By John Grennan
How the Navy helped bring water to Saint Mary’s
Click images to view enlarged version.
The Christian Brothers who moved the College to Moraga in 1928 would scarcely recognize today’s Contra Costa County, with its crowded freeways and sprawling subdivisions in place of the orchards and pastures that once dominated the landscape.
Moraga itself, which has grown to a population of 16,000, maintains much of the bucolic charm that enticed the Brothers from Oakland’s Broadway and 30th Street eight decades ago. Yet the surrounding East Bay has experienced an almost continuous real estate boom — especially when World War II’s military mobilization and industrialization transformed the region.
The war certainly had a dramatic impact on the College, as the U.S. Navy’s Pre-Flight School took over most of the campus at 1928 St. Mary’s Road from 1942 to 1946. The arrival of thousands of Navy men housed in temporary barracks and trained in classrooms also brought a crucial missing ingredient to Saint Mary’s — a reliable supply of water that has allowed the College to expand ever since.
The Move to Moraga
As the College started outgrowing the Oakland Brickpile campus after World War I, trains and automobiles were making it easier to settle in outlying parts of the Bay Area. In 1919, the Brothers purchased what seemed to be an ideal new location: 255 acres next to Lake Chabot in the San Leandro hills.
Unable to raise enough money for construction, the Brothers turned their attention elsewhere. In 1927, James Irvine’s Moraga Company — hoping a college would jumpstart real estate development — offered the Brothers 100 free acres, the beginnings of today’s 420-acre campus.
The Moraga location had many virtues — pastoral seclusion, rolling hills and plenty of elbow room — but it lacked a dependable water source. While the proposed San Leandro site was on a lake, the Moraga location was fed solely by the fickle flow from Las Trampas Creek through a marshy area north of campus.
“It’s amazing to me that the College was able to survive here for years without other sources of water,” says biology professor Lawrence Cory, a Saint Mary’s student in the 1930s. “Some years, there might be enough water, but what about years like this one (2007) when the creek is completely dry?”
In fact, Moraga developed more slowly than its neighbors because Lafayette and Orinda were situated along the aqueduct system created by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) in the late 1920s. EBMUD, a public trust set up in 1923 to develop a steady water supply for East Bay communities, piped Mokelumne River water to reservoirs, including the Lafayette Reservoir, by 1929. But Moraga was too far away and too small, even with the arrival of more than 200 Saint Mary’s students in 1928, to merit the effort and expense of EBMUD incorporation.
This lack of water hindered early Moraga development efforts, as Nilda Rego chronicles in her history Days Gone By in Contra Costa County. In 1922, when the county and Irvine’s company split the cost of a “Moraga Highway” from Orinda — today’s Moraga Way from Highway 24 into the town — the project almost foundered due to lack of water.
E.E. O’Brien, the Martinez contractor who won the bid, had her crews implement creative solutions to the problem.
“They told me there would be many difficulties and said I could not get the water to mix concrete for one thing,” she told the Contra Costa Courier on May 8, 1922. “Water was obtained by impounding dams along the right of way, thereby conserving the rainwater that otherwise would have run off.”
Necessity: Mother of Invention
During their first years in often-arid Moraga, the Brothers relied on similar improvisations to keep the College hydrated.
As they began setting up the College in 1927, however, lack of water did not appear to be a problem. If anything, there seemed to be an abundance.
With heavy rainfall in 1927 and 1928, the campus was often flooded, slowing construction. Las Trampas Creek frequently overran its banks, rainwater flowed down from the hills and the campus’ adobe soil turned to thick mud.
One of the College’s oldest Moraga alums, Bob McAndrews ’32, remembers his first year at the College as particularly muddy: “We had to slog between buildings in boots because roads and pathways weren’t finished and the winter was exceptionally rainy.”
The soggy beginning failed to dampen the Brothers’ spirits. They lived in an era marked by new confidence in water management feats similar to EBMUD’s successful dam and pipeline system. William Mulholland’s aqueducts had brought water hundreds of miles south to thirsty Los Angeles and earthquake-shaken San Francisco dammed faraway Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite for a reliable water supply. The Brothers were convinced Las Trampas Creek could make a big enough reservoir to supply the College.
So Lake Lasalle, created with a $100,000 earthen dam constructed by Berkeley contractor J.P. Brennan, was formed. The College’s main source of water from 1928 to 1942, the 134-acre-foot reservoir was north of the campus (behind the Power Plant) at the mouth of Bollinger Canyon.
Wells supplied some of the College’s water, but Lake Lasalle provided the rest, including irrigation water for the campus’ 20 acres of lawns. A pumping station sent lake water to redwood storage tanks located in the hills behind De La Salle Hall (near today’s “SMC” logo). The College also set up a treatment system in the hills for purifying and chlorinating water.
The water tanks proved to be an irresistible target for some pranksters: At the height of the Saint Mary’s–Cal football rivalry in the early 1930s, Berkeley students tried to paint a big yellow Cal “C” on them before games.
For a while, the water system did more than quench the campus’ thirst. The lake itself was an added attraction, as students swam and boated there in the 1930s. A 1939 Gael yearbook writer rhapsodized: “Lake Lasalle, limpid, cool, inviting, where many an hour is whiled away in an easy jaunt around the mossy banks … a tranquil panorama of water, sky and rolling hills to soothe the weary eye escaping from the printed word.”
Soon enough, however, this aquatic idyll faced a significant problem — the steady accretion of silt due to erosion which threatened to overwhelm the lake.
The Brothers’ own ad hoc hydraulic engineer, Brother Nivard Raphael, took matters into his own hands. In 1941, he built a small foredam to catch silt upstream from Lake Lasalle. But Las Trampas Creek uprooted it, leaving him back at square one. He later attempted to use the sump valve that contractors built into the bottom of the lake to drain silt through an underground pipe. The valve failed, and much of the lake’s water was lost.
These efforts to revitalize Lake Lasalle were soon overshadowed by a more pressing national concern: preparation for World War II.
A Navy Needs Water
With an acute shortage of fighter pilots after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy set up pre-flight training schools at colleges across the country. Naval officials considered several West Coast locations before accepting Saint Mary’s offer of its Moraga campus.
In a brusque wartime communication, Navy Secretary Frank Knox informed Brother President Austin via telegram on Feb. 27, 1942, that “St. Mary’s College has been selected by the Navy Department as one of the four locations for pre-flight training. Your patriotic cooperation in this vital program is appreciated.”
By June 1942, the campus’ population swelled from around 300 to more than 2,000 — the vast majority of whom were navy cadets and officers.
With a pre-flight curriculum that included boxing and swimming rather than Greek and Latin, certain accommodations were necessary. Major construction projects — including temporary barracks, a field house and a rifle range — were completed with lightning speed.
The Navy pumped silt from the bottom of Lake Lasalle to level out the area between the Chapel and St. Mary’s Road for athletic fields. The College still uses some of this space for rugby and soccer fields.
But Lake Lasalle itself, the Navy concluded, was not a good primary source of water, especially during a drought.
“When the Navy came here, they were determined not to have to rely on a creek,” Cory explains.
The College was still outside EBMUD’s service area. But while the utility district could turn down the Brothers’ request to run water pipes to Moraga, it couldn’t say no to Uncle Sam.
“The Navy went to EBMUD and told them to bring in water,” says Brother Raphael Patton, the College’s unofficial historian. “The response — that it was too far and too expensive — was what had denied the College a water connection since 1928. The Navy did not take this response kindly.”
Top Navy brass made it clear that water for the College was crucial to the war effort. Admiral L.E. Denfield sent a telegram about it to the Joint Army and Navy Munitions Board Priorities Division on May 12, 1942:
“To provide adequate water supply, both for drinking purposes and for fire protection, a pipeline will have to be constructed. The subject school (Saint Mary’s) is scheduled to open June 11, 1942, and accordingly it is requested that proper rating be assigned to the College as soon as possible.”
Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, the chief of naval personnel responsible for overall manpower readiness, followed up with another telegram.
A few months later, EBMUD and the College made an agreement leading to the installation of iron pipe beneath St. Mary’s Road to the closest EBMUD water main (two miles away, near the intersection of Rheem Boulevard and Moraga Road) and pumping equipment to bring 200,000 gallons a day to the College.
With access to EBMUD’s Mokelumne River water established, the Navy trained thousands of pilots for action against the Axis powers. After the war, it left behind the water infrastructure that has allowed the College to grow over the last six decades.
Following years of improvisation and praying for rain, the College’s water supply was finally resolved — no more relying on Lake Lasalle, which gradually turned into a willow-covered wetland.