Fixing the water famine in Virginia City |

Fixing the water famine in Virginia City

MARLETTE LAKE – In the 1860s, Virginia City had everything going for it. The town was built on a mountain of silver. People were coming from around the world to provide every manner of modern services to the miners and residents from world-class opera to the finest foods. There were even, finally, more churches than brothels in the town which would eventually top out at some 20,000 residents.

Only one thing was missing.


The town had long since outgrown the few natural springs on the surface, forcing the fledgling water company to drill into the tunnels west of town where water had been naturally flowing for several years.

But according to newspaper reporter Dan DeQuille, longtime chronicler of the Comstock, “at length, the whole top of the hill into which the tunnels extended appeared to be completely drained.”

Virginia City still had water. But most of it was deep in the mines, scaldingly hot and laden with foul smelling, often poisonous minerals.

In 1862, the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Co. began to look for a permanent solution to the “water famine,” which threatened to stunt the growth of Virginia City.

“The kind of development the Comstock wanted to pursue, they had to have a good water system,” said State Archivist Guy Rocha.

“As far as their own aquifer, they had messed it up with all the mining. It was not healthy water.”

It didn’t take long to realize there was water aplenty in the Sierra Nevada above Lake Tahoe. The problem was how to get it across Washoe Valley to Virginia City.

That’s where a Swiss-educated civil engineer named Hermann Schussler entered the picture. In seeking his help, the water company wasn’t taking a chance on some unknown. Schussler was almost certainly the most prominent and innovative hydrological engineer in the west at the time.

As chief engineer for the Spring Valley Water Works of San Francisco, he designed the Crystal Springs Dam near San Mateo, Calif. That dam is still in place and, according to Rocha, is considered a prototype for the design of Hoover Dam.

According to Hugh Shamberger, author of the “Story of the Water Supply for the Comstock,” one of the reasons Schussler was asked to help was his experience in designing building pressurized pipelines for Spring Valley Water Works and for the Cherokee Hydraulic Mining Co. near Oroville, Calif.

“He already had a tremendous track record,” Rocha said.

The system he designed and built diverted water from Hobart Creek through a wooden flume 4.6 miles long to a tank above Washoe Valley. From there, the water entered a pressure pipe which dropped 1,997 feet to the saddle at Lakeview Hill, then climbed up more than 1,500 feet into the Virginia Range where the water again flowed into a flume that fed Five Mile Reservoir which supplied Virginia City and Gold Hill. The system was designed to survive more than 800 pounds per square inch of pressure at Lakeview and to make pumps unnecessary.

The water was finally turned on Aug. 2, 1873. The newspaper report of the event, again by DeQuille, said it took more than eight hours to fill. He reported the progress of the water as it surged through the pipe could be followed by the loud hiss as, one after another, valves designed to let pressurized air out of the pipe at the crest of each ridge were forced open, then slammed shut.

“At last, to the great joy of the engineer and all concerned in the success of the enterprise, the signal fire at the outlet on the summit of Virginia Range was for the first time lighted, showing that the water was flowing through the whole length of the pipe,” he said.

Four months later, Mining and Scientific Press described it as an engineering feat and predicted the system would attract engineers from around the world.

Later a second and third pressure pipe were added to the system and flumes were built to tap Marlette Lake farther up the mountain as well as Hobart Creek.

At its peak, the system provided more than 20,000 residents in Virginia City with 10 million gallons of water daily.

Rocha said the system made full Comstock boom possible.

“This allowed Virginia City to prosper,” he said.

Even more remarkable, he said, is the fact that the system is still supplying drinking water to Virginia City, Gold Hill and parts of Carson City.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.