Mark Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert is a masterpiece. It tells the 20th century story of the battle to control the water of the West. It’s a story of dams, lakes, farms, cities, and other billion-dollar amalgamations of capital. There’s drama, intrigue, criminality and even murder. Most are more enamored by tales of Mountain Men and Cowboys in the 19th century. As for me, the 20th century West is equally fascinating. Maybe more so. Reisner certainly lit a fire in my mind.

Now, one character this now-deceased author introduces is the legendary William Mulholland. Most Americans have no idea who he was. However, many more in Los Angeles do. Cadillac Desert‘s second chapter called the “Red Queen” tells the story of how prominent businessmen in Los Angeles – Mulholland being one of them – at the dawn of the 20th century connived to move the water of an entire river – the Owens River of the Eastern Sierras – hundreds of miles away, to downtown Los Angeles. The audacity of this scheme told so well made the “Red Queen” literally some of the most riveting reading I’ve ever experienced.

As you may imagine, Mulholland is not remembered as a paragon of morality. He was from a time long-gone. One anecdote by Reisner perfectly evinces the mind of a man who would not find much favor amid 21st century Sierra Club types, even though 13 million still live in the metropolitan area born of Mulholland’s vision.

The following is verbatim from Cadillac Desert:

In 1980, there were few people still alive who remembered Mulholland, but one who did was Horace Albright, the director of the National Park Service under Herbert Hoover. Albright could no longer remember the year – he was eighty-two – but it was probably 1925 or 1926, and he was a young park superintendent invited to attend a testimonial dinner for Senator Frank Fline, the man who had engineered the dubious federal decisions that allowed the Owens Valley aqueduct to be built. Albright was seated at Mulholland’s table, a couple of chairs away, and midway through dinner he felt a rough tap on his shoulder.

You’re from the Park Service, aren’t you?” Mulholland demanded more than asked.

Yes, I am,” said Albright. “Why do you ask?”

Why?” Mulholland said archly. “Why? I’ll tell you why. You have a beautiful park up north. A majestic park. Yosemite Park, it’s called. You’ve been there, have you?

Albright said he had. He was the park’s superintendent.

Well, I’m going to tell you what I’d do with your park. Do you want to know what I would do?”

Albright said he did.

Well, I’ll tell you. You know this new photographic process they’ve invented? It’s called Pathé. It makes everything seem lifelike. The hues and coloration are magnificent. Well, then, what I would do, if I were custodian of your park, is I’d hire a dozen of the best photographers in the world. I’d build them cabins in Yosemite Valley and pay them something and give them all the film they wanted. I’d say, ‘This park is yours. It’s yours for one year. I want you to take photographs in every season. I want you to capture all the colors, all the waterfalls, all the snow, and all the majesty. I especially want you to photograph the rivers. In the early summer, when the Merced River roars, I want to see that.’ And then I’d leave them be. And in a year I’d come back, and take their film, and send it out and have it developed and treated by Pathé. And then I would print the pictures in thousands of books and send them to every library. I would urge every magazine in the country to print them and tell every gallery and museum to hang them. I would make certain that every American saw them. And then,” Mulholland said slowly, with what Albright remembered as a vulpine grin, “and then do you know what I would do? I’d go in there and build a dam from one side of that valley to the other and stop the GD waste!”

You know what GD means. Ain’t no reason to tell God what he should damn or dam.

Nonetheless, ain’t that an anecdote?

Now, of course, the Yosemite Valley wasn’t dammed. The Merced still flows freely there. However, another river in Yosemite national park is dammed.

As I said in the last chapter, the impetus to extend the 1864 Yosemite Grant was to preserve the Merced high country. Essentially, the entire watershed where the Merced is born became part of Yosemite national park in 1890. Any little or big channel of water draining off the highest mountains which ultimately flows down to the Valley became part of the park. That makes sense.

Well, north of the Merced flows another river west into the San Jaquin. That river is called the Tuolome. That river, and the watershed in which it is born, also became part of Yosemite national park in 1890. As the valley in which the Merced flows is the called the Yosemite Valley, the valley in which the Tuolome flows is called the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Yes, Hetch Hetchy’s a strange name. It comes from Miwok. Maybe it means “edible grasses” or maybe it means “valley of the two trees.” Who knows? But that’s not that interesting.

However, what is interesting is that the Tuolome was dammed, not for Los Angeles, but for San Francisco. Mulholland’s vision did kinda’ play out, and I kinda’ wanted to see it today. I wanted to see what broke John Muir’s heart, and may have killed him.