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.
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
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.
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.