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Day 46 – SF earthquake and fire follow-up


Submitted by Karl Breckenridge

A fortnight ago, on April 18 specifically, we ran an account of the 100-year anniversary of the Great SF Earthquake here in the pages of This is Reno. An inquiry or two is normal, expected and welcome, but when a piece elicits a dozen “what ifs?” and “How dids?” as this one did, I have to think I didn’t tell the story adequately.

The questions about this account for the most part were “What has San Francisco done to alleviate this destruction from ever occurring again?” A fair question…

Most of the devastation to The City was due to fire, and the fire burned unabated due to the lack of water with which to fight it. To that end, within a couple of years after the ‘quake, a rebuild of the water system was taking place.

Reservoirs were built – big ones. The Jones Street reservoir and the Ashbury reservoir are both in the half-million gallon range. And they take advantage of The City’s topography – both are at the minimum over three hundred feet above the hydrants they serve. And they don’t rely on pumps; gravity enhances their flow quite nicely.

The reservoirs are both fed by the huge Twin Peaks reservoir–ten-and-a-half million gallons, almost 800 feet above the Bay. Well, how do we get sea water to that altitude? If you’ve ever sat in the Buena Vista Café enjoying a great breakfast and an Irish Coffee, or toured the Maritime Museum or the Hyde Street Pier, you saw the pump station and didn’t even know it.

San Francisco’s pump station feeding the Twin Peaks reservoir. Image: Karl Breckenridge

In a smallish building built in the San Francisco city’s Mission-style architecture, looking to the left in the verdant vegetation of Fort Mason just beyond the Belt Line’s train tunnel, are massive boilers to create the steam to turn the huge generator, with “General Electric Co.  Schenectady N.Y.” on its huge brass builder’s plate. The fireman who ran the station for many years that I befriended a score of years ago – now retired – proudly polished that brass weekly for almost no one to see, for access to the building  since 9/11 has been severely curtailed (the ornate lettering “San Francisco Fire Department Pump Station No. 2” was sadly removed at that time. And photography of the building’s interior was prohibited.)

The electricity operates the massive Stone-Webster pump that raises sea water 765 feet to the Twin Peaks reservoir (the system is not reliant on power from PG&E). The pressure of the weight of the water in the piping is so great that no human-operated valve can turn against it, so water-pressure itself is used, with a small handle the size of a turn-light switch slaved to the plumbing to make the massive valve beneath the floor of the building open, or close.

Everything in the little building is huge – the valve handles, the electrical knife–switches, the ten-foot high panel of round brass gauges, the controls for the three massive boilers. A visitor would not be surprised to see Captain Nemo of Jules Vernes’ Nautilus stride into the main room of the station. Old-timers remember a masonry smoke-stack on the southwest corner of the building – this was removed when a diesel generator was introduced to generate the necessary power to elevate the water to Twin Peaks. But to satisfy the purists like me the 1909 interior “look” was maintained.

A sea water hydrant in San Francisco. Image: Karl Breckenridge

OK, so we’ve got reservoirs and a way to keep them full (water is moved in the system weekly to prevent sediment from forming). But it’s sea water, which is to say, salt water. The last thing an engineer wants in a water system is salt.

So – the hydrants that distribute water from this system are marked. Next time you’re in The City, should you see a hydrant with a black, or blue, or red top on it it’s on the sea water system, taking its water from the Ashbury or Jones Street reservoirs. Firefighters will use it but following the fire they need to pump fresh water through their apparatus’ system to remove the salt residue.

The This is Reno reader has probably strolled over another major element of The City’s post-quake preparedness – the cisterns, seen more often in the outlying areas of town – the Richmond and Sunset Districts. These underground tanks of water – fresh or salt – are marked for firefighters by a circle of bricks around an intersection, telling the firefighters that water is available to draft – if their apparatus has draft gear as most do – should a nearby hydrant be unavailable or involved in a conflagration.

A below-ground cistern in San Francisco.
Image: Karl Breckenridge

And the cover over the sub-grade cistern is made of wood, so that in a complete failure of the usual system, a backhoe could be used to puncture the street to put draft gear directly into the cistern.

But the pride of the fire service is the Phoenix – a 90-foot 1950s-era fireboat used liberally by proud firemen to welcome other craft to the SF harbor – cruise ships and naval vessels of all flags – on their inaugural visits to the Bay. But it – with its relatively-new sister ship the St. Francis – does Yeoman service in fire protection, of the older piers lining the Embarcadero and in augmenting the water pressure available to firefighters, by hooking up their hoses to the many fireboat connections along the waterfront.

These connections are quite apparent in the Marina Green, and a pleasant afternoon can be spent watching drills by the firefighters on land joining forces in practice with the fireboats. In major conflagrations – like the two-day apartment-house-under-construction fire near the Giants baseball park – AT&T? Oracle? –  I would assume that the fireboats were manned and connected to the system and that the generators and pumps in Station #2 were warmed up and ready.

The City learned much in 1906 and for its hills and terrain, is pretty well-prepared. Now, if they could just prevent another earthquake…

Captain Breckenridge detected a warning alarm on the panel of his laptop and thus has declared a MayDay tomorrow, dropped the gear and requested expedited clearance to the Great Basin Brewery runway in Sparks, with the emergency apparatus rolling …

First Officer Jody is now in charge of this-here column and rumor has it she’s taking you all to Coney Island, not the bar with the great Picons and ravioli, but the turn-of-the-century amusement park once across the Lincoln Highway. So bring your bathing costumes and rubber duckies, but, be safe, huh?

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article or letter to the editor here.

Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally. 

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