Herman Schussler and the Comstock Water System

Photograph by Ronald M. James.

Remnants of the original 1873 waterline and the rock wall that supported it survive above Virginia City. The system has been replaced with modern materials, but the basic design remains.

Hermann Schussler is famous for designing the Comstock water system, one of the most extraordinary engineering feats of the West, but his influence on the state exceeded even that astounding achievement. He was born in what is today Germany, in Rastede in 1842. Schussler attended the nearby Prussian Military Academy at Oldenburg between 1859 and 1862. In the fall of 1862, he left to study civil engineering at universities in Karlsruhe and Zurich and worked for some time as an engineer in Switzerland.

Shortly after immigrating in 1864, he served as the assistant and then chief engineer for the Spring Valley Water Works of California's Bay Area, where he designed several dams and tunnels. The strength of his dams at Upper Crystal Spring and San Andreas was evident when they survived the 1906 earthquake. In addition to his work in Spring Valley, he contributed to Bay Area waterworks projects in Oakland, San Jose, Vallejo, and Stockton. He eventually served as the chief engineer of California's Marin County and then in that same capacity for Virginia City, when he designed his most remarkable water system.

Since the founding of Virginia City in 1859, the local water system drew from the mines, yielding barely palatable water. In 1871, several investors including John Mackay and James Fair purchased the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Company from William Sharon. The new owners quickly settled on plans for an ambitious project that would bring water from the Sierra Nevada range, thirty miles to the west. The challenge would be traversing Washoe Valley, 1,200 to 1,500 feet below Virginia City and nearly 2,000 feet below the likely location for a Sierra reservoir.

The Water Company's directors hired Schussler, in part because he had completed a similar project in Butte County, California. The Comstock system, however, would be more than twice the scale of his previous effort. Nevertheless, Schussler devised an ingenious system of flumes, tunnels, and reservoirs in the Sierra to feed a pipeline that dropped into the valley and rose back to the Virginia Range above Virginia City. Schussler designed an inverted siphon so the water would flow uphill without pumps. He faced his next challenge with the development a pipe that could withstand the 800 pounds per square inch of pressure at its lowest point.

Risdon Iron Works in San Francisco received the commission, and under Schussler's direction the company produced an array of pipes, rivets, and valves. In all, construction required 700 tons of iron and 1,524 lead-sealed joints. The water system was completed in the summer of 1873, and residents celebrated the welcome addition.

After completing his work for the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Company, Schussler became the chief engineer for the Sutro Tunnel Company. He went on to design water systems for Tuscarora and Pioche, Nevada. In 1878, Schussler traveled to Hawaii to work on several water projects.

There have been several replacements of the original water project that serves the Comstock, but Schussler's design continues as the basis for the system. Fortunately, lead no longer seals the joints.

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