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A Vacation among the Sierras (1962),
by Thomas Starr King

Letter Seven

SAN FRANCISCO, December, 1860.


Dear Transcript: It is a long time since we took our dinner of lobster and oysters, cooked by a Chinaman, in the rough refuge where Peck dispenses his Yo-Semite hospitality. But we will imagine that the meal is swiftly despatched, and that we hurry out of doors, to lie on the grass near the deep, calm, greenish tide of the Merced, and, shaded by a clump of firs, each more than two hundred feet high, gaze till we are tired on the waterfall that fronts the house. We shall find that hours win fly by without bringing fatigue, or affecting our admiration and joy other than by enlarging and deepening them.

The Yo-Semite cataract is the highest in the world, yet known. The portion of the granite wall of the valley which rises opposite the hotel, is more than three thousand feet high. In a superbly arranged nook or bend, in the precipitous rampart, the cataract is framed. Mr. Greeley, in the account of his very hurried September visit to the valley, a year ago, calls it a mere “tape-line” of water dropped from the sky. Perhaps it is so toward the close of the dry season; but as we saw it, the blended majesty and beauty of it, apart from the general sublimities of the Yo-Semite gorge, would repay a journey of a thousand miles. There was no deficiency of water. It was a powerful stream thirty-five feet broad, fresh from the Nevada, that made the plunge from the brow of the awful precipice; and as the valley is only a mile in width, our delightful resting place, on the southerly bank of the Merced, in the pass, afforded us the most favorable angle for enjoying its exhaustless charm.

      Like sheet lightning,
      Ever brightening,
With a low melodious thunder,
All day and all night it is ever drawn
From the brain of the purple mountain,
Which stands in the distance yonder.

The thunder, however, though certainly melodious, is by no means low, as our readers may imagine, when the measure of the fall is reported to them. At the first leap it clears 1497 feet; then it tumbles down a series of steep stairways 402 feet, and then makes a jump to the meadows, 518 feet more. The three pitches are in full view, making a fall of more than 2400 feet. 108

But it is the upper and highest cataract that is most wonderful to the eye, as well as most musical. The cliff is so sheer that there is no break in the body of the water during the whole of its descent of more than a quarter of a mile. It pours in a curve from the summit, fifteen hundred feet, (the height of six Park street spires, remember,) to the basin that hoards it but a moment for the cascades that follow. And what endless complexities and opulence of beauty in the forms and motions of the cataract! It is comparatively narrow at the top of the precipice, although as we said, the tide that pours over is thirty-five feet broad. But it widens as it descends, and curves a little on one side as it widens, so that it shapes itself, before it reaches its first bowl of granite, into the figure of the comet that glowed on our sky two years ago. More beautiful than the comet, however, we can see the substance of this watery loveliness ever renew itself, and ever pour itself away. Our readers have seen the splendid rockets, on Fourth of July nights, that burst into the serpents of fire. This cataract seems to shoot out a thousand serpentine heads or knots of water, which wriggle down deliberately through the air, and expend themselves in mist before half the descent is over. Then a new set burst from the body and sides of the fall, with the same fortune on the remaining distance; and thus the most charming fretwork of watery nodules, each trailing its vapory train for a hundred feet, or more, is woven all over the cascade, which swings, now and then, thirty feet each way on the mountain side, as if it were a pendulum of watery lace. Once in a while, too, the wind manages to get back of the fall, between it and the cliff, and then it will whirl it round and round for two or three hundred feet, as if it were determined to try the experiment of twisting it to wring it dry. We could lie for hours before Mr. Peck’s door, never tired in gazing on this cataract, but ever hungry for more of the witcheries of motion and grace that refine and soften its grandeur.

Especially if landlord Peck himself will join our circle, now and then, and drop a word or two of quaint and savory comment on the scene. There has been a deal of mighty rhetoric born in California from the Yo-Semite and its wonders. The cataracts are responsible for much more spouting than is seen. I have quoted one description of “the thing” in a former letter, which is “hard to beat" But here is a gush of the genuine Yankee eloquence, concerning the falls. A writer, not content with the old method of appreciating cataracts singly, informs us that “the aggregate height” of the cascades in the valley “measures 4728 feet” and then assures us that “the concentrated echo of their continuous roar outsounds a hundred fields of artillery.”

Perhaps I did not happen to stand in the focus where the echo is concentrated. Perhaps the writer meant to say “concentrated essence.” Any way, I think he must deduct a field or two of artillery, else I must criticise his account, or blame the Echo for some bronchial weakness during my visit. But Mr. Peck assured us that “when there’s a freshet, the Yo-Semite fall fills this valley with a roar as if all the stampers in the world were agoing in it like mad.” “Stampers” are the batteries in quartz-mills that pound the rock to dust. You see, therefore, that friend Peck’s image, although not up to the “hundred fields of artillery” has a better local flavor, and is by no means disrespectful toward the glorious baritone of the cascade. At any rate, if you could hear the roar of the Benton Mills on Col. Frémont’s estate, when their “sixty-four pounders”—for that is the exact number of their stamping irons—are trampling the rock to powder, you would prefer, for the health of the tympanum, to visit the Yo-Semite at some other time than in a freshet.

In the rough unplastered hotel, was a lithographic picture, fresh from New York, of the great prize-fighters of the world. I judged from this work of art, by a not very forced or unnatural logic, as it was the only ornament of the establishment, that friend Peck had a lurking love, not unlike the Atlantic “Professor,” for the ambiguous science, which may degenerate into “shoulder-hitting,” or rise into “muscular Christianity.” But I soon learned that, however strong our host’s passion may be for “the ring,” his poetic sentiment is stronger. For he talked to us, with genuine enthusiasm, of a thunder storm that raged in the valley, a few weeks before our visit. It seemed to concentrate, he said, near the tower of rock over the Yo-Semite fall, which is three thousand feet high. “Jerusalem! how the fire flew, and how the thunder did butt that cliff! It was a great fight. Every now and then, the fog would kinder back off, to let the thunder see whether the rock was down, and then it would close in and let fly again. I tell ye now, the champion fight between Europe and Ameriky was nothin’ to it!” I looked on Mr. Peck with respect from that moment, for his poetic feeling, and upon the bare and sombre precipice, too, with increased reverence, not untouched with sympathy, in thinking of the Heenan hits from the thunderbolts which it stands up to so manfully, and has resisted for a thousand centuries or more. But it needs our sympathy more for the frosts that insinuate their cunning levers among its fissures. The spears of the lightning break harmless upon it usually, though they ride against it with the roar of the bursting cloud. The insidious frost, without noise, fastens its fulcrum on a little water, and now and then tumbles off a chip weighing twenty tons or so, which wakens a heavier thunder than that which has burst fruitlessly upon it so often from the breast of the storm. The debris around the base of the walls in the Yo-Semite bears witness to the sharpness of the tooth of the cold, which has wrought a thousand times more ravage in the valley than the combined wrath of earthquake and lightning.

Of course I visited the foot of the lowest fall of the Yo-Semite, and looked up through the spray five hundred feet to its crown. And I tried to climb to the base of the first or highest cataract, but lost my way among the steep sharp rocks,—for there is only one line by which the cliff is scaleable. But no nearer view that I found, or heard described, is comparable with the picture from the hotel of the comet-curve of the upper cataract, fifteen hundred feet high, and the two falls immediately beneath it in which the same water leaps to the level of the quiet Merced. Each day that I staid, the view was more fascinating, and it would be Mr. Greeley’s “tapeline” rather than even the tremendous walls of the gorge, that could draw me most powerfully to the Yo-Semite valley again.

Is it not delightful, O reader, that the highest cataract in the world bears so noble a name,—Yo-Sem-i-te? It is Indian, and signifies “little grizzlies.” A grizzly is named variously, by the Indian tribes of the neighborhood—O-Sum-a-tah, Yo-ami-tah, and Yo-Sem-i-te. The valley derives its name from the fact that it abounded once in these majestic beasts. 109 And think what an escape the cataract has had! It was once named, by the earliest party that visited it,—what think you? “Melissa’s Falls!” Then the cliff opposite, the majestic “Sentinel-Rock,” forty-three hundred feet high, would soon have been christened “Alonzo” no doubt; and we should have had the great “South Dome” and the magnificent walls that line the way to the falls of the middle fork of the Merced, for which I must beg one more letter, baptized with titles from the ”Three Spaniards!” Let the last music that we hear, in turning from the great cataract, be an accompaniment to our gratitude and joy that it keeps the name, “Yo-Sem-i-te.”


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