A quick visit to Portland this weekend didn’t feature much in the way of exploration, but it was a pleasure to stumble upon the Tanner Creek Tavern, a new restaurant in the Pearl District (corner of 9th and Everett) with a nice connection to hidden hydrology.  The name says it all, but the spot has the distinction of housing some notable historical remnants celebrating Tanner Creek, including some maps and photos of the creek, which ran nearby for many of the early years of Portland’s history before being encased underground in the early 1900s.

The far wall of the restaurant contains a 1870s aerial lithograph of downtown, viewed from the east across the Wilamette River, with the ‘route’ of the creek highlighted in a faint blue.  Some questions arise about the fidelity of the tracing of the mouth of the creek, but it does aid in reinforcing Tanner Creek.

photo – Jason King

Oddly enough, I’ve collected other versions of this map that are not as crisp of a reproduction (it typically comes with a chunky border and is oddly cropped on both sides, but hadn’t seen this particular one, via a link on their website gallery as well., which is beautifully shaded with the wooded West Hills up from the nascent downtown grid and a sparsely filled in east side.

Birds-eye view of the City of Portland, Oregon. Photo file #1924-b

There’s some references to the creek history on the menu, and a bit of a longer text via the website, a sidebar on the Legend of Tanner Creek:

“Tanner Creek was named after the tannery established in 1845 by Kentucky settler and Portland founding father, Daniel Lownsdale. With its headwaters originating in the West Hills, the creek traced its surface path down Canyon Road and through Goose Hollow before emptying into Couch Lake and the surrounding wetlands that now make up the modern Pearl District.  Portland’s heavy storm runoff would often cause the creek to overflow, damaging property on the expanding Westside. City fathers tackled this problem in the late 19th century by burying the creek in an enormous brick-lined culvert excavated at some points to a depth of 50 feet.  Today this subterranean public works project still functions much the way it did over a century ago. The creek meanders below the Pearl on its final destination to the Willamette River where it empties somewhere between the Broadway Bridge and the Portland Police Horse Paddock.”

A few other views show the space, an airy semi-industrial central bar surrounded by open seating with some wood accents.  A really loved the central visibility of the map as the focal point.

Image via Tanner Creek Tavern
Image via Tanner Creek Tavern

Another wall visible from outside has photos of the demise, a set of 1920s era construction photos of the installation of the pipes that took the surface waters underground.

photo – Jason King
photo – Jason King

While I am probably same in assuming I was the only one in the place geeking out on a giant wall map of a hidden stream, it’s a decent attempt at connecting a place to place and imbuing a story into what are often sort of hollow legends that are crafted for bars and restaurants in lieu of real context. And, hidden hydrology nerdiness aside, the food and drinks are pretty good as well.

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 vary quite a bit—functioning as emergency watersources apart from the water mains and suction stations pumping saltwater from the Bay.”

The first reference to this urban feature traces back to the always prescient Burrito Justice, who first unlocked the story in 2011, in a post link “Cole Valley Alley Solves Cistern Mystery”, and expanded on this in the 2013 post “What’s Underneath Those Brick Circles”, both of which highlight the origins of the stone circles, some dating back as far as the 1850s.

The original Cole Valley Alley post got some info from the SF Department of Public Works, including the “original 1909 plans for the 75,000 gallon cistern on Frederick & Shrader”

The original CityLab post links to a few more pics from Robin Scheswohl/San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, showing the amazing interior of these spaces:

The CityLab article also mentions the map by Mapzen’s John Oram (Burrito Justice himself), who built a fantastic interactive map of the cisterns available here – a few screenshots of which are found below – which reveals more info when zoomed in, such as location and size.

Another mapping project mentioned is by artist Scott Kildall, as part of his more expansive Water Works project, focused some energy on creating a Map of San Francisco’s Cisterns here.

A model of cisterns as well.

The randomness of these traces is also interesting, with juxtapositions outside of the formal symmetry but off-grid and partially obscured, such as this image. via Kildalls site, where you can read more about his project

Cistern at 22nd and Dolores – via kildall.com

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.

Market Street on fire. Looking east to the Ferry Building from Fremont Street, April 18, 1906. (Willard E. Worden photograph. Glass negative courtesy of a private collector).  via Open SF History

Quoting Woody LaBounty from this Open SF History Post “Rise of the Phoenix: A Closer Look:

“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)

There’s a pretty extensive history of the SF Fire Department via the SF Museum site (published in 1925) for some historical perspective and some illustrations of these early 1850s fires.

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.”

Header image via Burrito Justice.