Musing Essay 1 – A Tale of Two Cities (not the 2 you are thinking of…)

“Dam Hetch-Hetchy!  As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches.”

– John Muir

The need and want of water has played a significant role in shaping wilderness and landscape throughout history.  In a class I’m auditing this semester, we discussed how a dispute over water played out similarly in both the US and the UK.

Since my research is intended (at this juncture) to be a transnational study of the US and the UK, I found the below Tale of Two Cities of interest.  Not that it will be entirely relevant to what I end up writing for my dissertation, but writing about it informally (as in not properly footnoted, etc.) is a good exercise to get me in the comparative mindset and to just get writing in general.  That, and, John Muir is involved in this tale. Any excuse to commune more with that man is eagerly grasped at by yours truly.

(*spoiler) The Thirlmere Aqueduct was constructed from 1890 – 1894, transforming Lake Thirlmere into a reservoir.

Manchester, an industrial powerhouse in the late 19th-century England, had a swelling population, and growing demands for water.  In 1878, the city of Manchester developed plans to add Lake Thirlmere (part of England’s beloved Lakes District) to the municipal water system.  Lake Thirlmere (96-miles away from Manchester) was argued to be little visited by visitors, but if converted into a reservoir (by flooding the existing lake 40 – 50 ft above its current level) and creating a carriage road around the lake, it could simultaneously become a source of water for Manchester and also a place of recreation.

However, many opposed this “Thirlmere Scheme.”  The Lakes District was seen as a sort of sacred ground, “a sort of half-way house to Heaven” (Winters, 1999).  The idea of transforming even this lesser-visited section of the Lakes District was so strongly opposed by protestors that the Scheme was at first thwarted in 1878.  However, preservationists later lost this battle, and the plan for the Thirlmere Resevoir was approved in 1879.

(*spoiler) The Hetch Hetchy Dam was approved for construction in 1913.

San Francisco, in early 20th-century United States, had a swelling population, and growing demands for water.  Plans were made in early 1900s to dam a portion of the Tuolumne River to transform Hetch Hetchy Valley (in the newly [1890] created Yosemite National Park) into a reservoir for San Francisco.  Although the initial request was rejected, after the 1906 earthquake and accompanying fires devastated San Francisco (which gave rise to greater national weight and sympathy for the city’s request for water), the request got renewed traction by 1908.

However, many opposed the request – most notably the Sierra Club headed by John Muir.  Yosemite was, after all, a newly christened National Park which was defined to be set apart from development.  Furthermore, the Valley itself was framed in language of the wilderness of the valley being sacred.  He described those with plans to develop and alter the valley as “temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism” who “instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the Mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.”

However, preservationists lost this battle, and the plan to create a reservoir in Hetch Hetchy Valley went through in 1913.

Take away?

In both cases, the debate is one of utility vs. beauty.  In both cases, relatively locally-based (at the time the Sierra Club was not yet a widely nationally known group) preservationist groups began to champion the cause of wilderness at a national level to stop a local development project.  The history of these two water projects stands as evidence of the beginning of an awakening of a environmental/wilderness mentality among Americans and among the British (English).  The very fact that aesthetics were part of the debate at all says something about the valuation of wilderness during this time period (Winters, 1999).  Although in each case the cause for utility/development/the city won out over the cause for beauty/preservation/wilderness, each battle lost also signified the beginning of an more widespread and universal belief in the value of wilderness among Americans and the British.

I mostly find these 2 case studies interesting because of how they mirror each other and occurred quite close together in the historic time frame.  It reveals to me that there is indeed such an important role for Environmental Historians – to know of similar cases of land management issues in the past in order to inform land and resource management decisions of the present and future.  I think these 2 examples are also quite interesting for the fact that the loss gave rise to conservation groups of the future.  Hetch Hetchy Dam was approved for construction in 1913 and the National Park Service was created in 1916.  The Thirlmere Dam was constructed from 1890 – 1894 and the National Trust was created in 1895.  It begs to question whether wilderness protection groups (like the US National Park Service and the UK National Trust) would have been established as early as they were had these “lost battles” over water not been lost.  This further begs the question of how different the landscape of both the US and the UK might look had the “lost battles” not been lost which were were an immediate influence to the creation of preservation entities.
Maybe, after all, these lost battles really were “the best of times…the worst of times” (Dickens, 1859) for the emergence of wilderness protection.
Works Referenced:
Dickens, Charles – A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Nash, Roderick – Wilderness and the American Mind (1982)
Righter, Robert – “The Hetch Hetchy Controversy”
Ritvo, Harriet – “Fighting for Thirlmere – The Roots of Environmentalism” (2003)
Ritvo, Harriet – “Manchester v Thirlmere and the Construction of the Victorian Environment” (2007)
Winter, James – Secure from Rash Assault (1999)
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