January 17, 2018

The Engineer as Lobbyist: John R. Freeman and the Hetch Hetchy Dam (1910–13)



The damming of Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park is a watershed event in environmental history, a presumed travesty that brought anguish to John Muir and his many supporters throughout the United States. Exactly how San Francisco won the right to transform the bucolic valley into a reservoir has been little studied up to now, although historians recognize that the East Coast hydraulic engineer John R. Freeman played a critical role in the campaign. This article examines how Freeman created a provocative water supply report that, using a wide range of visual images, successfully promoted the Hetch Hetchy Dam as an improvement to the landscape of California’s High Sierra. As part of this, he emphasized how few people had visited Hetch Hetchy prior to 1912, and he championed the development of roads to make the reservoir and the park


more accessible to tourists. The article highlights how Freeman drew upon his engineering skills to design a high-pressure aqueduct capable of generating 200,000?hp of hydroelectricity, and also how his knowledge of America’s political and social culture proved essential in winning congressional approval for the dam in 1913. Readers familiar with the environmentalist side of the Hetch Hetchy controversy will find this account revealing, especially in how Freeman operated as a political advocate advancing the city’s cause. They will also find important parallels between Freeman’s work as a dam lobbyist and the effort that underlay passage of the National Park Service Act in 1916.

by Donald C. Jackson

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