Did San Francisco kill Muir?

As you remember, I started this chapter with a quote from William Mulholland. Again, he and some cohorts moved water from the Owens River Valley to Los Angeles over 200 miles away. I absolutely believe he would have dammed the Merced in Yosemite Valley. Whatever was practical to fuel population growth – and of course make money from that growth – was justified.

He was kind of the polar opposite of John Muir. The two of them embodied ideologies that would battle each other to epic proportions in the 20th century. The Mulhollands saw rivers as a resource to be harnessed for the growth of populations. The Muirs saw rivers as part of a greater resource called wilderness that was necessary for the growth of the soul. After all, the Romantic in Muir saw Wild Nature as radiating with the stuff of God. Wilderness was a necessity. It is where people “may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike,” and I don’t necessarily disagree.

The enquoted words above are from a leaflet Muir wrote in 1908 to advocate against the construction of a dam on the Tuolome River inside Yosemite national park. But Muir’s enemy wasn’t Mulholland. It wasn’t the City of Angels. Muir’s enemy was San Francisco.

The City by the Bay saw what Los Angeles was doing to get water from the Owens River, and knew it would make LA become the most prominent city in the West. San Francisco didn’t want itself to be so displaced, and it too needed water from far away to grow its population. So, San Francisco leaders set their eyes on the Hetch Hetchy Valley where the Tuolome flowed.

Rather than continue with my words, I’ll quote a book I just had to buy entitled Water and the California Dream, which explains the cornerstone for a lot of those epic battles in the 20th century for the soul of the West:

San Francisco voters passed a $45 million bond issue to build the city’s dam, by a six-to-one majority, with 46,719 ballots cast. The character of the campaign was not unlike those in Los Angeles; preservationists were called, in the San Francisco Chronicle, “hoggish and mushy esthetes…” [Interjecting for a second, an esthet is a person who has or professes to have refined sensitivity toward the beauties of art or nature. Essentially, it was like calling the nature preservationists tree-hugging hippies.]

Continuing with Water and the California Dream:

The opposition was led by John Muir, although the Sierra Club, which he had founded, split over the issue and took no official stance. Most of its members lived in the Bay Area; San Francisco’s city engineer was a Sierra Club member. Muir, 70 years old, had led the fight to create national parks in the Sierra; this became the eloquent writer’s last great battle.

Dam Hetch Hetchy?” he wrote, before 1913 Congressional hearings, “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”. One of Muir’s arguments was that there were other rivers available to San Francisco (the Mokelumne River, for one, which would be developed soon after for East Bay cities). But San Francisco coveted the Tuolumne because it was free of established water rights claims and would be the cheapest to acquire. “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,” Muir raged.

The Raker Act, authorizing the Hetch Hetchy project, passed in the Senate by a 43-to-25 vote and was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on December 19, 1913. San Francisco and the cities bordering the South Bay had the water and power they needed to grow. The principle that national parks should be forever protected had been undermined, yet, the decision also fostered a national awakening to that principle. “The damming of Hetch Hetchy was the event that turned the Sierra Club from an outings club to a political organization. Two years after Congress authorized the dam, they passed the National Parks Act, basically ensuring that we are going to preserve national parks and not do anything like building Hetch Hetchy dams ever again.”

John Muir’s death, in 1914, was due to pneumonia. Historians, however, has speculated that his passing, so soon after the Hetch Hetchy decision, was due to a broken heart over the loss…”

There it is.