Categories
Comstock Characters

#284: VIRGINIA CITY’S AMAZING WATER SYSTEM

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

In its early days, the inhabitants of Virginia City and nearby Gold Hill relied on natural springs to provide a sufficient water supply for the relatively few people living in the two mining camps. As the population grew, however, the springs were not enough and several tunnels were run into the mountainside. But the system barely met demand and the water often tasted bitter. Round-the-clock mining operations also sucked up huge quantities of water.

Hermann Schussler, a Prussian-born engineer who immigrated to the United States in 1864 and was developing large dam and water storage projects in northern California. In an 1871 letter to the Virginia & Gold Hill Water Co., Hermann pitched an audacious plan to pipe the precious commodity from the far distant Carson Range near Lake Tahoe to Virginia City, a town perched high on the slopes of Mt. Davidson at elevation 6,150 feet above sea level. The highly-respected Schussler was in the vanguard of hydraulic engineering, but this Nevada project would be his most challenging job yet.

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 6,000 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. Note newly-installed railroad tracks for the renovated Virginia & Truckee Railroad that once again runs summer excursions from Carson City to 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 was constructed on Hobart Creek, which drained from the east side of the Carson Range, and the stored water behind the dam flumed to a pipe system that snaked east across Washoe Valley before climbing to Virginia City.

Schussler realized that the water pressure in the lower portion of the pipeline that plunged down 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. This schematic illustrates the pipeline's profile with the greatest pressure of 850 psi in the first trough as the water plummets down from the mountain range. 

To overcome the water pressure issue, sheets of iron of were shipped from Scotland to San Francisco in 3 by 10-foot plates of varying thicknesses that could withstand the different pressure ranges. 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. In the field, a trench was pre-dug by hand from 2 to 4 feet deep for faster pipe placement.

The end of each pipe was 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. There were 1,524 fitted joints in the 38,300 feet of pipeline requiring one million rivets and 35 tons of caulking lead to link it all together.

Each 26-foot section of pipe was designed for one unique location in the whole 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 clean, snow-melt 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 was installed two years later. But more