By Hanah Tabios
After more than 60 years of total neglect, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) will soon unveil to the public the newly revived and first government-managed 137-year-old historic underground tunnel hidden beneath the Pinaglabanan Memorial Shrine in San Juan City.
The El Deposito tunnel was the country’s first water reservoir and was one of the oldest and largest remaining Spanish artifacts recently excavated in the country.
Long before the two major water suppliers in the metropolis, Manila Water Company Inc. and Maynilad Water Services Inc., were established, there used to be a water provider system supplying all the cities in central Manila constructed back during the 19th century—the Carriedo waterworks system.
It was Francisco Carriedo y Peredo, a wealthy Spanish businessman and philanthropist, who funded the project.
Carriedo, a native of Santander town in Spain, arrived in Manila in 1722. According to the digital copy of Frederic Sawyer’s book “The Inhabitants of the Philippines”, a sum of money had been left by the former galleon trade general during the 18th century before his death.
He donated P10,000 at the Ayuntamiento de Manila for the construction of a water line originating from San Pedro de Macati. However, his initial proposal was rejected a year after.
Hence, Carriedo decided to secure his money in a bank, but with the following conditions for its use: 1) construction of a water system in Manila; 2) installing of public fountains in Intramuros and in some outskirts deprived of potable water source; and 3) providing drinking water supply in the convents of San Francisco, San Juan de Dios, and Santa Clara Monastery.
The fund was later called Caja de Carriedo.
But according to NCHP’s historic and development officer and now officer-in-charge of the Museo El Deposito, Katherine Oliveros, the money was used 150 years later, after his passing.
“Inimbak niya yung pera sa Ayuntamiento para lumago tapos nakapag-ipon na from 10,000 naging 100 plus thousand yun na yun na ang ginamit sa pagpapagawa ng El Deposito and also the fountain. That’s why the Carriedo fountain was named after him,” she told the Manila Bulletin in an interview.
This as during the mid-1800s, Spanish engineer Tomas Cortes revealed on his study analysis that the quality of water in Pasig River was dangerous and sourcing water from the river became one of the reasons of the spread of cholera in 1843.
Construction of the 19th-century reservoir
In 1867, second-class Spanish engineer Don Genaro Palacios y Guerra arrived in the country and his role became vital in the construction of the historic tunnel.
He was also the man behind the reconstruction of the famed San Sebastian Church.
Initially, Palacios presented two proposals for the construction of the project. But history said his first design was rejected due to its complexities, primarily due to its structural integrity and costing which would need P2, 289, 548.
Palacios then presented his alternative plan and was later approved by the Juna Consultativa de Obras Publicas de Filipinas (Public Works Advisory Board in the Philippines) headed by engineer Manuel Ramirez Batan.
In the approved design, the water system will source water from the San Mateo River (now Marikina River) where the water was pumped by engines located in Santolan in San Juan del Monte.
A massive excavation was made, creating a centralized canal that would connect 25 canals at the sides. Each structure had a length of around 5 meters and a width of 3 meters.
Two hundred seven underground covered holes were also constructed to serve as ventilation.
From the pumping station, the water passed through a 5-kilometer cast iron pipes down to the historic El Deposito water reservoir.
“Yung San Juan City, San Juan Del Monte before, napili bilang location ng El Deposito dahil mataas yung location niya kasi they use gravity para maidistribute yung tubig. Kung mapapansin niyo, pahilltop kasi itong San Juan tapos pababa na sa Manila,” Oliveros said.
During that period, the underground water reservoir can fill 56,000 cubic meters, enough to supply around 300,000 people in the areas of Sampaloc, Quiapo, Sta. Cruz, and Binondo. It also supplied water in some lines toward water fountains and five other water hydrants in different parts of Intramuros and Manila suburbs.
But on August 30, 1896, the Battle of Pinaglabanan erupted.
History said the Spanish artillery was also stationed at the grounds of San Juan Del Monte, near the area where the tunnel was built. Spanish commander and Captain of Artillery Camilo Rambaud was protecting their weapons against the Katipuneros at that time.
But in June 1898, the Filipino revolutionaries attacked the Spanish occupants assigned at the Santolan grounds in San Juan del Monte. It was also the same location where the machines that pumped water from its direct water source down to the reservoir were located.
The troop of victorious Katipuneros led by Colonel Antonio Montenegro later gained control of El Deposito.
“Katipunan tried to control yung El Deposito because they aim to paralyze the military operations ng Spaniards sa kamaynilaan. Kasi once na walang tubig, madidivert yung attention ng Spaniards sa pagkalap ng tubig. Yun yung ginawa nilang way noong 1898 para makuha yung El Polvorin,” she added.
The historic El Polvorin, which was also a few meters away from El Deposito, was a gun depot also built by Spaniards just in case Manila would be attacked.
And so the offensive raid of Katipuneros later paralyzed the country’s first water reservoir, affecting 285,454 consumers at that time.
However, shortly after the Philippine-American war took place in the 1900s, the Americans captured El Deposito and El Polvorin. They attacked the Filipinos guarding the water pumps in Santolan to return Manila’s water supply.
“Eventually, naging military camp [ang El Deposito]. Tapos noong 1911 to 1916, naging ospital ng may tuberculosis,” Oliveros narrated.
The area also turned into an armory of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
But between the dates of 1942 to 1945 during the Second World War, the Japanese forces repurposed El Deposito tunnel into an ammunition dump since the water storage tunnel had already dried up. To note, this period also coincided with the collapse of the fighting Filipino resistance movement after the infamous Battle of Corregidor and the Fall of Bataan.
Years later, in June 18, 1955, the National Waterworks and Sewerage Authority (NAWASA) was established by virtue of Republic Act 1383. It was created to manage all water systems in the Philippines, including the Carriedo waterworks system. El Deposito was also placed under its care.
But the dissolution of NAWASA gave birth to the establishment of the now Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS).
When the year 1955 came, it was the start of the decline of the structure where it became a public space and home to some informal dwellers in the city.
The historic El Deposito tunnel became a dumping site filled with trash and harmful algal bloom.
Returning the lost glory
Around six decades later, the site became the subject of investigation of the University of the Philippines Archaeological Studies Program.
A group of researchers first entered into the underground structure in 2016.
But the NHCP ordered for its massive clean up two years later. It was also on the same year when the comprehensive planning for its rehabilitation began. In fact, in February 2019, the newly built Museo El Deposito was unveiled to the public.
To emphasize, the structure lies just above the tunnel showcasing other artifacts recovered at the site, including WWII firearms shells and battle gears of American and Japanese forces.
Two vintage bombs were also recovered at the site.
Oliveros said the national government allotted around P40 million for the reconstruction of the tunnel which will open its doors to the public in February 2020.
Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat also pledged during the Pinaglabanan anniversary that the tourism department will allot around P50 million budget for the reconstruction of the tunnel.
Clyde Cruz, project engineer from J.S. Lim Construction and Trading, assured the Manila Bulletin that the redesign of the structure’s interior is safe for every visiting individual.
There would be a service elevator from the underground, a PWD ramp, emergency exits, huge ventilation fans, as well as a drainage system with heavy duty submersible pumps that would ensure the visitors’ safety in case they would worry about potential flooding considering its location.
El Deposito museum curator Jonel Rabusa said that they would craft some guidelines like requiring guardians and limits for those who have claustrophobia.
But for its soft opening early next year, only a portion of the tunnel would be accessible to public.
Of the 150-meter stretch, those who plan to visit may only walk until 30 meters and check its features.
In fact, The Manila Bulletin was among the very few and select media organizations who first gained access to the tunnel prior to its opening.
Battle marks remained visible where carved names believed to be written by those who inhabited the tunnel can be found, including some corresponding dates.
Some readable marks include “Manuel Madrigal, Vet. War II, and Feb. 5, 1917” which failed to perish despite changes in time.
There were also numbers written on each aqueduct likely to be the assigned ammunition storage rooms according to NHCP.
However, at present, only very few literature narrates the significant contribution of El Deposito tunnel in Philippine history compared with the famed Malinta tunnel in Corregidor Island.