Thursday, April 14, 2011

DSCQHR Orchard Site: Water as Artifact

Google capture of the DSQHR well and pumphouse remains encountered during Trimble survey on April 9th, 2011. Note the rather large wooden joist foundation just south of the pump house. The easternmost portions of the foundation are missing and may turn up in another location on the DSQHR site. It is possible that this foundation supported a water storage system during the first half of the 20th century.

A farmhouse with water tower supply system circa 1903. Wood was far and away the most favored material for fashioning water storage towers on homesteads and farms during the late 19th and early 20th century CE.

Looking over notes taken during the first day of field work at the DSQHR orchard site, the perhaps one of the most evident assemblages the class will immediately confront is that associated with the orchard's irrigation system and the technology of its water supply. Evidence for this derives from the information provided by Sister Karen, Professor Hartely, and from our collective experience during the Trimble survey of the orchard site. In the southeast corner, outside of our permitted area, are the remains of a well and pump house along with its machinery.

Abutting the pump house ruins is the rather massive foundation square formed of what appear to be 12"x12"x8' wooden joists (measurements subject to revision). Our group speculated that this wooden foundation supported a water storage system, i.e., a water tank fashioned of either wood or metal and perhaps datable to the first two decades of the 20th century. A casual estimate of the capacity of such a tank would fall in the range of appoximately 5500 liters.

Forestry and Irrigation Magazine: as the frontier closed and the 20th century dawned, farms and households in the west were vitally concerned with hydrology and water self-sufficiency.

DSQHR Water Use and California History

As Euro-American culture expanded increasingly west of the Mississippi, eastern farming methods and cultivars could not be dry-farmed along established European lines because of unpredictable periods of rainfall. This was not the case in the American west a hydraulic civilization arose dependent on irrigation [for a cogent discussion of this thesis see: Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985)]

Commencing with the Spanish mission period, and this is evident on the lands of Mission San Jose, aqueducts were constructed and played an important role in the transfer of water from natural watersheds to irrigation canals supporting European crops such as wheat, barley, oats, wine grapes, and fruit trees. California never abandoned the large-scale aqueduct during its subsequent history and well-based hydraulic irrigation systems proliferated on farms and homesteads where landowners could directly tap an aquifer.

The well, water storage, and irrigation system ruins on the DSQHR orchard site represent a specific example of human modification of the environment to support the cultivars of European dry farming in an alien environment characterized not by four seasons but two: wet and dry. In this sense, the DSQHR orchard site is directly related to the politics and culture of water use that evolved in California after 1848, where, in fact, three systems of water law co-exist side by side: California recognizes riparian rights, appropriative rights, and pueblo rights,wherein Spanish and Mexican era settlements held claim to customary sources and ground water. It is perhaps possible that the DSQHR associated well derives its legal basis from such pueblo rights.

A family posing in front of old Riviere (or Reviera?) Adobe, west of Jefferson and St. Andres, ca.1878. Without pueblo rights or rights to a riparian source, this homestead depends on appropriative rights to water pumped by wind and stored in a wooden tank.

A Note on Artifacts and Materials Associated with Early 20th Century Water Storage Systems

I was surprised to learn that wood construction of water storage tanks was a preferred material over steel well into the 20th century. Here is an excerpt from a farm manual dated 1918 that discusses the construction of water storage systems:

The storage of water. With any type of pumping appartatus so intermittent in its action as the windmill and so variable in its output, a form of storage must be used. An elevated tank or reservoir is most common. Occasionally, the site is so arranged that a small reservoir may be built on a hillside, usually a masonry or concrete structure partly dug into the hill and partly walled above ground level. More frequently an elevated tank is built on the same tower with the windmill, or, possibly , in the attic or in the barn loft. In all these cases, gravity pressure is relied on to give the flow of water.

Tanks. Both wooden and metal tanks are used, of all sizes from 150 to 150,000 gallons. Usually of 4- or 5 day supply is arranged for. For wooden tanks, pine and cedar are regarded as desirable in the East, while cypress is most favorably regarded in the South and Southwest. Metal tanks are occasionally of cast iron or steel. They cost nearly twice as much as wooden tanks. In both cases, care must be taken to keep the tank painted, clean, and tight.

Wooden tanks are generally thought to be better than metal ones. They are easier to erect; they neither seat nor rust; they do not follow temperature changes so readily; and they are less likely to freeze. As they cost much less, wooden tanks are much more common, even in the very large sizes.

Whether the tank should be inside or outside, depends largely on the local conditions. The insided tank is restricted in size, both because of the limitations of the space available and, also, because of its great weight and necessity of making special provision for its foundation support. …The life of wooden tanks is found to be seldom less than 15 years, and it is frequently 25 years or longer.

Redwood water tower enclosed in a stable in San Mateo, California, circa 1937. Redwood, due to its rot-resistant properties, was used in the construction of water storage tanks in Northern California. It should be noted that the wooden slats of the water tank were held in place by upwards of thirty bands of steel cable.

It is also possible that the DSQHR water storage tank was fashioned from cast metal. The DSQHR role in Catholic education required involvement in Latin America and water storage systems had to rely on materials other than wood. Here is an example of a cast metal 5500 liter storage tank constructed by a Protestant Missionary group in Africa circa 1924.

Narrative Source: Seymour, E. L. D. Farm knowledge: a complete manual of successful farming written by recognized authorities in all parts of the country ; based on sound principles and the actual experience of real farmers: "the farmer's own cyclopedia": Volume III. Farm Implements and Construction, Garden City, N. Y. : Doubleday, Page, [c1918] pp. 169-170).


  1. Nice work David, very interesting. Could you point out the remnants of that well to me next week.

  2. Hello Richie, thank you for the remarks. As Maria noted in one of her comments, the DSQHR complex was highly self-sufficient and this appears to be the case with water supply.

    The pump house over the well is visible on Google Earth in the far south east corner of the DSQHR property. The ruins fall outside our area of survey; however, as Professor Hartely notes, we are perhaps likely to find some evidence of the irrigation system that tied into this well.

  3. Hello Richie, I have modified the post with a Google Maps capture of the structure, perhaps a well pumphouse and water storage system, associated with the DSQHR orchard site. Cheers!

  4. You know... I have similar-looking strange silos located close to my house in Williams, CA. It never once occurred to me that they could be holding water. I always assumed it was just rice (which it still may be.)


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