One Hundred Hikes in Yosemite

Humans in Yosemite—Yosemite Becomes a Park

The Civil War began in April 1861, just months after Hutchings' Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California appeared. With America locked in Civil War, it is a wonder that anyone visited Yosemite. Still, some people did, and a few of these helped to get park status for Yosemite Valley. A highly influential Unitarian minister, Reverend Thomas Starr King, who had visited the Valley in 1860, saw that homesteading and commercial pursuits in it might be harmful, and he was the first—through his nationwide audience—to press for a public park. Photographs of the Valley were taken in 1861 by C. E. Watkins, and these, together with geographic and geologic data gathered by the Whitney Survey of California, provided legislators with favorable evidence backing King's exhortations.

The call of Yosemite eventually lured Fredrick Law Olmsted, the country's foremost landscape architect, to Yosemite in 1863, and he too noted that the Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees were both being ruined by commercial interests. Though young, he was already very influential, and he convinced Senator John Conness of California to introduce a Park bill in the Senate. The bill, not being controversial in the war-torn Congress, easily passed in both houses and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864. The bill deeded Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the State of California "for public use, resort and recreation," and these two tracts "shall be inalienable for all time."

It is one thing to create a park on paper; it is another matter to bring it into existence. In September, California's governor proclaimed a board of Yosemite commissioners, which did not come into existence until 1866. The commissioners appointed Galen Clark as the Park's first guardian, a position he hold on and off through 1896. However, the commissioners at first lacked authority to evict homesteaders, and an 11-year battle ensued. Josiah D. Whitney, who was the first director of the California State Geological Survey, feared that "Yosemite Valley, instead of being 'a joy forever,' will become, like Niagara Falls, a gigantic institution for fleecing the public." Expressing his concern in his 1870 Yosemite Guide-Book, he continued:

"Instead of having every convenience for circulation in and about the Valley, free trails, roads, and bridges, with every facility offered for the enjoyment of Nature in the greatest of her works, unrestrained except by the requirements of decency and order, the public will find, if the ownership of the Valley passes into private hands, that opportunity will be taken to levy toll at every point of view, on every trail, on every bridge, and at every turning, while there will be no inducement to do anything for the public accommodation, except that which may be made immediately available as a new means of raising a tax on the unfortunately traveller."

In part he was writing against Hutchings, who like others had hoped to gain homesteading rights to 160 of the Valley floor's 2200 acres. In 1875 the claims of the early settlers were resolved. Hutchings, like three other pre-Park land owners, lost his ownership, but he was in part compensated with a State grant of $24,000 for the improvements he made on the Upper Hotel, which he had purchased just months before President Lincoln signed the park bill. Hutchings lost his hotel, but still profited from his book, which continued to attract tourists. In 1877, just after his land loss, Hutchings published a second guide, Hutchings' Tourist Guide to the Yo Semite Valley and the Big Tree Groves for 1877, which amazingly was very factual and not vindictive toward the Park commissioners. (An interesting sidelight in that book is that he speculated on the Valley's origin. Having lived in it extensively and having experienced floods, rockfalls, and the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake, and knowing Muir's pronouncements on glaciation, he put virtually all of it together, except for the important role of past tropical weathering, a discovery that would not be published until the following year. Nevertheless, proper, certified geoscientists totally ignored his views, for, as I have been told, if you don't have a Ph.D. in the field, you are unqualified to make observations. Consequently, for over a century the public has been insulted with gross misinterpretations on the Valley's origin. The only detailed account, Frangois Matthes' US Geological Survey Professional Paper 160, published in 1930, was written to fit his professor's views, not the field evidence, and much of his mapped glacial deposits do not actually exist. My chapter 2 is based on verifiable field evidence, not imaginary, but until the USGS says otherwise, Matthes' monograph—and later USGS spinoffs—will remain the Valley's geologic Bible.)

In 1880 the reigning Park commissioners were ousted, new ones were appointed, and James Hutchings replaced Galen Clark as the Park guardian! Hutchings was a man who could get things done—usually for the good of the Park. Back on May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad had been completed, and during the 1870s a flood of settlers poured into California. These people were potential tourists, but the lengthy horseback ride to Yosemite Valley was a deterrent. However, in the mid-70s, three stagecoach roads were built to the Valley: the Coulterville Road (June 1874), the Big Oak Flat Road (July 1874), and the Mariposa (Wawona) Road (July 1875). Tourists now came in droves, and this influx resulted in an increase of hotels and services in Yosemite Valley, which were more or less regulated by the commissioners. Still, these men were concerned over the Valley's deteriorating condition, as shown in their 1880 report:

1. Most of the available land is under lease for pasture and garden purposes.

2. The enclosed fields are being invaded by willows, wild roses, and other growth, to the damage of their value and of the beauty of the Valley.

3. The upper portion of the Valley, which has been set apart for the convenience of campers [first camp established in 1878], is largely overgrown with willows and young pines. The views are obstructed, the pasturage destroyed, and the appearance injured.

4. There is no practicable and unobstructed carriage road around the Valley, near the base of the cliffs. At present all who attempt to make the circuit of the floor of the Valley, must pass through gates and fields, lose some of the finest views, and be subjected to annoyance and loss of time.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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