Alameda: the Story of its Water

Alameda Museum    Captain R. R. Thompson in the top hat visited the men who bore the first wells for the Artesian Water Works on today’s Thompson Avenue.

Editor’s note: Under normal circumstances, Alameda Sun publishers Eric J. Kos and Dennis Evanosky would be leading history tours for the city’s “Alameda Walks” program this time of the year. Instead, Eric and Dennis are presenting six weeks of history stories. This week’s presentation discusses the history of water, which they would have discussed during their walk around Lincoln Park and environs 
We all take it for granted: turn on the tap and the water flows, flush the toilet and be done with it, turn on the spigot and water the lawn or wash the car. It was not always this way, of course. Getting water where we need it, when we need it began with property owners boring their own wells.

The towns of Alameda, Encinal and Woodstock joined to incorporate as the City of Alameda on February 29, 1872.  Sometime in July of that year, the new city tried its hand at creating a public water-supply system. In a paper he wrote for Norfleet Consultants, civil engineer Sands Hardin Figuers informs us that the city’s first Board of Trustees — the forerunner of today’s City Council — approved the purchase of a lot on Central Avenue near Park Street to bore for water. 

In early July 1872, workers drilled there, but found little water. The city abandoned the site.  On July 23, the city purchased a second lot. Figuers writes that the 1872 purchase documents described the location as on “Central Avenue between Euclid Street (today’s Webster Street) and West End Avenue (modern-day Fourth Street).” Figuers writes that, “No information is currently known about that well.”  

In “Water So Clear,” which she wrote for the Alameda Museum Quarterly, Myrna van Lunteren informs us that the Benjamin R. Norton started Alameda’s first real commercial venture. “Norton drilled a well on his property on the west side of Grand Street between Santa Clara and Lincoln avenues),” van Lunteren writes. “He found so much water that his neighbors asked to be hooked up to his well.”

In 1874 Mr. Norton went into the water business as the Alameda Water Company. “The well continued to be used into the 1900s,” van Lunteren tells us, “and was by then referred to as the ‘Old Norton’ works.”  Seaborn Avenue marks the spot today. Norton was unable to supply the entire peninsula. In 1878, the Board of Trustees began negotiating with Anthony Chabot’s Contra Costa Water Company. 

By then Captain Robert R Thompson had arrived. He organized the Artesian Water Works in 1879. The company supplied water to Alameda from, at first, four artesian wells at a spot east of High Street. The location now has a street that bears his name — Thompson Avenue — a place known far and wide as “Christmas Tree Lane.”  Thompsons’s wells supplied an abundance of water. On April 6, 1880, he obtained a franchise to lay down and maintain pipes throughout the peninsula. This could not have been timelier. 

On Oct. 19, 1880, the Alameda Fire Department of Alameda was created. One month later, the Citizen Hook and Ladder Company, No. 1, Thompson Hose Company, No. 1 (named to honor Captain Thompson) appeared on Webb Avenue just east of Park Street. Quarters for the West End Engine Company, No. 2 appeared on Webster Street. On Dec. 7, 1880, the department arranged for the Artesian Water Works to furnish all the water for fire purposes.

Artesian Water Works supplied AFD with four fire hydrants — the first at the corner of Bay Street and Central Avenue, another at Bay Street and Pacific Avenue, a third at Grand Street and Central Avenue and a fourth at Grand Street and Pacific Avenue. Artesian allowed the department use of the company’s pressure engines at a cost of $2.50 per month for each hydrant. The department still possesses one of these hydrants marked AWW for Artesian Water Works. 

One June 21, 1881, AFD admitted two more companies into service: Central Hose Company, No. 3 and Pacific Hose Company, No. 4. At the same time, it renamed West End Engine Company No.1 to Whidden Hose Company No. 2. 

Thompson put his water company up for sale in 1888, after he departed for Southern California. The new owners began drilling for water in Fitchburg near the site of today’s Oakland Coliseum. 

The Artesian Water Company operated for 12 more years, until Contra Costa Water Company purchased it in 1900. The sale consisted of 350 acres of artesian well land at Fitchburg with ninety-seven wells. The Artesian Water Company turned over 330,400 feet of pipe, 3,037 water meters and 247 hydrants to the new owners. Contra Costa Water Company paid an estimated $750,000 for Artesian —$21.8 million in 2015 dollars. The new owners also received deeds to properties in Alameda that included the pumping plant and wells on High Street, the lot, building and reservoir on Park Street and a large lot on Santa Clara Avenue. 

In 1906 the People’s Water Company took over. People’s supplied Alameda with water until 1917, when it reorganized as the East Bay Water Company. In 1928 the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) took control of East Bay Water. On June 23, 1929, water for the East Bay began flowing from the Pardee Reservoir, allowing EBMUD to close all its artesian wells, including those in Alameda and Fitchburg.