Photos from the Vault

Bringing water to San Luis Obispo residents

Rusting pipe and concrete, parts of San Luis Obispo’s former drinking water system, can still be seen on Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve Trail off Highway 101 north of town.
Rusting pipe and concrete, parts of San Luis Obispo’s former drinking water system, can still be seen on Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve Trail off Highway 101 north of town.

Luxury homes with faux rustic design often include a pot-filling faucet near the stove.

Real rustic kitchens didn’t have faucets, anywhere.

Things we take for granted today — indoor plumbing, fire hydrants, sprinklers — all depend on a water system. From the earliest days of San Luis Obispo, water supply was a concern. The Mission was built near a source of clean water, San Luis Creek, and ditches were dug to serve the village.

On Oct. 1, 1870, The Tribune wrote that the owner of the Eagle Hotel had installed a horse-powered pump that cost S.P. McDougall more than $800.

“The improvement is worthy of inspection, and of imitation,” the paper wrote.

As the town grew, more elaborate water systems were needed. But the town’s water needs would not be met by individual projects. The first successful effort was made by a private company using sheet iron pipes, later replaced by cast iron. On June 8, 1872, The Tribune hailed it as “one of the greatest and most needed improvements that could be introduced.”

A redwood flume carried water from San Luis Creek to a 46,000-gallon reservoir behind the “ranche-house” of Walter Murray on a hilltop above town. The Tribune celebrated when construction on the pipeline to the reservoir began in earnest Aug. 22, 1874.

A 7-inch main was slated to serve an area bounded by Morro, Nipomo, Buchon and Monterey streets. A smaller 2-inch pipe would carry water two or three blocks farther.

Three months later, the paper celebrated the arrival and looked back. About two men mentioned below: Chauncey Hatch Phillips was a wealthy banker, railroad investor and land developer, and Edgar Willis Steele invested in the bank and was a rancher.

This is from The Tribune’s Nov. 14, 1874, edition:

Our Water Works

Last Saturday was rather a wet day for this city. That is, the water was turned into the hydrants and for the first time in its history, San Luis was almost proof against the fire-fiend.

Three years ago the Legislature granted a franchise to Mr. Benrimo and others, who, owing to circumstances, were afterwards unable to carry out its provisions, and it passed into the hands of Mr. A.M. Loomis, who at once commenced the construction of a reservoir, but at the time of its completion was deterred from further progress by litigation.

After several months had elapsed a compromise was effected through the interposition of Messrs. Phillips and Steele, and a company formed. Since which time the work has been pushed steadily forward, under the immediate supervision of Mr. W.H. Ayers, the contractor.

This company has expended about $25,000 in the enterprise. (The CPI inflation calculator starts at 1913, the amount would be $600,000 in 2016 dollars.)

The water is condueted [sic] through strong iron pipes seven inches in diameter. The pipes are buried in the earth about two feet.

There are 11 different hydrants located conveniently in town. These will be increased as the necessity of the case demands. The quality of water could not possibly be any better. It is perfectly pure and cool, and comes to us in quantities sufficient to supply a place of 10,000 inhabitants. So it will be seen that our water supply is abundant for several years to come.

It has a fall of 160 feet. This gives it a strong pressure. On Saturday last, a test was made in front of the Cosmopolitan (Hotel.) A hose with a  7/8 -inch nozzle was attached, and when the water was turned on it threw a stream to a distance of 80 feet perpendicularly. It was a pleasing sight to our citizens, evincing them to the perfect security the place enjoys against conflagrations.

Abundant good water is everything to a city, and we will have it as soon as all the connections are made.

In view of this almost perfect security of losses by fire, it seems to us that fire insurance companies ought to lower their rates. They will have to do so, or there will be a decrease in their business here. We have these 11 hydrants capable of each throwing a stream 30 feet above the highest roof in town. We suggest to our patrons that they look after this matter and see if a reduction cannot be effected.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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