The Captain and the Water Nixie

Photo of Capital Richardson: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library, San Francisco, CA
(Fifth in a series of stories supplementing the upcoming public television documentary)

In the early 1800’s the Brothers Grimm wrote a couple of fairy tales about a Water Nixie.

But this is not the story of a magical water fairy, but a very special ship.

Capital Richardson, often credited as one of the founders of Yerba Buena, arrived in the Bay Area in 1822 aboard the Orion. He decided to remain after falling for a young senorita.  He moved to Monterey where he petitioned the Governor for permission to settle in California. After being granted residency, he became a Roman Catholic, and married his senorita in 1825.

Richardson relocated to Saucelito, meaning “little Willow”, later renamed, Sausalito, where he had been granted the Spanish Grant – Rancho Sausalito.  The springs of Sausalito, as the area became known, was rich with springs fed with water from the Sierras.  Early fishermen, whalers and travelers, found the water of Sausalito not only tasty, but the best quality for long journeys.

Richardson built Sausalito’s first water system and by 1827 was successfully piping water from springs above the town to sell to merchant ships trading in the area.

With the discovery of gold, the need for water grew.  In the sand dunes of San Francisco, people were dying from illnesses caused by toxic wells, hastily dug in the encampments.  Richardson expanded his operation in the 1840’s, building a cistern and a series of flumes to guide water down to the beach. Captain Richardson would then load casks of water onto his ship, the Water Nixie at Whaler’s Cove, now called Shelter’s Cove in Sausalito.

The Water Nixie would deliver the water to San Francisco where it was sold for .25 to .50 cents a gallon to vendors using horse or mule drawn carts.  These vendors would then sell it for as much as $1.00 a gallon to the residents.  Calculated in 2018 rates its was nearly $30.00 a gallon.

Richardson’s Water Nixie made him a fortune and he grew his fleet to include several ocean worthy vessels. But misfortune followed with a series of bad investments and the sinking of three of his ships over a short six-month period.  In 1853, broken physically and spiritually he mortgaged everything he owned and died nearly penniless in 1856.

The Sausalito Land and Ferry Company bought his property and water works in 1869 and Sausalito Bay Water Company was incorporated in 1887.

Captain Richardson’s Water Nixie, may not have been the magical fairy from the Brothers Grimm, but it did help save and transform the lives of thousands of people in need of fresh, clean drinking water.   Richardson’s efforts help to build San Francisco.  He was among the first to bring water from the Sierras, long before Hetch Hetchy began bringing water from the wilderness our beautiful City by the Bay.

Coming Spring 2018
Water From The Wilderness: From Hetch Hetchy To San Francisco Bay
Produced by Jim Yager Media


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