Hetch Hetchy Junction to the O'Shaughnessy Dam

The Hetch Hetchy Railroad

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The Hetch Hetchy Railroad bridge over the Tuolumne River.

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.

I would love to visit the rr. I'll go there on the Sierra rr, go to the Hetch Hetchy junctions, then I'll bike down the old ROW to the dam site and then I might find an abandonded piece of rolling stock. It would be great if you could post a map. Thank you, Adam, age 8

adam
kentfield, CA
12/1/2008

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I believe the ROW ran from Groveland to Pine Moutain Drive and then followed the contour of the land around the south side of what is now Pine Mtn. Lake. There are concrete footings across a ravine at the edge of the lake which appear to be about right for a light rail trestle. (They were why I started looking for clues.) Looked like the ROW could have then followed near Bear Creek RD back towards 120. Does that make any sense?

Ed
Torrance, CA
3/1/2010

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Can you post a track plan of the Hetch Hetchy RR ? Or is there one shown elsewhere already ? Thanks.

Mark Harris
Los Angeles, CA
5/29/2010

[Mark, unfortunately, I am unable to discern the routing from existing Topo maps.  —Greg Harrison]

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I travel on Cherry Lake Road a couple times a year and I have always thought it was an old rail bed As the road approaches Camp Mather it runs along a steep hillside that overlooks the Tuolumne River. A guard rail was constructed of old rails that I figured were salvaged from the old railroad.

Jeremiah
Sonoma, CA
11/6/2010

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Do you by chance know the name of the Railroad that went from Tuolumne City to Cherry Lake? I have visited of a place many call "Camp 37", where there used to be an old trestle.

Greg
Modesto, CA
12/14/2010

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In response to Greg's question (12/14/10), Camp 37 outside Tuolumne is undoubtedly one of the many logging camps operated and served by the former West Side Railroad, a geared locomotive-powered, narrow-gauge logging company railroad headquarterd in Tuolumne where it connected with the standard gauge Sierra Railway.

Russ Vollmer
Greenlawn, NY
1/26/2011

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i love this railroad.i have the book hetch hetchy and its dam railroad by ted wurm ( 1973 )printing. i wish i could go back in time and live it.

michael hand
bethel island, CA
10/3/2011

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Where the heck is Poopenaut Pass? Maps I've seen showing Poopenaut Pass look as if there is a loop or horseshoe curve at this point, which is about midway between Mather and Hetch Hetchy Dam. The elevation is at its highest point on the railway line at 5064 feet. Has anyone hike into there?

P.G.
Oakland, CA
9/16/2012

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This is a response to Ed from Torrance: I have looked at the route on Google Earth and feel that you are right about the ROW east of Groveland. Very intereting. Have you followed it from there to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir? The old roadbed is still visible after departing Hwy 120. Takes some studying, however. Have also found the route from Hetch Hetchy Junction on the Sierra RR line to Groveland. Some is under water.

Tom
Merced, CA
3/27/2013

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I think the line actually ran a little bit north of 120 in Groveland/Big Oak Flat, but not by much. There's a number of other surface streets (and even more more suspected dirt paths) that could also be the lines. Ferretti Road also looks like a plausible old rail route, at least for the relatively smooth curves, etc. Since I haven't personally driven Ferretti yet to know banking and such, there's nothing certain. At some point I want to walk around up there, or even see about asking the museums in particular.

I totally agree on where it spurs off the current Sierra line.

Harvey
Oakdale, CA
10/28/2013

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To try and give an idea where the Big Oak Flat remains might be (since I can't do map linking), look in the area of Catholic Cemetery Street and Wards Ferry Road. There are two unmarked dirt paths-- a north and south. The north is essentially a straight line that matches where the south and 120 converge. The southern tract has a line on it and can be mapped as part of the route, and eventually converges (or at least sits next to) Highway 120 at Memorial Drive to the east.

An alternate to those two is a little farther north on Wards Ferry, and continues past Deer Flat Road to swoop in rather neatly behind Groveland. Coincidentally, it also looks as though it could have curved over to Ferretti road as I suspected as a route in my previous post.

Harvey
Oakdale, CA
10/28/2013

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And agreed, the Pine Mountain route as Ed from Torrence points out, that's another of my suspected routes. Though looking at a map (dated 1947) the route out of Groveland seems straighter, perhaps exiting the Mary Lavaroni Park and more toward Beck Road, and... heck if I know. Out of Mather, there's a fairly straight line of telephone lines that mildly follow Forest Route 1SO2 or whatever it's called-- THAT could easily be it, as what usually went along rail lines? But by Cherry Lake Road, I'm all out of chuff. It's about finding clues, but this isn't an easy route with all the trees and roads making spaghetti on the map.

Harvey
Oakdale, CA
10/28/2013

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In 1946 (I was 12 years old), my family (on vacation from Chicago) drove from Oakland to Yosemite on the Big Oak Flat Road route, then dirt and gravel. As an avid railroad fan even then, I noticed the HH RR following alongside the road, sometimes in the road, sometimes on the right, or sometimes on the left. Most notably, even in my mind today, was that the rails closely followed the rolling primitive road grade up, down and around, sometimes cutting across sharper road curves. It was the mostly lightly-built, decrepit, woebegone piece of railroad I can still recall (possibly excepting the famous Hoophole, Yorktown & Tampico RR in Illinois!). What I can recall was certainly east of Groveland, and if I recall correctly, the road at that time went via Camp Mather (not the current 120 route to the south).

Denny S. Anspach MD
Sacramento, CA
12/8/2013

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Indeed. I took the time to finally go up to the Groveland museum to see the map up close. It actually cut across Old Priests Grade (loops into the rivine there, and across to make Priest Street-- the bridge was washed out in 1995), and came acorss the Priest/Coulterville Road, and crossed what is now 120 at a "Mini Mart."

It looks like I was wrong about it following Ferrarti Road as much as I thought, but it did turn where I thought (around the Groveland Museum), and actually cut through part of what is now Pine Mountain Lake. I can't recall all the details, but it does cross 120 on numerous points: Smith Station, Buck Meadows (which I knew and see the cuts near the highway), and by Rainbow Pools (or something like that-- the road is near a bridge by the recent Rim Fire area). Unfortunately a lot of the areas it went through are closed off because of the fire and loose soil, which might actually show the cuts that much easier since the trees are gone or bare.

I've also found the cuts and old road bed (now a gravel road) off Old Don Pedro Road, and even talked briefly with the man who currently leases the land. Where it ends at Don Pedro, it used to cut through the town Jacksonville (now under water, with a bridge for Jacksonville Road going over where it used to go), and came back up on the eastern shore of Don Pedro (toward where the Tuolumne River comes in) right under Grizzly Road (which comes off one of the early twists of New Priests Grade).

Harvey
Oakdale, CA
12/8/2013

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My Dad J.C. McFarland contracted the taking up of the Hetch Hetchy Railroad. I remember visiting with him cr 1949 during the project. I remeber he was living in a old hotel Sonora. I have a couple photos of that time. I remember trucks hauling the rails off. I also remember walking with my Dad Dow the rail bed and seeing a beautiful River down below with great fishing holes. It was way to steep to get dome to the pools. I always thought I would return someday and fish those holes. Great memories, I was only 9 years at the time. My Dad later contracted taking up the Virginia Truckee Railroad in Nevada.

John McFarland
Cental Oregon, OR
4/11/2014

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