Sierra water siphoned off
A fascinating bit of Nevada history is practically at Carson City’s doorstep, but it’s lost to most as they drive by it on the way to Reno.
As you drive along Highway 395 north you first go up a steep hill which then levels out before desending to the Washoe Valley. Along the way are three open areas on the right of little obvious interest. For some reason there is no sign pointing out a significant bit of history plopped down against the carved hillside opposite Lakeview.
It’s a small monument, perhaps 3 feet high with with a bronze tablet on it. The bronze tells of the building of an inverted siphon running under the highway and on to Virginia City from Hobart Reservoir.
The siphon – actually there were three pipes – was an incredible engineering feat involving new technologies that would be echoed around the world. The first pipe using water from the reservoir was brought by flume to the east side of the mountains. It was built in 1873 using riveted pipes 11 1/2 inches wide built in San Francisco. At the site of The Tanks, the water entered the pipe for the seven-mile trip to Virginia City and Gold Hill.
Pressure on the pipe at the maximum point was 819 pounds per square inch, double the previous levels used in the Sierra Nevada. The pipes were made from 6-by-10 foot Scotch-made steel plate, rolled and riveted into 36-inch sections. The 700 tons of pipe were coated with a mixture of asphaltum and coal tar inside and out.
Work began on laying the pipe March 1873 and was completed in five months, a amazing feat as the pipes were buried up to 4 feet deep. Digging in the Sierra Nevada can be an arduous task at best, this was done using only mules and miners.
The pipes leaked at first where the lead used to seal the joints was squeezed out by the pressures. Blacksmiths from all over the area were hired to construct steel collars to stop the leaks.
Shortly after the disastrous Virginia City fire of October 1875 the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Co. embarked on a second pipeline using a new design for pipes and following the first pipeline trail. It was completed that year. A third pipeline was completed in 1887.
As mining operations dwindled at Virginia City, water demand slackened. The first and third pipelines were dug up in the 1950s. The second still delivers water at the rate of 220,000 gallons a day in winter, 750,000 a day in summer.
The state of Nevada bought the system in 1963 and The Tanks were destroyed as a fire hazard.
The entire story of the siphon is found in “Water Supply for the Comstock” by Hugh A. Shamberger, which can be checked out at the Carson City library. This article uses material from that book.
Today one can drive to Lakeview and follow the immaculate streets up to a trailhead that is a maintenance dirt road for the town’s water tanks (not to be confused with the siphon’s The Tanks, which still appear on maps). An attempt to hike to The Tanks site was aborted about 800 feet up after meeting brush so thick that it was impossible to continue.
Hiking back down the road we noticed on the right a 25-foot section of black pipe protruding from the mountain side. Climbing up to it revealed that it was a broken off section of the first pipe – rivets and all. It sat in a ravine possibly caused by a break in the pipe itself.
There it is, a part of Nevada history unnoted in its black beauty. At least someone in Lakeview could put up a sign. The hike up to the pipe is a bit steep but it shouldn’t deter anyone from taking a look.
While you’re at it, check for the White House, a building that served as a control station for the pipes for many years and still stands on state land.
It’s important to carry water to hike to the grand old pipe.