On October 28, 1934, thousands of San Franciscans and other Bay Areans gathered at the newly built Pulgas Water Temple (it was actually a temporary plywood version) to watch one of the epic events in the City’s history: the first arrival of pure Sierra water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, created by damming the eponymous valley in Yosemite National Park. San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi, Public Utilities Commission president Lewis F. Byington and other dignitaries were present. The keynote address, carried on national radio, was by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. On that beautiful fall day, the attendees listened to speeches comparing the men who built Hetch Hetchy to the missionaries, explorers, Gold Rush miners and others who had shaped the state of California. But the loftiest comparison was inscribed on the temple itself with the sanction of an Old Testament prophet: “I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people” (Isaiah 43:20).
Hetch Hetchy’s opponents also invoked the sacred — but to denounce the project. A long, bitter battle pitted the city of San Francisco and top U.S. officials against a nascent environmental movement led by Muir and the Sierra Club he founded. Muir, who regarded Hetch Hetchy as the sublime equal of Yosemite Valley, thundered, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for watertanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” When Congress passed the Raker Act in 1913, permitting the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley, Muir was heartbroken. He died the next year; some say the defeat hastened his death.
Whether or not Muir’s beloved valley should have been chosen as the site for a reservoir — critics maintain that other sites were viable — the construction of the Hetch Hetchy water system was one of the greatest engineering feats in U.S. history. San Francisco city engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy spearheaded the project, which required first the arduous construction of a 68-mile railroad across mountains and valleys to get materials to the site; then building a 312-foot-high, 912-foot-long dam; and finally constructing a vast system of aqueducts, tunnels, hydroelectric plants and eight other storage dams to transport the water, using gravity, 167 miles to San Francisco. The entire process took 20 years, cost $102 million and claimed 89 lives.
The temple was designed by San Francisco architect William Merchant, who trained with Bernard Maybeck and was the assistant designer on Maybeck’s masterpiece, the Palace of Fine Arts. The similarities between the latter and the water temple are obvious: Both are circular, fantastical structures with fluted Corinthian columns, lovely aquatic features — in the case of the temple, a rectangular reflecting pool lined on both sides by cypresses — and atmospheres of enigmatic sublimity. After the plywood iteration was torn down, the current stone temple was built in 1938 by French stone mason Albert Bernasconi, who also worked on San Francisco’s City Hall and Grace Cathedral.
The temple’s august appearance did not prevent people from using it for less than sacred activities. Originally, the millions of gallons of water that flow from Hetch Hetchy every day cascaded over a small waterfall within a vault 10 feet below the temple floor, then flowed 800 feet down a canal to Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir. Thrill seekers jumped into the water for a wild ride down the canal. A Stanford fraternity also allegedly used to haze initiates by blindfolding them and forcing them to walk across a narrow board above the frothing water. Authorities have since placed a grate above the water, and the long canal is still visible, running west down to the reservoir.
Today, very little Hetch Hetchy water flows into the temple itself: It is diverted to a nearby treatment plant to avoid environmental damage to the Crystal Springs Reservoir ecosystem. But the water system the shrine commemorates is going strong. Today, 260 million gallons of water flow from Hetch Hetchy daily, providing some of the purest drinking water in the United States to 2.4 million people in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — an achievement worthy of a 60-foot exclamation point of masonry. NHG
The Pulgas Water Temple is located at 56 Cañada Road in Redwood City. Pedestrian access is available 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily; the parking lot is open Monday through Friday and closed on weekends.