John Vonderlin: 1887: “Mammoth Reservoirs”

Story from John Vonderlin

Email John: [email protected]


Hi June,
After reading this article, “Mammoth Reservoirs,” from the June 30th, 1887 issue of “The Daily Alta,” I did a little research on the Coastside’s water system. The map I’ve attached is from the Coastside County Water District’s website at I was amazed to read in the newspaper article that the Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir’s dam and its impoundment was the largest in the world at one time. I would guess the residents of Half Moon Bay at that time were proud of that fact and very happy to be relieved of the flooding Pilarcitos Creek must have caused. Enjoy. John
“There are not many prettier drives in the county of San Mateo, in fact in the State, then those to the different reservoirs of the Spring Valley Water Works. The road generally used starts in San Mateo and leads westerly  through the San Mateo Canyon. For its entire length large oaks overhanging the road add very much to its beauty, as well as shade. The San Mateo creek runs along  with an occasional ripple beside the road.
“Three miles or so bring us to the site of the proposed Lower Crystal Springs Dam reservoir, situate at the mouth of the San Mateo Canyon, a little below the junction
of the Canada Raymundo and San Mateo creeks. The work on this structure has already begun. There are about one hundred and twenty men employed preparing the foundation, which is already down a depth of ten feet and it is intended to go about ten feet further into the bedrock. This dam will be when completed 565 feet long on top and 170 feet high; it will have a width of 30 feet on top and a width of 175 feet on the bottom. It is to be built of stone, and will contain about 100,000 cubic yards. It will take about two years to complete it, and when finished it will be the largest dam in the world. The Quaker dam in New York when completed will be somewhat larger, but it will not have a storage capacity equal to that of the one now in course of construction by the Spring Valley Company.
“The presence of tunnels in the surrounding country resembles somewhat that of a mining camp. These tunnels were drifted in prospecting for bedrock or a suitable foundation for the dam, which it will be remembered, the company have spent several months in doing. The most suitable place found is the present site, where bedrock was struck within ten feet of the surface. When the dam is completed it will form a lake nine miles long and on an average a mile wide. When full it will contain about 32,150,000,000 gallons of water, and will equal very nearly twice the capacity of all the other reservoirs put together. The stone for this dam is to be taken from a quarry in the San Mateo Canyon about a. mile northwest from the dam-site, where a large quantity of desirable rock has been found after a great deal of prospecting. This reservoir will be the crowning work of the company in this county, and will insure San Francisco against all dangers of a water famine for a great many years to come.
“There are quite a number of men at work at present clearing the trees and brush from below the high-water mark, the brush being burnt and the wood piled in convenient places for burning bricks, of which the company will require a great many thousands in the completion of an outlet-tunnel for the reservoir, which will be ten feet in diameter and about five hundred feet long, passing under the hill on the north side of the dam. But a much larger amount of brick will be used for the completion of a tunnel from Woodside to the present Crystal Springs Lake, a distance of about five miles. This tunnel also will be ten feet in diameter and intended to carry the waters of the Bear Gulch and San Francisquito Creeks into the proposed reservoir. The work on this tunnel has already been begun, and is expected to be completed shortly alter the dam is finished.
Leaving the San Mateo Canyon and passing up the Canada Raymundo, for a distance of about two miles, brings us to the Upper Crystal Springs reservoir. The water of this reservoir supplies the lower portion of San Francisco, and is connected with the same by a 44-inch pipe. The Upper Crystal Springs reservoir is about three miles long and half a mile wide, and contains about 3,500,000.000 gallons. It is larger in area than any of the others, but is less deep. The dam is completed only to a height of fifty feet. Not having a foundation suitable for a dam much higher, it remains in its uncompleted state. When the lower dam is finished its waters will overflow the . upper reservoir by about thirty feet, thus doing away with it.
“To reach San Andreas reservoir the road must be retraced as far as the San Mateo Canyon, where it branches off up the San Andreas Valley. A little further on brings us to the San Mateo reservoir, which formerly supplied the town of San Mateo, now drawing from Crystal Springs. Continuing up the valley for a distance of about four miles, through a very dense growth of underbrush and willow brings us to the San Andreas reservoir. The waters of this  reservoir supply the middle portions of the city by a thirty-inch pipe. The reservoir is about three miles long and has a capacity of about 7,000,000,000 gallons. The watershed of this reservoir being small it derives its main supply from the coast side of the mountains, several streams being conducted to the reservoir by a series of tunnels, pipes and flumes. The road to Pilarcitos leads at once into underbrush.  It passes  through wild lilac, buckeye and many variety of smaller trees. On nearing the top it gets above the growth of trees and the eye catches a glimpse of the bay from its most southern point to the city, making one of the prettiest views on this peninsula. To the north the eye catches a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean,  just outside of the Golden Gate. On a clear day may be seen the steamers crossing from Oakland to San Francisco, also the towns of San Mateo, Redwood and Menlo Park.
“After passing over two ranges of mountains, a distance of about five miles, it brings us to the upper end of Pilarcitos Lake. This body of water, although the  smallest, is the most beautiful. A noble rocky point separates it into two arms, with Spring Valley Creek for a feeder on tbe east and the Pilarcitos Creek on the west. Unlike the hills around San Andreas and Crystal Springs, those of Pilarcitos bear fine specimens of fir and laurel. . The capacity of Pilarcitos reservoir is 1,080,000,000 gallons. It is connected with the city by a thirty-inch pipe. Having a higher elevation than any of the others, it supplies the  higher portions of tbe city. Leaving Lake Pilarcitos we  drive along a  road just wide enough  for a team, lined on either side with a variety of trees and smaller brush, from the gigantic fir to the smaller willow and wild  laurel;  along the  course of  a  small stream whose crystal  waters  add another charm to the  almost unsurpassed beauty of the surroundings.  After a drive of two miles through this forest of loveliness, we reach a clearing  where the steams  must be abandoned.  From the clearing a narrow path, still following  the windings of the Pilarcitos creek, leads for half a mile further into the depths of the forest. A sudden turn brings to view a miniature lake where the waters of the Pilarcitos creek are confined in a space so narrow that  a  stone can be thrown across it at any point.  Large trees, overhang  it on  every side; its waters, clear as crystal,  mirror all surrounding  objects.  Large trout may be seen leaping from its waters, flashing in the sunlight and disappearing from view in  an  instant. At one  end the waters from a narrow flume pour into it with unceasing flow. While standing on the dam, one might think the natural beauties of the scene could not be improved upon, but crossing the dam and following a small side flume, used as a feeder,  at  every step  new beauties are discovered. On one side of this flume is the ravine eighty or one  hundred feet deep,  the bottom and sides being  lined with granite boulders, along which a  small, but beautiful stream of water  slowly runs, now in sunlight, now in shadow, the murmur of which reaching  the ear, makes the dream of nature perfect. On the other side the bank rises to a  height of several hundred feet and is densely covered with beautiful trailing vines,  ferns, mosses and wild flowers.
“The end of the flume brings one to where a stream of water falls in a  silvery cascade, rushing, foaming, tumbling, over solid granite down to the flume where it is rudely, checked  by hand of man and forced to leave its rocky bed to flow between four wooded walls and enter the stone dam.  The entire Pilarcitos Valley contains scenery of this description and one always has a desire to explore it further and further, into the depths of the forest; the beauties of which no pen can describe.”