Water towers

Once upon a time nearly every property in the embryonic city of Oakland got all its water from a well. Ideally you’d have a nice-sized property and use your backyard well to maintain a tank on the top of a tower housing the wellhead. This water tower (minus the tank) on the Pardee estate, at 11th and Castro, is the only one I know of left within central Oakland’s original street grid.

The first set of streets in Oakland ran along either side of Broadway, from West Street on the west to Fallon Street on the east. (There was an East Street drawn east of Fallon, but the marsh there was never platted to my knowledge.) They were crossed by streets numbered First (now Embarcadero) to Fourteenth. All of that land and much more to the north and west was on the forested former dunefield underlain by the Merritt Sand.

Besides having level ground and virgin soil, this whole area had good supplies of hard but drinkable water just a few feet down beneath a layer of hardpan. If you were an ordinary person you could haul buckets of water from your well into the house and do your business with it, or put a pump in the kitchen, but if you were blessed with any wealth you could arrange indoor running water — just erect a tank, high enough to give you good and steady pressure, and a windmill to keep the tank pumped full. You could also signal your status with impressively lush landscaping.

Soon enough, people’s sewage and other noxious things leached into the soil, and by the 1880s downtown wells were typically cased off near the surface to keep out the cruft. By the 1890s the water table had dropped in the old parts of town, which kept drillers coming back to deepen the wells.

Outside the Merritt Sand, well water was much more iffy. It was not uncommon for a lucky landowner with an especially productive well to run a little private water company that served a few neighbors, maybe a block’s worth at best. Bigger water companies, like Anthony Chabot’s Contra Costa Water Company, either built dams to capture surface water or located the best aquifers they could find and built wellfields there to fill large tanks and reservoirs.

Still, the water delivered by Chabot and his competitors was terrible by our standards: muddy, smelly, full of germs and prone to shutdowns during droughts. The contamination caused occasional disease outbreaks. The water pressure was fitful, and companies kept going bankrupt. Industries hesitated to locate here. It really was a problem.

Oakland wasn’t assured of a reliable modern water supply until the 1930s, when East Bay MUD acquired Chabot’s company, the last one standing, and built a dam on the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Nevada to do the job right. So at the turn of the last century, a residential building, like the long-shuttered Moor Hotel at San Pablo and West, would rely on its own well as long as it could.

The Pardee family did the same. George Pardee, who did so much for Oakland’s water supply as mayor, governor and East Bay MUD’s first president, held out into the 1930s, longer than most. Holding out must have run in the family: two of Pardee’s daughters lived in the house, preserving all its contents, until the 1980s as the city grew around them. The estate, now the Pardee Home Museum, remains as a patch of the old in our motley downtown, water tower and all.

Nowadays we all drink from the Pardee Reservoir, behind the Pardee Dam in the hills between Lodi and Ione — unless there’s still a holdout somewhere.

Can anyone point me to other surviving water towers in Oakland? They don’t have to be operable.

10 Responses to “Water towers”

  1. Margot Lind Says:

    I think that those types of towers were for fire suppression.

  2. SlideSF Says:

    There is also a watertower at the old Orchard Supply Hardware on Ashby Ave (although technically in either Berkeley or Emeryville, I can never tell where the birders are), and if I recall correctly the Tribune Tower has a large water tank up near the top.

  3. briantwitt Says:

    There’s a water tower at 3342 California St but apparently that’s just over the border in Berkeley.

  4. Our Oakland Says:

    The tank is long gone, but the tower itself still exists at 552 Montclair:

  5. Isaac Kos-Read Says:

    Loved this. Love geology. Just got sworn in as a Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission member here in Oakland. Would love to learn more about the geology of our parks and open spaces and how it might inform our optimal stewardship of them.

  6. jacqueline Says:

    Twenty-some years ago there was a water tower for rent on Anderson (Redwood Heights) via gravel driveway between houses back to a setting in an oak woodland. I still dream about that beautiful land, but the dwelling inside the water tower wasn’t right for us. Now I think they might have demolished the water tower and built two (unimaginative?) houses there. I drive by and remember that glorious spot.

    Thank you, Andrew, for writing beautifully about all manner of your love for this place, our Oakland.

    [I think the water tower might still be there, at 4444 Anderson. So it seems in Google Maps. — Andrew]

  7. Maxwell Park resident Says:

    Long time reader. Great job with the geology blog. Highly recommend you take a trip to Maxwell Park. There are water towers on Courtland/Virginia. Congress between High St and Courtland (Courtland Creek), Fleming.

  8. PEDER AUNE Says:

    There’s something on Congress between Courtland and High that looks like an old water tower base.

  9. Charlotte Steinzig Says:

    This gives me context for my son’s EBMUD Pardee work. What we sometimes don’t see when we look at something.

  10. glasspusher Says:

    Fascinating and informative as always, Andrew! Thanks.

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