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Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite, and the battle for National Parks

Albert Bierstadt's painting, "Hetch Hetchy Valley, California," captures the beauty of a valley now lost to a dam built in 1923. The artwork reflects America's struggle between development and preserving nature. Bierstadt's work also highlights the displacement of Native Americans, adding a layer of historical context.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Narrator] We're in the galleries at the Wadsworth Atheneum looking at a large painting by Albert Bierstadt called the Hetch Hetchy Valley, California. When we think about the amazing national parks out west, we might think about Yosemite, and in fact, Hetch Hetchy is within the boundaries of Yosemite. Hetch Hetchy Valley was formed by the same glaciers that formed Yosemite Valley. - [Narrator] You have incredible cliffs, beautiful autumn foliage, and the Ptolemy River meandering quietly. - [Narrator] But we can't go visit it anymore and look at this same scene. - [Narrator] Hetch Hetchy Valley was damned in 1923 in order to provide water supply for the city of San Francisco. - [Narrator] So if we were gonna go look at this now, we would see those towering granite cliffs, but where the valley is is an enormous reservoir. - [Narrator] It's been completely flooded so all of what you see in the middle ground and in the distance is underwater. - [Narrator] There was a huge public outcry about this and quite a battle between those who wanted to protect this valley, but others who felt that the need for water for the growing city of San Francisco was a priority. - [Narrator] Naturalists like John Muir visited Hetch Hetchy Valley and sang its praises and soon began to fear what would happen if this dam was built. - [Narrator] There was such rapid development in America throughout the 19th century and one of the things that we see in American landscape painting is this feeling that we're watching Americans develop the land and create industry and create wealth but at the same time, we're watching this landscape disappear. - [Narrator] Bierstadt earlier in his career was part of a geological survey to help reveal to easterners what the west looked like. - [Narrator] These were remote places, people on the east coast were reading about them in newspapers and magazines and in books, but seeing a painting by Bierstadt in full color on a grand scale captured people's imagination. - [Narrator] That sense that god created nature is so important to the Hudson River School painters, but ironically, was also part of manifest destiny and it led to westward migration, which would impact the same land. - [Narrator] And I think Bierstadt does give us that sense that the west was this place that was an Eden, it was god's cathedral, it was a place where you could escape from the turmoil of modern life. - [Narrator] But at the same time, the idea that this was uncharted territory was a misconception because indigenous peoples, Native Americans, had long lived in this area and were in fact forever impacted by westward migration. It's been suggested that in the center of the painting, these puffs of smoke were part of an Indian encampment which is possible, but at this point, in the late 19th century, the area had been largely affected by the displacement of indigenous peoples and Bierstadt was part of a generation that attempted to document the customs of Native Americans and what he considered to be a vanishing people. - [Narrator] So here we are in the early 1870s. - [Narrator] The west as an idea becomes apparent after the Civil War, where artists were aware of the increased access to the west. There was also this emerging interest in vanishing cultures, whether that was the American cowboy or Native Americans and the idea that the east was an area of conflict and the west was an area of promise and escape holds strong for someone like Albert Bierstadt. - [Narrator] The mountains fade back into luminous mist and there's a softness to the forms, but we've got detail in the foreground, specificity, of leaves of trees, of moss. - [Narrator] Bierstadt has a wonderful tiny inclusion on the lower left of a figure who appears to be holding a sketchbook and surveying the Hetch Hetchy Valley before him. The figure may be a stand-in for the artist, who it may be a stand-in for how the country was looking west after the Civil War. - [Narrator] John Muir, when he talked about Hetch Hetchy described it in beautiful terms. "Hetch Hetchy Valley is a grand landscape garden, "one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples. "The sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life, "whether leaning back in repose or standing erect "in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms "and calms alike, their brows in the sky, "their feet set in the groves, and gay flowery meadows, "while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river "and waterfalls to stir all the air into music." - [Narrator] Since that time, environmentalists have bemoaned the fact that this area was dammed. - [Narrator] There are a lot of efforts to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley, to remove the water, to allow the plants and trees to grow back. Muir did say, when the battle for Hetch Hetchy was lost, "The long drawn out battle for nature's gardens "has not been thrown away. "The conscience of the whole country has been aroused "from sleep and from outrageous evil, "compensating good in some form must surely come." So the idea of what could be lost was very clear in the public mind thanks to Hetch Hetchy. (gentle music)