Cheryl Anne Stapp
The Mechanical Water System
Sacramento’s Water Works Building was the city’s answer to its need for a reliable water supply system that could prevent a small fire from becoming a catastrophic conflagration—like the inferno which had destroyed almost 90% of the city in November 1852. Completed April 1, 1854, the building’s two story brick and reinforced-beam structure supported three water tanks on its roof, along with a network of pumping machinery that siphoned water from the Sacramento River and fed it through two miles of pipes fitted with fifty hydrants. It was believed to be the first mechanical municipal water system west of the Rocky Mountains. The first Sacramento business to take water from it was Adams and Company on Second Street, the local office of California’s premier express service. By November 1854, the Water Works had 403 customers.
The building’s interior served as City Hall, housing offices, city council chambers, and a courtroom on the second floor. The police department, volunteer firefighters, and the city jail occupied the first floor. All too soon, though, the rooftop tanks sprang leaks. In April 1856, a portion of the building’s walls became so saturated with dripping water that the sleeping apartments of the police were reportedly flooded. Repairs were made to the iron linings of the tanks that June, but eventually the sheer weight of the tanks took their toll, causing structural damage. In the late 1860s, the railroad installed tracks and a turntable immediately adjacent to the building. Constant vibration from the trains further affected the already weakened structure, creating serious concerns for the safety of its occupants. The weakest forty feet at the west end was razed in 1880, and the water tanks reworked. By the turn of the century the building obviously required extensive renovation, and the Southern Pacific Railroad wanted the property for a right-of-way to expand their freight handling facilities. The rooftop tanks and connections were abandoned when the city sold the property to the railroad in 1906. Seven years later, the Southern Pacific demolished the building.
Today the Sacramento History Museum is housed in a replica of the 1854 City Hall and Waterworks Building, which opened to the public in 1985. Faithful in design to the original, the exterior accouterments include brick walks and a 113 foot flagpole topped with a gilt ball. Inside, visitors walk through modern, chrome and glass galleries filled with diverse exhibits.