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Taking You Back in History: Headquartering Hetch Hetchy Part 2

By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society

Aside from worker's housing and administrative offices, and trains coming and going, what else was located at the Hetch Hetchy's Groveland Headquarters? One very important function served there was integrating and commanding movements of all the rolling stock on the railroad from a Groveland command center.

The Hetch Hetchy Railroad Roundhouse crew consisted mostly of local men. 5/3/1922 Photo courtesy of San Francisco Hetch Hetchy Power and Water

The earliest railroad maintenance area was just an “open air shop” on a siding along the main track on the far side of Garrote Creek, but by 1919 a permanent shop and yard area was built where CalTrans is today. By 1921 a twelve-stall roundhouse was built close to the locomotive turntable located near the Groveland Skate Park. The new combined shop and engine house had a double set of tracks through it and blacksmith and machine shops. These shops not only repaired rolling stock and construction equipment but also created some of the specialty track buses used for ambulances, mail, and excursions. The majority of the maintenance workers were local men.

A large central warehouse at the maintenance yard stored and filled orders for supplies for all of the Mountain Division of the project, from Yosemite Junction to the Dam. It contained materials such as steel, rails, wood, tools, spare parts, food, and cleaning supplies for all the construction camps. Parts and supplies traveling both east and west out of Groveland were generally carried on track buses.

Building a dam and all the rock quarrying, lumbering, and tunneling that entails can be a very dangerous endeavor. Knowing that accidents were almost inevitable San Francisco built a two story hospital at the Groveland Headquarters. Completed in 1918, it sat right beside the railroad tracks on the north side of Garrote Creek. Specially built gas-powered ambulance track cars sped the injured almost to the hospital door. Hospital staff, usually a doctor and two or three nurses, were available 24/7. It had an operating room and a large ward and could accommodate 19 hospitalized patients. It was destroyed by a fire in July of 1922. Thirty patients were successfully moved out of the hospital during the fire. In getting the last patient to safety, nurse Ethel Moyer was badly burned and broke her back in a jump from the second story. Sadly, she died the next day. San Francisco quickly built a new 75-patient hospital that was ready within the year and this time it had only one story.

Operating Room in the Hetch Hetchy's first Groveland hospital. May 1919

Each employee on the project paid $1 from their payroll for hospitalization insurance. Local citizens not working on the project could also buy insurance. Though two other doctors preceded him, Dr. John Degnan was best known and remembered. “Doc Degnan” was born in Yosemite Valley where his parents ran a bakery and restaurant. He was usually aided by two well-respected and highly competent nurses, Mary Isaacs Meyers and Dorothy Glenn Conwell. He and his nurses not only saved the lives of many Hetch Hetchy workers but they also treated injured Grovelanders and delivered local babies. Many stories were told of horrific injuries in explosions and falls that he and and the nursed treated at Groveland hospital.

The use of Groveland as headquarters for the Hetch Hetchy Project created a badly needed boom period for the area which had seen a downturn after hard rock mines began to close due to lack of profits. Boarding houses, hotels, and cottages were needed for housing. Men were needed to work in stone quarries, sawmills and at the dam site as well as railroad maintenance in Groveland. The HHRR also transported men who worked and lived in the outlying construction camps to Groveland, the nearest town in which they could spend some of their hard-earned pay on food and drink, entertainment, gambling and women. It was the “Roaring Twenties” after all!

The Hetch Hetchy project boom in Groveland lasted until about 1925 at the completion of the first phase of the dam. It was extended into the 1930s with the second building phase which increased the height of the dam. As construction of the water delivery system moved further down the pipeline toward San Francisco so did the workers and the need for support services and Groveland's boom time ended.

In compliance with the 1913 Raker Act, which allowed the controversial creation of the dam in a National Park, almost all debris and structures from the building of the dam were removed except those needed for function and maintenance of the water system. The railroad was totally dismantled by 1950. This makes it difficult to find any remnants of the railroad, headquarters facilities, and construction sites, though flat areas of buildings and rail bed can still be found. A new short trail will soon be open along part of the old rail bed in Groveland. When you walk it imagine and appreciate all that was once there a hundred years ago.

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


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