book review

Comparative Book Review

Brechin, Gray.  Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

Righter, Richard W.  The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

It is enlightening to read these books together, because the similarities and differences between each book become readily apparent. Although Brechin’s book is wider in scope than Righter’s, both give a great illustration of how the development of a city affects the nearby environment.  Brechin focuses mainly on the environmental effect that mining caused to the city of San Francisco and its local environment.  For him, the institution of mining promoted other activities within the city and developed a local society of wealthy elites.  For Brechin, it is the wealth and power of these elites that caused San Francisco to advance the way it did.

Righter’s book focuses mainly over San Francisco’s attempt and eventual victory in securing an adequate water supply in the Hetch Hetchy water system.  For Righter, San Francisco’s success as a metropolis depended on the acquisition of a secure water supply.  Righter takes the reader deeper than Brechin does by noting the severe opposition that the city of San Francisco faced in its fight for the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  On the argument that wealth and power had a significant influence over the development of the city, Righter agrees with Brechin.  The environment did not determine how a city developed, wealth and power did.

Most important to Brechin’s thesis is the “Pyramid of Mining” theory.  This theory suggests that mining, being the apex of the pyramid, promoted the activities on the base of the pyramid.  These base activities included mechanization, metallurgy, militarism, and moneymaking or finance.  This is important to understand because the Pyramid of Mining theory differs from the more widely accepted agricultural theory.  As Brechin states, “the miner’s realm is necessarily dead, divisible, and detached, a treasure trove for the taking and leaving.”  Mining was more destructive to the earth, whereas the agricultural theory consisted of less-destructive activities and encouraged the repeated use of land.  For miners, it was normal to mine the land and discard it after use. Deforestation, damaged rivers, or wastelands left behind were of no concern to mining supporters.

In Brechin’s book, a common attitude among wealthy capitalists towards the environment emerges.  For these capitalists the land is theirs for the taking, and they will decide how the land will be used for the city.  When critics opposed mining activities, mining advocates argued that mining brought in large amounts of capital into the city, state, and national economies.  Supporters also claimed that new industries and technologies were developed because of mining.  Critics could not argue with this.  The development of metallurgy and mechanization industries was because of the mining industry, and mining had helped to invent cable cars within the city.  But on January 7, 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer of the Ninth Circuit Court issued a permanent injunction against the North Bloomfield mining company for dumping materials downstream.  With this injunction, the mining industry within the state of California ended.

Righter illustrates that when the gold rush began to slow down in the 1850’s, many wealthy elites who had made huge fortunes because of the mining industry looked for new investment adventures.  One such adventure was the acquisition of an adequate water supply.  Water had always been a problem for San Francisco.  San Francisco was situated within the arid West, and its location on the Pacific Coast made the city even more vulnerable.  Surrounded on three sides by salt water and no obvious local choice for water, San Francisco looked to distant areas for supply.  The first source of water came from Mountain Lake and Lobos Creek, but over time, these water sources became inadequate to meet the needs of an expanding city.  What made San Francisco’s water situation worse was that the water supply was controlled privately instead of publicly by the city.  This meant that the water company, Spring Valley Water Company, could determine the rates and thus held significant power in politics of the city.  As Righter suggests, “San Francisco watched the expansion of the Spring Valley system with ambivalence.”  As the city needed more and more water because of expansion, the power of Spring Valley grew.  Finally, in the 1890’s with the election of James Phelan to mayor, San Francisco became determined to locate a new water supply in which it owned.

The solution that San Francisco discovered for its water supply was the Hetch Hetchy water system.  What Righter does over the next few chapters is to illustrate the potential destruction the city wanted to cause to the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  Within these same chapters he discusses the complicated situation involved with the acquisition of the Hetch Hetchy water system from Yosemite National Park.

The city of San Francisco’s main objective was to dam the Tuolumne River within the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  This would establish a reservoir further up the Tuolumne River, which would allow for more storage of Sierra Nevada snow water and provide the city with the opportunity to generate hydropower for the city.  Why did people object?  For one reason, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was a part of Yosemite National Park, and in 1890 the Yosemite National Park Act required the government to preserve the natural state of the park.  Secondly, it was beautiful.  As Righter illustrates, with the writing of John Muir the famed naturalist, Hetch Hetchy was a sacred place rivaled only by Yosemite. Any alteration to Hetch Hetchy would damage its sacredness and beauty.   The city’s main contention was that in 1901 the government passed the Right-Of-Way Act that authorized the Secretary of the Interior to grant water development for beneficial purposes.  It is in the interpretations of these two acts that the battle over Hetch Hetchy would take place.

The process associated with the acquisition of Hetch Hetcy is long, and one that is outside the scope of this essay, but there are a few points that should be noted.  With the occurrence of the San Francisco fire and earthquake of 1906, the need and desire of an adequate water supply escalated.  The city was severely damaged, and many people accused Spring Valley Water Company of not having an appropriate amount of water for a disaster of that size.  With a destroyed city and sympathy from all over the country, San Francisco attempted to capitalize on the fire and earthquake of 1906.  In 1907, the new Secretary of the Interior, James Garfield, gave San Francisco what it wanted.  With the Garfield Grant, San Francisco was allowed to develop Lake Eleanor and the Hetch Hetchy site.  The fight against the city for the Hetch Hetchy Valley continued, though.

In January 1910, the new Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, ordered San Francisco to “show cause” as to why the Hetch Hetchy Valley was needed for their water supply.  With the burden of proof on the city to prove that they needed and not just wanted the Hetch Hetchy Valley, the city’s wealth and power proved too much for the opposition.  The city employed John R. Freeman, who was the most prominent hydraulic engineer in the United States, and with his Freeman Report, San Francisco was able to “show cause” for the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  Finally, with the passing of the Raker Act in 1913, San Francisco was allowed to obtain the Hetch Hetchy Valley for water purposes.

As Righter notes, the fight for Hetch Hetchy was long and had many twists and turns throughout its duration.  But who were the people trying to save Hetchy Hetchy?  It is in the description of the opposition that Righter’s book excels over Brechin’s.  For Righter, the proponents for the development of San Francisco were easy to identify.  Most were wealthy elitists and middle-class that desired growth and prosperity.  These were men like James Phelan, William Randolph Hearst, Michael de Young, and William H. Crocker.  On the other end were men like John Muir, Robert Underwood Johnson, and William Colby.  These men represented the Sierra Club, an organization designed to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  Righter argues that these men and this organization represent the first environmental cause to attract national support.  The Hetch Hetchy controversy involved many women’s organizations and it garnered support from multiple geographical areas.  It was the first time that men and women came together to prevent the destruction of an environment.

Nevertheless, the Hetch Hetchy Valley and other environmental hinterlands succumbed to the city of San Francisco.  Why?  Throughout both books, each writer contributes a significant portion of San Francisco’s success to the wealth and power of its elite class.  Brenin suggests that this elite class started during the gold rush years.  He argues that as mining activity declined, wealthy capitalists moved their interests and money toward other activities.  These activities included water, real-estate, oil, and electricity.

Righter and Brenin take the influence of wealth and power a step further.  With little government interference, wealthy capitalists in San Francisco were able to manipulate and abuse city, state, and national laws.  Whether it was to delay the enforcement of a law or to ignore it completely, San Francisco capitalists did whatever was necessary to continue their operations.   As both authors note, corruption within San Francisco’s city hall was not uncommon.  Many politicians were associated with the North Bloomfield mining company, the Spring Valley Water Company, and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.  The power that these companies and wealthy elites had on the development of San Francisco cannot be understated.

These books, along with books such as William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, contribute significantly to the field of environmental history.   All of these books provide great examples of the relationship between environment and city.  Within each of these books it is easy to understand the importance that nature had on the development of the city of San Francisco.  What makes these two books stand apart from other environmental history books is the great description of what power and wealth can do for a city, and against the environment.  Each author details the progress of the city and how influential people influenced that progress. The environment does not determine how a city is built, money and power do.

What is also remarkable about these two books is that both are able to describe different “varieties” within the field of environmental history.  As J. R. McNeill stated in his article “Observation on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History,” there are three main “varieties” within the field of environmental history.  One is material, another is cultural/intellectual, and the last is political. McNeill also stated that many authors restrict themselves to one variety of environmental history while others are able to move around in all three successfully.  This is why Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco and Richard W. Righter’s The Battle over Hetch Hetchy are excellent books.  Both books are able to discuss the material and political varieties within environmental history.  Each author is able to illustrate the physical and biological destruction of the environment and how it related to the development of the city of San Francisco.  Then each author takes their books a step further by providing significant details about the men and laws that helped to dictate the growth of San Francisco and the damage to the surrounding environment. It is the successful ability of these authors to navigate through these different varieties that make these books interesting.

As a final point, Righter’s book contains an important viewpoint that Brechin’s does not.  Righter illustrates the influence that one environmental controversy had on an entire nation.  It is Righter’s belief that modern environmentalism is directly associated with the fight for the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  The controversy of the Hetch Hetchy Valleybrought people together from different genders, multiple social classes, and from diverse geographical locations.  Hetch Hetchy encouraged people to defend the environment against the urban exploitation.

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