A fascinating history of hidden hydrology (of a sort) are the mysterious infrastructure traces often in plain sight. We may do a double take, or wonder about some random pattern on the surface, but often dismiss this as legacies of historical cycles of building and erasure. Those on the lookout and with an inquring spirit may discover, if you’ll pardon the pun, a deeper story.
A recent article in May 2017 from CityLab shows “The Sublime Cisterns of San Francisco”, and offers some clues to the origins, namely “Subterranean vats were an emergency response to the city being repeatedly and savagely burned to the ground.” The circles exist at a number of intersections throughout the city, noted with a circle of brick or stone.
“To date there are 170 to 200 of the tanks stashed around town—the city’s numbers varyquite a bit—functioning as emergency watersources apart from the water mains and suction stations pumping saltwater from the Bay.”
The significance of fire that created this system of cisterns that folks are discovering is driven by several major fires in the 1850s. Thus the distributed reservoirs have been installed since the original founding of the City, seen in a key plan from July 1852 – from Burrito Justice (linking to a David Rumsey map of San Francisco 1853) and identifying intersections where these existed.
The fires culminated in the most notable fire is the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake, discussed in this April 2017 CityLab story “The Ultimate Photo Map of the 1906 San Francisco Quake” which identifies photographs documenting the event.
“One hundred and eleven years ago, in the early morning of April 18, San Francisco shook and trembled through a massive earthquake. Stone buildings shed their skins. Chimneys and brick walls collapsed on streets and adjoining buildings. Roadways split and sunk. People were gravely injured or killed by crumbling boarding houses, apartments, and warehouses…
The disaster became much worse as fires broke out from the Embarcadero to Hayes Valley and, aided by wind and inept attempts to create fire breaks with explosives, joined into larger maelstroms that gobbled up almost 500 city blocks of cottages, factories, tenements, hotels, stores, banks, and government buildings over the next three days.”
The extent of the fire is captured in this view from Oakland, via CityLab, showing “A view of the San Francisco earthquake’s aftermath from Oakland” (Credit – Oakland Museum of California)
The City of San Francisco Fire Departments page drops a link to the cisterns as well as a video via the exploratorium, ‘The Science of Firefighting: Cisterns’ which has some FD folks “discuss the history and function of these cisterns, and demonstrate the drafting procedures used to access the water.”
As outlined in my previous post, the San Francisco Bay Area is loaded with many hidden hydrology focused activities and groups working throughout the region. This follow-up post will address the amazing depth of resources available for historical maps and other resources for mapping and exploring lost rivers and buried creeks in the bay area.
The first place to look would be the amazing Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks, which has an amazing array of creek maps covering the entire region, published by the Oakland Museum of California, many of which were also funded by the California State Water Resources Control Board and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. You can select maps or use a sort of useful Graphic Creek and Watershed Finder to select areas via map.
The site itself isn’t just a portal to information, but includes a lot of maps, historical and contemporary as well as supporting info like Creek’Zine with stories of local history, or a glossary of creek and watershed terms. Each map page offers links to the many creeks either through text or clickable smaller basin maps, like San Francisco.
Clicking on the map triangles yields more info – ostensibly what is found on the full printed map, but it’s nice to have really easy access to this online, in some depth. An example is found in the link to Glen Canyon:
The key shows the depth of information available, including the basins, man-made and natural drainage infrastructure, waterbodies, fill and other structures.The sidebar has keyed Historical Features, circa 1850 including ‘Creeks, buried or drained’, ‘Ephemeral creeks’ and areas that were filled.
Each map page also links to a number of historic or descriptive maps that outline water systems, topography or juxtapose the new and the old. For Islais Creek, above, a 1896 USGS Topographic map shows some source materials and evolution of the area prior to filling the historical features.
The main excerpt maps are zoomed in versions of the larger printed maps, which are pretty dramatic (in their digital form). This one showing Oakland and Berkeley areas in the East Bay. “The printed version of this map presents both the historical and modern hydroscapes of the western drainages of Northern Alameda County.”
I can stare at these for hours even though I don’t live there, that’s how fascinating they are. Click on the map to download a PDF, (3.0 MB)
An excerpt shows the detail (in this case around Lake Merritt) which is pretty representative of the maps.
I’m still amazed at the coverage of these maps, and although some are getting old, the overlay info should still be pretty accurate even in the boom of development and redevelopment happening in the area. There are maps for purchase and download, along with some GIS and KMZ files for further mapmaking opportunities. As San Francisco proper is (mysteriously?) the only version of the PDF map not downloadable, I purchased a few of the printed maps so will see how they look when they arrive in early January.
As an added bonus, I really liked this animated map showing San Francisco in 1869 and 2007. (will launch in new tab for a bigger version). This shows a simple evolution of the entire city, rotating through 150 years of change. A dramatic difference, I’d say.
An additional find was the Guide to East Bay Creeks, a brief series of essays by Sarah Pollock, Shelby Hall & Christopher Richard. Now only available online, which includes narratives for the specific hydrological and ecology – sort of a regionally specific creeks 101. From the intro:
“Throughout the East Bay city dwellers are recognizing that even in urban areas we have wildlands valuable to humans and other animals. These people are learning ecological relationships through direct experience, and they are hoping that ultimately there may be an attitude shift, a cultural recognition that even city dwellers are an integral part of a living system.”
The previously mentioned San Francisco Estuary Institute, which was responsible for some of the maps available above at the Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks, and is a wealth of information on their site, both in terms of research reports but also GIS information. In their Data Center, you can search for tools, services, visualizations and other resources applicable to resilience and historical ecology among other topics. Their work extends throughout the region, but has many overlaps in the Bay Area, including the GIS data for the Alameda Creek Historical Ecology study mentioned in the previous post, and rich data sets such as The San Francisco Bay Shore Inventory: Mapping for Sea Level Rise dataset provides a comprehensive and consistent picture of today’s Bay shore (up to MHHW + 10ft) for all nine Bay Area counties. These data are available in ESRI ArcGIS file geodatabase and Google Earth KMZ format.”
Building on the last study, the SFEI folks also had a link to an awesome Historical Ecology resource, the online viewer for U.S. Coast Survey Maps of SF Bay, which provides maps of shoreline “Under the direction of some of the leading American scientists of the 19th-century, the USCS created exceptionally accurate and detailed maps of the country’s coastline. In the San Francisco Bay Area, these surveys (commonly referred to as “T-sheets”) are the most important data sources for understanding the physical and ecological characteristics of the Bay’s shoreline prior to Euro-American modification.”
The interface could use an update, but with a bit of digging the T-Sheets are available for download and are rotated and georeferenced, and includes raster and vector files. The image above I rotated and cropped – and you see that, aside from utility, these are some of the most beautiful maps. Another zoomed excerpt.
I’ve dug into the T-Sheets for the Seattle area, and they are some great maps with pretty extensive coverage. A few links provide a good tutorial, including a T-Sheet Users Guide authored by Robin Grossinger, From their summary: “This guide discusses the historical maps of San Francisco Bay produced by the United States Coast Survey (USCS) and their application to present-day environmental efforts in the region.”
There are also Seep City maps, the project mentioned in the previous post, including print maps, atlases, and a forthcoming book available for purchase from Joel Pomerantz. Another regional resource worth checking out is the Watching Our Watersheds – interactive mapping from the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which provides a good example of online interactive water tools using Google Earth. Check it out and download the data at the link.
I’d be remiss without touching on some of the cool historical map sources, including a few gleaned from the Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks page, including this interactive map from the 1860s
More to come as I’ve barely scratched the surface on SF Bay area and have not fully looked at historical sources other than those mentioned elsewhere. This may be due to the amount of info available rivals most cities. Kudos to the people at working in this region for providing inspiration and great precedents for work to apply elsewhere.
One of my favorite organizations, SPUR, has an article from 2006 in their archives ‘Of Buried Creeks and Thwarted Plans‘ worth reading, which explores Burnham’s unrealized 1905 Plan for San Francisco which would have created open space in favor of freeways. “Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the unrealized Burnham Plan would have made Islais Creek the central natural feature of a long linear park stretching from the upper reaches of Glen Canyon all the way to the bay; today the water runs in culverts buried under the bleak interstate freeway, one of the few that overcame citizens’ opposition in the 1950s and ’60s.” Across the Bay the situation is similar, with references to hidden waters of Temescal Creek and it’s potential daylighting, as well as similar efforts in Berkeley to daylight urban creeks.
The San Francisco Bay Area has a number of interesting projects and resources worthy of investigation and emulation, spanning from mapping, artistic interventions, and historical ecology, warranting a couple of posts to capture in total. Here’s a few of them.
Seep Cityis a project of the local Joel Pomerantz“a writer and natural history educator recognized for his work in waterway research, local journalism, public art and community service”, who also focuses on local urban explorations through the group THINKWALKS. The Seep City was funded by a Kickstarter from early 2015, and is squarely related to the hidden hydrology, as explained on the site. “When San Francisco was first becoming a city, it had many more waterways than now. Those were wet years. When dry years came the gullies became annoyances. People filled in the creeks and low areas with sand, debris and gravel. Marshes and sloughs were filled, too. The edges of the city were expanded into the Bay, making sailable water into salable lots. Today’s rain goes right into sewers, for the most part. Few absorbent soils are still exposed. Remarkably, surface creeks do still flow, here and there. And when you dig, you still find groundwater. If you search you’ll see springs, mostly small, seeping and trickling out onto our landscape.”
“There is now (2010) very strong evidence surfacing that some of the historical assumptions that calculations and details in this article were based on need to be reinterpreted due to further scholarship. Specifically, although many maps show one, it appears that there was never an enduring freshwater lake in the Mission District. It turns out that “manantial” means spring-fed, rather than merely any freshwater. The waterways in the Mission area were all stream-fed, and Anza’s journals make it clear that “laguna de manantial” was a reference to Washerwoman’s Lagoon (earlier called Laguna Pequeña) in what is now the Marina and Cow Hollow areas. Anza passed this on his way to search for a site for the mission and thus included it in the same description. However it was not in the same geographic area.”
The original essay, linked here, shows some more dialogue on this errata. To me, it’s an interesting journey around the continuing evolution of hidden hydrology, that it is often a continual process of refinement and discovery. Some interesting dialogue as well is included on the origins of Phelp’s Lake. and as explained by Pomerantz, “Of course, my discovery creates other layers of mystery.”
Ghost Arroyos is a project that got a fair amount of press (Curbed SF, CityLab) emerged from the Market Street Prototyping Festival and the brainchild of Emily Schlickman and Kristina Loring. From the site: “Hayes Creek, a large underground waterway, is still flowing beneath the streets of San Francisco today. We asked passers-by to look behind them – the water spraying from the United Nations Plaza fountain is from Hayes Creek. Beneath their feet, the BART transit authority runs de-watering pumps to keep the tracks from flooding. Even some buildings around the Civic Center still use Hayes water today. To trace the flow of Hayes, they followed the chalked blue lines as they continued down 7th street. In less than a block, they came to where Hayes Creek historically surfaced into a marsh. There they found a watery sonic surprise.” A map below shows the location of Hayes Creek.
From the original project proposal: “Every city has invisible histories embedded within its landscape. Up until the 19th century, ephemeral streams ran through nearly every valley in San Francisco, channeling rainwater to peripheral tidal estuaries. This project, “Ghost Arroyos” seeks to reveal these forgotten waterways of the city through a simple, but powerful intervention. Situated between 7th and 9th street, the project will mark the historical footprint of the arroyos onto the urban surface through paint or lighting. Visitors to the festival will be invited to trace the path of the waterways while listening to a curated recording of hydrological soundscapes and oral histories.” The visual of a painted streetscape was a evocative invitation to the potential to cue people into this lost creek.
The implementation of the project is early, so looking forward to seeing this evolve. A few photos showing a small scale installation of paint on an intersection. A key part of the project is the audio aspects which are available in situ, through boxes mounted adjacent to the ‘painted’ streets. There’s even a step-by-step breakdown of how to make the speakers via Instructables.
The audio is found here on their site:
San Francisco Estuary Institutehas long been a key resource in the region, providing “…scientific support and tools for decision-making and communication through collaborative efforts. We provide independent science to assess and improve the health of the waters, wetlands, wildlife and landscapes of San Francisco Bay, the California Delta and beyond. SFEI’s 50 scientists and experts provide data, technology and tools that empower government, civic and business leaders to create cost-effective solutions for complex environmental issues–from cleaner water and sustainable communities to climate change. We have three primary programs: Clean Water, Resilient Landscapes, and Environmental Informatics.”
My main interest related to the connection between hidden hydrology and historical ecology, which can be defined as synthesizing “…diverse historical records to learn how habitats were distributed and ecological functions were maintained within the native California landscape. Understanding how streams, wetlands, and woodlands were organized along physical gradients helps scientists and managers develop new strategies for more integrated and functional landscape management.” It goes further to explain that “Researchers are increasingly recognizing that restoration and conservation strategies have often been misguided (and unsuccessful) because of a lack of understanding of historical conditions (e.g. Hamilton 1997, Kondolf et al. 2001, Foster and Motzkin 2003, Merritts and Walter 2008). This is particularly true in California, where our cultural memory is short and we have tended to impose concepts appropriate to more humid regions to our Mediterranean and semiarid landscapes (which will become only more so).”
An indicative study comes from the Alameda Creek Historical Ecology Study from 2013, which assesses: “watershed conditions prior to significant Euro-American modification, as a basis for understanding subsequent changes in watershed structure and function, and potential options for future environmental management.” While the mapping involves a cast of many, Robin Grossinger, director of the Resilient Landscapes Project is wellknownfor historic ecology in the bay area, and has written extensively on this, including many articles in SF Bay area.
Aside from reports, there are examples of online resources and studies, such as The Historical Ecology of Miller Creek, which was “…designed to inform residents of the watershed and other interested people about past and present ecological landscapes within the watershed, and how this information might be used to plan for the future. The time frame begins with indigenous land use practices and considers the effects of Euro-American settlement beginning about 200 years ago, continues through the present, and briefly examines the future needs of the watershed. This description is meant to broaden the view of what Miller Creek Watershed could become through science-based planning and careful management. Human induced changes in land use have affected the natural functions and habitats of the Miller Creek watershed. The emerging story foresees ongoing change that would benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the watershed’s history while planning to define and secure essential watershed services for the future.”
There are also a number of other urban explorations and art installations worthy of mentioning in brief. These precedents offer some interesting examples of engaging larger communities with hidden rivers and creeks, through bike tours of sewers and regular walking tours of hidden waters.
Some specific examples are summarized below:
One I spotted a few years ago were an interesting series of “tours” that are part geographic and part performance art. Led by artist Chris Sollars, as part of the project Water Shed, which was conducted during Southern Exposure’s Off Shore from 2014, participants walked Islais Creek, Mission Creek, and Yosemite Creek in San Francisco. A summary: ““Tracing the hidden path of Islais Creek, Chris Sollars leads a walk from source to Bay while carrying a rope that references the length of one city block. Beginning in Glen Park Canyon, the group will journey through downtown Glen Park, the Alemany Farm, Alemany Flea Market, a Google bus parking lot and the Southeast Treatment Plant. Stopping at various points along the way, the walk ends in Islais Creek Park to enjoy food and drink gathered along the route. There, participants will be ferried onto and off of Water Shed, a floating shed-like structure.”
There are videos of the walks as well linked from Sollars’ Vimeo site – check one for Yosemite Creek out here.
Across the Bay in Oakland, a project called ‘Creeks Beneath your Feet’ connects residents with hidden hydrology. “Former creeks, now buried in culverts, are memorialized by a series of bronze relief sculptures embedded into sidewalks at locations above these culverts. The pieces portray stepping stones surrounded by native fauna that inhabit the creeks such as Rainbow Trout, Pacific Chorus Frogs, California Newts and dragonflies. Each site features five bronze “stepping stones” inviting the visitor to step across as if crossing a creek.” An article in the East Bay Times provides more info and images, and a map of the locations is found here.
An art installation from Kevin O’Connor from 2012 called “Intimate Strangers: A Ritual for the Buried Creeks of San Francisco” uses hidden creeks as artistic inspiration: “Adding yet another layer to the mystery, massive surges of groundwater, much of it potable, travel continuously just beneath us from related “subartesian” sources that even historically never came fully to the surface. We easily overlook these “creeks” since they have never come into view to receive formal names. My proposal is to place 10 blues pools in a line along the creek bed that runs through Garfield Square. Each pool will be filled with water that I have collected from the buried creeks of San Francisco. The backyard wading pools remind us that there are buried creeks that hold water in many backyard homes in the Mission area.”
Finally, it’s a minor addition, but one map from Rebecca Solnit’s excellent ‘Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas’ shows the fragment of hidden hydrology in San Francisco. From a review in High Country News: “Third Street Phantom Coast,” for example, is a map of the peninsula’s eastern fringe that depicts a now-forgotten city of ancient shell middens, long-buried streams and concretized serpentine outcrops. It shows how, over the last 150 years, the city’s waterfront expanded as successive layers of landfill were dumped on the tidelands of the Bay. Vanished landmarks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the “Tubbs Cordage Company” and the “Site of rancho bear and bull fights,” among others — haunt the rendering.”