, Chabot Space & Science Center, Chabot College and many other streets, institutions and places throughout the Bay Area bear the same name—ever wonder who that person was to accumulate such honors?
All of these places are named for Anthony Chabot, the self-made engineer whose water works in the Bay Area earned him the title the Water King, and whose philanthropy still benefits us today.
Chabot was born near Montreal, Canada, in 1813. At age fourteen, he ran away from his boarding school and walked four hundred miles to reach New York City, where he hoped to find more opportunity than was available to a French-speaking Canadian farm boy.
Over the next several years, he worked on a Manhattan farm, a tannery in North Carolina (unloading cattle hides that came from Mexican California), and up and down the Mississippi River Valley. When he heard news of the discovery of gold in California, he joined the throngs heading to the Golden State in 1849, staked a claim in the foothills, and began to pan for gold.
Father of Hydraulic Mining
Chabot, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Hydraulic Mining” soon came up with an idea for a more efficient way to load large amounts of dirt and gravel into a sluice box to find gold nuggets: He connected a long wooden box, strengthened with clamps to withstand high pressure, to a flume at a higher elevation. A 40-foot canvas hose connected to the box could then use water pressure to wash loose dirt and gravel into a sluice box—no more back-breaking shovel work.
Later, another miner added a nozzle to Chabot’s canvas hose to increase the pressure, a method that would blast away entire hillsides and send massive amounts of Sierra foothills sediment and rocks into California streams and rivers. California still bears the consequences of the enormous environmental impact of hydraulic mining.
The Water King
Chabot made a small fortune, not just from finding gold, but also from selling sluices and mining materials to other miners, and then capitalizing saw mills. When he had enough money, he left the Sierras to live in San Francisco. Despite a lack of formal training, this self-made engineer became involved in creating and building water works throughout the Bay Area, including San Francisco, San Jose, and Vallejo.
He returned to the East Coast for a few years, where he married Ellen Hasty. She died giving birth to their daughter. Chabot named the baby Ellen, left her in the care of her grandmother, and returned to San Francisco.
He now organized the Contra Costa Water Company, cultivated friendships with the Oakland Board of Supervisors, and got a contract to build a dam at Temescal and supply water to Oakland. The Temescal reservoir began supplying water to Oakland in 1869, the same year the first transcontinental railroad arrived.
After this project, Chabot again returned to the East Coast, where he met and married Mary Ann Bacheller. He returned to California with his daughter Ellen and his new wife, and they moved into Oakland’s elegant Tubbs Hotel.
Oakland was growing rapidly, from 10,000 in 1869 to 25,000 by the mid-1870s. Temescal could not hold enough water to supply this population increase, and water rationing was necessary in dry spells. The Contra Costa Water Company began planning to build a dam at San Leandro Creek.
(Tomorrow: The Water King Dams San Leandro Creek.)
The two sources for this article are: The Water King Anthony Chabot: His Life and Times by Sherwood D. Burgess and The Chinese Laborers of Lake Chabot by Jacqueline Beggs (more from this fascinating booklet next month). Both are available at the San Leandro Library.
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