Due to many concerns regarding the supply of water for the city of San Francisco (not the least of which were shortages during the great quake of 1906), plans were drawn up to build a dam and turn the Hetch Hetchy watershed into a reservoir in the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains of Yosemite National Park. Many people feared that the Hetch Hetchy system would destroy Yosemite Valley, as well as other natural resources in the area. Nevertheless, the Raker Act was adopted by the United States Senate on December 2, 1913.
The scope of the Hetch Hetchy project was immense; it involved dams, reservoirs, conduits, powerhouses and a 150-mile aqueduct. Surveying and construction took place in mountainous regions without roads or power. Machinery, equipment and thousands of men had to be transported to remote sites, making an already difficult project even more challenging.
In order to carry supplies, machinery and laborers for the massive and controversial project, San Francisco built the Hetch Hetchy Railroad. The right-or-way was 68 miles long and reached the edge of Hetch Hetchy Valley and the O'Shaughnessy dam site high in the Sierras. The first nine miles were completed in 1915 and the following year a contract was awarded to complete the final 59 miles. The railroad was completed in 1918 and connected to the Sierra Railway (still in operation today) at the Hetch Hetchy Junction before, in turn, connecting with the Southern Pacific rail system at Oakdale, CA.
The freight charges were $0.12 per ton/mile or $10.15 per ton to the dam site (the end of the line). During the construction of the dam, the Hetch Hetchy Railroad carried 400 tons of cement each day to the site. In 1924 the Hetch Hetchy Railroad ceased operations as a common carrier.
Today, much of the Hetch Hetchy Railroad has been overlain and repeatedly bisected by parts of various roads: CA Route 120 and the Cherry Lake Road, Forest Routes 17 and 12, etc. But the observant visitor can readily spot the old railroad grades along these routes by noticing their narrow, raised railbeds, their gentle grades and their wide, sweeping curves. Many segments still have the old ties in place, with scattered pieces of hardware. Some of the more remarkable views of the Hetch Hetchy Railroad route are along the Cherry Lake Road between the hill above Spinning Wheel Camp and Camp Mather. The route presents breathtaking views of the formidable Tuolumne River Canyon.
Directions to visit the old right-of-way: from the Groveland California Ranger Station, travel eastward on Highway 120 for about 5.5 miles. Turn left (north) onto the Cherry Lake Road (Forest Route 17). As the road straightens and levels out, you are on the old Hetch Hetchy Railroad grade and will begin to see segments of it meander from the roadway. A piece of the Hetch Hetchy Railroad also passes through the Groveland Ranger Station.
Thanks to Craig Polson for contributing information about this route.