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The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann

Chapter XI

The upper flats and the mountains surrounding them were the summer grazing lands both for sheep and cattle. Of the two, sheep were able to feed at a higher elevation, subsisting partly on the bunch grass that grows in almost inaccessible spots. The sheep owners, contrary to the habit of cattlemen, took up no land but moved their flocks from place to place in the unsettled areas.

The best known cattle owners of the county had an established technique. Each selected a high grassy location not yet preŽmpted and obtained a government patent to as much as he was allowed. He fenced only a small portion containing some of the luxuriant grass and sufficient water. It then served as a corraling place.

By June each year the winter snows were melting and grass pricked through to the ten-thousand-foot level. Each cattleman, with his sons and his riders, started for the mountains driving all his beef stock—a man’s size undertaking of about three days duration. When in the vicinity of his fenced enclosure the cattle were turned loose and allowed to graze all summer on the open lands. A rider remained somewhere nearby to keep an eye on the animals but herders never attained such a degree of chumminess with cattle as with sheep. It wasn’t necessary to remain with them at night to forestall their inadvertently furnishing a dinner for a hungry mountain lion.

Of course, during the unattended period, various untoward events occurred. Calves running with the cows became unaccountably separated and turned up later marked with a different brand, or branded stock emerged from the mountains at the end of four months with an altered brand completely healed and incapable of proof. If dirty work with a branding iron was suspected some likely calves were selected at the beginning of summer and a marked dime slipped under the skin just above the hoof. It quickly healed without a trace. These thin dimes were the means of hauling several unscrupulous rustlers into court.

At the end of the summer season the cattle belonging to each owner were collected from canyons and peaks and gradually driven into his fenced inclosure still lush and opulent with protected pasturage. They were kept there, inactive and eating happily, until fat and ready for market when they were driven slowly down to “the plains,” as the San Joaquin Valley was then termed.

A list follows of some of the leading stockmen of the vicinity who operated during the last thirty years of the century: Tom and R. B. Kennedy who ranged at Kennedy Lake; William Cooper of Cooper Meadows; Dennis and John Fahey later succeeded by their sons; Joseph Lord; Colwell O. Drew of Drew’s Meadows near “Hog Ranch,” now Mather; J. S. and Joseph Rosasco; Bartholomew and Shippolite; Dick and Henry Meyer of Deer Flat ranging at White Wolf; John Wolfling and son Michael; Mark Crabtree and son Oscar; the Donahues; the Smiths from near Don Pedro; John Stockel of Crimea; Timothy H. Carlon of Deer Flat ranging at Ackerson Meadows; Louis Gobin and son “Ed” at Crane Flat; Jeremiah Hodgdon and son Thomas at Bronson Meadows; Jules and Jean Renaud; William Rushing from Willow Springs Road; John Grohl from Green Springs; the McCormicks who ranged at Eagle Meadows; W. A. Smith and sons; Armstrong who ranged the Jawbone country below Lake Eleanor; John Curtin and sons of Cloudman who ranged at Gin Flat; Rush and Miguel ranging at Miguel Meadows near Hetch Hetchy.

Their pasturage in the main extended between the Stanislaus and the Tuolumne Rivers.

The cattle industry, sheep raising and freighting gradually replaced mining as a source of income in the mountains of California. Our chief informant and advisor as to the intricacies of all three has been Robert A. Curtin of Cloudman who, from years of actual experience with cattle drives and jerk-line teams, has the facts at his command; and who, by reason of his long term as a special police officer in San Francisco, has learned the value of a plain fact left unembellished. His brother, John B. Curtin (Honest John), early elected a state senator, will long be remembered as the man who fought for over six years in the courts to protect the rights of the cattlemen, finally winning in the Supreme Court of the United States.

The summer grazing land of the Curtins was at Gin Flat lying just over the summit from Crane Flat at about 7000 feet elevation. In earliest days it was utilized as a sheep camp by one, Hugh Mundy. It remained part of the “open settlement country” and, in 1882, was filed upon by the elder John Curtin who obtained a government patent. In early days of mountain travel Gin Flat was not designated by any particular name. It acquired its title naturally through a more or less amusing incident. A freight wagon bouncing across the rough little flat lost a barrel of gin and rumbled on without missing it. Some men who were working on the road promptly rolled it into the shrubbery and knocked a hole in the top through which they inserted straws pulled from the grass. A few assorted sheepherders happily joined the party and the whole affair rapidly assumed an alcoholic flavor. When the men had been missing a day or so a search party was sent out under the impression that they had been attacked by bandits or wild animals and that a burial squad would be necessary—which latter was not far from the unfortunate truth.

The Curtins built a one-room cabin of tamarack logs which still stands as a sturdy ruin.

In a cow-camp duty was no respector of age. Before he was twelve Bob Curtin found himself more than once alone at the cabin to keep an eye on the place and on the cattle. A few warnings were spoken soberly and received in the same spirit: If you get lost give your horse his head, he’ll take you back to camp. If you lose your horse as well as your way, follow the nearest creek to a river, then keep with the river. It will bring you, sooner or later, to where there are people. Above all never call out; it attracts the mountain lions.

Almost anything could happen at Gin Flat but seldom did. Most of the time the high country was peaceful enough. One morning very early in the spring the two young brothers, Bill and Bob Curtin, were sitting at breakfast when the door swung open and a party of Monos peered into the room. They were heavily painted which looked ominous. The boys moved to where their guns hung on the log wall; stood there motionless and presently the Indians padded off through the snow as silently as they had come. The boys found later that they had seen smoke and wondered who was there so early in the year. The paint was simply the custom during bad weather as a protection from icy winds and sleet.

The twenty year period ending in 1911 was hell in a hand basket for the local cattle industry. The bill creating Yosemite National Park was passed in October, 1890, and, beginning the next spring, stock might not graze on the lands included within the boundaries. Naturally, even those cattlemen whose patented lands were without the limits were affected because loose cows are no respectors of imaginary lines and no provision had been made to restrain their activities until the fall round-up.

The Department of the Interior sent out verbose proclamations in legal phraseology that restrained they must and should be. The stockmen’s proclamations were equally verbose but the phrasing was quite different. The Department saw that it had acquired a problem child and decided that discipline must be maintained at all costs. The act had been passed for the express purpose of preventing the spoilage of the magnificent scenic area surrounding Yosemite Valley and no one denied that cattle ate the tops off of the new forest growth. If cattle were bad, sheep were devastating. They devoured the grass and (having a competent set of teeth in each jaw, which cattle do not) they ate it roots and all. They lunched off the blossoms of the beautiful tiger and leopard lilies and dined off the bulbs which they excavated for the purpose with their sharp hoofs. It took years for a meadow to recuperate from one season’s grazing.

The Secretary of the Interior sent a troop of cavalry to see that no sheep nor loose stock strayed into the forbidden territory. In the spring of ’91 the trouble started. The stockmen drove their livestock up to their patented land; left them and went home to sit tight. The cavalry officers had to show results. Word was sent out that animals found on government land would be pushed across the summit by way of the infamous chute of Bloody Canyon. This stair-like descent was 3000 feet in less than four miles and was often fatal to animals. It had its outlet in the Mono Indian country.1

Robert Curtin was alone at Gin Flat awaiting developments when he heard that the cavalry had collected 200 head of stock and intended to start the drive for Bloody Canyon the next day. He rode down to Hodgdon’s where they had camped.

Young Bob, then sixteen, and Jeremiah Hodgdon, seventy, were the only cattlemen in the mountains. During the evening they told the soldiers of the casualties that were certain to ensue if the cattle were sent plunging down the shelf-like Bloody Canyon Trail, so strewn with sharp rocks that the name came from the blood left by the cut legs of the pack animals. When the cavalrymen rolled in for the night, Bob rolled out—a determined lad on Jerry Hodgdon’s best horse racing down the mountain. He reached Meyer’s ranch and, by means of riders and the telegraph, sent word to the men whose cattle were threatened. These made forced marches through Sonora Pass; intercepted such stock as had been driven over the Sierra and started the long trek home. The soldiers had not put their hearts in the job and had managed to lose most of the cattle in the forests; still some were gone and some were dead. C. O. Drew’s buildings which chanced to be on government land were burned with his hay, gear and supplies. The cattlemen were furious but it was made evident that they would have to go through the motions of keeping their cattle out of the reserve.

In 1905 Captain Harry C. Benson was put in command of the troops and undertook, with almost fanatical devotion to duty, to preserve the beauty of the park. His complete absorption in the matter was such that he acquired for the length of the Big Oak Flat Road and (privately) among his own men, one of the western nicknames that never can be shaken—“Batty” Benson. Benson (soon promoted to Major) did a splendid job but his methods were drastic and not always defensible. Among other things a stockman was not allowed to drive cattle from one piece of his own property to another by means of the general turnpike if it meant passing through a portion of the park. The cattlemen insisted that they were being deprived of the right of every American citizen to use his own land and the public roads.

The authors asked questions of available persons favoring both sides and finally took advantage of an opportunity to get the point of view of the cavalrymen themselves. The matter was put to Edwin Doel Hopkins, late of Mill Valley, California, who served in the 14th Cavalry under Major Benson from 1906 to ’09. It would be impossible to doubt his sense of duty for, during this period, so we learned from another source, he responded to a request from his superior officer for a volunteer to rescue the body of a young man who had fallen about 800 feet over a cliff at Union Point in Yosemite and was lying on a ledge some 1000 feet above the floor of the valley. Hopkins went down the cliff on a rope of which two strands cut through on a sharp rock and unwound briskly as he was lowered. The man was dead and he remained all night on the ledge with the body while another adequate rope was brought from Modesto. It was lowered to him and he made it fast; the body was swung to the valley floor and Hopkins then went down the rope himself—an exhibition of bravery and physical prowess probably as outstanding as any in the annals of Yosemite, done without reward at the request of his officer. And yet he and his comrades were far out of accord with Major Benson’s methods of dealing with the livestock and softened them when they could.

The affair came to a boil when Senator Curtin’s cattle were rounded up, funneled through Bloody Canyon and thence to the four winds. The senator sued. First in the county court, then in the U. S. Circuit Court in San Francisco where the earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed all the evidence and everything had to be done over. He more or less patiently collected more evidence and lost the case. Then he made appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court. The case was delayed twice by reason of the deaths of Justices Brewer and Fuller but finally arrived at the determining point and was argued. The Sonora Banner for November 24, 1911, summed it up. “Decision was in favor of the Senator. Senator Curtin contended that as the Government granted patents to his lands and he bought and owned them and the highway leading to them was a public road, he had the unquestioned privilege to travel and use it in going and returning to his property. He challenged the Government, it was accepted and the fight made. The Senator was victorious and the troops had to retreat. He holds the fort at Crane Flat. The success of the Senator means much to all stockmen who have grazing rights in reservations.”

This decision gave no excuse to the cattle owners to allow grazing beyond their own holdings but it was a sweet victory to many residents along the Big Oak Flat Road.

It must be remembered, however, that Major Benson, although grandly, unbendingly wrong on this point, stood immovable between the natural beauty of the mountains and despoilage; impressing on the public mind the necessity of protecting our national parks at all costs. He later received the rank of colonel and has become one of the permanent names remembered in the history of Yosemite.

The inquiring traveler who investigates historic spots on foot will find the disintegrating walls of Curtin’s cow-camp sturdily resisting the weather in the center of Gin Flat. According to Mr. Curtin, who lately re-visited the spot, the barn was between the cabin and the present road where the symmetrical young tamarack now grows. The old road passed between the barn and the cabin.

Due east of the flat is Lightning Ridge containing a group of three peaks of which only one can be seen from this location. They are named Jot’s Peaks because of a sheepman, Jot Jones, who long ago ranged his flocks high on their rough slopes.

*   *   *

Tamarack Flat, three miles down the grade toward Yosemite from Gin Flat, is a labyrinth of overpowering chunks of granite— heaps and heaps, tons and tons of them. The trees are big but are dwarfed by the boulders. Through the level section runs modest little Tamarack Creek. The place is quite grown up with brush but, in the days of the annual grass burning, used to be fairly open. Alva Hamilton (later of Hamilton Station) is credited with being the first settler at this high mountain clearing and conducted a small stopping place called Tamarack House. However, John Muir, passing through the flat in July, 1869, found a log house occupied by a white man with an Indian wife.2 Probably, as it is known that Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton came up the next season, the man was either employed by them, or they purchased his house with the idea of establishing a stopping place. The flat, then infested with grizzlies, was named by Coulter and Bunnell in 1856 while hunting a suitable saddle trail from Coulterville to Yosemite.3

Johannah Grayson Hamilton presided over the rough accommodation of Tamarack House with as much poise and capability as she later displayed at Hamilton Station. Although small and retiring she had a mind and a will of her own and a large, enveloping hospitality. In October, 1870, Ellen Harper May, then sixteen years old and accompanied by Mrs. Hodgdon, was coming out of Yosemite with a pack train. She had been all day on a side saddle and was stiff, tired, cold and terribly afraid of bear. As a final blow, just at dusk it began to snow. Apparently they were passing Tamarack House without stopping when Ellen began to cry. Out marched Mrs. Hamilton and stopped the cavalcade which had intended to make Hodgdon’s before putting up for the night. Shamelessly she delayed them with a roaring fire, hot biscuits and venison and finally delivered the ultimatum, “This little girl shall not go on tonight. The woods are full of bear.” And she didn’t. Almost seventy years later Ellen said gratefully, “I shall never forget that kind lady.”

With the best will in the world, though, Johannah Hamilton had very little room in which to display her hospitality. The irrepressible Olive Logan gives us one of her vinegary word pictures: “At Tamarack Flat the experienced Hamilton is ready—he is ready every time every saddle train arrives, for he knows the state the arrivers will be in—and he lifts poor tourist women off their horses. Our limbs are paralyzed. Some of us are barely alive. The bride from Chicago has swooned. The good wife Hamilton does all she can for us. She offers wine—she rubs us with whiskey —and at last all of us, men, women, and children, married and unmarried, friends and total strangers, lie down in the one only room which composes their cabin, and pass the night in blissful disregard of civilization and modesty at once. A propos, lest the reader might forget it, I wish to again remind him here that this is a pleasure trip.”4

In the middle ’70s, not long after the road was completed to Yosemite, the house burned and the Hamiltons moved permanently to their place at what is now Buck Meadow. David Woods rebuilt Tamarack House and erected the large stage barn seen in later years. There was no well. Water was always obtained from the clean little creek. Within a few years he erected also a store and saloon. After his death in 1884 his wife and son continued the business. Probably the heavy winter of 1889-90 which ended the career of Billy Hurst took its toll of the buildings; rumblings of the imminent “cattle war” were beginning to be heard and the government put the U. S. Cavalry in charge of the country. One thing taken with another discouraged them and in 1891 they moved away.

Tamarack House stood lonely for more than two decades and then, in 1914, it was moved up the mountain to Gin Flat and placed against the left wall of the Curtin cabin, making that solid edifice twice as large as formerly. But apparently it had suffered too many vicissitudes. It commenced to weather away and disappeared many years ago, while the original portion of the Curtin cabin is still an interesting ruin.

The old road was more curving through Tamarack Flat than the one now in use and the house stood to the right or south of it, between the road and a huge pile of boulders. Just beyond the site, on the left, is a telephone box on a post. Here the old road swung toward the creek and passed between two large tamarack trees studded with spikes. Southeast of the second tree stands another large tree which shaded the saloon and store of David Woods’ regime. Beyond the telephone box a road leads to the right toward an abandoned C.C.C. camp. The large barn which sheltered the pack animals on occasion when, for a few months, Tamarack Flat was the terminus of the road, used to stand in the farther angle of this side road with the main road.

Near the saloon the old road crossed Tamarack Creek and proceeded toward Yosemite in back of the rocks on the opposite side of the current.

A generous two-tenths of a mile past the present bridge over Tamarack Creek brings one to a well-marked gully leading up on the left. Along this small gulch went the Mono Trail joining Tamarack Flat with Yosemite Creek as indicated in “the map of a portion of the Sierra Nevada adjacent to the Yosemite Valley” in The Yosemite Book, 1868, by J. D. Whitney, State Geologist. It was exceedingly rough and steep even after being cleared out and blazed in 1857 but had the advantage of water and shade. Now it is impassable. Other portions of the Mono Trail have been maintained by the government for modern hikers but this branch has been forgotten and is only recognizable by the blaze marks about six feet up on the large trees. Many of them have fallen and disintegrated but such marks as are left are always to be found on trees standing to the right of the trail no matter in which direction one is traveling. About a mile up the hill the trail goes through “Split Rock” which looks as if it had been divided for the purpose. Along its steep footway the ill-favored Mono Indians came to see their friend Henry Crocker.

The famous naturalist, John Muir, once met a portion of the tribe on their way to Yosemite to feast on acorns. They were sketchily covered, at least in spots, by the skins of sage rabbits; were revoltingly ugly and inexpungibly squalid. He was impressed by the inhuman faces of the older individuals which he described as “strangely blurred and divided into section by seams and wrinkles that looked like cleavage points, and had a worn abraded look as if they had lain exposed to the weather for ages.”5

A fraction of a mile beyond the Tamarack Creek crossing, the automobile road passes Coyote Creek and ascends a hill. In plain view to the right is Balancing Rock. It used to be known as Pivot Rock and the precariously poised tons of granite have always been considered one of the sights of the trail. One-tenth of a mile beyond Pivot Rock, very close to the road on the right, is what was pointed out by the stage drivers as “Elephant Rock.” It is simply a pile of boulders the top of which resembles slightly an elephant’s head and trunk.

The telegraph line to Yosemite followed the road and at this point both plunged down through small, precise, silvery fir trees to cross Cascade Creek. A keen observer may be lucky enough to spy one of the rare dull green insulators still fastened high on a tree.

Cascade Creek was steep, rocky and hazardous for animals. A crossing was soon contrived. It was the bridge over this stream that had to be traversed with such care by the first vehicle over the road each spring. Snow packs the short span to such height and weight that it is a wonder it survives. In fact, snow in the upper Yosemite region is a miracle of beauty lasting from October until June. At first it is scattered sparcely under the dark conifers as if some slovenly gardener had sprinkled his beds with lime. A month later it extends in billowing curves like white and shining Christmas plastic. After a fresh fall everything is covered but tree-trunks the color of blackstrap molasses, the uprights of the fences and the darkling little creeks stealing between encroaching snowy banks. Later, as warm weather melts the more exposed portions, the all-enveloping white blanket dwindles to hard heaps in sheltered spots. Heaps whose rounded upper surface is untidy with droppings from the overhanging trees and etched with blackened tracings from the tiny feet of squirrels and other small householders of the forest. And so it stays until well into July.

For all the years of vehicle travel to Yosemite by way of the upper flats, snow was the great natural barrier, unpredictable and not to be underestimated. The early users of the road partially solved the problem for the pack mule by blazing the “Lower Trail” from Crane Flat to the Cascade Creek bridge.6

*   *   *

The last station on the road was Gentry’s, down the mountain from Tamarack Flat at an elevation of 5627 feet. It was on the brink of the tremendous cliffs overhanging the canyon of the Merced just below Yosemite Valley but was so hemmed in by timber that the precipice was invisible.

Colonel E. S. Gentry settled there while the travelers over the high ridge where his stopping place was located were still riding a rough trail on horse and mule back. The wagon road with its appropriate concomitant of stages and freighters was so slow in arriving at his door that he was but little known to the dwellers on the lower portions of the turnpike. Tamarack Flat was the last destination to be discussed with familiarity by the cattlemen and, until 1872 when the final miles of the road were under construction, only the determined sightseers headed for the wonders of fabled Yosemite or owners of supply trains plodded into Gentry’s on tired horses or mules.

Colonel Gentry believed whole-heartedly in a great future for the valley and was willing to rise or fall with its success as a resort. Sawed lumber was difficult to obtain and his buildings were of logs and hand-split shakes. The main dwelling was a stark, two-storied, porchless affair with a steep roof to shed snow and stood on a tiny flat to the right of the road. It was a self-respecting little hotel whose tidy sitting room held the outstanding luxuries of lace curtains and a melodeon. The proprietor and his wife were well liked and did everything possible for their guests’ comfort but the place did not vie with Priest’s and Crocker’s where they had almost metropolitan service. One of the sights at Gentry’s was the noisy string of sore-backed mules, belonging to J. M. Hutchings of Yosemite, that carried the weary and often frightened tourists from whatever stopping place was the current terminus of the stage line. Going down the cliff to the floor of the valley they sometimes found their heels higher than their heads on the precipitous trail.

It was Colonel Gentry’s great ambition to see a stage road built past his hotel and on into the confines of the Yosemite Park grant. Even though it entailed a difficult piece of construction he was confident that it could be done.

How difficult it actually proved to be he had no conception but his main idea was correct. It could be and was accomplished. Although no one had foreseen it, the wagon road which he had anticipated with such pleasure was his undoing. When it was no longer necessary to leave the stages and to go down the steep descent on horseback most of the passengers bowled right on into the valley. Soon the little hotel was no longer a paying proposition. After many years of serving the public at this strategic spot Colonel Gentry moved out.

In 1885 Joseph Hutchins took over the location and built a sawmill near the house. This is obviously easy to confuse with the sawmill run by James Hutchings on the floor of the valley but neither men or mill had any affiliation one with the other. The small cabins of the workers were across the road; the whole group of buildings, as evidenced by debris, stood some 500 yards north of the log barrier that ends the present road.

Hutchins took a contract to supply lumber for the $40,000 government-owned Stoneman Hotel in the valley and used two strings of ponderous oxen to haul the logs in from the woods. Horse teams drew the lumber down the Zigzag. The place (still known as Gentry’s) was enlivened with a group of mill hands’ cottages; families lived in them during the working season of the year and children played among the trees. The Hutchins family was popular and, during the years that the mill was in operation, gave some of the gayest parties the mountains had yet seen. Dances lasted all the hours of darkness with a chicken dinner at midnight. It was not considered appropriate to serve breakfast to folks who had postponed every tentative advance of hunger by a steady bombardment of pickles, stray chicken gizzards and huge wedges of cake all night so, after daylight, the “neighbors” drove home to recuperate.

Neighbor was an elastic term. According to Celia Crocker Thompson, a neighbor was anyone who lived near or along the Big Oak Flat Road or on its age-old termini, the various branches of the Mono Trail. Even Mr. Farrington of the Mono Lake Ranch was considered to come under that heading though his visits were always sparing.

When the raison d’etre of the mill had vanished into the past— Stoneman Hotel was complete and the salable timber worked out—Hutchin’s sawmill was dismantled. Down toward the settlements came the freight wagons carrying the family and its possessions; the two mighty bull teams holding the tempo of the whole procession back to their plodding amble. But it didn’t actually make progress any slower than the farewells from every ranch and stopping place—a parting of old friends who did not expect to see one another again. At Gin Flat John B. Curtin sat his horse and waved as long as the women’s handkerchiefs could be seen fluttering. It was twenty-seven years later at a political rally while he was campaigning for governor that he saw them once again.

Family and neighborly bonds were strong but goodbyes in the mountains were apt to be final.

And all through the years the slow, steady freighters plodded up and down the mountain carrying food, drink, household goods, clothes—everything that the householder could not raise for himself. Even with their invariable accompaniment of noise and dust they were always welcome. It was they that made life interesting.

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