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Sunday, October 31, 2004

Troops defeated in search for artesian water

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Increasing number of soldiers put more demand for supply

With the construction of its first seven buildings by 1859, including two store magazines, two shops, a hospital, a guardhouse and a three-story storehouse, the Benicia Arsenal was ready to serve the United States Army as the only arsenal on the West Coast.

The next phase of buildings included the Commandant’s Quarters, quarters for the officers and barracks for the troops, as well as smaller buildings that housed stables, a bakery and other utilities.

Benicia’s location between Sacramento - the center for the California Volunteer troops - and San Francisco made it a very busy place. New troops recruited in the inland valleys were shipped through Benicia directly to the East Coast. Ordnance supplies flowed in and out of the arsenal in a continuous stream. In addition, the arsenal supplied military posts up and down the Pacific Coast from Washington to Southern California and eastward into Nevada and Utah with arms, ammunition, and other supplies.

The arsenal provided not only for storage and distribution of supplies, but arms also needed to be cleaned and repaired, saddles and bridles brought back to usable condition, pistols needed holsters and ammunition had to be stored in chests for transport. The arsenal was a self-sufficient installation where repairs, remodels and transport readiness formed a large part of everyday duties.

With the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the pace at the arsenal increased. Difficulties arose in late 1862 and early 1863 when the government was unable to pay the workers, offering legal tender notes instead of coin.

A mass meeting in Benicia on Feb. 26, 1863, led workers to formulate a resolution. They had not been paid since October for their work. While they were dedicated to the war efforts, they were unwilling to accept the legal tender notices. Local merchants discounted these by 50 percent. Gold and silver were the only accepted forms of money, while prices had increased dramatically during the war.

The arsenal commanders negotiated with Wells Fargo & Company to accept the government drafts for their full monetary value, averting a walkout by their workers.

A year later, 34 camels arrived in Benicia. These were the last animals of a failed experiment that had started back in 1855, when Confederate President Jeff Davis, who was the U.S. Secretary of War at the time, thought to use 77 camels for transportation in the Southwestern desert areas. Their ability to carry up to 600 pounds while being able to traverse the desert without drinking water seemed to make them the ideal vehicle.

The camels were indeed used in the desert, yet most war efforts were concentrated on the Civil War in the East, making this an exotic experiment. In addition, the soldiers hated working with the ornery animals. The remnants of this experiment arrived in Benicia to be auctioned off. Two of the storehouses temporarily were used as stables for the camels, giving today’s Benicia Historical Museum its nickname “Camel Barn.”

Samuel McLeneghan purchased the camels at a public auction for $1,495. He planned to use them as freight animals in his Nevada mining camps. He put on a camel race April 7 to benefit Benicia residents, which gave him the idea to establish camel races in Marysville and Sacramento. Most of the camels did indeed end up carrying ore and salt in the mines. Some were also resold to local zoos. Others were set free in the desert areas near Fort Yuma.

Increasing troop numbers posed an ongoing challenge to the arsenal’s water supply. Cisterns caught winter rains, but the growing population numbers made reliance on winter precipitation alone unreliable.  As early as 1855, talk began of drilling for artesian water. This search would balloon into an expensive 20-year struggle.

In 1862, the arsenal hired a well borer out of Stockton who promised to find artesian water for the princely sum of $40,000. This expert supervised the construction in the arsenal’s workshops of pipes and tools to accomplish the task.

The actual boring for water began in 1872 in a little valley behind the stone storehouse.

From the beginning, the project was haunted by difficulties. Cave-ins crushed the pipe; drills broke and took days to build anew. The soil strata were totally unpredictable and often extremely hard to drill.

This went on year after year, with Col. MacAllister, commanding officer of the arsenal, reporting to his superior in 1876: “Actual progress is very discouraging; in reality it is a detail of successive disappointments wrought by a series of accidents, all of which have been experienced by other well borers; yet it is to be doubted whether all those reverses have ever characterized the work on any one well for the same short space of time in which they have occurred in this one.

” ... The Plutonic nature of this country forbids anyone from making hypothesis of future success which might be based on assured facts. The strata are upheaved in all directions and, in some places, are nearly vertical, and the number and nature of the strata to be pierced before reaching a level at which a large supply of water can be obtained, are unknown.”

Three years later, Col. MacAllister still reported no success, multiple obstructions and no intent of giving up: “During one night the well caved at a distance of 1,079 feet, 3 inches from the surface, so as to cover up the top of the lower pipe 40 feet. We bored through this debris, but the sides caved as the drill descended, and it was raised from the well with difficulty. After many attempts, the well was cleared out to a certain distance, and, being left overnight, caved so that we were occupied during the whole following day in drilling through the rock and earth which had fallen in and choked up the well bore. No difficulty was experienced in boring through the debris which seemed to fill the well during the night, but the tools became too encumbered with caves which occurred during the day, so that the lever had to lift, in boring, not only the rods and drill, but a large mass of rock and earth at each stroke. On stopping work at night, as a precautionary measure, the tools had to be drawn up in to the 8-inch pipe for fear they would be buried so that we could not get them out of the well. The pump constantly was bringing up a full load on each occasion, but the more matter removed from the well, the more seemed to fall into it from the unseen source nearly a quarter of a mile below us. It would be a matter of repetition to describe the efforts made and the tools employed to remove the effects of the caving and to deepen the well hole so as to withdraw the 253 feet of pipe still in it. All the above proved useless and the situation was a desperate one.”

Eventually, they found water at 960 feet and again at 1,406 feet. The lower level proved to be unfit for drinking and was blocked off. Cave-ins helped, the material made even denser by wadding in grain sacks, and spreading cement and sand on top to seal it off at the 960 feet level. Pumping began at that level.  While the water seemed plentiful, Col. MacAllister was once again to be disappointed. “The chemist reports it contains organic matter and is unfit for food.” At least the water could be used to heat the arsenal boilers and to create steam.

While Congress had only appropriated $5,000 for the year 1880-81, it doubled the amount for 1881-82. The crew decided to access the closed-up 1,405-foot level again. By that time, a crusading spirit had overcome Col. MacAllister and his men. The prospect of an artesian well, freeing the entire region from the fear of drought and water shortage, kept their hopes up despite the continuous mishaps.

They cleared out the old debris, the gunny sacks and concrete, which “emitted a fearful stench and we had to use disinfecting fluids and deodorizers or the workmen could not have remained at work round the well hole.” Despite all their efforts, the foul water had moved through the barrier above.

The men constructed a cartridge case, loaded it with 25 pounds of top quality dynamite and seven pounds of gunpowder, lowered this contraption into the well hole, and exploded it. The explosion shook the arsenal to its core and could be felt for miles around. Col. MacAllister recorded on Aug. 20, 1882: “We have been occupied ever since in cleaning out the well, and cannot prophesy anything at present in regard to any permanent advantage which may result from our experiment.” It, too, failed to bring forth any large quantities of water, and what could be pumped was unfit for human and animal consumption. Its only use was for irrigation.

In the end, Col. MacAllister had to accept defeat. “It is very difficult to resign an undertaking in which your feelings have become inlisted (sic) and your pride interested, but the above facts were conclusive,” he finally concluded 20 years and more than $100,000 later.

In 1889, three years after Col. MacAllister’s command had ended, the arsenal began construction of an artificial lake supplied with water from winter-runoff and by pumping fresh water from Suisun Bay.

My next column will continue the story of the Benicia Arsenal.