In 1906, an enormous earthquake rocked San Francisco. Much of the city was reduced to rubble. But the rebuilding effort that
followed offered city officials the opportunity to realize a long-time goal– a new and expanded water supply. For years, city officials had been wanting to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley 167 miles away in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The valley, they thought, would be an ideal place for reservoir that would provide water for the city forever.
But there was a catch. Hetch Hetchy was part of Yosemite National Park, which meant that it was federal property. And so San Francisco couldn’t do anything to the valley without congressional approval. Because Congress was involved, the question to dam or not to damn sparked a seven-year debate that was followed by Americans all over the country. City officials had the support of Gifford Pinchot, head of the US Forest Service, and close ally of President Teddy Roosevelt. But the plan met fierce resistance from legendary naturalist John Muir, who had been instrumental in making his beloved Yosemite a National Park. He wasn’t going to give up Hetch Hetchy without a fight.
Our host Brian Balogh spoke with Char Miller, a historian who has written about this battle. He says Muir knew his best hope was to win over the American public, much of which had never heard of this place.
On Muir’s efforts to paint a picture of the battle for Hetch Hetchy in the press:
“From Muir’s point of view, what made mountains so important was their capacity to humble us. So to go up into the mountains is to get close to God. To get close to God is to realize how small we are. T And so his language was couched in not only the aesthetics and the beauty, but the subtext is, you are fighting for God. Well, if you’re fighting for God, the other side has to be the devil. Listen to this framing in a chapter he wrote in a book published in 1911, as part of the opposition to Hetch Hetchy:
‘These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for nature. And instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the almighty dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy, as well dam for water tanks, the people’s cathedrals and churches. For no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.’
It’s powerful stuff. And so imagine reading this in the Century Magazine in New York City. And if you’ve got an ounce of sensibility in you, you are enraged. Because you’ve never seen Hetch Hetchy, you don’t understand, and who cares about San Francisco?”
On how Muir’s advocacy affected votes in Congress for the dam project:
“The dam was built. The water is still impounded. San Francisco is wet as a consequence of Hetch Hetchy disappearing under all of that volume of water. And so in 1913, the debate reaches its crescendo. In the end, Congress voted in a really interesting way to enact legislation that would provide money to build the O’Shaughnessy Dam. And the interesting way in which Congress acted, you can look at the votes, and the farther away the voter was from Hetch Hetchy physically, the more likely they were to vote with John Muir. The closer they were to Hetch Hetchy physically, the more likely they were to vote with Gifford Pinchot and those who were promoting the Hetch Hetchy dam. Because the West saw its interests as allied with those of California. If San Francisco could do this, maybe Denver could do the same thing.”
This story comes from our episode on Americans and the wilderness. You can listen to the whole show here.