Water shortages nothing new for Nevada

If you think Nevada faces a water crisis today, imagine how residents of booming Virginia City must have felt back in the 1870s when their fickle sources began to run dry.

Although Mark Twain is falsely credited with saying, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over,” the fact is that just about any calloused Virginia City local might have uttered the same words during the Comstock era. Once the boom was on, the availability of fresh water was never far from anyone’s thoughts.

Springs around Gold Hill were sufficient for a time. Some settlers dug wells by hand. But it didn’t take long before the region’s easy sources were depleted.

The relentless pursuit of Comstock silver through a series of tunnels had one unintended benefit; some of the holes produced more water than high-grade ore. Tunnel sources quenched the population’s thirst for a time, and the first water lines were set in the township.

Of course, the water wasn’t exactly pristine. It contained many minerals, including a substantial level of arsenic, which was poisonous in high doses but also had its redeeming qualities.

“The ladies rather liked arsenic, as it improved their complexion,” legendary Comstock scribe Dan DeQuille wrote in “The Big Bonanza.” “Made them fair and rosy-cheeked — almost young again, some of them. The miners did not object to arsenic; as, while it did not injure their complexion, it strengthened their lungs — made them strong-winded, and able to scale mountains.”

Alas, there was a downside.

“But there were other minerals held in solution in the water — those that caused diarrhea for instance — that were not so well thought of,” the intrepid DeQuille reported.

Eventually that source, too, was used almost down to the last drop.

“Virginia City and Gold Hill were frequently placed upon a short allowance of water, and it was seen that a great water famine must soon prevail in both towns,” DeQuille reported.

As Virginia City’s prospects expanded, the mining bosses were faced with a real water emergency that Southern Nevada’s modern business titans might relate to. As not even Virginia City’s stoutest souls could drink whiskey all the time, something had to be done quickly.

The mining crowd looked to the high peaks and decided to survey the best place to construct a dams meant to hold the spring snow melt. Trouble was, the water had to cross the Washoe Valley and climb over the hill to reach Virginia City.

Experienced water engineer Hermann Schussler was wisely chosen to design a working system. It was a work of mechanical genius. Schussler designed an inverted syphon system that did the work of a pump to draw the water over the hill more than 1,700 feet through an iron pipeline especially forged to withstand high pressure. The project required more than 700 tons of iron and 1,524 lead-sealed joints, and the system overall was more than seven miles long. After all the leaks were patched, worked remarkably well.

Water finally flowed on Aug. 1, 1873, to Gold Hill and Virginia City.

“When the water reached Virginia there was great rejoicing,” DeQuille recalled. “Cannon were fired, hands of music paraded the streets, and rockets were sent up all over the city. Many persons went out and filled bottles with this first water from the Sierras, and a bottle of it is still preserved in the cabinet of the Pacific Coast Pioneers.”

Although Schussler’s name isn’t well remembered, Nevada historian Ronald James reminds us in his onlinenevada.org report that he was also the senior engineer on the Sutro Tunnel project and brought water to the thirsty citizens of Tuscarora and Pioche.

Times and technologies have changed dramatically through the years, and water is still for fighting over in Nevada, but bold ideas and sound engineering never go out of style.

John L. Smith’s column appears regularly in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

Metro Asst. Sheriff Brett Zimmerman on Aug. 8 officer-involved shooting
Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman met with media Monday to discuss the details of the 14th officer-involved shooting of the year. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program where community and business leaders joined to welcome students back with an inspirational welcome. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Star Trek fans on show’s enduring popularity
Star Trek fans at the Star Trek Convention 2018 talk about why they think the show has stayed popular across the years Thursday, August 2, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Nonprofit provides clothing for homeless
Sydney Grover of Can You Spare A Story?, talks about how she founded the non-profit organization. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Family remembers deceased mother
Family members of Adriann Gallegos remember her. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Camp Broadway teaches kids how to sing and dance
The Smith Center's seventh annual Camp Broadway musical theater program gives 150 kids ages 6-17 an opportunity to learn musical theater skills from industry professionals over a five-day period. Marcus Villagran/ Las Vegas Review-Journal @brokejournalist
Restoring classic Corvettes to perfection
Members of the National Corvette Restorers Society Convention talk about what it takes to earn the NCRS Top Flight Award for a restored Corvette at South Point in Las Vegas on Tuesday July 17, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Watch Ruthless! at Las Vegas Little Theatre
The musical Ruthless! will be playing at Las Vegas Little Theatre from July 13-29. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Cadaver art and sword swallowing at The Dark Arts Market
Curator Erin Emrie talks about her inspiration for The Dark Arts Market at Cornish Pasty Co. in Las Vegas Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
'NO H8' Campaign comes to Las Vegas
Hundreds of locals participate in the NO H8 campaign founded by Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley as a response to Proposition 8, a California ban on same-sex marriage. The campaign has since evolved to represent equal treatment for all. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
What to expect at Station Casinos' Fourth of July celebration
Station Casinos' is hosting its annual 4th of July celebration with Fireworks by Grucci. Fireworks scheduled to go off on Wednesday, July 4 around 9 p.m. at Green Valley Ranch Resort, Red Rock Resort, Fiesta Rancho and Texas Station. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Star Wars and Golden Knights mashup at downtown art shop
Star Wars and Vegas Golden Knights fans attend the Boba Fett Golden Knight Paint Class at The Bubblegum Gallery in Las Vegas, Friday, June 29, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Tourists and locals enjoy Independence Day fireworks at Caesars Palace
Hundreds of tourists and locals gaze at the Independence Day fireworks show at Caesars Palace on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Clark County recount votes in commission’s District E primary
Clark County staff begin the recount requested by candidate Marco Hernandez in the democratic primary for the County Commission's District E seat on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Long-running local hip hop producer wants Vegas rappers to shine
Las Vegas Hip Hop producer and co-owner of Digital Insight Recording Studios Tiger Stylz reflects on 30 years of music production in the city. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
"Pawn Stars" fans visit Richard Harrison's memorial at Gold & Silver Pawn
"Pawn Stars" fans from around the world visit the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas following the passing of Richard "Old Man" Harrison on Monday, June 25, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Construction for new 51s ballpark underway
New home of the Las Vegas 51s is planned to be finished by March 2019 in Summerlin according to team president Don Logan. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like