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Giving a Dam: Congress Debates Hetch Hetchy

The first great American conservation movement was born during the Progressive Era out of the concern that industrial growth and urban development threatened to extinguish America’s wilderness. The era’s most controversial environmental issue was the five-year struggle over federal approval for the flooding of a remote corner of federally-owned land in California’s Yosemite National Park to build the Hetch Hetchy dam. The city of San Francisco, rebuilding after the devastating 1906 earthquake, believed the dam was necessary to meet its burgeoning needs for reliable supplies of water and electricity. In their 1913 testimony before the House Committee on Public Lands, former San Francisco Mayor James Phelan and Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester of the United States and the most noted conservationist of his generation, put the utilitarian needs of San Francisco’s citizens above the aesthetic and moral advantages of leaving Yosemite a pristine wilderness. In the end Congress chose management over aesthetics, voting 43–25 (with 29 abstentions) to allow the Hetch Hetchy dam on federal land.

The CHAIRMAN: [Scott Ferris, Congressman from Oklahoma.] In deference to Mr. [Gifford] Pinchot’s wishes, as he desires to leave the city, he will be permitted to address the committee at this time if there is no objection.

Mr. PINCHOT: Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee, my testimony will be very short. I presume that you very seldom have the opportunity of passing upon any measure before the Committee on the Public Lands which has been so thoroughly thrashed out as this one. This question has been up now, I should say, more than 10 years, and the reasons for and against the proposition have not only been discussed over and over again, but a great deal of the objections which could be composed have been composed, until finally there remains simply the one question of the objection of the Spring Valley Water Co. I understand that the much more important objection of the Tuolumne irrigation districts have been overcome. There is, I understand, objection on the part of other irrigators, but that does not go to the question of using the water, but merely to the distribution of the water. So we come now face to face with the perfectly clean question of what is the best use to which this water that flows out of the Sierras can be put. As we all know, there is no use of water that is higher than the domestic use. Then, if there is, as the engineers tell us, no other source of supply that is anything like so reasonably available as this one; if this is the best, and, within reasonable limits of cost, the only means of supplying San Francisco with water, we come straight to the question of whether the advantage of leaving this valley in a state of nature is greater than the advantage of using it for the benefit of the city of San Francisco.

Now, the fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will best serve the most people, and I think there can be no question at all but that in this case we have an instance in which all weighty considerations demand the passage of the bill. There are, of course, a very large number of incidental changes that will arise after the passage of the bill. The construction of roads, trails, and telephone systems which will follow the passage of this bill will be a very important help in the park and forest reserves. The national forest telephone system and the roads and trails to which this bill will lead will form an important additional help in fighting fire in the forest reserves. As has already been set forth by the two Secretaries, the presence of these additional means of communication will mean that the national forest and the national park will be visited by very large numbers of people who cannot visit them now. I think that the men who assert that it is better to leave a piece of natural scenery in its natural condition have rather the better of the argument, and I believe if we had nothing else to consider than the delight of the few men and women who would yearly go into the Hetch Hetchy Valley, then it should be left in its natural condition. But the considerations on the other side of the question to my mind are simply overwhelming, and so much so that I have never been able to see that there was any reasonable argument against the use of this water supply by the city of San Francisco. . . .

Mr. [John] RAKER: [California Congressman] Taking the scenic beauty of the park as it now stands, and the fact that the valley is sometimes swamped along in June and July, is it not a fact that if a beautiful dam is put there, as is contemplated, and as the picture is given by the engineers, with the roads contemplated around the reservoir and with other trails, it will be more beautiful than it is now, and give more opportunity for the use of the park?

Mr. PINCHOT: Whether it will be more beautiful, I doubt, but the use of the park will be enormously increased. I think there is no doubt about that.

Mr. RAKER: In other words, to put it a different way, there will be more beauty accessible than there is now?

Mr. PINCHOT: Much more beauty will be accessible than now.

Mr. RAKER: And by putting in roads and trails the Government, as well as the citizens of the Government, will get more pleasure out of it than at the present time?

Mr. PINCHOT: You might say from the standpoint of enjoyment of beauty and the greatest good to the greatest number, they will be conserved by the passage of this bill, and there will be a great deal more use of the beauty of the park than there is now. greatest good to the greatest number, they will be conserved by the passage of this bill, and there will be a great deal more use of the beauty of the park than there is now.

Mr. RAKER: Have you seen Mr. John Muir’s criticism of the bill? You know him?

Mr. PINCHOT: Yes, sir; I know him very well. He is an old and a very good friend of mine. I have never been able to agree with him in his attitude toward the Sierras for the reason that my point of view has never appealed to him at all. When I became Forester and denied the right to exclude sheep and cows from the Sierras, Mr. Muir thought I had made a great mistake, because I allowed the use by an acquired right of a large number of people to interfere with what would have been the utmost beauty of the forest. In this case I think he has unduly given away to beauty as against use.

Mr. RAKER: Would that be practically the same as to the position of the Sierras [sic] Club?

Mr. PINCHOT: I am told that there is a very considerable difference of opinion in the club on this subject.

Mr. RAKER:Among themselves?

Mr. PINCHOT: Yes, sir.

Mr. RAKER: You think then, as a matter of fact, that the provisions of this bill carried out would relieve the situation; in other words, that there is no valid objection which they could make?

Mr. PINCHOT: That is my judgment. . . .

The CHAIRMAN: Mr. Phelan, please state what official connection you have had with the city of San Francisco.

Mr. PHELAN: I was mayor of San Francisco for five years, my term ending in 1902.

The CHAIRMAN: Are you connected with the administration in any way now?

Mr. PHELAN: No, sir; except as a member of this commission which has been sent to Washington, appointed by the mayor of San Francisco, to represent in part the city of San Francisco in this water investigation. I am also a library trustee, but the water investigation has nothing to do with books. The mayor asked me to appear because I am familiar with the needs of the city of San Francisco, where I was born and of which I have been ever since a resident, and because during my incumbency of the office of mayor the first filings were made on this Hetch Hetchy Valley and on the Tuolumne River. I have also participated in the several hearings which have been had on this subject. I realize that the committee has gone into all the questions at this hearing, and I do not wish to delay the committee a moment longer than is necessary, so I will only emphasize the fact that the needs of San Francisco are pressing and urgent. San Francisco is expanding with tremendous rapidity due to the development of the interior of California and to the prospect of the early opening of the canal and the building of the exposition, and already, notwithstanding the threat of a water famine, the outlying district, which never before was developed, is being cut up into suburban tracts.

A large number of our population has been lost to Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley, by reason of the fact that we have never had adequate facilities either of transportation or of water supply to meet what would otherwise be a demand for residences on the peninsula. There are disadvantages in crossing the bay. So San Francisco, the chief Federal city on the Pacific coast, asks the Federal Government for assistance in this matter by grant and not by money. It has obligated itself to pay $70,000,000 for a water supply. We have endeavored to satisfy the needs of the $70,000,000 for a water supply. We have endeavored to satisfy the needs of the irrigationists in good faith, as well as the local water monopoly, and we come this year to Washington, I think, with the good will of those heretofore opposed, possibly with the exception of the gentlemen who are devoted to the preservation of the beauties of nature.

As Californians, we rather resent gentlemen from different parts of the country outside of California telling us that we are invading the beautiful natural resources of the State or in any way marring or detracting from them. We have a greater pride than they in the beauties of California, in the valleys, in the big trees, in the rivers, and in the high mountains. We have the highest mountain in the United States in California, Mount Whitney, 15,000 feet above the sea, as we have the lowest land, in Death Valley, 300 feet below the sea. We have the highest tree known in the world, and the oldest tree. Its history goes back 2,000 years, I believe, judged by the internal evidences; as we have the youngest in the world, Luther Burbank’s plumcot.

All of this is of tremendous pride, and even for a water supply we would not injure the great resources which have made our State the playground of the world. By constructing a dam at this very narrow gorge in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, about 700 feet across, we create, not a reservoir, but a lake, because Mr. Freeman, who has studied the situation in Manchester or Birmingham, where there is a similar case, has shown that by planting trees or vines over the dam, the idea of a dam, the appearance of a dam, is entirely lost; so, coming upon it, it will look like an emerald gem in the mountains; and one of the few things in which California is deficient, especially in the Sierras, is lakes, and in this way we will contribute, in a large measure, to the scenic grandeur and beauty of California. I suppose nature lovers, suspecting a dam there not made by the Creator, will think it of no value, in their estimation, but I submit, man can imitate the Creator—a worthy exemplar.

Mr. [James] GRAHAM: [Illinois.Congressman] In that they are mistaken by a dam site?

Mr. PHELAN. They are mistaken by a dam site, and after it is constructed, as somebody said, not wishing to be outdone in profanity, “It will be the damdest finest sight you ever saw.”

I remember the story of John Hay’s Little Breeches, which describes the old fellow, who, believing in nothing that was religious or good, and having been told, after his child recovered, that he had wandered away in the woods and must have been restored by the angels, said:

'To restore the life of a little child and to bring him back to his own,

Is a darn sight better business than loafing ‘round the throne.’

To provide for the little children, men, and women of the 800,000 population who swarm the shores of San Francisco Bay is a matter of much greater importance than encouraging the few who, in solitary loneliness, will sit on the peak of the Sierras loafing around the throne of the God of nature and singing His praise. A benign father loves his children above all things. There is no comparison between the highest use of the water—the domestic supply—and the mere scenic value of the mountains. When you decide that affirmatively, as you must, and then, on top of that, that we are not detracting from the scenic value of the mountains, but enhancing it, I think there is nothing left to be said. That is all.

The CHAIRMAN: Are there any gentlemen here who wish to speak in opposition to the bill?

Mr. WHITMAN: I am one of them. . . . There is no doubt that the building of roads . . . will facilitate the ability to get in there, but my proposition is that they will find that there will not be any reason to go in there, except for people who want to go in and look at the lake and come out again.

Mr. [William] KENT: [California Congressman] Well, if it should be made a popular camping ground, what provision could be made for taking care of the people? The minute you popularize a camping ground and make it available for a vast number of people, you immediately destroy the very element which originally made it attractive as a camping ground, because you must provide camp regulations, install a water supply, provide sanitary arrangements, and then the character of the camping site is entirely changed.

Mr. WHITMAN: I suppose that applies to the Yosemite Valley itself, and yet large numbers do go in there, feed their stock, and camp at the present time.

Mr. [William] LA FOLLETTE: [Washington Congressman] A tract 2 miles long and half a mile wide would be only about 2,400 acres, and if a tract of that size was camped upon by a large number of people they would generate all kinds of filth and typhoid for the people below.

Mr. WHITMAN: That might be the fate of it, but it is the only camping ground in that part of the region, and it is the only spot open for the people.

Mr. LA FOLLETTE. I am willing to grant that, but I am looking at the matter from the broad viewpoint of the people. Not one hundredth of 1 per cent of the people of the United States will ever go in there. On the other hand, if one-fiftieth or a hundredth part of the people of the United States, or even of California, were to go in there, it would be a vast camp ground instead of a thing of beauty. That change would take place within a year. For that reason, looking at it from a practical viewpoint, I do not believe the people of the United States care very much whether it is kept for a playground or not, when in all probability only one one hundredth of 1 per cent of the people of the country would ever go in there.

If I had my way about it, they would build the dam immediately as high as they could, to store every gallon of water flowing there. . . . I can not believe that the flooding of 1,500 acres will destroy all that vast area of scenery. I think if they go in there to see it and if anything is said derogatory to the dam, their attention should be called to the fact that the water is required for the irrigation of thousands of acres of land, and is also required to meet the domestic and economic needs of a great city, and when they come to realize that I should think their aesthetic taste could stand a little shock. . . .

Mr. WHITMAN: You are asked to consider this park as it is at present, with almost nobody using it. Very little attention has been given to what may happen to this park by the year 2000. On the other hand, the city desires to focus your attention to the year 2000 for its water supply. They are getting along and can get along perfectly comfortably for a good many years for their local supply, but it is the year 2000 they want you to look to. If you look to the year 2000 in one way, I pray you to look to it in the other. What will that park be and what will the use of it be to the American public, winter and summer, in the year 2000?

Now, I have said nothing about nature. I have tried to put this thing on a practical ground, which will appeal to the American citizen, and Ido not want to add anything as to nature. But I have a letter here addressed to the chairman of this committee from Robert Underwood Johnson, who was, with Mr. John Muir, the original cause of the establishment of this park, and he has put this matter so admirably in his letter that, as a few concluding words, I should like to read it. There is not very much of it. He says:

New York, June 25, 1913

Hon. Scott Ferris, M. C.,

Chairman House Committee on the Public Lands, Washington, D. C.

Dear Sir:

I thank you for the courtesy of your telegram of the 23d informing me of the plans of the committee for the hearings on the bill of Mr. Raker (H. R. 112) to grant the Hetch Hetchy and Lake Eleanor Valleys to San Francisco for reservoir purposes.

I deeply regret that pressing private business here makes it apparently impossible for me to appear in person before the committee. I therefore respectfully submit for the consideration of its members some points which I think germane to the bill. My remarks will deal not with mechanical data, but with what I, and, I believe the vast majority of the intelligent public regard as higher and not less pertinent considerations.

There never was a time when there was a more urgent necessity for our country to uphold its best ideals and its truest welfare against shortsighted opportunism and purely commercial and local interests. The history of the country presents a thousand examples of the sacrifice of the good of all to the advantage of a part, and the waste of national resources at the dictation of selfish parties under specious pretexts. The enormous amounts of money lost to the Government for the enrichment of individuals in the careless disposition of the public lands and forests would have liquidated the public debt a hundred times over and have made life easier for every citizen of the United States in the past century and down to the present day. It is the subordination of the ideal to the material, the greater future to the lesser present, that has set us apart as the most wasteful and imprudent of nations. In 1889–90 came an awakening, largely through the efforts of John Muir, discoverer of the Muir Glacier, a man combining in himself the ideal and the practical as have few men of our day. It was he who awakened the administration of President Harrison to the necessity of conserving the public forests instead of giving them over to the tender mercies of the chance comer.

The first step of importance in this awakening was the establishment of the Yosemite National Park, which led to the immense reservations made by the Harrison administration under the law of March 3, 1891, and to further reservations by each succeeding President, until at last the headwaters of all the great western streams are measurably secure against the perils of forest denudation. I think it is not too much to say that no Representative should consider himself competent to decide a question involving the dismemberment of a great national park until he has read the book of the late George P. Marsh, formerly American minister to Italy, entitled “Nature as Modified by Human Action,” a work of singular imaginative force, in which the author, as early as 1850, pleaded with his countrymen to put an end to the passive policy of forest destruction, from which every Mediterranean country has suffered disastrously. Unless one can view the subject in the light of history and with the eye of imagination, he will remain indifferent to the large considerations involved in giving away to a corporation the use and control of fully half of the most beautiful of all our national parks.

What is at stake is not merely the destruction of a single valley, one of the most wonderful works of the Creator, but the fundamental principle of conservation. Let it be established that these great parks and forests are to be held at the whim or advantage of local interests and sooner or later they must all be given up. One has only to look about to see the rampant materialism of the day. It can only be overcome by a constant regard for ideas and for the good of the whole country now and hereafter. The very sneers with which this type of argument is received are a proof of the need of altruism and imagination in dealing with the subject. The time has not yet come to substitute for our national motto those baleful words, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die.”

The opponents of the Hetch Hetchy scheme maintain that their position is not inimical to the true interests of San Francisco. They say if there were no other source of good and abundant water for the city they would willingly sacrifice the valley to the lives and the health of its citizens. The records of the hearing before the Senate Committee on Public Lands two or three years ago show that two official representatives of the city (one, ex-Mayor Phelan) confessed that the city could get water anywhere along the Sierra if she would pay for it. This is the crux of the whole matter. The assault upon the integrity of the park has this purpose—to get something for nothing. Mr. Freeman, the engineer employed by the city, has also stated that it is physically possible to get water anywhere along the Sierra. The elaborate published examination of the Hetch Hetchy resources bears the proportion, let us say, of 30 or 50 to 1 to all the information concerning other sources. It has not been demonstrated that Hetch Hetchy is the only available source, but only that it might be the cheapest. On this point we hold that while we are willing to die for the lives or the health of the citizens of San Francisco, we are not willing to die for their pockets.

We believe, moreover, that a larger measure of attention should be given to the question of filtration. I have already called your attention to the system in operation at Toledo, under which typhoid fever has almost disappeared, and to the abandonment by the city of London of its project of a supply from the Welsh Mountains in favor of the same system of filtration. I earnestly suggest that the advantages of this method be made the subject of an official examination during the present summer by United States Government experts, for if such a system be feasible, it would be folly to destroy the valley and dismember the park to have it discovered later that they must, after all, be abandoned for a method both better and cheaper.

The opponents of the bill invite your careful attention to the fact that whereas at first the scheme was put forward as one appealing to humane instincts—to provide a great city with potable water—it is now clearly seen to be aiming at quite another purpose—the production of power for use and for sale. This is commercialism pure and simple, and the far-reaching results of this disposition of the national parks when the destruction of their supreme features is involved, is something appalling to contemplate.

I have not yet spoken of the great recreative, curative, and hygienic uses of the park. It contains three considerable camping spots—the Yosemite Valley, now greatly crowded every summer; the Tuolumne Meadows, and the Hetch Hetchy. The second is much more difficult of access than the third, and both would be withdrawn from public use by the operation of the proposed bill, for it would be idle to take the valley for a reservoir without giving to the city full control of the watershed, since a single case of typhoid infection would endanger the health of the city. The population of the San Joaquin Valley, in the hot and dusty summer, increasingly frequent the park as campers. These would be deprived of the use of these wonderful scenes. As for the general public of travelers, that take so much money to California in quest of beauty—for it, there would be only a phantom valley, sunken, like the fabled city of Brittany, while the 20 miles of the most wonderful rapids in the world, the cascades of the Tuolumne, would be virtually eclipsed. I am aware that in certain quarters one who contends for the practical value of natural beauty is considered a “crank,” and yet the love of beauty is the most dominant trait in mankind. The moment anyone of intelligence gets enough to satisfy the primal needs of the physical man, he begins to plan for something beautiful—house, grounds, or a view of nature. Could this be capitalized in dollars, could some alchemy reveal its value, we should not hear materialists deriding lovers of nature, with any effect upon legislators. Without this touch of idealism, this sense of beauty, life could only be a race for the trough.

I have only time for one other point. In 1890, when I appealed to Senator George Hearst to support the bill creating the Yosemite National Park, a project which, as is well known, was first proposed by me to Mr. Muir in 1889, and was jointly urged by us upon Congress, that practical Senator assented with alacrity, and in effect said, “The chief use of that region is for water for irrigation purposes and for its scenery. It has been prospected over many times and there are no precious metals worth speaking of. The forests are more valuable to hold water for irrigation than as timber. Indeed I should favor reserving the whole of the Sierra down to Mount Whitney.” I reported this last remark to Gen. Noble, President Harrison’s Secretary of the Interior, and toward the close of the administration the whole of that region was reserved. I believe California would not consent to give up the great reservations. Moreover, I believe that the people of the State are opposed to the destruction of the Hetch Hetchy, and that this can be demonstrated if the bill can be delayed until the December session.

I have the honor to remain, respectfully yours,

Robert Underwood Johnson

Source: House Committee on the Public Lands, Hetch Hetchy Dam Site, 63rd Cong., 1st sess. (25–28 June 1913; 7 July 1913), (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1913), 25–29, 165–66, 213–14, 235–38. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, The Call of the Wild, 1900–1916 (New York: George Brazilier, 1970), 86–95.

See Also:"Dam Hetch Hetchy!": John Muir Contests the Hetch-Hetchy Dam