A A leafy glade at the southeast end of Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir, on a country road east of Interstate 280, is an unlikely place to stumble upon a vaguely classical 60-foot-tall temple with an inscription biblical. But the religious aura of this circular shrine, called the Pulgas Water Temple, is quite appropriate. The temple was built to celebrate the completion of the Hetch Hetchy Water Project, a monumental 20-year endeavor that has pitted conservationists like John Muir against the pragmatists – both sides claiming that God is on their side.
On October 28, 1934, thousands of San Franciscans and other Bay Area residents gathered at the new Pulgas Water Temple (it was actually a temporary plywood version) to witness the one of the epic events in the history of the city: the first arrival of pure water from the Sierra. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, created by damming the eponymous valley in Yosemite National Park. Mayor of San Fransisco Angelo RossiChairman of the Public Service Commission Lewis F. Byington and other dignitaries were present. The opening address, broadcast on national radio, was delivered by the United States Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. On this beautiful fall day, 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 highest simile was inscribed on the temple itself with the sanction of an Old Testament prophet: “I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the wilderness, to give water to my people” (Isaiah 43 :20).
Opponents of Hetch Hetchy also invoke the sacred — but to denounce the project. A long and bitter battle pitted the city of San Francisco and senior US officials against a nascent environmental movement led by Muir and the Sierra Club he founded. Muir, who considered Hetch Hetchy the sublime equal of Yosemite Valley, thundered, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! Besides dams for water reservoirs, cathedrals and churches of the people, for no holier temple was ever consecrated by the heart of man. When Congress passed the Raker Act in 1913, authorizing the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, Muir was heartbroken. He died the following year; some say the defeat hastened his death.
Whether or not the beloved Muir Valley should have been chosen as the site for a reservoir – critics argue that other sites were viable – the construction of the Hetch Hetchy water system was one of the greatest feats techniques of United States history. San Francisco City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy spearheaded the project, which first required the arduous construction of a 68-mile railway through mountains and valleys to deliver materials to the site; then the construction of a dam 312 feet high and 912 feet long; and finally the construction of an extensive system of aqueducts, tunnels, hydroelectric plants and eight other storage dams to transport water, by gravity, 167 miles to San Francisco. The whole process took 20 years, cost $102 million and claimed the lives of 89 people.
The temple was designed by San Francisco architect William Marchandwho trained with Bernard Mayeck and was the assistant designer of Maybeck’s masterpiece, the Palace of Fine Arts. The similarities between the latter and the Water Temple are obvious: both are fantastical circular structures with fluted Corinthian columns, beautiful water features – in the case of the temple, a rectangular reflecting pool bordered on both sides by cypresses – and atmospheres of enigmatic sublimity. . After the destruction of the plywood iteration, the current stone temple was built in 1938 by a French stonemason Albert Bernasconiwho also worked on San Francisco’s City Hall and Grace Cathedral.
The august aspect of the temple did not prevent people from using it for less than sacred activities. The millions of gallons of water that flow daily from Hetch Hetchy originally cascaded over a small waterfall into a vault 10 feet below the temple floor, then flowed 800 feet down a channel to the reservoir. Upper Crystal Springs. Thrill-seekers throw themselves into the water for a crazy ride on the canal. A Stanford fraternity also reportedly used to confuse initiates by blindfolding them and forcing them to cross a narrow board over foaming water. Authorities have since placed a grating over the water, and the long channel is still visible, descending west to the reservoir.
Today, very little water from Hetch Hetchy flows into the temple itself: it is diverted to a nearby treatment plant to prevent environmental damage to the Crystal Springs Reservoir ecosystem. But the water system that the shrine commemorates is getting stronger. Today, 260 million gallons of water flow daily from Hetch Hetchy, 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 – an achievement worthy of an exclamation of 60 foot masonry point. NHG
The Pulgas Water Temple is located at 56 Cañada Road in Redwood City. Pedestrian access is available from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily; the car park is open Monday to Friday and closed on weekends.