As January is quick turning into London month, we’re wrapped up on the summaries of available books on the subject, including works by Barton, Myers, Bolton, Talling, and Fathers, running a gamut of approaches to walking, studying, and mapping Lost Rivers.  I’d also be remiss if I failed to call back a 2016 post on another take on the subject, Iain Sinclair’s 2013 book ‘Swimming to Heaven: London’s Lost Rivers‘ which rounds out my collection on the subject.  The amazing amount of hidden hydrology literature provides a solid foundation, however, it is merely the tip of a massive iceberg visible layer of a vast and sprawling underground complex of content, and a starting point for discussing many of the other resources and discussion around the subject, including art, history, exploration, and maps.

A quick search of London and Lost Rivers or something along those lines yields plenty of material, including additional resource from the sources as diverse as London Geezer, which contains an extensive amount of information, to city specific hidden hydrology projects such as the Lost Rivers Project in Camden. A lot of ink (at least digitally) has been spent on this topic, with articles from BT like “8 of London’s lost rivers you probably didn’t know about” to BBC “The lost rivers that lie beneath London?“, the Telegraph (authored by none other than Tom Bolton, “The fascinating history of London’s lost rivers“, and perhaps the most prolific, the Londonist which covers this topic often, with titles like “The Secrets of London’s Lost Rivers” and info on specific rivers like “Counter’s Creek: In Search of London’s Unknown River” (authored by David Fathers) to a multi-part “Lost Rivers from Above: The Tyburn“.

Without going into extravagant detail and barrage you with too many links (there are over 100 I have at this point), it’s safe to say that London is by far the city with the most coverage, and it continues to emerge (such as this interactive virtual reality tour on the Guardian of London Sewers), showing that it’s a topic that continues to intrigue people.  For now, we’ll focus on some projects that work directly in the realm of these lost rivers, interpreting them directly through exploration and indirectly through art.


Much of the interpretive work around hidden hydrology comes from art, in it’s various forms, and much of the art includes exploration, so I’m combining these two ideas in one here. We’ve previously featured artist Cristina Iglesias and her new installation Forgotten Streams in London as more of a site specific example, interpreting the Walbrook in water features outside of the new Bloomberg London HQ.

A spatial approach comes from Sandra Crisp, and her video project from 2010-2012 “Mapping London’s Subterranean Rivers”.  This work was “originally made as a site-specific installation for a group exhibition 2010 held in the semi derelict basement under Shoreditch Town Hall, London”  A soundtrack was added later and you can check out the full video at the link above.

A short blurb (with my one small edit) from the site: “The film allows the viewer to fly through a 3D map of London, revealing the sites of ancient and subterranean rivers based on research using old maps and books such as Nigel Nicholas Barton’s ‘The Lost rivers of London’. Evoking existing and long disappeared waterways that bubble unseen beneath our feet. Including; The Fleet, Tyburn, Westbourne, Quaggy, Counters Creek, Neckinger and more…..”

A detail shows the intricacy of the layering, in this case highlighting the River Wandle – but the stills don’t do it justice – check out the video for full effect.

Crisp also breaks down the research on the piece, where she shows a hybrid version of Barton’s map that was the basis for the piece, along with some of the ‘making-of’ info that’s pretty interesting.

Amy Sharrocks, a London based artist, sculptor and film-maker, created “London is A River City” from 2009.  As she mentions in her bioFor the last four years I have been making work about Londoners and our relationship to water, inviting people to swim across the city with me, floating boats to drift on swimming pools, lake and rivers, tying people together to trace lost rivers and re-create a memory of water.” 

The project included walks of lost rivers, which involved using dowsing as a methodology for walks of the Westbourne, Tyburn, Effra, Fleet, Walbrook, and Neckinger rivers.  Each of these are beautifully documented (with PDFs as well for download), and worth exploring in more detail.  Per her statement “Why I’m Doing it?“, she mentions:

“Tracing these rivers has been a process of layering: new stories over old, our footsteps over others, roads and railways over rivers. Uncovering a past of London I knew nothing about. Connecting to things submerged beneath our streets has uncovered a currency of the city, and enabled a kind of palm reading of London. 

The idea of walking is vital to this endeavor, coupled with the dowsing gives it a pyschogeographic slant. From her site:  “These rivers lost their claim to space in this city, long ago paved over, with their inconvenient tides and smells, to make way for faster roads and railways. These river walks have championed a human speed, that stumbles, stops to look at things, slows down when it is tired. There is a connection to the speed of water, a meandering dérive to battle the rising pace of modern life. We took the measure of London by our own strides, pacing out the city at our own speed.”   Flash-enabled website headaches aside, it’s a good project worth some time to dive in.  Read some coverage from the Independent on the Walbrook walk.  You can see more about some other work as well at SWIM .

Another project, this time with a poetic bent, comes from via ADRIFT, a project by poet Tom Chivers envisioned as a “…personal interrogation of climate through poetry.”, where he “sets out to explore climate as culture, mapping out the territory of climate science within urban space.”  The site has the full list of writings, and a nice archive of some related materials are also on the site.  It’s a project of Cape Farewell, which has a great mission of “bringing creativesscientists and informers together to stimulate a cultural narrative that will engage and inspire a sustainable and vibrant future society”, namely climate change.  An image from the ADRIFT site as part of a photoset “Walking the Neckinger: Waterloo to Bermondsey”

A graphic design work Hidden Rivers of London by Geertje Debets takes a different, more visual approach, as “A research on the letterpress technique, while developing the concept and design for the visualisation of the underground rivers of London.  London’s terrifying under half… Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of this underground life, but when you look better, you find the underground world everywhere, especially the underground rivers. The names of the underground rivers are used in street names, places, houses, companies, schools and orchestras. The locations of these places show you how the river floats.”

The work of Stephen Walter got a bunch of press a few years back, with this map of London that “…traces the lesser known streams, sewers, springs and culverts of the capital in intense, hand-drawn detail.”   Some enlargements of these maps, via the Guardian:

Another of Walter’s work that is worth seeing is the 2012  “London Subterranea“, which “…aims to shine a light on this clandestine infrastructure and it presents perhaps the first comprehensive map, open to the public, which places so many of its features alongside each other. It geographically tracks the routes of London’s Lost Rivers, its main sewers, the tube network and it’s ‘ghost’ stations including the Crossrail project. It also pinpoints archeological finds, ruins, known plague pits, secret governmental tunnels, the Mail Rail and the Water Ring Main tunnels. Epithets to the ‘underworld’ of crime, and the scenes of notable killings such as the acid-bath murders get a look in. So too does the site of the infamous Tyburn Tree and its many buried corpses that still lie in its wake undiscovered.”  

On the topic of the subterranean, photography as well plays a part, with many of the London area rivers featured in a National Geographic photo-essay, “11 Rivers Forced Underground“.  A book on the subject I’d like to pick up, Subterranean London: Cracking the Capitol (2014), is described via a blurb from Amazon:  “Bradley L. Garrett has worked with explorers of subterranean London to collect an astonishing array of images documenting forbidden infiltrations into the secret bowels of the city. This book takes readers through progressively deeper levels of historical London architecture below the streets. Beautifully designed to allow for detailed viewing and featuring bespoke map illustrations by artist Stephen Walter, this unique book takes readers to locations few dare to go, and even fewer succeed in accessing.”

The publication had some acclaim, with one of the images winning an architectural photography award, along with some controversy as noted in the CityLab article “The Photography Book London Officials Never Wanted You to See” which outlines some of the sticky issues of urban exploration, access, liability, and such. Content addresses more than just hidden waters, but does include some amazing photographs as seen below.

This resource on London sewers from 2011 that looks to no longer be actively maintained, is ‘Sub-Urban: Main Drainage of the Metropolis‘ which looks at the drainage via sewer exploration and photography: “Alongside more traditional study and research practices, such as access to archival materials and the use of other historic and literary resources, we apportion equal importance to the hands on scrutiny of our subject matter. Taking time to explore, investigate and photograph London’s sewers affords us a greater understanding of the often complex architecture and gives practical insight and knowledge that cannot be gained from any amount of time spent thumbing through books and documents.”  There’s a number of links on the site to other endeavors, as well as some great imagery, both current of their explorations, and some historical work, along with the timeless phrasing of the section “Close Encounters of the Turd Kind“.

And when you’re done exploring, you can always grab a pint at Lost Rivers Brewing Company and drink the range of available beers inspired by the rivers themselves, and perhaps peruse Ben Aaronovitch’s 2011 book “Rivers of London“, where he created a story around various water deities and river spirits on the Thames and areas of London.


The concept of hidden hydrology is intertwined with history, so threads weave through all of these art installations and explorations.  The history of the development of London is fascinating and overwhelming, but there are some great resources like British History Online, which has resources on the topic like the six volume “Old and New London” written in the late 19th century, to sites like Connected Histories, which provide timeline based search tools, or links from the London Historians’ Blog.

On the topic of Lost Rivers, the history of the Big Stink is pretty key historical moment, which was a vital impetus behind what became the modern sewage system and led to the demise of many urban rivers.  The idea of this also led to “a piece of Victorian science fiction considered to be the first modern tale of urban apocalypse”, William Delisle Hay’s 1880 novel “The Doom of the Great City”, which is covered in depth via this article in the Public Domain Review.

You can also access primary sources, such as  following along with Sir Richard Phillips as he explored the edges of London in 1817, in “A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew“.

Some visual history comes via ArchPaper “What a difference 400 years makes: Modern and medieval London contrasted in hand-drawn cityscapes” which takes historic drawing viewpoints and redraws them showing the current urban configuration.

A fascinating thread that came from some of the books was the legacy of Spas, Springs, and Wells that have been a long part of the history of London.  There are some good sites to engage with this history, such as London’s Holy Wells, or the resource Holy and Healing Wells, highlighting around around the globe, including London.  There’s some great documentation such as the book mentioned by Barton, Foord’s “Springs, streams and spas of London: history and associations” from 1910, and one mentioned to me by David Fathers, Sunderland’s “Old London’s spas, baths, and wells” from 1915, both great resources for hidden hydrology.  An illustration from Foord, showing a 1733 engraving of one of these places, Tunbridge Wells:

The history of the Thames River Postman is a bit more random but worth a read, outlining H.L. Evans who delivered mail along the Thames. “The Thames Postmen played an important role connecting people who lived on the river with the rest of the world. They also became something of a local celebrity being a constant in the fast changing landscape of the river. Considering that the job was not without its dangers, it was remarkable that the Evans dynasty managed to continue for over a century.”

A visual resource COLLAGE, is an image database of over 250,000 images from The London Metropolitan Archives and the Guildhall Art Gallery, and also includes a picture map so you can locate them spatially in London.  A quick perusal found me in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, which showed this 1795 “View of Cheesecake House, Hyde Park.

The concept of the larger regional picture is the website Vision of Britain over time, which is full of great information, and specific to the landscape is the book ‘Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape‘ by Mary-Ann Ochota which helps decipher the immensity of history through interpreting landforms and other traces.  From a review in Geographical:

“There is so much history to the British landscape. What with its stone circles, hill forts, mines and umpteenth century cottages, the land is marked with centuries of use. This can make it hard to read, like a blackboard written on hundreds of times and never erased”

As you can see, plenty of great work has happened and is still happening in London.  This is not an attempt to be comprehensive, and there’s tons more out there on specific rivers and locations, so consider this a teaser of sorts and google away for more.  I’m trying to find a simple way to share the mass of my resources and links online for further reading and reference, so stay tuned there, and future posts will likely expand on this rich history around hidden hydrology.  As a last reference to London, the last post in the series for now, following the lead of New York City, will be on maps.


HEADER:  Hand drawn map of the Rivers of London by Stephen Walter.

As I mentioned, New York City and the larger metropolitan region is an important case study in hidden hydrology, with a range of interesting activities spanning urban ecology, history, open space, art, subterranean exploration, and much more.  As a city with a long and vibrant history it’s not surprising that the story of water would be equally compelling.  The following few posts will expand on some of the key activities that shape the hidden hydrology of the city.

Times Square then and now: the area featured a red-maple swamp frequented by beavers, wood ducks, and elk. – via the New Yorker

Almost a decade or so ago, I read this story in the New Yorker about Henry Hudson, the year 1609, a map, and an effort by a group of people, including ecologist Eric Sanderson, to research and visualize the historical ecology of New York City. I posted this  and posted it to my blog Landscape+Urbanism.  This was one of the catalysts, and I’ve discussed this project in the past as one the key Origin Stories around my personal interest in Hidden Hydrology.

Mannahatta Map – via NYC 99 ORG

The publication of the ideas with the publication of the Mannahatta book (originally out in 2009 and with new printing in 2013) and this broader work by Eric Sanderson (and his very well loved TED Talk) and crew on visualizing and creating rich data landscapes for Manhattan and the larger region is constantly compelling, and the shift to a broader scope under the name The Welikia Project in 2010 was really exciting to see.

The Welikia Project expands the  provides a rich and well documented study of the historical and ecological study of New York City dating back over 400 years and inclusive of a range of interpretation from art, ecology, and design.  The overview of Welikia here provides a much longer and more complete synopsis of the project, but I’ll pick some of the interesting ideas I think are worth of discussion in information larger ideas about hidden hydrology.

The main page offers a range of options that the project provides.  Per the overview page, “The Welikia Project (2010 – 2013) goes beyond Mannahatta to encompass the entire city, discover its original ecology and compare it what we have today…  The Welikia Project embraces the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the waters in-between, while still serving up all we have learned about Mannahatta.  Welikia provides the basis for all the people of New York to appreciate, conserve and re-invigorate the natural heritage of their city not matter which borough they live in.”

Tools include some downloads include curriculum for teachers to use, and some publications and data also available which would be fun to explore more.  A few notable bits of info worth exploration is this page “How to Build a Forgotten Landscape from the Ground Up”, which is a nice overview of the methodology used by the Welikia team, and provides a nice blueprint for organization of data that is transferable to any locale.

The original historical 1782 British Headquarters map was the genesis of any number of overlays that, once digitized into GIS, provided a historic base to layer additional information from other sources, along with inferences by professional ecologists and other members of the team.  These were also able to be georeferenced, which allows for the overlay of historic to modern geography, which becomes the basis for some of the larger interactive mapping we’ll see a bit later.  A map series from the Welikia site demonstrates the layering and aggregation possible.

1782 British Headquarters Map
Elevation differences from 1609 to today
Digital Elevation Model
Ecological communities

The concept of Muir Webs was also a fascinating part of the original Mannahatta book, so you can learn more about this on the page and via this presentation “On Muir Webs and Mannahatta: Ecological Networks in the Service of New York City’s Historical Ecology”

This Muir Web shows all the habitat relationships for all the species on Mannahatta. Visualization by Chris Harrison of Carnegie-Mellon University. ©WCS

Welikia Map Explorer – Lots of interesting background that I’ve literally barely scratched the surface of.  As I mentioned, the beauty of Mannahatta was the visualization of the historic surface, and through mapping with georeferenced location, provided an easy opportunity to create overlay maps of historic and modern.  The key part of this project is the Welikia Map Explorer, which offers a simple interface that can unlock tons of information.  Starting out, you have a full panned out view of the 1609 map visualization for Manhattan.

By selecting an address or zooming, you can isolate locations or just navigate.  It’s got that same video game quality I mentioned in my recent post about the DC Water Atlas, with some exploratory zooming and flying around the landscape looking at the creeks, wetlands and other area, you half expect to click and launch some next part of a non-linear exploration game.   The detail is amazing, and the juxtaposition between the very urban metropolis of New York City with this lush, pre-development landscape is striking both in plan, as well as some of the 3D renderings above.

You can then select any block and it will pop up a box that allows you to access lots of data underneath on a smaller level.

The interface provides layers of site specific data, and breaks down items like Wildlife, potential presence of Lenape (original native inhabitants, and Landscape Metrics. “Welcome to a wild place: this block in 1609! Through the tabs below, discover the wildlife, Native American use, and landscape factors of this block’s original ecology, as reconstructed by the Mannahatta Project. You can also explore the block today and sponsor the Mannahatta Project into the future.”

The Modern Day tab relates back to OASIS maps of the modern condition, making the connection of specific places easy to discern. “Landscapes never disappear, they just change. Click on the image below to see this block today through the New York City Open Accessible Space Information System (OASIS) and learn about open space and other contemporary environmental resources.”

For the beautiful simplicity of the map, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is dense with real data and models that attempt to provide a real viewpoint to what each parcel was like 400+ years in the past.  We discuss baseline conditions much in design, stormwater, ecology and habitat studies, and this level of evidence-based, site scale data is so important to decisonmaking not just in terms of former waterways, but in restoration and management of spaces.  This is summed up on the site:

“An important part of the Mannahatta Project is not leaving ecology in the past, but to appreciate it in our current times, to see how we can live in ways that are compatible with wildlife and wild places and that will sustain people and planet Earth for the next 400 years.”

Visonmaker.NYC – Of the more recent expansions of this is the creation of Visionmaker NYC, which “allows the public to develop and share climate-resilient and sustainable designs for Manhattan based on rapid model estimates of the water cycle, carbon cycle, biodiversity and population. Users can vary the ecosystems, lifestyles, and climate of the city in an effort to find and publish sustainable and resilient visions of the city of the future.”

Worthy of a full post on it’s own, the idea is to emphasize the link between the Mannahatta era of 1609, the current era four centuries later, around 2009, and a future world into the future another 400 years in 2049.  This gives a great opportunity to create a key linkages between historical work, current scenarios, and future conditions.

As they mention: “A vision is a representation of a part of New York City as you envison it. You select an area and can change the ecosystems – buildings, streets, and natural environments – as well as the climate and the lifestyle choices that people living in that area make.” and you can also view other published visions done by users of all ages.  The interface is similar to Welikia, as it allows an overlay of layers with varying transparency for comparison.

More on this as I dive in a bit, but you can also watch a more recent 2013 TEDxLongIslandCity video shows this tool in more detail:

The mapmaking is of course pretty awesome, and they keep posting new visualizations and updates, such as this 1609 topo map, posted via Twitter via @welikiaproject on the “Preurban (year 1609) topography and elevation of

There was also some great local quirky info, such as this map and historic photo showing perhaps the strangest remnant geological remnant in a city I’ve seen.  Via Twitter from December 2016, “29 Dec 2016  “Rocky outcrops in NYC, were mostly concentrated in Manhattan and the Bronx and composed of schist and gneiss.”

You can and should also follow Sanderson via @ewsanderson , continuing his work at the Wildlife Conservation Society and to see him giving talks and tours around the City.  A recent one mentioned that “After seven years of effort, he will share for the first time the digital elevation model of the pre-development topography his team has built, discuss why the climate and geology of the city together make our landscape conducive to streams and springs, give a borough by borough tour of ancient watersheds, and suggest how we can bring living water back to the stony city again.” 

Sounds great, and I wish sometimes to be a bit closer to be able to experience this around these parts.  Continuing to inspire beyond Mannahatta to the broader Welikia Project, Sanderson and all the crew that make it a reality is a great example anywhere in the world of what’s possible in tracing the threads between history and contemporary environmental issues.  If someone today gave me a chunk of money and said do this for Portland or Seattle or both (and honestly folks, we really should) I’d jump on it in a second.

A brief aside to contemplate the concept of hidden hydrology, both as a subject of study and as an agent for change.  While I’ve been inspired by the concept for some time, I’ve only recently tried to formalize this, collecting information and starting this blog in September 2016.  Call it my doctorate in Urban Studies that I never finished, happening over the web, with little to no outside supervision, mostly in my free time from 10pm to the early hours of the morning.

I get mixed reactions when I mention the project, spanning a sort of incredulous ‘Why?’ to an excited “Wow!” with all variations in between. This concept is indicative of the root of my own journey and sometimes my struggle, being simultaneously inspired while trying to figure out what to do with information.  On one hand, is just endlessly fascinating (others would agree), and my information gathering, generalist nature wants to find every detail there is to find. And while having an extensive collection of notes, images, maps and resources on my computer is satisfying in a way,  it does lack a certain sense of purpose.  On the other hand there’s sort of a perceptual disconnect with why any of this matters amidst the plethora of contemporary issues, and my productive landscape architect, designer, urbanist, cartogaphic, activist & ecological nature wants to connect this historical ecology to the greater issues of regenerative strategies of place.

Thus the tagline I originally came up with is a shorthand for both a duality that hints at both potentials, and I think still inspiring:

Exploring lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams. Connecting historic ecology + the modern metropolis.

Sometimes it just takes a while to figure out what an end game can look like, and you have to dive in and see where it takes you.  I’m calling this, in the spirit of hydrological study, the Meanders, as I’ve titled this post, and it’s been fun to see it played out in presentations, dialogue, and writing with not really a set purpose or goal.  I’ve had in my mind, beyond the blog, a book or series of books, perhaps which could be historical, design or urbanism or something spanning all.  Also I have toyed with the idea of online atlas, an exploratory video game, a series of historical images superimposed on modern scenes, art installations, tours, and much more.  I’m still working on the specifics of where it may lead, but realize it’s not one destination, but many.

At a foundational level the study will focus on Seattle and Portland, as a locus of study and between the two, a venue for comparative analysis and places I live and know well (and have easy regular access to).  While both are Pacific Northwest cities that were founded around the same time (1850s), their evolution and histories diverged much due to geography, topography, and hydrology, with Portland built around rivers and Seattle shaped as a city tied to the oceans and lakes.  Beyond this obvious dichotomy, there are a number of differences which will be part of, and perhaps fundamental to, the study.  One of which is notably politics, which tends to shape place as much or more than those ‘natural’ forces, played.  Maps of the two show the unique differences, and the ‘blank’ slate to be filled with oh, so much potential.



Thus the core will expand around these cities, and include a continual focus on Explorations, walking, recording, and connected with the experiences of what is gone and what still exists.  The goal is to walk/map/explore every hidden stream in each city, and use this along with mapping and history to provide a documentation of hidden hydrology.  While the focus will be on these two cities, there is so much information to bring from the wider base of knowledge that allows the analysis to be well informed.  Seeing the immense depth and breadth of information that exists and all the forms it can take (which hopefully you’ve seen in these posts), there are ample bends and side channels for us to navigate – but the focus on these two places allows for focus energy for generation specific to place.  This hopefully alleviates the danger of just continually searching and compiling information without acting.

In that vein, as precedents, in the past year, I’ve posted summaries of many cities focusing on hidden hydrology, including posts that study the inner workings of cities like Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco Bay Area, Rome, Vancouver, Toronto, as well as both Portland and Seattle. to varying degrees. These are the the dozen or so “core cities”, which, along with New York City and London you’ll see in a bit, which have the most fully expansive studies ongoing for hidden hydrology.  Each have activities and viewpoints that are specific to place, but all are tied together with connections between water, then and now.

Image of Rome – via Katherine Rinne, Aquae Urbis Romae

I’ve also touched on other areas around the globe, including Boston, Lexington, Munich, MontrealMexico City and Venice, and will continue to offer smaller snapshots of other communities, as there are literally hundreds of fascinating stories to tell.  These studies show a wide range of activities these projects take on, including art, tours, literature, advocacy, history, ecology and more, as well as the broad geographic reach of the concept of exploration, in its many forms, of hidden hydrology.

There will be many more posts to come come from all of this, but I wanted to add the two cities that have by far the most expansive and inspiring hidden hydrology efforts I’ve discovered to date: New York City and London.

New York City is one of the inspirations I’ve mentioned, with the Mannahatta project a lofty goal of mine to apply to my own home places, and the work done by others to document the hidden hydrology of the New York region is phenomenal.  I’m looking forward to sharing more of this.

Mannahatta Visualization

And London, perhaps more than any other city, has been so well documented in terms of hidden hydrology, with countless books, maps, ruminations, explorations and more, each with a unique viewpoint and much rich history to draw from.   Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to take multiple posts to sum this up with New York, as there’s a lot to cover.

A Balloon View of London, as seen from the north – via the British Library

Additionally, beyond continuing to document places as precedents, there are a bunch of fascinating topics which enrich these spatial stories, and also inform my own activities.  I’m constantly inspired by artists using hidden hydrology as a medium, so will continue to include more examples, both site specific, and including techniques around soundscapes.

Light Meander – River based sculpture in Nashville by Laura Haddad & Tom Drugan

The literary connections of historical waterways is worthy of discussion also, as another of the key inspirations come from both David James Duncan and Anne Whiston Spirn.  The connections to language and place names that span cultures, and a thorough acknowledgment of colonization and appropriation is an important aspect of any historical endeavor. Mapping as a subject is vital to this study, including historical ecology and methodologies for mapping that uses new technologies to connect old and new and display these connections in inspiring ways.

Rectangular world map from Fatimid treatise, Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes, copy of manuscript originally written in the first half of the 11th century

The ecological and the hydrological are at the root of rivers, creeks, streams and watershed, providing a context for understanding the past and the present in terms of something this is ever changing, blending soils, geology, climate, ecology and understanding of aquatic systems to infer the historic and investigate opportunities for historical baselines as a metric for regeneration.  This requires understanding the potential to restore, but also moving beyond ideas of daylighting as the only option we have, with a more nuanced and historically informed continuum which integrates, culture & art, ecology & habitat using design and science– restoring the key functions of urban streams in a form that evokes, mimics, and celebrates, but doesn’t rely on pure restoration for the original creeks.

Stories of place and process, maps and images, people and words, all aggregate, some sifting through and precipitating in eddies, others taken downstream by the force of the flow.  Then again, all this could change.  A meander overtopping its banks and connecting with another flow, carving out a new channel, or disconnecting and spinning idly in a lonely oxbow, driving via gravity in tension against rock, all the while creating life at its margins.  Not a bad metaphor for a creative process.

The flow may have some direction now, but the nature is still, always, to meander.

It was great see, via Twitter, local resource @HistoryLink post “100 years ago today, Thomas Phelps’s 1856 map of Seattle was published in the Town Crier”.  I saw the post today, so I’m a day late, but the Phelps map is one of those fascinating documents that highlights the historical origins of Seattle and intrigues because it so far removed from want exists today.  The article about the map, website, penned by David B. Williams, mentions the map’s original publication on December 15, 1917 as part of the article in the Town Crier  (map shown to the left). The article was about  “Seattle’s First Taste of Warfare”, found via the Seattle Public Library which outlines an early battle between new settlers and the original residents of Seattle.  The full page shows the map in the center (quality of the online version is a bit fuzzy as well – click to enlarge)

The history is summed as such by Williams via

“Phelps’s map depicts what has become known as the Battle of Seattle, when Native Americans battled settlers and the Decatur’s crew on January 26, 1856. The death toll for the skirmish, which ended at 10 p.m., was two settlers and an unknown number of Indians. The map provides what appears to be an accurate depiction of the city on that day, although there is one notable mistake. The settlement’s northern blockhouse, or fort, is in the wrong location; it should be two blocks south, at what is now Cherry Street. (Phelps also shows a southern blockhouse, which was not built until two weeks or so after the battle.) The only other map to depict Seattle around the time of the battle is a U.S. Coast Survey map of “Duwamish Bay, W.T.” Published in 1854, it shows a roughly similar landscape and distribution of buildings.”

A known reprint appeared inr Arthur Denny’s book “Pioneer Days on the Puget Sound”, originally published in a 1888, this map appearing in a reprint from 1908 (but also great is to see the book available as a Third Place Books Rediscovery Edition here).  A small version of the map of it from (see below for a larger, adapted similar version), with caption from Williams: “1856 map of Seattle by Thomas Phelps of USS Decatur, as published in Arthur Denny’s Pioneer Days on Puget Sound with later street grid superimposed, 1908”

Many historical maps just exist as a singular object to depict a place in a point in time.  Phelps’ map seems to exist along a continuum from it’s original sketch of which there is no record, to various prints, updates, hybrids, and transformations over the span of decades, all of which are adaptations of events that had happened some half-century or more in the past. As Williams mentioned separately in a blog post, on his GeologyWriter site about the map:  “Many, many editions of the map have been produced.”  

The other version that has a fixed date, and mostly commonly used as I’ve seen it, is that redrawn version by Clarence Bagley from 1930, recreating the “1856 map of Seattle by Thomas Phelps of USS Decatur, enlarged and revised.”  The 1930 version shows the “Officers of the Sloop of War Decatur”, and a more extensive street grid, and is signed by Bagley.  (This image is from Pinterest here as finding a good digital original with source is tough)  There’s also a sepia version around cropped with tape marks and a big watermark, but the same map.

As Williams outlines the unknowns and uncertain history of the map deftly in his article, he mentions “We do not know why Bagley produced this map, who he produced it for, or how he distributed it. Nor is an original of it known to exist. Copies are found in the holdings of Seattle Public Library and University of Washington Special Collections. Nor is it known how Bagley acquired a copy of the Phelps map. Perhaps he could have acquired it from whoever supplied the map to Alice Harriman, who published it in her 1908 reprint of Arthur Denny’s Pioneer Days. Bagley had originally published Pioneer Days, in 1888, but that edition did not include the Phelps map. Harriman did consult with Bagley so he may have had access to an original, though it is unclear why Bagley would wait until 1930 to produce his edition of the map.”

The provenance of others is a question, below is one of those alternative versions that just includes some format changes but unknown date, and stripped of the additional information added in 1930.  This larger version via DorpatSherrardLomont that also points out one flaw in the original, as included the annotation: “Phelps map of Seattle. He by now famously misplaced the blockhouse one block too far north of its real location on a knoll at the waterfront foot of Cherry Street.”

The map shown below is titled ‘Map of the Attack on Seattle’, which alludes the the original story.  In this case it is from Access Genelology site for the Washington Indian Wars, 1855-1856.  It looks like a version of the original that uses the same graphic style, in a sepia tone that cleans up the original map with updated fonts, and the titleblock shifting to the upper right (not sure about date of this one)

An alternate version that David Williams has on his blog, and as he mentions, “This is one of the more unusual. It is owned by the University of Washington Special Collections. I have no idea where it was printed or who the engravers were.” adding, that there were “…several unusual aspects.  1. Addition of “hostile” to Hills & Woods thronged with 2. Addition of “skidroad” to Lake Trail & Skidroad 3. Labels Thomas Phelps as a Lieutenant instead of Commander” ( date unknown)

This expanded version from DorpatSherrodLomond locates the original map within the larger grid of streets and pioneer claims, using the original graphic style as published in Denny’s book.

I’m sure it’s not uncommon, but it’s one of the interesting aspects of the map, as summarized, that it is not just a snapshot  of an event in a place, but that it has yielded lots questions about copyright in later years between those wishing to use the map for publication.  Williams concludes: “For such a famous map, there are many unanswered questions: When exactly did Phelps draw the original? Does an original exist?”

And for me, when looking at a map that provides a foundation for a place, the questions are both fascinating and make one questions the fidelity of memory, production, reproduction and tracings. Whole explicit or accidental it shows the agendas (and talents or lack thereof) of the mapmakers.  The story of the Phelps map is a crucial one for Seattle history and hidden hydrology, and it does offer some context for early shoreline and land fill to office later. While we’d like highly accurate and globally positioned map or story, often reality is that we get a different, more subjective and fluid tale. And as it is a touchstone to what ends up being a crazy development of the City of Seattle, perhaps a little mystery isn’t such a bad thing.

Original text quotes from “Thomas Phelps’s 1856 map of Seattle is published in the Town Crier on December 15, 1917″ via, by David B. Williams, originally published 3/24/2015.  Maps are credited to other sources because they are so incredibly small on the site to even be legible (one of my few pet peeves with an otherwise amazing resource).

David’s site Geology Writer also has more history, and tons of great info on Seattle History, by Paul Dorpat, Jean Sherrard, and Bérangère Lomont on the DorpatSherrardLomont site.



The inventiveness of early builders constantly provides us with wonder at their ability to create systems from available materials.  The use of wood logs as piping for water and sewer is one of those logically illogical things that makes a lot of sense, but also boggles the mind when you consider the immensity of urban infrastructural systems that relied on this as the primary water and sewer conveyance technology for many years.  A May 2017 article in The Washington Post, “Discovered: Philadelphia’s high-tech, totally natural plumbing of 1812″ shows the use of tree trunks, in this case, a series  “…of 10-foot pine logs, laboriously drilled to create a 4- to 6-inch center opening and bound together by iron couplings… The pine pipes lay buried and forgotten for two centuries until a worker sank a backhoe in the 900 block of Spruce Street earlier this week.”

Part of the original 45 miles of wooden mains in Philadelphia, expert on all things water in Philadelphia, Adam Levine via his great site PhillyH20 (see also my post here for more) provided some, including some additional history and imagery of the wooden pipes, in this case “A section of wooden water pipe, long out of service, removed from a Philadelphia street in 1901.  It had been installed about 1801.”

Other cities obviously used similar technologies, via a fascinating site by Jon C. Schladweiler, The History of Sanitary Sewers we can find some good history and lots of imagery of wood pipes, including bored elm & hemlock used in London as well as Philadelphia and other US Cities where it was employed.  From the site:

“The use of bored elm pipes underground with quills of lead running off into the houses of the well-to-do seems to have begun in London as early as the 13th century. All the old London water companies that appeared between the 16th and 18th century used bored elm pipes for distributing water. “

The natural taper of trees allowed for fittings that mirror the flange of modern pipes, and the holes were bored out manually, aided some times by the use of fire to burn out heartwood.  A couple of images from The History of Sanitary Sewers , showing “Bored hemlock (wood log) water pipe, laid about 1754. Early wood log pipe was used often for either water or sewage conveyance.”

The concept of ‘fire plug’ was also explained, where wood pipes could be tapped when there was a fire, auguring through the wood to get at the water (or installed at intervals) and once marked, could be replaced by driving a redwood plug into the hole – thus, the fire plug.  An image of this, an example from Philadelphia from a wood pipe with metal banding that was removed in the early 1900s.

An pair of articles from the NYC Environmental Protection mentions the discovery in 2013 of a section of 19th Century Wooden water main during repairs, and some of the history of this in New York infrastructure back as far as the 1820s.

The image above shows the excavation and pipe, with some context via their site.

“The wooden mains were installed in the early 1800’s and were discovered in 2006 during routine utility upgrades that included the replacement of water mains in Lower Manhattan. Adding to the uniqueness of the discovery, when unearthed, the two wooden pipes were still connected, to form a 26-foot section of the city’s original 19th century water distribution system. While several New York City institutions, including the New-York Historical Society, have pieces of wooden water mains in their collections, there are no known examples of complete sections still intact. Once on display, the wooden mains will help educate New Yorkers and visitors about how clean drinking water helped New York grow into a modern metropolis.”

Another image shows wood water supply pipes, in this case excavation of some pipes installed in Bristol, England, dating back 500 years.

Historical precedents for the use of wood as pipe date back even longer, up to a few millennia, probably to when people began to convey water in earnest by ‘mechanical’ means.  Via Dr Susan Oosthuizen (who posts great stuff on Twitter) there was an interesting link about Dutch dam builders (from New Scientist, 1996), which along with the fact they were ‘plagued by lice’, mentions preserved wooden logs used as pipes that were found, using dendrochronology, to have been from around 100-70 BC. “The dig has also uncovered dams and sluices built along an estuary. The dams were shut to keep out high tides, and the sluices were opened at low tide to allow water to drain from farmland that would otherwise have been tidal marsh. One dam, says de Ridder, is in the same place as a modern bridge with a similar tidal barrier and sluice. “They were regulating the water level on a large scale,” he says.”

A sketch showing what these tidal sluices using logs may have looked like comes from a sketch Dr. Oosthuizen posted via Twitter along with the quote “Late IronAge banks kept seawater off Dutch coastal marshes at high tide; & were set w/ wooden pipes to drain dams of fresh water at low tide”

Later iterations use wood in somewhat different ways, typically using ‘staves’ that were milled in lengths and banded with metal straps to create a tight fit, and didn’t require boring. The use of wood that had natural waterproof characteristics, such as cedar and redwood, aided in water tightness. As the saying goes, ‘Wood Pipe is Good Pipe’.

The wood stave offered the option of being able to reach dimensions much larger for greater conveyance (the above shows a range from “3 to 120 inches in diameter”, and allowed for greater expansion in the use of projects, shown here as a diagram of outfall sewers from Niagara Falls which includes both brick tunnel sections and a super steep wood stave flume.

This one below is via shows a wood stave sewer line here in Seattle, from around the 1930s, which was a common type of installation of the era.  You also see the images of Tanner Creek from this previous post show installation of a similar wood stave and brick in Portland in the 1920s, the preferred method of erasure of urban creeks. along with brick sewers that were becoming more common.  Will do a bit more digging on where this is but looks like the image below shows an outfall to Lake Union?


HEADER: Image of 200 year old wood pipe discovered in Philadelphia in May, 2017.  Via Washington Post, image Jon Snyder/Philadelphia Inquirer

Quick post to show the installation by artist Cristina Iglesias, ‘Forgotten Streams’ which is located at Bloomberg’s new European Headquarters in London.  The revelatory landscape is woven through three different plaza spaces, evoking the Lost Rivers of London, namely the Walbrook.


Via ArtNet News:

London’s “lost” river Walbrook, which the Victorians built over, appears to have been uncovered this week. The Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias’s Forgotten Streams (2017) now flows gently through the heart of the capital’s financial district, appearing in three places in the pavement outside financial media giant Bloomberg’s new £1 billion ($1.3 billion) headquarters. It is her first public work in London.

While obviously a metaphorical interpretation, the proximity to the actual route (not exact but close) to the Walbrook activates the historical ecology of place.  And I was surprised, actually shocked as I was looking at the original images trying figure out the material used, that it is cast in bronze, developing layers of matted shoreline along with differing water flows and pools.  As abstracted ecology, the integration of this type of artwork into a high-visibility project is great, and while providing minimal ecological value, the historical value is a positive.

Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

I think they are pretty beautiful, but it was funny to read the review from the Guardian on the Norman Foster designed building, and a specific reference to this work:  “In a civic-minded gesture, there are three new public spaces at the corners of the site, adorned with water features by Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias, although her green-patinated bronze layers of matted foliage resemble fetid swamps – perhaps a sly comment on the financial services industry.” 

The theme is not a new one for Iglesias, who has tackled similar water-centric themes in previous work (amidst one of the most confounding web interfaces I’ve encountered in some time) and uses the cast bronze as a medium for waterways in other projects in her native Spain, as well as Belgium. More to come on her work as I dive in a bit, but a cool project to encounter.  An image of Iglesias, working with a similar material in the swamp, if you will via CNN:

Credit: Courtesy Lopez de Zuribia

Thanks much to David Fathers for the tip on this one via Twitter.

We live in an age where the impacts of climate change are seen daily. Data on global and local conditions is vital to our further understanding of adaptability and resilience both as protection from storms as well as mitigating longer term impacts. While understanding where we’re at in modern times is essential, comparing that to historical reference conditions connects threads from past to present and enlivens this discussion. Thus in the spirit of hidden hydrology and linkage to climate and rainfall, I was fascinated to learn about the book Climatology of the United States, And of the Temperate Latitudes of the North American Continent, authored by Lorin Blodget in 1857. This is interesting as it coincides with much of the development of Pacific Northwest cities in the mid 1850s so is a good indication of some predevelopment metrics, but more importantly is towards the beginning of the global Industrial Revolution (centered in London and radiating outwards), which led to rapid increase in development of industrial infrastructure and processes that created significant amounts of atmospheric CO2, which is arguably one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

This volume is 569 pages, packed full of info (and a massive PDF also).  Most interesting to me and the original link i found was the amazing maps (abbreviated viewer here of the maps from the publication if you don’t want to download the whole thing) covering the world and specifically covering the temperate landscape of the Northern Hemisphere, with a focus on North America.  In the introduction, some rationale for the project from Blodget.

I’m assumed he was referring to Alexander von Humboldt, but had missed the reference and probably would if he wouldn’t have mentioned it above.  After some digging I noticed a deft reference in  ‘The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism’ (Aaron Sachs, 2007).  Sachs links the two, mentioning on page 25-26, “Almost all American scientists in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, no matter what subfields they waded into, considered themselves disciples of Humboldt. One such author, Lorin Blodget, inserted a quote from the master himself on the title page of his own magnum opus, Climatology of the United States, to make a kind of textual frontispiece.” 

The quote in small print on the front:

Like Humboldt’s work, the illustrations and summary visualizations of the phenomena he was describing, Climatology includes amazing illustrations (do yourself a favor and click the images in this post to enlarge them.  The banner image of global temperatures above in the banner, as well as the world spanning ‘Comparison of Precipitation for the Temperate Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere’ is Humboldtian indeed:

The smaller diagrammatic maps also evoke Humboldt’s stratification by elevation, captured in Blodget’s ‘Profile of the Altitudes’ for both the Pacific Coast of North America and the West Coast of Europe are some simple info-graphics rich in information and easily accessible.

The main substance of the document is the maps, include temperature (isothermal) and precipitation (hyetal) maps.  There is a world view of both – as you’ve seen examples of above, but the focus is on North America, so each season is represented, along with an average annual.  Summer and Winter are shown below, the difference being hopefully obvious:

The legend describes the map info, including max. and min. ranges for temps.

And a close-up of the Pacific Northwest shows the level of detail – along with a glimpse at the base map, which is similar, mostly in how topography is represented, to the one well know in the region as the 1859 Map of the state of Oregon and Washington Territory.

We take a lot for granted the amount of data, A challenge of the process was to gather and assimilate diverse information from a variety of sources, due to the fact that there was no consensus on the measurement and documentation of either temperature and rainfall data.  Blodget spends a lot of time explaining the process, with a specific focus: “These references are deemed necessary to show that no part of the present work, whether supported by statistics and illustrators or not, was is the result of hasty or superficial discussion, and that all the steps of analytical investigation and detailed criticism required for such a purpose as that of constructing an approximate climatology, have been taken in advance.”

The rainfall maps are interesting as well showing in a variety of data, in shaded portions based on inches of rain.  The image for annual totals shows the wetness of the southeast United States and the Pacific Northwest.

Zooming into the Southeast US – we see the intensity of rain in the southern tip of Florida, along with the Mississippi Delta.  These are beautiful maps, considering they were done over 150 years ago, and the subtlety of shading and texture represented.

These are best represented in sequence (and i do love a good animation) so I did a quick overlay and made them step through seasons starting in Spring and sequencing through Summer, Autumn and Winter.  Note the Pacific Northwest wet winter / dry summer cycle, and the overall difference between the coasts/interior as well as West Coast / East Coast.  Somethings don’t change.  Click to enlarge to make it a bit more legible.

I’ve yet to dive fully into the text, but have some context in the maps, and a curiosity to see the data at this level of analysis overlaid with modern information on isothermals and hyetals to show changes, in average and seasonal temps, changes in rainfall, and related hydrology and changes in things like plant hardiness ranges.  Lots to unpack.  While looking at this, I did find an earlier reference by Blodget, a slim volume published in 1853 which also tackles climate in reference to it’s impact on Sanitary conditions in cities, delving into the connections between climate and public health – well, 164 years ago.

The visual nature of the 1857 publication is not to be dismissed. The publisher J.B. Lippencott & Co., acknowledges the rarity of a book of this era having the size of quality plates, and their goal to make this available to the public at a reasonable cost.  Such an interesting dilemma in our digital age, but one I’m glad for in terms of the production of this imagery as well as it’s preservation and archive.  Just think, all this could have been yours in 1857 for the price of five dollars.

The climate data today… priceless.

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.

This scaling linking allows for easy drilling down to subwatersheds, for instance to Islais Creek Watershed in San Francisco. you find more info and specific clickable elements,

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

San Francisco c. 1860 – click to open in new tab
Topographic map from the 1890s with original creeks in blue, marshes in green, and modern land fill in pink

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.

And if you haven’t yet, read the first of this series – Lost Creeks of the Bay Area – Part I to learn about the groups working in hidden hydrology, art, and urban exploration.

There are a number of cities with a vibrant mix of activities around hidden hydrology, some of which have been covered previously (see Resources). The stories of San Francisco’s hidden hydrology have existed for years, starting perhaps with an account by William Crittenden Sharpsteen of Vanished Waters from 1941, and continuing today with ways to offer hints to the current configuration of odd topographic features like ‘The Wiggle’. There are also references to discovering and possibly daylighting urban streams in San Francisco, even positing what other cities can learn from their relationship with it’s urban creeks.

Burnham’s Islais Creek Park – via SPUR

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 City is 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.”

The project is explained in a bit more detail in “Mapping San Francisco’s Surprising Abundance of Springs and Streams” in Wired Magazine from 2015.  In addition, an older essay in FoundSF entitled ‘San Francisco’s Clean Little Secret’. (originally published in the anthology The Political Edge and published Fall 2004 by City Lights Foundation)  At the end of the article, there’s a short disclaimer:

“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.”

The below map depicts the original coastline, marshes and creeks of San Francisco, in the mid 1800s. Lake shapes varied over time, which explains the difference between this and the detailed Mission map in the article.

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 Institute has 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 well known for 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.

Yosemite Creek Walk Promo from Chris Sollars on Vimeo.

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.”



Part II of this exploration of the Bay Area focuses on many of the maps and mapping resources.








The typical news story from Los Angeles that often emerges concerning rivers tends to focus on the LA River and it’s future and fate.  Countless stories of the latest master plans or rehabilitation efforts, Army Corps efforts, or just plain ire at the fact that Frank Gehry was involved have been flying around for years. One of my favorite takes is documented in the fantastic 2008 publication ‘The Infrastructural City‘, which breaks down LA into a number of systems including a good amount of focus on the River.  And while no one would dispute the importance of the river to the city (and to countless movie chase scenes) there is a broad and complex hydrology and at work in the City of Los Angeles.

The folks at LA Creak Freak offer a slightly different and broader take, and while they do offer plenty of discussion on the LA River, they explore some of the other tangents of hidden hydrology.  As mentioned in their About summary the site is both “… a way to share information about LA’s historical ecology – the rivers and streams that were once here – and to update people on relevant watery news and events with a mostly local focus…” and “…that we believe our rivers and creeks are vital to our communities and our planet. Though degraded and forgotten, they’re worth saving.”  This information and activism role is similar in nature to much of my inspirations, so it was interesting to dig into their site.  The main players are landscape architect Jessica Hall and Joe Linton, an artist, author and activist with a long involvement in the community.  The site links to maps, stories, resources, and some transcribed interviews as well.    It’s somewhat free-form, with a few helpful summaries like ‘getting started‘ and ‘recommendations‘ but like many sites, is chock full of place specific info that you just have to spend time digging in to.

Some of the links led to a map from the Rumsey collection of the topography of Los Angeles from 1880 by William Hammond Hall shows another “Beautiful hand drawn map of the Los Angles-San Bernardino Basin. Pen-and-ink and pencil. Relief shown by hachures. It appears to be a base map on a scale of two miles to an inch, probably preliminary (several of Hall’s notations on the edges indicate corrections needed to the topography) and earlier than the 1888 Report titled “Irrigation in California” that had 15 maps that may have been derived from this map. It may also have served as the base for “Drainage area map to accompany report on irrigation and water supply in California” by Wm. Ham. Hall, State Engineer. (188-?). Hall was a famous engineer who was the first state engineer and was responsible for many of the early state water projects (see California Water Atlas). This map does not have any names drawn in except for a few towns, rivers, or railroads lightly penciled in. All the land divisions and city plats are indicated, with mountains, rivers, railroads, roads, arroyos and shorelines shown.”

A link to a map of the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco offers some commentary on the mapping: “I am fascinated by the messiness of the historical landscape before it was flattened and filled, with water confined to neatly linear paths. There are so many notations mapmakers used to depict the ways water manifested in the historical landscape. William Hammond Hall’s maps go beyond mere notation, into the realm of artistic representation. In contrast, USGS maps of contemporary Los Angeles use a limited and inflexible set of icons to depict water: blue lines for waterways (thin or thick, solid or dashed), and blue amoebas for lakes. Does the simplicity of these icons reflect what we’ve done to our surface water; or has what we’ve done to our surface water reflect our simplistic cultural idea about how a water body is supposed to look like and behave?” 

While the USGS maps of modern day (or at least 1975 from above) may have evolved be more more generic, but the old ones had some beauty, as shown here in a map from 1896 snapped from the great USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer.

I love the scale of the monumentally awesome Historical Creek & Wetlands Map of the lower Lost Angeles River and environs map below shows a range of buried creeks, sandy washes, historic wetlands, as well as existing creeks, concrete channels and drains (key to left) from around 1902.  Not sure who was the author of this map although the copyright shows 2003 from North East Trees.  The original orientation of the LA River and tributaries is interesting to see, along with the other hydrologic elements and topography.  There are a number of other excerpt maps from areas around LA as well.


Obviously the LA River is the major drainage, but there are plenty of tributaries and other side drainage weaving through the urban realm.  A Google map created by the LA Creek Freak folks provides a bit more context beyond the main LA River channel, showing historic drainages woven through the City such as Ballona Creek much of which is buried and/or channelized.

A great example of online resource in that same basin is the Ballona Historical Ecology web site, an interactive exploration created by multiple sources including the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, and the Santa Monica Bay Foundation, along with CSU Northridge, CSU Chico, and USC. For more information you can also download a report for the project here.

Another link to a map show at the LA Central Library called L.A. Unfolded (awesome idea), which led to some more historical maps shows this gem from the Online Archive of California for a Map of the City of Los Angeles from 1884.

A side trip to Jane Tsong’s Myriad Unnamed Streams is a worthy diversion, with stories and maps focusing on Northeast Los Angeles.  Various snippets of water history like “Where the Creeks Ran Underground” offer some place specific notes, maps and history for a small segment of LA around Eagle Rock Creek.  This series of key maps shows the area with streams only.

And with the overlay with modern sewer system, “Street map showing storm drains/1888 water courses as mapped by State Engineer William Hammond Hall, overlaid onto modern topographical data. Street, stormdrain and topographical data: Bureau of Engineering.”

Also worth checking out is a Curbed LA story “25 Photos of the Los Angeles River Before It Was Paved in 1938″ shows a different, softer side to the river, such as it meandering near Boyle Heights in the 1880s:

And from 1931, “The then-new Fourth Street Bridge” showing a natural river bed and although channelized, softer edges to the river.

This one, from 1938, indicates the plans for channelization: “Shown is an artist’s sketch which graphically portrays the system of dams, underground storage basins, etc., that were set up by the Los Angeles County engineers to prevent floods and to conserve hitherto wasted rain water for domestic purposes.”

The end came after floods in spring of 1938, as described in a book The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth: (Blake Gumprecht, 2001): “The first Los Angeles River projects paid for by the federal government and built under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were completed a few months after the flood. Work was finished in October 1938 on three projects to lower the river’s bed twenty feet, widen its channel and pave its banks for a little over four miles upstream from Elysian Park. Three months later, construction was completed on the first segment of what would eventually be a continuous trapezoidal concrete channel to carry the river from Elysian Park to Long Beach.”