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The Wonders of the Yosemite Valley, and of California by Samuel Kneeland (1872)


On taking the ferry-boat at Oakland to make the six or eight miles’ transit across the bay to San Francisco, I was surprised to find the ladies dressed in furs, and the gentlemen with winter overcoats; the air was damp and chilly, very much like a Boston east wind in March. From April to November, the ascent of the heated air from the valley of the Sacramento along the Coast Mountains to the east causes the cold north-west winds to rush in from the Pacific through the Golden Gate, laden with moisture, whose condensation envelops the city in the morning and evening in dense fogs, with many clouds, which never at this season yield any rain. The hot sun at mid-day dispels the mists, and straw hats and thin garments are worn at noon of a day whose morning temperature was disagreeably cold. This season is admitted to be the most uncomfortable in the whole year, and the most trying to invalids. The same wind which blows up the clouds of sand in the streets, roughens the waters of the bay, and makes the passage in or out rather cold and dismal. Soon after getting out of the Golden Gate and on to the Pacific, the wind dies away and the sea becomes smoother, but the clouds without rain, and the cold fogs, accompany you for hundreds of miles at this season (August). The rocky islands and headlands give shelter to innumerable sea-birds, especially guillemots (Uria), whose large and irregularly blotched eggs are sold by the hundred for food in the San Francisco markets; there are also many large seals, or so-called sea-lions (Phoca jubata), about the same rocks. This cold, damp, and foggy air does not go very far inland; and in the foot-hills, and higher mountains, the sky is cloudless, the nights without dew, and the stars as bright as on a frosty night with us; the air is so dry that there is no danger of taking cold in camping out, even at an elevation of five thousand feet; and travellers not unfrequently place their cot-beds on the outside and uncovered piazza, sure of a pure, dry air, with no danger of rain; it is this rest you get at night, which enables you to rise refreshed after the heat, dryness, and dustiness of the day’s travel.

One of the striking characteristics of the Pacific steamers is, that the crew are all Chinamen; and any one who has experienced the disorder, the dirtiness, the unnecessary noise, scoldings, swearings, and often intoxication, attendant on the sailing of ships from Atlantic ports, must be delighted with these Chinese sailors; they are neat, orderly, quiet—not using oaths, tobacco, nor whiskey—obedient, respectful, strong, and in every way good sailors.

The coast, seen at a distance of about three miles, is high, rocky or sandy, but indescribably barren and inhospitable looking. The sea, for the whole voyage of two weeks, was remarkably smooth, well justifying the term Pacific to any one who has been tossed about on the Atlantic; except in crossing the gulf of California, there was no more roughness, exclusive of the long and gentle tidal swell of the ocean, than an hour’s east wind would create in our bay. In fact this now rarely undertaken Pacific voyage is, at this season, very delightful, with its beauty, and quiet, and absolute repose of body and of mind, fully realizing the dreamy dolce far niente of the Italian imagination.

Large petrels (Puffinus cinereus—Gmel.) began to appear and follow us on the second day out. On alighting in the water, which they often do, they put forward their webbed feet, checking their headway in this manner, backing water as it were, with the wings spread, before settling, on the surface. They came around and near the steamer in considerable numbers, but never alighted on it, as the booby of the Atlantic does. On account of the great length of their wings, and the shortness of their legs, they cannot rise, like the gulls, directly from the water, but are obliged to run along the surface, like the smaller petrels, beating the water with their feet, until sufficiently elevated to use their wings.

Flying fish also began to appear, but neither so numerous, nor so large, as in the Southern Atlantic. The ventrals were expanded just like the pectorals in the act of flight, the former being much the smaller. They rose out of a perfectly smooth sea, showing that they are not mere skippers from the top of one wave to another; they could be seen to change their course, as well as to rise and fall, not unfrequently touching the longer lower lobe of the tail to the surface, and again rising as if they used the tail as a powerful spring. While the ventrals may act chiefly as a parachute, it seems as if the pectorals performed, by their almost imperceptible but rapid vibrations, the function of true flight. Another reason which leads me to think they perform a true flight, is the way in which they reenter the water. After reaching the end of their a๋rial course, they drop into the water with a splash, instead of making a gentle and gradual descent, like the flying squirrel, flying dragon, and other vertebrates with membranes acting as parachutes. The drying of the flying membrane in the air would prevent the small but numerous and rapid motions necessary for true flight, and the animal therefore suddenly drops when the membrane becomes stiff. I do not see how the drying of the pectorals would affect their action as parachutes. The temperature of the air was 70 deg. Fah.

At the same time there were seen small Portuguese men-of-war (Physalia), no larger than an olive, and without the purple reflections of the larger ones so often met in the Atlantic. Whether these were the younger or full-grown individuals I do not know; I saw none larger than these, and they were not numerous.

As we approached the coast of the gulf of California the petrels left us, and were replaced in an hour or two by white gulls about the size of Bonaparte’s gull, but either entirely white, or with a very slight lavender-blue tinge on the back and wings. These had an entirely different way of alighting, and rising from the water; they did not put forward their feet to arrest their course, but circled round like pigeons until their headway was stopped, and then quietly settled upon the water, immediately folding their wings. They also rose directly from the surface, without running along as the larger winged petrels did. 75 deg. Fah.

The next day, August 7, the temperature was 80 deg. Fah. Land was in sight all day. The California coast, for hundreds of miles, is most forbidding, rocky to the ocean, with high mountains in the background, entirely parched and barren at this season, and having that greenish-red tinge suggestive of mineral contents, especially copper. The shore is entirely uninhabited even to beyond the mountains, and shipwrecked persons there would perish of starvation if they depended on what the country afforded. Indeed a part of the coast near which the “Golden City” went ashore in 1869, is called “Starvation Point”; her numerous passengers, among whom were many women and children, had to walk more than twenty miles to reach a headland, where their signals of distress were fortunately seen by a passenger on one of the Pacific steamers bound in the opposite direction, who was trying his opera-glass very early on that morning. There is now little commerce in these waters, and we did not see a sail for days on this part of the coast; all the trade is done by a few small coasting schooners, which keep near the shore. The coasts of Mexico, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, on the contrary, are beautifully green.

After passing Cape St. Lucas, August 8, we were in the mouth of the Gulf of California, where it ascends many hundred miles to the north, parallel to the coast, leaving the long, comparatively narrow, barren and uninhabited region, along which we had sailed for the past two days. The weather now became hot—85 deg. Fah. at noon, and so remaining day and night to Panama, once going up to 88 deg., and occasionally descending to 84 deg. Point Conception, in latitude 34 deg. 50 min., corresponds very nearly to Cape Hatteras on the Atlantic coast; at this point, the coast, instead of continuing to follow the mountains from north-west to south-east, becomes nearly east and west, and the cold north-west winds from San Francisco are suddenly exchanged for the warm southerly winds of the tropics, and off goes the pea-jacket, and on goes the thin coat and light hat. For two or three nights, the nearly full moon shining upon the glassy sea was very beautiful; but with the moon, as with the sunrise and sunset, I find that we have far more beautiful colors and contrasts at home; it seems as if the land and sea must be both before the sight to give the full effect, which a dreary waste of water alone cannot give.

The water here was very phosphorescent. I obtained a bottleful in about latitude 19 deg., which has been unopened since August 9. It may be interesting to see if it contains more salt than the water of the Northern and the Atlantic Oceans, as is alleged—if there be in it any remains of diatoms, or of animal forms, or of any kind of organic or nitrogenous matter which may serve as nutriment for protozoa, or any dilute protoplasm diffused through the waters of the ocean which could be directly absorbed by these lowest organisms.

The Mexican shore here came in sight, strikingly contrasting with the Californian, being green, with a luxuriant vegetation, and very pleasant looking; the shore high, with elevated mountains in the distance, and here and there a beach lined with coral reefs against which the surf could be seen breaking. We could see the rain-clouds in the mountains, and the lighting, and hear the thunder; while where we were—three miles from the shore—all was bright sunshine, with no sign of rain. On the ninth, in about 18 deg., we stopped in the land-locked harbor of Manzanillo, the mountains rising steeply from the water’s edge, more than one thousand feet high, clothed with vegetation to the very top. For the last day, after leaving the California gulf, no birds were seen; first we had the large petrels, then the smaller white gulls; these soon disappeared, having limits beyond which they did not pass; the reason was not evident to our senses, as the climate, and the shore, and the sea, appeared to us the same; but the birds knew the difference.

On the eleventh we reached Acapulco, Mexico, in about 17 deg. north, where we stopped half a day, going on shore to purchase shells and corals, and the luscious fruits of the place, and to witness the strangeness of an old Mexican city, with its Spanish decay softened by tropical indolence, its curious mixture of natives, negroes, and Mexicans, the peculiar customs of the market-place, and the heterogeneous articles exposed for sale; the stock of a hundred women, and nearly as many men, was not greater than the contents of a single stall in one of our markets, the trade being of the most petty description, and seemingly like that of children playing buying and selling merely to pass away the time. I obtained here a few shells, especially murices, and some natural and artificially-colored corals. The harbor is very beautiful, entirely land-locked, surrounded by high hills covered with bushes to the top; here and there could be seen the palm-leaf huts of the natives, with patches of bananas and groves of oranges; the beach was lined with palm-trees, and everything had the peaceful, lazy, dreamy look peculiar to the tropics; the buildings of the town are of stone, with tile roofs, and generally of one story; the old church in the plaza was built by the Spaniards, and is now used as a prison, as its grated windows indicated. The water was beautifully clear, and swarmed with bright-colored fish, and it is said with sharks; I saw none of the latter, and the professional divers near the landing apparently had little fear of them, as they dived for the pieces of money thrown to them by the passengers.

When the coasts of Southern Mexico and Guatemala are reached, and especially about latitude 11 deg. 30 min., white-rumped Mother Carey’s chickens came around us; they looked just like the common Atlantic species, and, as Baird does not describe such a bird on the Pacific in vol. ix. of the Pacific Railroad Reports, I suppose the species must have appeared since then, either from South America, or having crossed the isthmus. Now and then a marine turtle would be seen lazily rolling at the surface.

The lowest latitude reached, is about 7 deg. north. We arrived at Panama Aug. 17 (a fortnight from San Francisco), where we remained two days, giving ample time to examine this quaint old Spanish town. In the spacious and fine harbor were many hooded gulls, brown pelicans, and frigate pelicans, while numerous turkey buzzards ran along the beach with the same tameness and voracity as in our Southern and Gulf States; the water abounds in catfish and sharks, though I saw none of the latter caught by the numerous fishermen. Panama is built along the bay, which is surrounded by high hills and mountains, covered with tropical verdure; many of the smaller islands show columns of basalt with precipitous sides, and there have been several noted subsidences of the land. Though hot in mid-day, the temperature at night was delightful; and this in the middle of August. The place has the typical appearance of a dirty Spanish town.

We left Panama, Aug. 19, to cross the Isthmus to Aspinwall, a distance of forty-seven miles, occupying three hours in the passage, in very dirty and uncomfortable cars, steerage mingled with cabin passengers, as both classes pay the same fare, viz., twenty dollars in gold. The route runs for nearly half the distance along the Chagres River, a narrow, muddy stream, with banks of reddish clay which tingles the water to the color of that of the Missouri River; the road has some sharp curves, and a few cuts, and presents only one engineering notability, where it crosses the river on a substantial iron bridge. The land is mostly low, and the vegetation most luxuriant; water seems abundant, but of a repulsive look and stagnant character, which, with the marshy effluvia, fully explains the death of thousands from malarious disease during the construction of the road; it is familiarly said that a life was lost for every sleeper laid, so unhealthy was the region for Northern workmen. The natives, however, seemed vigorous and well developed, and every hut swarmed with children, the amount of clothing on which, especially on boys to the age of seven or eight years, would not materially draw upon the contents of a dry goods store. Many negroes were seen, and they fraternize fully with the Indian natives; the latter are nearly as dark as negroes, but have finer forms, more regular features, and straight black hair. The marshes and the mud are occasionally relieved by masses of very dark volcanic looking rock, through which several cuts have been made; the graceful palms, and the beautiful flowers, could not fail to attract the attention of the most unobservant; the only birds seen were small black anis (Crotophaga ani. L.), a scansorial bird of the cuckoo family, which hopped and flew about like blackbirds with us.

The town of Aspinwall is small, low, on the margin of a swamp, recalling to the mind the ideal of the marshes of the carboniferous period, and suggesting the formation of coal from the luxuriant vegetation; though, near the sea, the water is salt, instead of the fresh water supposed to be necessary to the formation of coal.

There was nothing noteworthy in the nine days’ passage to New York, except the much greater heat in the Caribbean Sea, than in similar latitudes on the Pacific; probably from its comparatively small size, and being land-locked. No whales were seen in the Pacific, and none in the Atlantic, till latitude 37 deg., off Delaware Bay, when a school of about twenty finbacks, some of them forty to fifty feet long, came quite near the steamer; I was interested to notice that their blowing projected into the air simply a fine vapor, and not a jet of water, as is usually believed; that cetaceans do, however, sometimes eject water in this way, I know, as I have, on many occasions, at night, heard the puff soon followed by the swash of the descending, water.

The whole trip from San Francisco to New York takes about twenty-three days, at a cost of $100 in gold; in the cars you can make the passage in one-third the time (seven days) at a cost of about $180—by the cars, two weeks shorter and about $60 dearer—if one has plenty of time, it is far pleasanter by sea, as you are brought into contact with new aspects of nature, tropical scenery and fruits, and are free from dust, change of cars, anxiety about baggage and sleeping facilities, and from the inevitable rush of the dining saloons and railway stations.

In these short sketches I have endeavored to express what especially interested me in the California trip; others will take note of different things, each according, to his taste and education; but every one will, I think, admit that this journey will bring him into contact with some of the sublimest of scenery.

As to the causes which have produced this remarkable Valley, there are three principal theories: the subsidence theory, the ice theory, and the water theory. From what I have seen, and have been able to ascertain, it seems to me that there was a great subsidence, as claimed by Prof. Whitney, and that subsequently an immense glacier extended to the edge of the Valley, even entering the easterly end of it by the numerous cañons there, as proved by the glacial scratches and moraines, and giving rise, by its melting, to a great lake, which gradually disappeared. That the Half Dome, El Capitan, and other masses in the Valley, were produced, or essentially modified by ice or water, I am not, with the present evidence, prepared to believe.

As a means of restoring impaired health, and of invigorating the feeble and nervous of both sexes, it is to be highly recommended—its bracing air, pure water, delightful tramps, and awe-inspiring scenery, are a thousand times more to be desired by persons of sense and culture, than the inanities of Saratoga, the fashion of Newport, the pomposity of Long Branch, the petty swindling of Niagara, or the discomforts of the White Mountains.


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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management