rented out to families like the Berni, Crosatto, Cozollini and Figone families for flower and vegetable farming. West of Millbrae, in the Skyline Boulevard area, the company acquired land on which they developed a water-treatment plant and where the present-day company recently completed construction of a million-gallon storage tank.
In the early part of this century, the Spring Valley Water Company built two houses south of Ludeman Lane to be used as residences for their superintendents. The Lawrence family, Davis family, Bachelor family and O’Neil family lived in these houses while employed by the company. One of the houses was eventually acquired by the Millbrae Historical Society and became the Millbrae Museum in 1985.
In 1906, a destructive earthquake and ensuing fires destroyed downtown San Francisco and destroyed buildings on the Peninsula. The water supply approved inadequate for this disaster and a bigger supply was sought. In 1913, the Raker Act became law and a larger water supply was acquired in the Yosemite Valley National Park. Construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam by engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy began in 1914.
It took until 1913 for Congress to approve construction in Yosemite and the 150-mile trip of the water to San Francisco. In 1915, the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Railroad began. This railroad was to be used to supply the construction of the dam. In 1919, after almost six years of preliminary work for the delivery system, Utah Construction was awarded the contract to construct the O’Shaughnessy Dam. The original design of the Hetch Hetchy system called for supplying water to all of the Bay Area. The dam was designed to deliver 400 million gallons of water from the Tuolumne area. The East Bay, however, decided to supply its own water so the capacity of O’Shaughnessy Dam was more than adequate.
Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.