By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society
Soon after San Francisco selected the Tuolumne River Watershed in Yosemite as a source of much-needed water for the City and the site of their dam to impound that water, they acquired a large piece of property in Groveland. Mary Laveroni Park, Groveland Museum and Library, the CalTrans Yard, and GCSD now occupy the acreage San Francisco bought in 1914. But why purchase land in Groveland 25 miles from the proposed dam site?
Because the construction site was deep in the wilderness, San Francisco needed a town that could provide some basic services and facilities and Groveland was the closest town. The Groveland area was in a “bust” period due a decline in gold mining upon which it was founded. It's population was only about 300 with Big Oak Flat having another 270 residents.
Our little town in the foothills was destined to play a very big role in the building of O'Shaughnessy Dam and the Mountain Tunnel section of the pipeline that would bring crystal clear mountain water to San Francisco 167 miles away. It was necessary for the City to build an Administrative Headquarters to support such a huge undertaking - thus the purchase of the Groveland property.
A key element in creating the infrastructure needed for construction of the dam was the building of a standard gauge railroad by the city of San Francisco. It would bring construction materials, equipment, supplies, machinery and people to and from remote building sites in Yosemite. The Hetch Hetchy Railroad traversed 27 miles from a link with the Sierra Railway at “Yosemite Junction” south of Jamestown, climbed Moccasin Mountain, crossed the infamous “Grade” to Priest Reservoir, then traveled through the length of Big Oak Flat and Deer Flat to Groveland. It ran just north of downtown Groveland and on the far side of Garrote Creek behind present day Mary Laveroni Park, where the Hetch Hetchy Headquarters were located, then on past what is now the CalTrans Yard. A footbridge led from Laveroni Park across Garrote Creek to a small passenger station and the support facilities San Francisco built there. These included a men’s dorm, a hospital and railroad maintenance areas. Leaving the Headquarters area the railroad's route continued east along Big Creek through what is currently Pine Mountain Lake to Big Creek Shaft. It terminated in the Hetch Hetchy Valley not far from the Dam site for a total length of 68 miles. Oral histories recorded years ago mention hearing the train whistle blow at all hours as it crossed the major roads entering and leaving Groveland.
As headquarters for the construction of the Dam and the Mountain Division Tunnel, the land purchased in Groveland served many purposes. A two-story grey and white Administrative “City Office” was built in 1916 almost where the Groveland Fire Station is now. Its covered wrap-around balcony often makes it mistaken for the Groveland Hotel in old photos. The lower level of this building housed offices of engineers, payroll, accounting and planning. “Mac” McAfee, Construction Engineer in charge of all of the Mountain Division and also superintendent of the Hetch Hetchy Railroad, lived with his family in part of the second story of the office building. It burned down in 1936 leaving only a huge payroll vault still standing where the building had once been.
More than 1,000 workers were employed in the Sierra Nevada on the massive project necessitating increased housing facilities. Some of the married employees of railroad and offices lived with their families in little white cottages that lined the edge of Route 120 just east of the City Office building where the upper parking lot for Mary Laveroni Park is now.
“The Clubhouse,” built on the north side of Garrote Creek behind the park, provided some of Hetch Hetchy's single men with a place to sleep and socialize. It could not have been quiet, however, since the train tracks ran directly in front of it. There was a bunkhouse near the railroad maintenance area for shop workers. Nominal rents were charged those housed in Groveland. Three large cottages on the hillside behind the Hetch Hetchy Hospital housed the doctors and nurses as well as dignitaries visiting construction sites. Scrambling for housing for the sudden influx of workers, local hotels were built or enlarged, and boarding houses and homes were put into service. Workers at the scattered construction camps near the dam and adits (horizontal passages for the purposes of access or drainage) were housed in tents or rustic cabins on location.
Read more about Hetch Hetchy's Groveland Headquarters, the railroad maintenance yard, and the only hospital that Groveland has ever had, in the next edition “Taking You Back in History.”
Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p