Sometimes the craziest ideas actually become reality. In 1870 one man proposed tunneling underneath the Sierra Nevada mountain range to ship Tahoe lake water to San Francisco. While that may seem like an audacious scheme today, similar projects were already underway in the 19th century and parts of the tunnel project under the Sierras have been completed.
A saga of Lake Tahoe and water tunnels
As I worked my way through reading a history of Lake Tahoe a little snippet of information about the Tahoe-San Francisco tunnel was included in a section on Tahoe City. The Saga of Lake Tahoe written by E.B Scott and published 1957 briefly discusses the proposed water project that would transfer water from the Truckee River into a canal and ultimately into the trans-Sierra tunnel. The idea was to deliver the water into Royal Gorge which is the head waters for the North Fork of the American. At some point, a system of canals and flames would deliver the water to Oakland and San Francisco.
Colonel A. W. Von Schmidt had assumed the presidency of the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Company, incorporated in 1865 and capitalized at $20,000,00015. For $3.00 per acre, he acquired a half section of land surround the Truckee River outlet, along with the right to appropriate 500 cubic second feet of Tahoe and Truckee river water to be “perfected and perpetuated by a dam on hundred and fifty yards downstream from the lake’s out.”16
Another powerful combine, the Donner Lumber and Boom Company, headed by Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford, was granted authority by the California Legislature on April 4, 1870, to construct a dam on the same location.
Although temporarily balked by Von Schmidt, the “Big Four” secured the 20 year franchise on the exclusive use of the river channel for flotation of logs and cordwood to Truckee. The stream channel was cleared and tolls of 50 cents a thousand for saw logs and 25 cents a cord for wood were levied.17
Von Schmidt had his crib dam of timber and stone fill by the fall of 1870 and the following year he proposed a grandiose scheme for running a combination railroad and aqueduct through the Sierra. It was to start at the head of Cold Stream west of Truckee and near the loop of the Central Pacific’s Horseshoe Bend. Two six-foot conduits would be fed by a diversion dam on the river, capable of carrying 200,000,000 gallons of water daily. San Francisco and Oakland were to be served by the way of the Sacramento Valley, and branch aqueducts would supply the mines of Yankee Jim’s, Forrest Hill and Michigan Bluff.
It would also shorten the railroad’s line by seven miles, lower its elevation by 1,000 feet and eliminate 20 miles of snow sheds. According to Von Schmidt, the project would be completed in five years.18 The City of San Francisco dismissed Von Schmidt’s plan as impractical and the directors of Central Pacific , who also controlled the Donner Lumber and Boom Company, obviously had no interest in it either. They had already blasted their tunnels and run their rails over Donner Summit.
Von Schmidt persisted in his efforts. On March 15, 1875, he announced the completion of a diversion dam five miles down the Truckee River at a point near Bear Creek. From here he now planned to run a canal, paralleling the river on its west side, to Hardscramble Creek (Deep Creek). All the waters of Bear, Squaw and Deer Creeks, plus those of Hardscramble itself and a large part of the Truckee Rivers’ flow, were to be collected. At the mouth of Hardscramble the water was to enter a five-mile tunnel running under the Sierra crest and emerge at Soda Springs near the headwaters of the North Fork of the American River. Fluming and piping would then carry it to San Francisco.19
The citizens of northwestern Nevada, being dependent upon the river’s water, swore that “Von Schmidt should most certainly be the one damned instead of damming the Truckee” because he proposed to take away most of the water that were a “God given grant to the Silver State.” Tahoe City’s townpeople ignored the clamor, even though Von Schmidts’ new dam backed the water up so high that the Tahoe-Truckee Toll Road had to be realigned farther up the side of the canyon.20
The timber and rock fill obstruction in the river, however, was of help to the lumbermen. They could now “set 200,000 feet of logs behind the dam, open the gates when a head of water had been collected and be sure that the timber would carry on down stream to the mill without continuously jamming.” Von Schmidt had been unable to obtain financial backing for the latest water project and the control of the Truckee River outlet dam and surrounding property eventually passed to the Donner Lumber and Boom Company. – The Saga of Lake Tahoe, pages 27 -28, revised first edition Library of Congress Catalog Number 57-8368
Railroad and water tunnels
If Von Schmidt’s plan sounds like pie in the sky even for the 1870’s, we have to remember that there were monumental engineering projects taking place. The Central Pacific Railroad had spent years blasting out much shorter tunnels for their trains over Donner Summit. It’s also very possible that Von Schmidt had read about the Hoosac Tunnel being built in north western Massachusetts. The Hoosac Tunnel was very similar to his proposal which was the construction of a 4.75 mile railroad tunnel under a mountain range. (See more on the Hoosac Tunnel at A brief history of tunnel engineering).
Hydraulic mining tunnels
By the 1870’s there were already extensive dams, flumes and tunnels to convey water to gold miners and drain away their spoils. In 1872 work had begun on the 7,878 foot long North Bloomfield Drainage Tunnel in Nevada County. This tunnel, excavated through hard rock, drained the hydraulic mining debris from the North Bloomfield Gold Mine which is today Malakoff Diggins State Park. I don’t think it was so much the technical engineering that made investors hesitate about funding the Tahoe-San Francisco water tunnel. More than likely the water demand in the Bay Area probably hadn’t reached a level where developers and consumers were willing to pay the price that was necessary to make the venture profitable.
- Hiking through Malakoff Diggins Hydrualic Mine State Park
- Walking down Humbug Trail tracing the North Bloomfield drainage tunnel
San Francisco builds Hetch Hetchy water project
Of course, by the turn of the 20th century San Francisco would be proposing a similarly large water project in the form of damming Hetch Hetchy Valley. The San Francisco water project completed in 1923 includes a couple of tunnels and numerous miles of aqueduct to prevent the Sierra water from ever touching tainted Central Valley surface water. Another aspect of Von Schmidt’s plan came to fruition when Southern Pacific railroad tunneled under Mt. Judah. The nearly two-mile railroad tunnel was completed in 1925 and helped avoid numerous snow sheds.
I suppose it would be easy to call Von Schmidt a visionary. In one form or another his proposals for water and train tunnels under the Sierra Nevada Mountains have actually been constructed. The water tunnel probably still has merit in heavy snow years. As I write this in the spring of 2015 the Sierra’s have had their worst recorded snow accumulation and Lake Tahoe has dropped below its natural rim and has stop contributing water to the Truckee River.
American River water projects
The Von Schmidt tunnel proposal looks to be a straight line with very little elevation drop. The tunnel entrance at Deep Creek, adjacent to the Truckee River, is approximately 6,050 feet and the exit near the actual Soda Springs would be 6,000’. The water would empty into the North Fork of the American River that could be captured and held at Folsom Lake. Additionally, there could be tunnels and penstocks for the Truckee River water to be sent to powerhouses generating electricity much like they do in the American River Middle Fork Project.
Twin tunnels anyone?
Of course, the political firestorm of any such project to divert water from the Truckee River into the Central Valley would no doubt be on the level of Governor Brown’s twin tunnel proposal under the Delta in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. (See also: Tunnel or Restore the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta). One hundred and thirty years after Von Schmidt’s water tunnel project was proposed, not much has changed. We are still fighting over water and trying to find a way to move it from the Sierra’s to population centers that need it.