Pass Bearer Through Lines
By VICTOR ELMO PERRY,
Assistant to the City Superintendent of the Spring Valley Water Company,
as recalled on the Golden Anniversary of the earthquake, April 18, 1956.
The story of what happened to the water supply of San Francisco, California,
on the morning of April 18, 1906, when at 5:12 A.M. a violent earthquake occurred
along the San Andreas fault line adjacent to the City and County of San Francisco.
On April 18, 1906, I was residing with my family in an upper flat at 46
Sharon Street, a one block long street between Church and Sanchez Streets, and running
from 15th to 16th Streets.
My family consisted of my six and one-half year old daughter, Marjorie,
a son twenty-three months' old named John Elmo, and my wife Martha, and myself.
After the violent shaking stopped, we found ourselves stating in separate
doorways, my wife holding our son and I was holding our little girl. We had heard
that doorways were the safest place to stand during a 'quake and found this to be
Considering the force of the earthquake and what we were later to learn
happened to the city, we were indeed fortunate to be alive, and with the exception
of some broken cut glass vases and cracked plaster in the house, our loss was negligible.
As the excitement died down a little, we decided to dress quickly and get some breakfast.
Luckily enough gas came through the pipes to enable us to have a hearty
meal of bacon and eggs and coffee. I was also able to buy some breakfast buns at
a nearby bakery.
After breakfast I took my family to my brother, Dr. J.C. Perry's house,
on Market Street, about two blocks distant from our house.
The business, executive and engineering offices of the Spring Valley Water
Company were on the top (5th) floor of a Class "A" building the Company owned at
the southeast corner of Geary and Stockton Streets. The Company also maintained
a Service and Meter Department in a small part of the basement. The balance of the
building was occupied by the City of Paris Department Store.
After the fire, all that was left of this building
was the bare skeleton, the entire contents except the floors having been
Immediately following the fire, the company built a one story temporary
frame building on one of their lots in the block bounded by Webster, Herman and
Church Streets and Duboce Avenue.
Being an assistant to the City Superintendent, Thos. G. Packham, I felt
it was my duty to report to the Superintendent at his residence which was nearby
my own. I found Mr. Packham had gone to the Clarendon Heights pumps [at 17th and
Pond streets, near Sanchez] across the street from his homehe was check to
see what damage if any had been done there.
Our water district known as College Hill was never entirely without water
the first day of the catastrophe. The only damage to the pumps was a broken steam
pipe which was being repaired and the pumps were ready for operation again late
that fateful day, but owing to ruptured pipelines, it was several days before they
were actually pumping water again.
Together the Superintendent and I walked to a livery stable on 16th between
Church and Market Streets and secured a horse and buggy and started out to find
the extent of the damages done to the water system.
Gauges at the pumps indicated severe ruptures in the lower or University
Mound District, its principal source of supply, and in the middle or College Hill
Our first stop was the fallen Valencia Hotel
on Valencia Street between 18th and 19th Streets. This hotel had been a four story
frame building, consisting of stores on the ground floor and rooms on the upper
three. We could hardly believe what we saw as the three lower floors had completely
collapsed and were crushed beneath the top floor which was all that remained of
Here the street was split open about six to eight feet, one could stand
north of the rupture and look right into the cable car slots or tunnels on the south
side of the rupture.
We found out 22 inch main on the east side and our 16 inch main on the
west side of the street were both severed and spilling water down the gutters to
the 18th Street cesspools.
On our inspection trip we met a crew of workmen at 24th and Harrison Streets
who were engaged in closing a 44 inch gate. This was made necessary by a break in
the 44 inch line at a point on Harrison Street about 100 feet south of 14th Street.
The Superintendent and I then proceeded to College Hill Reservoir where
he opened headquarters and had repair materials, live stock and feed hauled from
the Company yard at 639 Bryant Street, and we were then in a good position to make
prompt repairs wherever possible.
We then made our way to Lake Merced Pumps and found the only damage there
was a broken steam gate. This was replaced and the pumps were again in action by
3:00 P.M. April 18th, furnishing three million gallons of water out of Lake Merced
to the Lake Honda Reservoir.
I believe this water supply had much to do with stopping the fire at Van
Ness Avenue north of Golden Gate Avenue.
As our telephone service was disrupted, we were unable to find out what
condition our city or peninsula reservoirs were in. We therefore decided to drive
to each of the city's main reservoirs.
As we had already been to College Hill reservoir (elevation 255 above
city base) where we found this reservoir near Park Avenue and Mission Street in
good order except for a few boards on the aerator. This did not prevent the reservoir
from functioning when and if water could be secured from our San Andreas reservoir
in San Mateo County, about eight miles west of Millbrae. We later learned that the
San Andreas 37-1/2 inch pipe line was ruptured at the south end of the Baden trestle
near the south end of Holy Cross Cemetery.
The University Mound reservoir (elevation 166 feet) at University Avenue
and Bacon Street was found to be in good order but no water was coming in from the
Crystal Springs pipe line, a 44 inch line from Crystal Springs reservoir in San
Mateo County, about 12 miles west of the City of San Mateo.
We learned from our San Mateo pipe walker that a considerable section
of our 44 inch pipe line had been thrown from its trestle just south of South San
Francisco and it would be many days before it could be restored.
The next day, April 19th, I was on my own as Mr. Packham had secured a
company horse and buggy for himself and I also was outfitted with a horse and buggy
from the College Hill reservoir yard.
Desiring to se what condition our Sutro Forest flume was in, I drove over
19th Avenue to Ocean House Road [now Sloat Boulevard] and was proceeding eastward
when I met two gentlemen both dressed in frock coats and each carrying a small leather
satchel. I noted these bags particularly as my mother had one exactly like them.
They were made of alligator skin and undoubtedly used to carry toilet articles.
They stopped me and asked directions to the nearest railroad. One of them,
I believe, was [the singer Antonio] Scotti, although he did not introduce himself.
He said "Do you know who this is?" pointing to the other man, and I replied, I did
not know him. He said "This is the great Caruso."
He told me they had spent the night in Golden Gate Park and were trying to get a
train to take them back to New York. I gave them the necessary directions and was
about to leave them when the gentlemen I took to be Scotti opened his bag displaying
a large roll of bank notes and asked me how much it would be for me to take them
to the nearest depot. I told them I was with the Water Company and explained the
urgency of my work and told them I was sorry I could not help them by driving them
to the railroad station in Ocean View. I left them regretfully, two weary travelers
anxious to put as much distance as possible between them from the city that had
so rudely awakened them by throwing them from their beds in the Palace Hotel the
I then proceeded with the inspection of the flume which was in very good
order. A few small leaks were promptly repaired by the pipe and flue walker the
On the third day, April 20th, we were still busy closing gates to prevent
further loss in the burning area. By now the downtown, industrial and most residential
sections were in flames and fire lines were now being set up. I called at the mayor's
temporary office then established at Franklin Hall on Fillmore Street. I received
a pass that read as follows "Pass bearer through all lines" signed E.E. Schmitz.
The pass was written in long hand by the mayor and I still have it among my souvenirs.
Our city reservoirs were now empty as the only water coming into the city
was the three million gallons per day from Lake Merced to Lake Honda.
The city water system was divided into three major reservoir systems and
three minor tank systems as follows. The low line University Mound system supplied
the south of Market Street district and the east of Kearny Street and the waterfront.
It was also the principal source of water to the Black Point [Van Ness Ave. by Fort
Mason] and the Clarendon Heights pumps. As previously stated the rupture of the
44 inch Crystal Springs pipe line prevented any water reaching the University Mound
reservoir and a break in the city pipe line at Harrison Street near 14th Street
together with a number of broken smaller mains in this large district prevented
any water from reaching either the Black Point Pumps or the Clarendon Heights Pumps.
The sources of supply to the district were the Crystal Springs reservoir
and the Sunol Filter beds in Alameda County.
The Sunol filtered water arrived by flume and tunnel to the screen house
at Niles where it was conveyed by a 36 inch pipe line to San Francisco Bay and then
transported along the bottom of the Bay via two 16 inch and two 22 inch bell and
socket joint pipe lines. These pipe lines were designed by our
Chief Engineer Herman Schussler. The two 16 inch [lines] were laid about
1888 and the two 22 inch were laid in 1902.
This Alameda water was then pumped at the Belmont Pumps into a 36 inch
pipe line connection at Burlingame to the Crystal Springs 44 inch pipe line supplying
the University Mound in San Francisco.
The line was badly damaged at a point just south of South San Francisco
and about 500 feet thrown from its trestle onto the mud flats. It was many days
before this pipe line could again be put into service.
The main district known as the College Hill District was the main supply
to the Mission and a portion of the north of Market street area.
Its water came from the San Andreas reservoir in San Mateo County about
8 miles west of Millbrae through a 37-1/2 inch and a 30 inch pipe line. At a point
near the south end of Holy Cross Cemetery this pipe line was on a trestle. At the
south end of the trestle the line was badly fractured. However it was several days
too before service was restored.
The high line or Pilarcitos supply came from Lake Pilarcitos in San Mateo
County about 15 miles north east of the town of Half Moon Bay. This Pilarcitos water
was sent by gravity to the Lake Honda Reservoir through a 30 inch pipe line. The
line was so badly damaged that our Chief Engineer decided to abandon it. At one
place known as Knowles Gulch where the 30 inch pipe crossed on a wooden trestle
about 150 feet long, the destruction was complete. The pipe was broken into 2 sections
and thrown up stream while the trestle was thrown down stream.
At this point it might be well to note that the San Andreas fault line
passes through the Spring Valley property bisecting the upper Crystal Springs and
the San Andreas dams. While both dams showed an offset of about 6 or 8 feet, no
damage to the dams proper was noticeable. Both having large clay cores. No leakage
The Crystal Springs Dam was designed by Herman Schussler Chief Engineer
of the Spring Valley Water Company. He was born in 1842 and died in 1919. His ingenious
designs were undoubtedly the reason that the important dams of the water company
held up during the severe earthquake.
As previously stated he designed the Crystal Springs Concrete dam, consisting
of mammoth blocks poured separately and allowed to set before adjoining blocks were
Although this dam was erected about 100 yards east of the San Andreas
fault line and was subject to severe shaking it did not leak a drop.
Amongst other materials and structures he designed were the bell and socket
joint used on the four submarine pipes that cross the lower San Francisco Bay from
Dumbarton Point on the east shore to Ravenswood on the west side of the bay. These
four pipes were two 16 inch and two 22 inch and were made of specially designed
laminated wrought iron pipe, galvanized and dipped in hot asphaltum. At low tide
they may be seen where they pass over a huge shell bank in the bay.
The fault line passed through the Upper Crystal Springs Dam southwest
of the city of San Mateo and the San Andreas Dam northwest of San Mateo. Both of
these dams were designed by Mr. Schussler and are known as clay core dams. While
both dams were astride the fault line their only visible damage was the offset of
the fences on the top of the dams, no leakage of water occurred. Credit is due to
Mr. Schussler who had the foresight to design these dams with extra wide clay cores.
The Pilarcitos 30 inch pipe line was laid almost on the fault line and
was completely collapsed at a point south of Knowles Gulch and severed at a point
just north of the gulch.
The damage to this line was so great that the company decided to abandon
it and substitute pumping to replace it.
A small pump was erected in Garfield Park at 26th Street west of Harrison
and was completed about the time the break in the Crystal Springs 44 inch line near
South San Francisco was repaired and water again flowing into the University Mound
Reservoir. This pump furnished water to the upper Mission District of the Lake Honda
Later this pump known as the Precita Valley Pumps was moved to a permanent
location at 26th Street and Treat Avenue.
The writer was in charge of the erection of this pump building, and as
was our custom we were putting on corrugated iron roofing and siding using our own
carpenters to do the job. We were quite well along with putting up the siding when
the Walking Delegate of the Sheet Metal Workers union informed me, we would have
to use his men to do the job. I informed him I would be glad to comply but we would
have to see our City Superintendent at our office as this was a rush job and I could
not stop work without his orders. As soon as he left I rushed the job and completed
the job by working overtime that night, finishing before he could return.
The three high line districts consisted of the Clay and Jones Tank and
the Presidio Heights Tank at Pacific and Lyon Street, both were fed by the Black
Point Pump located at the foot of Van Ness Avenue opposite Fort Mason, which received
its water from the University Mound District with the Francisco Street Reservoir
acting as a stand pipe.
These tanks supplied that part of Nob Hill and the Presidio Heights district
about the Lake Honda district in this the northern part of San Francisco.
The Black Point Pumps formerly had a flume and tunnel supply from Lobos
Creek but this supply had been discontinued some years ago.
The second of the higher district supplies was the Clarendon Heights tank
located on the north side of Twin Peaks at 600 feet elevation and supplying the
Ashbury Heights and other upper districts.
This tank was supplied from Clarendon Heights Pumps located at 17th and
Pond Streets. They received their water from either of two sources, the University
Mound district by a connection to the 44 inch pipe line at Harrison and 17th Streets
or from the 22 inch College Hill line on Valencia and 17th Streets.
As both of these lines were ruptured there was no way of supplying the
Clarendon Heights pumps until such time as the break in the San Andreas pipe at
Baden could be repaired and water again flowing into College Hill Reservoir.
The third of the three upper district tanks was the Forest Hill Tank.
This tank was located on Forest Hill at about 700 feet elevation and was supplied
by a small pump located outside the Lake Honda Screen House and supplied the area
known as Forest Hill above the reaches of the Clarendon Heights Pump supply.
Owing to the prompt starting of the Lake Merced Pumps (3:00 P.M. April
18th) there was no stoppage to the supply to this very small district.
Before the city pipe system could be restored it was necessary to
test each block of the water mains inside the burned area. This job was
supervised by the writer who spent many months with a large crew of workmen shutting
off broken services at the curb or at the main before the pipe line in question
could be passed as in good order. It was often necessary to dig down through two
or three feet of fallen rubble to reach the street pavement and another two and
one half or three feet to reach the water main in order to shut off the broken service.
Our greatest trouble with broken mains and services was in what is called
the filled area. Here the ground subsided and caused many breaks in our water mains
and services. All of which took many months to repair and restore to permanent use.
As soon as the fire was over I took my family over to Sunol in Alameda
County where the company maintained a furnished cottage. They remained there about
three months until the city was somewhat restored.
In the meantime relatives whose residence and place of business had been
completely destroyed by the fire moved into our flat. I located them camping in
Golden Gate Park and persuaded them to use our home during my family's absence.
It was customary during that period to move stoves out to the curb which
we did and housewives did their cooking in the street. This procedure was followed
until all chimneys had been repaired, and inspected, as safe for the wood and coal
fires used for cooking in those days.
A month after the fire in May, 1906, the head of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic
Survey, a Dr. Reed as I remember, came here from Washington, D.C., to inspect the
damage done by the earthquake. Mr. Schussler asked me to drive Dr. Reed to San Mateo
to the company property and show him the fault line that destroyed the 30 inch Pilarcitos
Pile Line and other things of interest to him.
Dr. Reed was amazed that the dams had withstood the shock with no apparent
damage and complimented Mr. Schussler on his fine work.
In conclusion I should not let this opportunity pass without saying how
grateful I feel for having had the privilege of these many unusual experiences.
It is not given to but a very few to have witnessed such scenes as I did during
that world shaking disaster.
I remember our city Supervisor, Dr. D'Ancona, sitting on top of a garbage
wagon load of household effects while his family sat with the driver as they were
leaving the city for their country home.
Also a young lady on a bicycle with a bird cage fastened to the handle
bars with the canary singing as though nothing had happened and her possessions
in a suit box under one arm. Another scene that still lingers was two bicycles with
a bed spring and mattress between them on which an invalid woman was carried along.
Yes these were truly unforgettable days and ones never to be forgotten
as witness this 50 year after memoir.
(signed) V.E. PERRY
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