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In the Heart of the Sierras by James M. Hutchings (1888)



Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavor.
Cowper’s Task, Book II.
To-day is not yesterday; we ourselves change; how can our works and
thoughts, if they are always to be fittest, continue always the same?
Carlyle’s Essays.
There comes to me out of the Past
A voice, whose tones are sweet and wild,
Singing a song almost divine,
And with a tear in every line.

After the experiences narrated in the preceding chapter, a second visit was paid Yo Semite in the ensuing summer, for the purpose of a thorough examination of the valley, with reference to a suitable location for our proposed new home. The choice fell upon the site since generally known as “Hutchings’;” and negotiations were commenced for purchasing the possessory right of two preŽmption claims, of 160 acres each, out of which to establish one deemed the most desirable. Owing to sundry delays, from various causes, these were not consummated, and the improvements thereon acquired, until the spring of 1864, when terms were satisfactorily agreed upon; and we set out, with all our household and other wares, arriving, and taking possession, April 20th of that year—1864.


Fastening on the packs.

At that time all our furniture, stores, tools, and other articles, had to be carried fifty miles on the backs of mules and horses. The pack-train was not only the connecting link between comfort and privation, but the interposing medium between plenty and starvation; consequently packing, from its necessities, was elevated into a science, the professors and experts of which were Mexican muleteers. The equal balancing of the pack, and the skillful fastening of it upon the animal, required knowledge, as well as practice and care. It was a serious matter to have a pack become loose, or one-sided, as this called not only

In trouble from a loose pack.
Mexican persuasion.
for its re-adjustment, but, frequently, for repacking. Then the delay thus caused brought other trouble, inasmuch as while this was being cared for, the remaining animals of the train were loitering; when others would lie down to rest; and, either by an attempt to roll over, or in the effort to get up, so disarrange their load as to necessitate a repetition of the service. This often became quite a severe tax upon the packer’s patience (time was seldom an object of consideration with representatives of this race in California), seldom an over-abundant article in the possession of a Mexican—and, it might be
Pack-train when in motion.
added, with people of other nationalities besides. Its lack too frequently developed excesses in temper, attended frequently with much brutality; and this very naturally reacted upon the animal’s resentment of a wrong; and, possibly, gave rise to the expression, “stubborn as a mule.”


There is something very pleasing and picturesque in the sight of a large pack-train quietly ascending or descending a hill, as each animal carefully examines the trail, and moves cautiously, step by step, especially on a steep and dangerous declivity, as though he suspected danger to himself, or injury to his pack. This is particularly noticeable on passing down a steep snow bank, when heavily packed; for, as they cannot step forward safely, they so dispose their feet, and brace their limbs, that they can, and do, unhesitatingly slide down it with their load, in perfect safety. I have seen a train of fifty do this. In some of the more remote settlements, the arrival of the pack-train was an event of importance only secondary to that of the expressman, or the mail-carrier; and its unpacking watched with as much eager interest as though it was expected that some old-time friend would emerge from between the packs.


The average weights carried would generally range within two hundred and three hundred pounds; although, in some instances, they have been far in excess of this. When the Yreka Herald was about to commence publication, in 1852, a press was purchased in San Francisco at a cost of $600, upon which the freight alone amounted to $900. The “bed-piece” weighed three hundred and ninety-seven pounds, and, with the aparajoes, ropes, etc., exceeded four hundred and thirty pounds, which was the actual weight of the load. On descending Scott Mountain, the splendid animal carrying this load slipped a little, when the pack, over balancing, threw the mule down a steep bank, and killed it instantly. In the fall of 1853 an iron safe, nearly three feet square, and weighing three hundred and fifty-two pounds, was conveyed on a very large mule, from Shasta to Weaverville, a distance of thirty-eight miles, and over a rough and mountainous trail, without an accident; but, after the load was taken off, the mule lay down, and died in a few hours. A reliable gentleman informed me that in 1855 two sets of millstones were packed from Shasta to Weaverville, the largest weighing six hundred pounds. Deeming it an impossibility for one mule to carry either, it was tried to “sling” one mill-stone between two animals; but that, proving impracticable, the plan was abandoned, and it was afterwards packed, safely, upon one!


Mexican mules were considered the most desirable, from their being accustomed to that work; and, having been less tenderly reared than the American, were less liable to disease. The Mexican mules, moreover, are credited with being tougher and stronger than the American; and can travel farther without food than any other quadruped. It is assumed also that this class of animals can carry a person forty miles per day, for ten or twelve consecutive days, and over a mountainous country; while it is difficult for an American mule to accomplish over twenty-five or thirty miles per day. Be this as it may, the Mexican prefers the mule of his own country to that of ours, because he considers the latter altogether too delicate for his use. There is another reason—and a very effective one with a Mexican—they can always be kept fat with little care, and less to eat, and that at irregular intervals; while the American mule, to do about half the amount of work, requires good food, regularly given, and to be otherwise well cared for. They seldom drink more than once on the warmest of days, unless their efforts are very exacting and prolonged. The average life of a mule is given at sixteen years; although California muleteers used to assert that “a mule never dies, but simply dries up.”


One used to be astonished at the singular variety of articles moving along on the backs of animals, such as buggies, windows, cart-wheels, wagon-sides, boxes, barrels, bars of iron, tables, chairs, bedsteads, plows, and mining tools; and not always with the greatest of safety. Once a rocking-chair and large looking glass were sent us, but, when they reached their destination, the chair was broken into pieces, and the looking-glass resembled a crate of smashed crockery. On the second trip of our packer to Yo Semite, the entire train, frightened at some sight on the way, “stampeded;” when books and jellies, pictures and pickles, and other sundries, were all indiscriminately mixed together, or scattered in all sorts of places, by the roadside.

The pack-train at night.


The Mexicans almost invariably blindfold each mule before attempting to pack it; after which he stands perfectly quiet, until the bandage is removed, no matter how unruly his behavior was before. A mulatero generally rides in front of the train for the purpose of stop ping it, when anything goes wrong, and becomes a guide to the others; although in every band of horses or mules, there is always a leader, generally known as the “bell mule,” or horse—and it is not a little singular that nearly all mules prefer a white horse for that purpose—which they unhesitatingly follow the moment he starts, or wherever he goes, by day or by night.

When about to camp, the almost invariable custom of packers, after removing the goods (by which they always sleep in all kinds of weather), is for the mules to stand side by side, in a line or hollow square, with their heads in one direction, and each one in his customary place, before taking off the aparajoes;* [* An aparajoe is a kind of pack-saddle, or flattish pad, the covering of which is generally made of leather, and stuffed with hair. As they are considered safer and easier for the animal than the ordinary pack-saddle, they are always preferred by Mexicans, although their weight is from twenty-five to forty pounds.] and, in the morning, when the train of loose mules is driven up from pasture, to receive their packs, every one walks up to his own aparajoe and blanket, with the precision of well-drilled soldiers, and rarely makes a mistake.

Notwithstanding the Mexican packer’s seeming nonchalance, it is almost incredible the amount of danger and privation they uncomplainingly undergo, when exposed to the elements. This can be more clearly apprehended when the fact is presented that, during one severe winter, there was


Between Grass Valley, Nevada County, and Onion Valley, Sierra County, when, out of forty-eight animals, only three were taken out alive. The packers, unable to get firewood, narrowly escaped perishing, from being frozen to death. Their sufferings were in describable; yet, when safely out of it, they only laughed at their experiences. On one occasion our pack-train was several hours belated; and, as snow had been falling in heavy flakes all the afternoon, every passing minute only increased our weight of anxiety for its safety. There was no use in further delay; for it must be sought after, and helped, if help was needed. Throwing the saddle across my horse, and taking some well-lined saddle bags, I sallied out upon the storm. The animal’s spirited movements proved her to be in perfect sympathy with the occasion, as though it was intuitively understood and appreciated. As deeper grew the snow, the stronger came the effort to overcome and conquer it, and that too with a conscious pride which seemed to rise in proportion to the difficulties to be surmounted. Those who

Carrying deliverance.
could abuse such invaluable and noble servants ought never to have the privilege of owning or of using one.

On, on, we dashed, through the almost blinding snow, and, just before dusk, in the near distance, broke the welcome sight of the heavily-laden pack-train. With it was the anxious Mexican, earnestly engaged in the attempt to release a load from a fallen mule, whose foot had found a hole in the trail. When he saw me, his somber face became aglow with pleasure, and his tongue spontaneously found musical utterances of joy. As soon as the mule was set free, we both tried the possible good that might come from a good drink of aguardiente; and then, although the Mexican’s hands were numb, and his limbs nearly stiff with cold, the pack was cheerily replaced, and we started for our home and shelter. Human help and brandy arrived just in time to save both man and beast. The most rabid advocate of “total abstinence,” whose reason had not been dethroned, would, I think, concede the advantageous use of stimulants, at such a time, if only as a medicine. At least let us hope so, if only to accord to him the credit of possessing ordinary common sense.

Caught in a snow-storm.

Upon relating the incident to the late Mr. Charles Nahl, who was unquestionably the best draftsman of animals upon the Pacific Coast, he made the accompanying sketch to illustrate it. At a glance it will be seen that the skill of the artist not only portrays the limbs of the mules in snow, but the determined efforts being made to get them out, in order to secure deliverance and safety for themselves, and riddance for their packs.


These were found to be very limited, as they consisted of a two-story frame building, sixty by twenty feet, having two rooms, an upper and a lower. Its doors and windows were made of cotton cloth. Verily, a primitive beginning for novices in hotel keeping. When our first guests arrived (and their arrival caused quite a flutter in the household), the ladies were domiciled upstairs, and the gentlemen down. This arrangement we felt not only had its inconveniences, but was contrary to law, inasmuch as it sometimes separated man and wife. So novel a disposition of visitors, whose names, many of them at least, were already inscribed on the temple of fame, only became a subject for mirthfulness, never of censure. They saw that we were attempting our best—and the very best among us could do no more— and accepted it accordingly.

This, however solacing to our sensibilities, was not satisfying to our convictions. We determined upon changing it. But how? The nearest saw-mill was some fifty miles distant, and over a mountainous country, that was only accessible over steep and zigzagging trails. We knew that almost everything could be packed upon mules; we had even seen our donkey trotting along with two wagon-sides upon him, when only the tips of his ears and the lower part of his limbs were visible; but how could lumber be packed fifty miles? This, therefore, was given up as Quixotic. Bolts of muslin could be packed, and were; and rooms were accordingly made out of that. Guests, in this way, were thus provided with apartments, it is true; but, unless their lights were carefully disposed, there were also added unintentional shadow-pictures, which, if contributory of mirthfulness in a maximum degree, gave only a minimum degree of privacy in return. Better accommodations must be provided, no matter at what cost the lumber might be procured. Two men were accordingly engaged to run a human saw-mill.

This method of producing lumber is generally called “pit-sawing.” Owing to the severity of the winter, the long absence of sunshine, and the difficulty of obtaining logs, less than fifteen hundred feet were cut that entire season. This set us to considering how many thousand years, more or less, would roll into the past, before an adequate stock of timber could be sawed for making the improvements absolutely necessary. Questioning the probability of so long an extension of life’s lease, the irons for a young


Were procured from San Francisco, and a man employed to construct it, who professed thoroughly to understand just how to do it; but, when the finishing touches were about to be added, it was discovered that the thing wouldn’t run at all; and, before the needful changes could be made, the water decreased so rapidly that even the testing of its capabilities were on the outside of the question. Unlike a prosy politician who, while making his speech, paused to take a drink of water, when his opponent started to his feet, and thus addressed the presiding officer: “Mr. Speaker, I rise to a point of order.” “The member from —— will please to state his point of order.” “My point of order is this, Mr. Speaker: Is it in order for the member from —— to attempt to run his wind-mill by water?” Whether that point of order was sustained or not (the fact being unrecorded), we knew that we had made a double discovery for ours; for it would not run either with or without water, and, although in possession of a saw-mill, we were as far off as ever from a supply of lumber.

When the richly colored leaves of autumn were being picked off rapidly by the nightly freezing fingers of the frosty air, and the wind in frolicsome gustiness had begun to drop them sportively on shady pools, or in running streams, or to pile them playfully in eddies, and hide them cautiously in sequestered corners, business in Yo Semite had become as quiet and subdued as nature is after a storm—

“And only soft airs and sweet odors arise,
Like the evening incense that soars to the skies"—

And this suggested the present as a propitious season for renewing our attempts at improvements. In this mood the saw-mill was revisited, and its possibilities reconsidered. An inexperienced examination revealed a serious error in its construction, inasmuch as the water, when the gate was lifted, rushed to the axle, instead of to the outer edge of the buckets in the driving wheel, and inundated it. No wheel could work under such conditions. It must be changed; but how? when? and by whom? My knowledge of mechanics was about as limited as that on hotel keeping. There was one comforting reflection stepped in to my assistance,—it was of no earthly use as it stood, therefore, its loss, should it be utterly spoiled, would only be nominal. I would try to correct the error so strikingly manifest. Tools were therefore brought, and the apparently desirable change made.


Fortunately a heavy rain came, opportunely, to enable me to make a testing experiment. Timidly and cautiously lifting the gate, a little water was admitted to the wheel. It turned briskly round. An additional quantity promptly increased its speed. With joy, although alone, I shouted, “Eureka!” Lumber might yet be obtained from it. Carefully setting and filing the mill-saw—my first attempt—a small log was fastened in its place, and the mill started. To my joyful surprise the cut was completed to the end without stopping. Again the word “Eureka” was on my lips, but was arrested by the thought—”Is it straight and true?” It was. At this twofold success a boisterous shout of exultation at once relieved my joyous feelings. One cut continued to be successfully made after another; so that when the day closed, there was one-fourth as much lumber sawed, single-handed, as the two men had made in a whole winter! Day by day the quantity produced increased so encouragingly that we felt justified in employing a good practical sawyer, [Editor’s note: the “good practical sawyer” is John Muir. Mr. Hutchings purpously omitted mentioning John Muir in his book, it’s thought, because of Hutchings jealously either from Muir overshadowing Hutchings in fame or because of Hutchings’ wife’s attraction to Muir. John Muir solved the problems with the sawmill, although Hutchings took credit in this book.] and with him a couple of carpenters, so that the much-needed improvements could be commenced with satisfactory earnestness, and presumptive hope of ultimate and early realization. It was a “one-horse” saw-mill that opened to us the gold discovery.

The Three Brothers—Pom-pom-pa-sa.
Photo by Geo. Fiske.Photo-Typo by Britton & Rey, S. F.
The Three Brothers—Pom-pom-pa-sa.
(See pages 395-96.)


The ring of the hammer and soft rasping sound of the saw now added their music to that of the water-fall and singing pines, and cloth partitions soon became numbered among the makeshifts of the past. The old house was rejuvenated by porches, and made convenient by lean-to’s, in which were kitchen, store, and sitting-room—now known as “The Big Tree Room;” about which, and its associations and stories, more will be said hereafter. Buildings, made necessary by the rapidly increasing throng of tourists, began to spring up as though by magic, and no sooner was one completed and occupied than another was required. The return home of one party of visitors, mentally full to overflowing with praises concerning the wonderful sights they had seen, superinduced others to seek similar delights. As illustrative and demonstrative of this, the following carefully prepared table is herewith submitted, of


From 1855 to 1864, a period of nine years, the aggregate number of visitors to the valley was 653.

In 1864147
In 1865 it increased to 369
In 1866 it increased to 438
In 1867 it increased to 502
In 1868 it increased to 623
In 1869 (the year the overland railroad was completed) it increased to 1,122
In 1870 it increased to 1,735
In 1871 it increased to 2,137
In 1872 it increased to 2,354
In 1873 it increased to 2,530
In 1874 it increased to 2,711
In 1875 it decreased to 2,423
In 1876 it decreased to 1,917
In 1877 it decreased to1,392
In 1878 it decreased to 1,183
In 1879 it increased to 1,385
In 1880 it increased to 1,897
In 1881 it increased to 2,173
In 1882 it increased to 2,525
In 1883 it increased to 2,831
In 1884 it decreased to 2,408
In 1885 it increased to 2,590
In 1886 it increased to over 4,000.

By this it will be seen that previous to our advent there, for permanent residence, in 1864, the full complement of visitors, as compiled from the registers of that period, was 653. Those unregistered would probably swell the number to about seven hundred—in nine years. It is also interesting to note that the total number for 1864 was 147; and this included every man, woman, and child that entered it, of whatsoever color or condition.


The table here presented will also show the steady increase in numbers from year to year, as a knowledge of its marvelous grandeur was disseminated by returning visitors, by newspaper and book eulogiums, by photographs and paintings, and by lectures. Nor will justice to the earnest first workers in this deeply interesting field, both in literature and art, permit me to omit such names as Horace Greeley, Samuel B. Bowles, Albert D. Richardson, Charles L. Brace, Prof. J. D. Whitney, Dr. W. A. Scott, Rev. Thos. Starr King, and a host of others, whose books, newspaper articles, and lectures, contributed so largely to extend the fame of the great Valley: Or of C. L. Weed, its pioneer photographer, and C. E. Watkins, who had no superior in photographic art, and whose excellent prints have found their way to every corner of civilization. And, though last, by no means least, must be mentioned such eminent artists as A. Bierstadt, Thos. Hill, William Keith, Thos. Moran, R Munger, A. Hertzog, and many more whose paintings have so much contributed to the public appreciation of its sublime scenic wonders. In subsequent times, and additional to the above, should be included the successful labors of Benj. F. Taylor, Helen Hunt (Jackson), Mary E. Blake, and a multitude of other writers: Thos. Houseworth, Geo. Fiske, Taber, J. J. Reilly, S. C. Walker, G. Fagersteen, and other photographers: C. D. Robinson, R. D. Yelland, Holdridge, and other artists—and all worthy helpers in advancing its renown.


At the commencement of this encouraging influx of tourists, our utmost accommodations, primitive as they were, were limited to enough for twenty-eight. On one occasion, when every room was occupied, and just as all were about retiring for the night, the muffled tread of horses, mingled with the sound of human voices, was heard upon the outside. To our dismay we learned that a party of eleven had just arrived! What could be done, when every sleeping-place already had its occupant? Dumbfounded with surprised regret, the situation was explained to the new arrivals.

“Cannot take care of us, did you say?”

“That is really the case, as every bed we have has now a tenant.”

“But, what can we do, Mr. H.? We are all tired out—especially the ladies—and there is no other place where we can go. (at that time ours was the only inn at Yo Semite.)

“Such an inquiry I know is very pertinent at such a time. Well, come in, and we will do the best we can to make you comfortable. Impossibilities must be made possible under such circumstances.”

“Thank you—and God bless you.”

These glad tidings were soon communicated with an exultant shout to those outside, and “three cheers” from the tired travelers rung out upon the silent midnight air, sufficiently loud to awaken the now surprised sleepers. Fortunately a bale of new California blankets had been received but a few days before, and with these we improvised both beds and covering. Provisions were abundant.

While supper was progressing with commendable zeal, and apparent satisfaction, new sounds seemed to be floating on the darkness, and the astounding revelation came with them of the arrival of eight others! Good heavens! why India-rubber contrivances would be inadequate for such emergencies. Any number of queries at best, however, would prove but indifferent substitutes for bedding and food. These, too, must be cared for, in some way. And they were. The antiquated proverb, “It never rains but it pours,” now became strikingly illustrated; for, before morning dawned, other arrivals had increased the number of guests to fifty-seven! twenty-eight, be it remembered, being the maximum limit in accommodation. The most remarkable feature of this then unparalleled advent of visitors remains to be told: Twenty-seven departures occurred one morning, nineteen the following, the next day every one of the remainder left us, and but five persons, altogether, arrived at Yo Semite in thirty-one days thereafter! Such experiences are by no means proportionally infrequent in hotel life here, even at this present day.

As time gently lifted its misty veil new revelations of majesty and beauty were almost constantly being added to the already comprehensive galaxy of wonderful sights, and the necessities of the hour called for the surveying and constructing of horse-paths to these newly discovered scenic standpoints. Bridges were built, and wagon-roads made passable on the floor of the valley, to subserve the convenience of those who were unable to enjoy the exhilarating exercise of horse-back riding. This progressive development, moreover, was, at that day, accomplished entirely by private enterprise.

In due season new hotels sprung up into existence; and, in addition to “the butcher and baker, and the candlestick maker,” came the store, the blacksmith’s shop, laundry, bath and billiard rooms, cabinet shop for Yo Semite-grown woods, and other conveniences needed by the incoming visitor.

As the history of Yo Semite, for nearly a quarter of a century, has been so closely interwoven with the filaments and threads of one’s own life, it makes it difficult to draw the line of demarkation between that which should be introduced, and such as ought to be omitted. In this, as in several other matters, I hope to bespeak the reader’s discriminating sympathy and kindly forbearance should any desirable facts be unrecorded, or undesirable ones find a place.

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