Still working 133 years later
MARLETTE LAKE – For 133 years, the Marlette water system has carried water from lakes and springs more than 8,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada down to where Highway 395 enters Carson City, then up again to Virginia City.
In its 19th century form, no pumps were needed. Gravity did the work, supplying fresh, clean water to some 20,000 residents on the Comstock.
The system that still supplies all residents in Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City and some of Carson City, has been Mike Leahy’s baby for more than a decade. He’s the man in charge of keeping the historic system operating. He says he still marvels at the ingenuity and labor that went into the system so many years ago.
“It’s an engineering marvel,” he said, pointing to a stretch of iron pipe laid atop the ground nearly 8,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada near Marlette Lake. “To think you can bring water over the Sierra to Virginia City without pumps – just gravity feed.”
Parking atop the 8,500-foot crest above Marlette, he points to the spillway on the other side of the lake: “The original way they took water out of the lake was the flume.”
The flume no longer exists but in the 1800s, it wound around the mountain on the Lake Tahoe side of Marlette toward present-day Incline Village, through a 4,000-foot-long tunnel bored through the mountain to the eastern slope. That water and the water from Hobart Reservoir come together at Red House. From that point, the water flowed through another wooden box flume to the storage tanks above Lakeview.
Leahy said that is where the inverted siphon begins. Water from the tank pours into the 11-inch diameter siphon and plunges 2,000 feet down the mountain. Building to pressures of more than 650 pounds per square inch, the pipe crosses beneath Highway 395 and, using that pressure, climbs back up 1,500 feet into the Virginia Range before reaching the Comstock.
Leahy said at one point there were three siphons supplying nearly 10 million gallons of water a day to the early residents of Sun Mountain. These days, he says, 3 million does the job during the summer, much less than that during the winter.
But the system did more than just provide drinking water to the Comstock, Leahy said. The tunnel also connected to a system of V-shaped flumes used to run logs from the Lake Tahoe side of the Sierra Nevada to the eastern slope then down to a huge lumberyard at Lakeview. Much of that lumber was then shipped by wagon or train to Virginia City where it was used to build homes and businesses and to shore up the mine tunnels.
The system operates differently now because the flumes are gone. They were abandoned when the tunnel collapsed in the 1960s although Leahy said there are still a half-dozen small water sources flowing to Red House diversion from the eastern portal, which supply Virginia City for much of the year.
This year, he said, there is an abundance of water in the mountains because of three successive wet winters.
“Springs are just so active this year,” he said. “I haven’t seen some of them ever before this year.”
Driving up the rugged road to Hobart and Marlette, he pointed out dozens of places where water is seeping from the ground. And he said the forest hasn’t been this healthy in more than a decade.
Even so, he moved quickly to the valves at the head of the siphon after spotting overflow running from the tanks.
“I hate to lose even a drop,” he said.
After the state bought the system in 1963, they laid a pipe from Marlette over the crest of the mountain and down the hill toward Hobart Reservoir. A diesel pump was brought in to pump it up the hill when Marlette water is needed.
Leahy said the pipe, laid on top of the ground, actually ends nearly 1,000 yards above Hobart. From there, the water flows over the open ground as a stream into the reservoir.
He says the pipe was laid as a temporary replacement for the flumes in the 1960s but has never been replaced.
That will change next year, however, when the mobile diesel pump is replaced by a permanent electric-powered pump on the shore of Marlette and a new pipe laid underground from Marlette to Hobart Creek.
Leahy said that will eliminate a number of problems with the existing pipe – including the falling trees that occasionally crush or shatter the old pipe. He said it will also get rid of diesel pollution and noise.
In the early days, he said, there were as many as nine water tenders who lived in cabins along the route of the system, making adjustments, small repairs and keeping the water flowing. They’re gone now, but Leahy and his crew still have to drive up the narrow, steep roadway to make some adjustments. Much of the winter, he said, they use snowmobiles.
Terry Sullivan, who was in charge of General Services and the care of Marlette during the 1970s, said when the state first took over, they didn’t even have snowmobiles. “When I first took over the job, we snowshoed in,” he said. “Of course, I was in a bit better shape then.”
Leahy said the improvements planned over the next year will further reduce the need to climb the mountain – especially in winter.
When completed, he said, he and his crew will use electronics to monitor the system and make necessary adjustments remotely without climbing the mountain unless there’s a serious problem.
And with those improvements, he said, the system should continue to supply water to its customers for years to come.
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