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Wawona’s Yesterdays (1961) by Shirley Sargent


ARBORETUM

Yosemite was an odd place for a couple of troops of cavalry and a handful of officers to be stationed each summer. The Army’s “war” with the sheepherders and their grass-eating “troops,” but aside from that military-like action, the Army served in a caretaker-role.

Perhaps the strongest of all actions taken by the Army was the establishment of an arboretum across the river from Camp A. E. Wood in 1904.

Major John E. Bigelow, Jr., Ninth Cavalry, was acting superintendent from May until September of that year when he retired. 29 During his five months’ command at Wawona, he attacked his trail-building, sheep-chasing, Park protecting duties vigorously but still had time to worry about the trees and flowers of the region.

Under his ambitious direction, 75 to 100 “timbered, hilly acres,” almost directly across the South Fork of the Merced River from the camp, were developed as on arboretum. A new foot bridge to cross the river was built under Bigelow’s supervision. Trails were constructed, rustic benches were built, sixteen native trees were labeled in English and Latin on wide, plank boards; photographs were taken; plants identified and a careful list of nineteen additional trees and plants to be transplanted made. The actual work was done by First Lieutenant Henry R. Pipes who was the Assistant Surgeon and an enthusiastic amateur botanist, with the help of a non-commissioned officer and a private.

Bigelow and Pipes went to painstaking lengths to preserve the natural features of their arboretum. The inch thick 9 - by 11-inch plank signs were painted buff to blend with the tree trunks and nails attaching them were recessed so that their heads could not cause rust stains. Two Indian mortar rocks were present already and were duly labeled.

The fledgling arboretum was abandoned, as quickly as it had begun by Captain H. C. Benson, acting superintendent from 1905 to 1908. In his annual report to the Secretary of Interior in 1905, he reported that the arboretum had been started on patented land that had been thrown out of the Park by the boundary revision of 1905 and, furthermore, surveyors an electric railroad (never built) had knocked down many of the identifying signs. These were good official reasons, but it could have been that Benson, a notably relentless and ultimately successful foe of the sheepmen, had little sympathy for such an un-military project.

For a soldier, Bigelow showed remarkable naturalist vision. He wrote that Yosemite should:

“. . .. provide a great museum of nature for the general public free of cost. to preserve . . . trees . . . flora and fauna . . . animal life, and the mineral and geological features of the country comprised in the Park.”

His short-lived arboretum anticipated by 16 years the first guided nature walks in any National Park. Bigelow felt, too, that Yosemite should have a museum and library. 29

The arboretum acreage was returned to the Park in 1932, and while the Army footbridges across the river exist only in memory and on film, any interested visitor can roll up his pants legs and wade the river in mid-summer. Once across from Camp A. E. Wood, turn slightly to the left and look for weathered signs identifying the trees first labeled in 1904.


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