One of the guiding principles for the early development of towns was that you would settle near a fresh water source. Without water to tap, your town would not survive. When the Spanish settled San Francisco in 1776, they placed their Mission, the center of their development, by Mission Creek so that they would have fresh water. They established the Presidio not far from Mountain Lake.
As San Francisco grew, the demand for fresh water naturally increased. Various creeks were tapped by private companies and the City itself looked at various water options, including as far away as Lake Tahoe. One of the private companies was the Spring Valley Water Company, which purchased the water rights to Lake Merced and bought up almost 3000 acres of land near the lake.1
The Spring Valley Water Company also owned the Pilarcitos, San Andreas, and Crystal Springs Reservoirs in San Mateo County. Water from Lake Merced had to be pumped up to the Laguna Honda Reservoir, where the company had taken a natural lake, drained it, and lined it, in the mid-1860s to create the reservoir. From there, the reservoir used gravity to deliver water down to the downtown area where most people lived at that time. Spring Valley Water became the major water supplier to San Francisco.
In order to make this water system work, a huge infrastructure was required. Spring Valley Water built dams, canals, flumes, culverts, pipes, pumps, powerhouses, and bridges. Because it needed workers to maintain the system, the company also built residences for employees, along with stables, chicken coops, coal bins, and wells. They even built a railroad spur from the Southern Pacific San Francisco-San Jose steam train line to deliver supplies.
One of Spring Valley Water’s big projects was the Lakmer Pump Station by Lake Merced, just northwest of the present day Lake Merced Boulevard – Brotherhood Way intersection. It pumped water from Lake Merced and also was part of the system that pumped water from the San Andreas Reservoir into the City. The pumping station still exists today as part of the City water system.
The company’s flumes delivered water around the City. The flume pictured above crossed a gully in the area between today’s Lowell High School and Stonestown. Among other structures, the Spring Valley Water Company also had reservoirs on Russian Hill…
…and near Holly Park…
…and on the north slope of Mount Davidson…
…as well as the eponymous tank on Tank Hill…
…and even a tank at Carville.
The Spring Valley Water Company became the largest privately-owned public utility water company by the 1910s. However, complaints about the lack of service in some areas and poor water quality, particularly after the 1906 earthquake, led San Francisco to investigate alternative water supplies. After passage of a bond measure, the City began the Hetch Hetchy project to deliver water from the Sierras to the City.
The Hetch Hetchy water project created an awkward partnership between San Francisco and the Spring Valley Water Company as Sierra water was integrated into Spring Valley Water lines. The City also began developing some of its own water infrastructure. Spring Valley Water could see the end was near. In 1921, the City and the company entered into an agreement where the City had a 12 year option to purchase the company for $38 million. Nine years later the City exercised that option and formally delivered a check to the company on March 2, 1930, ninety years ago this week. A formal purchase dedication ceremony was held by the shore of Lake Merced on March 10, 1930. The Spring Valley Water Company era was over.
1. “San Francisco’s Lake Merced: Spring Valley Water Company” by Woody LaBounty, https://www.outsidelands.org/lakemerced3.php.