Alexis Waldemar Von Schmidt was an ambitious man with big ideas. Perhaps his biggest was to provide 200 million gallons of water daily to San Francisco from Lake Tahoe.
Von Schmidt came to the United States as a child. He claimed to have been trained as an engineer and surveyor in prestigious schools, but no record confirming that has been found. At 29 he caught Gold Rush fever and sailed to California. He discovered he could make more money providing services to the burgeoning population of the state than by digging for gold.
As a deputy United States surveyor, he roamed the state, documenting land grants issued by the Mexican government.
In 1860 he went to work for the Spring Valley Water Works as chief engineer. The company provided water to San Francisco and charged a lot for it, making an enormous profit.
Von Schmidt realized he, too, could make a lot of money from water. In 1865 he and five investors organized the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works. He acquired control of land at Lake Tahoe's outlet at Tahoe City for $3 an acre and the right to appropriate 500 cubic feet per second from Lake Tahoe.
He tried to sell thirsty Virginia City a project that would deliver Lake Tahoe water to its 6,000-foot elevation. City officials turned him down.
He then devised a project for San Francisco. His plan was to divert the Truckee River where it entered Lake Tahoe, blast a tunnel through the Sierras and construct a canal heading toward Squaw Valley. There the tunnel would dive underground and re-emerge at the head of the American River, from where, through a complex system of pipes, water could be sent to San Francisco.
The San Francisco supervisors, dissatisfied with Spring Valley Water Works, actually liked the idea.
However, aside from the engineering, there were formidable challenges to the plan.
Nevada officials said Von Schmidt had no right to divert the Truckee River. Their state needed it and had been using it for their agriculture and mining interests for a long time.
Von Schmidt went to Congress and the California Legislature asking for a right-of-way package that included the same kind of land deal that the railroads had gotten.
Both state and federal legislators turned him down flat.
By the fall of 1870 Von Schmidt had built a crib dam of stone and timber, which raised the water level of Lake Tahoe by several feet.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved Von Schmidt's plan in 1871, but the mayor vetoed it. He was afraid of all the legal challenges it would face and didn't want to trade one water monopoly for another. In 1901 Von Schmidt offered his water rights on Lake Tahoe and his dam to the city for $50,000. He was turned down.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at email@example.com.