Flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley was the answer to San Francisco’s drinking water problem—and the first cause célèbre of the modern environmental movement.

San Francisco was still sleeping on a spring morning in 1906 when, somewhere on the ocean floor west of the opening of San Francisco Bay called the Golden Gate, the jagged edges of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates jolted past each other and then crumbled, like teeth breaking on two gigantic sets of gears. The earthquake that followed hit the city with the force of an arsenal of nuclear weapons at 5:12 a.m. The earth shook for less than a minute, then fires erupted across the city.

Chaos and horror, however, were not the only things visible in San Francisco after the choking clouds of black smoke finally cleared. For James Phelan, the city’s wealthy former mayor, the disaster breathed new life into an old dream.

For years, Phelan had worked to transform San Francisco  from a boorish, bad-mannered Gold Rush boomtown into one of the great cities of the world. But it lacked one thing: an ample supply of water. Phelan saw a solution to that problem in the snow-fed streams of the Sierra Nevadas, some 200 miles to the east. A gravity-fed aqueduct on the western slope of the mountain range would supply enough water to transform the metropolis into a 20th-century Rome.

Civic leaders, in fact, had long struggled with the reality that the city, ringed by ocean on three sides, lacked a municipal supply of fresh water. As the population of San Francisco exploded— from some 800 people in the spring of 1848, prior to the discovery of gold, to nearly 60,000 by 1860— water had become a crucial commodity. Between 1849 and 1852, great fires had burned the city a half-dozen times. While the fire companies organized themselves, private water suppliers jostled for control of the city’s water market. The Spring Valley Water Company, franchised in 1858, emerged as the dominant provider and grew into a monopoly that would have San Francisco in its clutches for more than 60 years.

The Spring Valley stranglehold was more than Phelan, a high-minded reformer who chafed at the greed of businessmen and the graft of political bosses, could stomach. The three-term mayor (1896- 1902), the son of a ’49er who had earned a fortune selling supplies and services to the hordes flocking into the foothills to find gold, marched San Francisco toward its manifest destiny. “On a map of the world,” he preached in 1896, “the great bay and harbor opening onto 76,000,000 miles of ocean was stamped by the hand of fate and destined for Empire.”

By the turn of the century, Phelan’s effort to find a public water supply had become a personal obsession, and in 1901 he found just what San Francisco was looking for in the 1899-1900 annual report of the U.S. Geological Survey. After a canvass of rivers west of the 100th meridian, the Survey concluded that a dam and reservoir at Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park could “furnish the city of San Francisco with an unfailing supply of pure water.”

Accompanying the data was commentary by John Wesley Powell, the celebrated Civil War veteran who had led the first exploration of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, and had since become the respected head of the Survey. “Hetch Hetchy Valley,” Powell wrote, “is a veritable Yosemite Valley on a small scale. The rugged granite walls, crowned with domes, towers, spires, and battlements, seem to rise almost perpendicularly upon all sides to a height of 2,500 feet above this beautiful emerald meadow, which, seen from the trail approaching it from the east, is a sight never to be forgotten.”

Phelan and his supporters were not swayed by what city attorney Marsden Manson later described as “verbal lingerie” that paid homage to the area’s spectacular beauty. To them, Hetch Hetchy was a deep granite bathtub with high walls, a narrow mouth and a powerful river carrying millions of gallons of pure mountain water through it.

There was a problem: National park land presumably was protected from development. But in February 1901, Congress had passed the Right of Way Act authorizing the secretary of the Interior “to permit the use of rights of way through the public lands, forest and other reservations of the United States, and the Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant national parks, California, for electrical plants, poles and lines for the generation and distribution of electrical power…and for canals, ditches, pipes and pipe lines, flumes, tunnels, or other water conduits, and for water plants, dams and reservoirs used to promote irrigation or…the supplying of water for domestic, public, or any other beneficial uses.”

San Francisco had wasted little time in testing the new law. In April 1902, Phelan petitioned Interior Secretary Ethan Hitchcock for a permit to proceed with the development of Hetch Hetchy Valley as a site for a dam and reservoir. A holdover from the McKinley administration, Hitchcock was an elderly conservative who simply didn’t buy into the Progressive gospel of utilitarian conservation that believed natural resources should be harnessed for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. He denied the city’s petition in January 1903.

Phelan did not give up, even when no longer mayor. In April he had sent a new city attorney, Franklin Lane, to Washington to present San Francisco’s appeal in person. In a bid to mollify Hitchcock’s concerns about violating national park lands, Lane argued that the proposed dam would turn the meadow in Hetch Hetchy Valley into a “highly attractive feature of the mountains.” Hitchcock had remained unconvinced, however, and he denied the appeal three days before Christmas.

Phelan, whose banking and real estate investments had made him independently wealthy, traveled to Washington on his own dime more than once between 1903 and 1906 in a bid to keep his Hetch Hetchy dream alive. The going was hard. An appeal to Congress died in the Committee on Public Lands. A third appeal to Hitchcock was denied in February 1905. Within days of the secretary’s final ruling, however, three important events helped bring Phelan’s dream for San Francisco closer to reality.

First, probably at Phelan’s urging, Congress had expanded the boundary of Yosemite National Park to include the entire upper Tuolumne River drainage for Hetch Hetchy. Second, the state of California had returned to the federal government President Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 Yosemite grant, which had been administered as a state park, for incorporation into the national park. Third, and most important, a wealthy son of Pennsylvania named Gifford Pinchot had been named the first chief forester of the new U.S. Forest Service.

No individual—not even James Phelan—was as responsible for damming the Tuolumne and flooding Hetch Hetchy Valley as Gifford Pinchot. As biographer Char Miller notes, between his birth a few months after the end of the Civil War and his death in October 1946, Pinchot “worked for, offered counsel to, and battled with every president from Grover Cleveland to Harry S. Truman. As modern America emerged, Pinchot was among its creators.”

Pinchot had been aware of Phelan’s plan to build a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley since 1903. Where Hitchcock favored preserving Hetch Hetchy in its natural state, for Pinchot no wild place was off-limits to development that rendered service to man. “The object of our forest policy,” he told the Society of American Foresters in 1903, “is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful or wild or the habitat of wild animals; it is to ensure a steady supply of timber for human prosperity. Every other consideration comes as secondary.”

Pinchot’s words had been a symphony of beautiful music to Phelan’s ears. Phelan quickly asked Pinchot to take San Francisco’s case to President Theodore Roosevelt, but the Progressive president was not much help. The situation went from bad to worse in January 1906 when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed Resolution 6949, formally prohibiting the city from “expending further money, energy or time in the futile attempt to acquire the…Tuolumne system.” After five years of frustration, James Phelan’s bid to build a great city nourished by a grand aqueduct looked dead in the water.

The April 1906 earthquake and fires, however, jolted Phelan’s dream of an imperial city back to life. San Franciscans were angry at what they saw as the failure of the Spring Valley water system. With city hall reduced to rubble, reformers reasserted political control and resumed their pursuit of a Hetch Hetchy permit. In May, city attorney Manson wrote Pinchot to ask for help, and Pinchot replied that this time, the Roosevelt administration would look favorably on a new application. The project was also helped along in November 1906 by the retirement of 72-year-old Hitchcock as secretary of the Interior. Pinchot informed Manson that Hitchcock’s successor, James Garfield, was a close friend of his who might be more open to San Francisco’s plan to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley.

It didn’t take long for Pinchot’s words to ring true. In July 1907, Garfield met with Phelan, Manson and 10 others in San Francisco to discuss the city’s plans. Manson did most of the talking. The new Interior secretary didn’t have to say much. Everyone in the room knew Garfield as a friend to San Francisco business and civic interests who also shared their utilitarian conservation philosophy. So it was no surprise when Garfield approved San Francisco’s permit in May 1908 with the blessing of both Pinchot and Roosevelt.

The shot that started the battle royal over Hetch Hetchy was fired by naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir in the winter of 1909. Furious at not being invited to the hearing with Garfield, Muir, with the help of Sierra Club secretary William Colby, mailed a pamphlet to members of Congress and other influential people across the country with headlines ranging from “Save the Hetch Hetchy Valley” to “Let All the People Speak and Prevent the Destruction of Yosemite National Park.” Garfield was not amused. After receiving Muir’s preservationist propaganda, Garfield sent an open letter that was widely publicized in the nation’s press denouncing Muir and the nature lovers. Muir fired back in an open letter of his own: “The more I study your decision of May 11, 1908…the greater it seems the mistake you have made in allowing a city to destroy any part of [Yosemite National] Park what[so]ever.”

Muir was not alone. Hundreds of letters and telegrams poured in from every corner of America asking Congress to set aside San Francisco’s request to flood the valley. “It is a shame and desecration to appropriate Hetch Hetchy Valley for such a purpose,” wrote Edith and Ida Elliott of New Bedford, Mass. From Northern California, Melville Anderson, a student at Stanford University, pointed out that “we who are ancients of the earth…should be mindful that we hold the resources of the land in trusteeship for the generations which will have to bear the heat and burden of the day. What name shall we deserve among them if we leave them the supreme natural beauties of the world wantonly defaced?”

The outpouring of such sentiments had begun during hearings on Hetch Hetchy before the House Committee on Public Lands in December 1908. They reached flood stage five years later as Congress took up the task of sifting through tens of thousands of comments from citizens and the unceasing attacks of a small but rabid band of preservationists led by Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century, the nation’s leading literary magazine. The Sierra Club’s Colby summarized the preservationist approach to conservation: “Our opponents have all through this contest shown that they utterly fail to appreciate our motives which are solely to save for the people of this nation and for future generations, a great national playground already dedicated to their use but which is in grave danger of being seriously mutilated.”

The utilitarians, led by Pinchot, couldn’t have thought more differently. “As to my attitude regarding the proposed use of Hetch Hetchy by the city of San Francisco,” he testified before Congress in 1913, “I am fully persuaded that…the injury…by substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the valley…is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived from its use as a reservoir.” Pinchot and the utilitarians simply felt that human needs took precedence over the ecological and recreational value of the valley. “The delight of a few men and women who would yearly go into the Hetch Hetchy Valley,” Pinchot said, “should not outweigh…conservation policy, [which directs us] to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which will best serve the most people.”

In the end, Congress sided with Pinchot, passing H.R. 7207 (later known as the Raker Act for its sponsor, Rep. John Raker of California) at 11:57 p.m. on December 6, 1913. Watching from the Senate gallery was a contingent from San Francisco that included Phelan and Michael O’Shaughnessy, the civil engineer who would later be hired to build the dam that would carry his name. After the vote, the men retired to the bar at Washington’s landmark Willard Hotel to celebrate the successful culmination of more than a decade of lobbying. Ironically, perhaps, the only thing they could get for their toast was water.

Soon Phelan and O’Shaughnessy were on a train bound for San Francisco and brainstorming the second-largest public works project of its time. Phelan couldn’t have known that it would take 21 years to complete, or that he would die four years before that day dawned.

Back in the Bay Area, Muir licked deep wounds inflicted during the long years of defending the Hetch Hetchy Valley from desecration. The old nature lover still had enough strength left to lash out at Phelan and San Francisco. “As to the loss of the Sierra Park Valley,” he wrote a friend, “it’s hard to bear. The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart. But in spite of Satan & Co. some sort of compensation must surely come out of this dark damn-dam-damnation.” Sadly, Muir died not long after, on December 24, 1914.

Muir was right. Three years after the passage of the Raker Act, Congress created the National Park Service. In losing the battle over Hetch Hetchy, preservationists had won a larger war by introducing an entire nation to the value of wilderness. The national park idea, begun at Yellowstone in 1872 and continued in Yosemite in 1890, had by the 1930s spread around the world.

Lessons learned the hard way during the Hetch Hetchy campaign would pay dividends in the coming decades. In the 1940s, for example, the Bureau of Reclamation’s planned 10-dam Colorado River Storage Project included a dam at Echo Park that threatened wilderness areas in Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. Led by David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, the wilderness lobby convinced U.S. lawmakers to shelve the dam at Echo Park and got language added to the Colorado River Storage Project bill passed in 1956 stating, “No dam or reservoir constructed under the authorization of the Act shall be within any National Park or Monument.”

After the victory at Echo Park, Howard Zahniser, executive director of the Wilderness Society, drafted a bill to protect some of the nation’s remaining wilderness. Rep. Wayne Aspinall of Colorado called it “a crazy idea.” Even the National Park Service originally opposed the bill. But Zahniser, cut from the same conservationist cloth as those who grew up with the wilderness lobby in the aftermath of the Hetch Hetchy campaign, pressed on. Zahniser rewrote and resubmitted the bill that became the Wilderness Act 66 times between June 1957 and May 1964. In September 1964, after a host of congressional hearings and more than 6,000 pages of testimony, President Lyndon Johnson signed the law establishing 9.1 million acres of federally protected wilderness in U.S. national forests.

Shortly after the passage of the Wilderness Act, a controversy arose over the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan to build high dams at Bridge and Marble canyons near the Grand Canyon. Motivated by the memory of the loss of Hetch Hetchy and Glen Canyon (sacrificed by the wilderness lobby in the bid to prevent the dam at Echo Park) Brower prepared for another battle. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had Hetch Hetchy on his mind, too. The valley was flooded out, Udall wrote in his environmental history The Quiet Crisis, “but those who had fought a losing fight for the principles of park preservation served notice in the country that its outdoor temples would be defended with blood and bone.” This time, the bone and blood lobby won: President Johnson signed a damless Central Arizona Project bill into law on September 30, 1968.

Near the end of the congressional hearings on Hetch Hetchy in 1913, Sen. James Reed of Missouri had risen from his seat to confess that he simply couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. How, Reed asked, could the fate of a tiny valley that hardly anyone visited be important enough to send the U.S. Senate “into profound debate” and the entire country “into a condition of hysteria”?

Decades later, Roderick Nash answered the question in Wilderness and the American Mind. “The most significant thing about the controversy over the valley,” Nash wrote in 1967, “was that it occurred at all. One hundred or even fifty years earlier a similar proposal to dam a wilderness river would not have occasioned the slightest ripple of protest. Traditional American assumptions about the use of undeveloped country did not include reserving it in national parks for its recreational, aesthetic, and inspirational values. The emphasis was all the other way—on civilizing it in the name of progress and prosperity. Older generations conceived of the thrust of civilization into wilderness as the beneficent working out of divine intentions, but in the twentieth century a handful of preservationists generated widespread resistance against this very process. What had formerly been the subject of national celebration was made to appear a national tragedy.

“Previously most Americans had not felt compelled to rationalize the conquest of wild country in this manner. For three centuries they had chosen civilization without any hesitation. By 1913 they were no longer so sure.”


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here