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El Paso Community College
Library Research Guides

Historical Markers Project: Early Water Works Site

Survey of thirty-three historic sites in the El Paso area, with research materials, interviews, and summary materials.

Early Water Works Site

Research Packet and Narrative by: Carlos Montes and Dr. George D. Torok 

Honors Project, Spring 2002

National Endowment for the Humanities Historical Markers Project 


Sunset Heights Pumping Station

Narrative History

In the arid climate of the Chihuahua Desert, the storage, distribution, and use of water has been a problem for centuries. Some Native-American groups in the Southwest developed water systems  but there do not appear to have been any organized ones in the El Paso area. Most likely, it was the Spanish who brought the acequia, or irrigation ditch,  system to the region and used it as a source of water for both agricultural and domestic use.

Sunset Heights Pumping Station.  Image provided by George D. Torok

The first formal irrigation system appeared with the establishment of the Guadalupe Mission in the 1650s. By the 18th century, the greater Paso del Norte Valley had an extensive system of canals and drains that served the haciendas, missions, and villas of the area. Well into the 19th century, the acequia system provided water for the Paso del Norte area. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, Anglo-Americans entered the valley and settled the north side of the Rio Grande. They continued to use irrigation canals, expanding and diverting them to new ranches and farms. By the time the International Boundary Commission surveyed the Pass in 1852, they found a vast network of main and lateral canals serving the area as far south as San Elizario.[i]

With the arrival of the railroad in 1881, American El Paso underwent a tremendous period of growth. Thousands of settlers arrived and many new businesses and residences were built over the next few years. The city struggled to provide basic services to its new residents. The acequia system had become obsolete and new technologies from the east were brought in to provide new water services. In 1882, Sylvester Watts received a city franchise and established the first area water works. He built a pumping station about 600 feet north of Main Street and began lifting water from the river and storing it in a reservoir located in today’s Sunset Heights area.[ii] In 1892 Watts expanded his water services by digging a well near Third Street. Watts’ El Paso Water Works served the city until 1902, but never provided consistent, quality water.[iii] Watts’ contract was transferred to the International Water Company in 1903 but continued problems prompted the city to take the system over in 1910. A water commission was created and major renovations were made to the entire system. New pumps and machinery were installed in 1913, and the original Watts’ reservoir was enlarged and reconstructed in 1916. By the 1910s, the city had a greatly expanded water system including several pumping stations, reservoirs and wells to serve a population almost 78,000 people. The Sunset Heights Pumping Station, ca. 1913,  and the nearby reservoir lie on a site that has played an important role in the development of early water works in El Paso.[iv]

[i] Neal W. Ackerly, “Historic and Modern Irrigation Systems,” in John A. Petersen and David O. Brown, eds., El Valle Bajo: The Culture History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of El Paso (El Paso, TX 1991), 65, 66;

[ii] Marion C. Nicoll, “Brief History of the El Paso Water System from 1881 to 1921,” unpublished Masters’ thesis (El Paso, TX 1952), 13; Christopher Wallace, Water Out of the Desert (El Paso, TX 1969), 21.

[iii] Knud Salveson, “A History of the El Paso Water Works, 1881-1910" (unpublished paper, 1969), n.p.

[iv] Nicoll, “Brief History of the El Paso Water System,” 14.44, 67; Wallace, Water Out of the Desert, 22.



Books and Papers:

Metz, Leon. El Paso: Guided Through Time. El Paso, TX: Mangan Books, 1999.

Nicoll, Marion C. “Brief History of the El Paso Water System from 1881 to 1921.” El Paso, TX:  University of Texas at El Paso, 1952.

Peterson, John A. and David O. Brown, eds. El Valle Bajo: The Culture History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of El Paso. Austin, TX: Hicks and Company, 1991.

Rittmann, Douglas. “El Paso Water Story.” unpublished paper, n.d.

Salveson, Knud. “A History of the El Paso Water Works, 1881-1910.” unpublished paper, 1969.

Sonnichsen, C.L. Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande. 2 vols. El Paso, TX: University of Texas at El Paso, 1980.

Timmons, W.H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso, TX: University of Texas at El Paso, 1990.

Wallace, Christopher. Water Out of the Desert. El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1969.



El Paso (TX) Herald-Post,    Feb. 11, Mar. 20, 1942.

El Paso (TX) Times, Feb. 13, 18, 1942. 

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