One Hundred Hikes in Yosemite

Humans in Yosemite—The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Though Muir and the Sierra Club could claim partial victory with the creation of a unified, if reduced, Yosemite National Park in 1906, they had another serious problem to confront. In 1901 the city of San Francisco had applied for permission to dam Hetch Hetchy. "Dam Hetch Hetchy!" Muir exclaimed. "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." Secretary Hitchcock of the US Department of the Interior concurred with Muir and denied permission. But the city persisted and, despite continued opposition by the Sierra Club and others, it succeeded in obtaining water rights with the passage of the Raker Act in late 1913. The new Secretary of the Interior favored dams.

Construction began, Hetch Hetchy's granite was dynamited for rocks to make the dam's core, and the canyon's floor was cleared of timber. Part of this timber was used in the dam's construction, but an additional 6+ million board feet of timber logged inside the Park was also used, adding insult to injury. The project was completed in 1923, but in 1938 the dam was increased by 85 feet to its present height. This reservoir could have been located down-canyon, just outside Hetch Hetchy, but a lower location would have resulted in reduced hydroelectric power. I wonder: If the road to Hetch Hetchy had extended up-canyon, providing access to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, would the city have built an even greater hydroelectric project there?

Exit the Army
With the passage of the Raker Act in 1913, conservationists took a decisive defeat in their battle to save Hetch Hetchy. Muir died shortly afterward, perhaps of heartbreak, though certainly of old age. Just before he died he expressed hope that "some compensating good must follow [from the Raker Act]." It did—in the form of a new spirit of conservation, of a growing national awareness that Americans must preserve the land, not exploit and destroy it. This mounting consensus probably played a significant part in the creation of the national park Act of 1916—though in addition Europe was already at war, America was talking war, and the Army probably wanted all its troops out of the nation's parks.

When the Fourth Cavalry left Yosemite, they left behind an impressive record. They had driven sheep and cattle from the Park, had helped to settle property disputes, had laid the foundation for today's trail system, had mapped the park in substantial detail, and had even planted trout in the Park's lakes (this, however, would adversely affect the lake's native fauna). Many of the cavalry's troops are commemorated today by their names lent to dozens of the Park's backcountry features, such as Rodgers and Foerster peaks, Benson and Smedberg lakes, Fernandez and Isberg passes. For Yosemite, the cavalry had by and large "come to the rescue."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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