Unless you’re in your 90s, you’ve never been to the Calaveras County town of Petersburg. It was dunked underwater when they built the original Hogan Dam east of Stockton in 1924.
Piecing together a story about unusually low reservoir levels a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a tidbit that helps put Petersburg back on the map — historically speaking.
It turns out one of the few native sons of this extinct town, Alexander Vogelsang, was also a leading proponent for the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide San Francisco with a water supply of pure snowmelt.
Hetch Hetchy Valley before it was flooded. From the 1908 Sierra Club bulletin.
That’s right. A man who advocated for flooding a valley that John Muir once described as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples” would later see his own childhood home destroyed by a dam.
Talk about karma.
Vogelsang came from a large family, and was not the only member bound for notoriety. One brother, Carl, became a high-ranking admiral in World War I. Another brother, Charles, led what was then the California State Board of Fish and Game (a high camp and mountain pass at Yosemite still bear his name).
For his part, Alexander attended public schools in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, and later the Stockton Business College and Normal Institute, before heading to law school and moving to San Francisco.
He was elected as a San Francisco supervisor in 1911, in the midst of the city’s push to build the reservoir at Hetch Hetchy and secure its future water supply.
Vogelsang traveled to Washington, D.C. and testified before the House of Representatives.
“I am a nature lover, second to none,” he told the House in 1913, “… Every summer of my life my vacation is spent among the crags and streams and the lakes of the mountainous sections of California and Oregon.”
He called himself a “conservationist” and pointed out that he grew up no more than 60 miles away from Hetch Hetchy.
But, Vogelsang testified, there was a “great necessity” for the proposed dam. San Francisco was suffering “most seriously and grievously” for water, and the very “conservation of humanity” was at stake.
“There is probably no other water source on the face of the earth equal to the Hetch Hetchy, for its waters will never be polluted by mining, by milling, by lumbering, by agriculture, or anything of that sort,” he said.
Congress approved the bill, which Vogelsang called the “realization of the most splendid dream ever indulged by the people of San Francisco.” One decade later, Hetch Hetchy Dam was finished. And one century after that, some activists are still fighting it.
As passionate as Vogelsang was about Hetch Hetchy, again, you have to wonder if subsequent events would change his thinking.
I haven’t researched this thoroughly, but it’s unclear to me whether Petersburg’s fate was known in 1913, when Vogelsang lobbied for the dam at Yosemite. Hetch Hetchy was finished in 1923, and construction on Hogan Dam didn’t even begin until 1924. It seems entirely possible that Vogelsang had no idea what was coming.
The old Hogan Dam, which flooded the town of Petersburg in the 1920s, has emerged from the water during the drought. The larger New Hogan Dam is just out of view to the right. Record photo by Calixtro Romias.
Or maybe he didn’t care. Perhaps Petersburg, more of a scattering of wooden homes and barns than a town, was a ramshackle place that simply wasn’t worth saving. It certainly wasn’t Yosemite.
In any case, Stockton has greatly benefited from New Hogan from both a water supply and flood control perspective. The loss of Petersburg was a small price to pay.
Hetch Hetchy? That’s another story.
Hat tip to Calaveras County historian Sal Manna for clueing me in to this bit of interesting and ironic trivia.