Yosemite > Library > YNN > YNN 46(2) > George Anderson, First Up the Dome >
Next: Lost Lake • Contents • Previous: Everything
by Steve Harrison
Though educated, self-assured and of high public stature, geologist Josiah Whitney did make mistakes.
His bull-headed conflict with John Muir over their theories regarding the formation of Yosemite Valley is perhaps his best known. Another mistake, however, was published in the 1869 edition of his Yosemite Guide-Book when he stated that Half Dome was “ . . . probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.”1
And so it remained for several years. John Conway and his sons and perhaps James Hutchings attempted the climb with near success. But “.. through the enterprise, skill and pluck of . . . George Anderson . . . its lofty crown was first trodden by human feet”2 on October 12, 1875, just six years after Whitney’s unimaginative assertion.
Who was this Scotsman who dared to prove Whitney wrong and make Yosemite history? George Anderson was born about 1839 in the small seaport town of Montrose on the eastern coast of Scotland. Nothing is known of his early life, but perhaps it is not surprising that he became a sailor.
Jules McCauley later described a flag pole that Anderson erected in front of the Guardian’s office in Yosemite Valley: “The pole had to be in two sections like a ship’s mast: one high pole, then another pole rigged ship fashion.”3
The earliest record of George Anderson’s being in the Yosemite area was found in the 1867 Great Register of Voters for Mariposa County. Anderson was 28 years old then and residing at Hite’s Cove, apparently following in the steps of thousands of other sailors who gave up the sea to seek their fortunes in the California gold fields along the western base of the Sierra Nevada. And like thousands of other miners, he soon took to another occupation.
The next time George Anderson surfaces in history is on October 12, 1875, standing upon Half Dome “waving the starry flag of his adopted homeland.”4 People now climb it from all sides regularly during the summer, but in 1875 it must have created an exciting sensation among the local inhabitants. The Union Democrat in Sonora took a few weeks to receive and publish the news, but when they finally did, they proclaimed it “a perilous feat.”5
Accounts of Anderson’s climb vary, especially the two most widely told which are those of James Hutchings and John Muir.6 As soon as the news spread that Half Dome had been climbed and that a rope was in place and secured with iron eye-bolts to the northeast side, local valley residents and visitors hastened to make the ascent. Galen Clark, then 61 years old, made the climb as did Miss. S. L. Dutcher of San Francisco, who became the first of many ladies to do so. John Muir himself, just having returned from a two and a half month trip through the Giant Sequoia
[click to enlarge]
The figure standing near the lip of Half Dome is thought to be George Anderson.
This event and accomplishment appears to have brought some stability to George Anderson’s life. The following year, 1876, with the help of George Meyer, he constructed a small, simple cedar log cabin at Big Meadow near present day Foresta.’7 This cabin, which has been moved four times, is presently part of the Pioneer Yosemite History Center at Wawona.”8
The year 1876 was an important one in Yosemite Valley. The first school in the Valley was established that year and held under a large oak tree for the first week. During that week, Mr. Anderson was engaged to build a schoolhouse, which he did, using upright cedar posts which he hewed by hand. This was covered with cloth and measured 12 x 16 feet.9
There are several references to a permanent stairway on Half Dome which Anderson was said to have been working on in 1876.10 If this is true, he must have been a busy man, but there are no references to this stairway in later years and no mention that it was ever completed. However, a description of the planned stairway appeared in the Mariposa Gazette: “The stairway will be about 2,000 feet long, fastened by bolts in the rock on the side of the dome, in the most secure manner, and will be arranged with wings or arms extending all the way on each side, making it convenient and comfortable for visitors to rest and view the wonderful scenery below. The projector of this work expects to have it completed sometime the coming Fall, and ready for visitors next summer.”11
In the following years, George Anderson guided tourists to the top of Half Dome as well as doing work around Yosemite Valley for residents and the State Board of Commissioners. In the fall of 1881, Anderson was given a contract by the State to build a trail along the north side of the Merced River, past Vernal and Nevada Falls. A good trail to Half Dome would be the result and this was probably a consideration to Anderson, as some sources state that he was planning to build a hotel at the saddle near the base of his rope up Half Dome.12 The State appropriated money and the work went ahead in 1882. The Mariposa Gazette lauded it as “ . . . a splendid piece of workmanship.”13 It was so good that it went beyond the State’s appropriation and more money was needed. More was appropriated and that too was spent. The State reneged on the arrangement but Anderson kept on until he reached the cliff over which Vernal Fall drops. At this point, he also ran out of money and energy. Having spent about $3,000 of the State’s money and most, if not all of his own, Anderson was broke.
In the spring of 1884, while painting Adolph Sinning’s cottage in Yosemite Valley, Anderson contracted pneumonia and died May 8 at George Fiske’s house.14 He was buried in the Yosemite cemetery where a small granite rock marks his grave today.15
But that was not the end of George Anderson. His rope up Half Dome was torn out by snows during the winter of 1884 and few people climbed the rock until the Sierra Club put up steel cables in 1919.
There were problems with Anderson’s estate that were never settled. A claim for money owed him by the State was made but denied.16 Money due Anderson came up as one of Charles D. Robinson’s complaints against the Commissioners which led to investigation by the Legislature in 1889. George’s brother, Charles, administrator of the estate, testified during this investigation. Ownership of his cabin was also disputed between George Meyer and James McCauley, although it was later purchased by Dr. W. A. Setchell who deeded it to the National Park Service.
I don’t know that Yosemite would be much different today had George Anderson stayed in Scotland, but perhaps its history would have been less colorful.
1 Josiah D. Whitney, The Yosemite Guide-Book (California Legislature, 1869), p. 67.
2 Biennial Report of the Commissioners to Manage Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, 1883-1884.
3 Letter written by Laurence Degnan to Douglass Hubbard, August 16, 1957, p. 1.
4 Mariposa Gazette, August 5, 1876.
5 Union Democrat, October 30, 1875.
6 see James Hutchings, In the Heart of the Sierras (Oakland: Pacific Press Publishing House, 1886), p. 457. and John Muir, The Yosemite (Anchor Books, 1962), p. 125-130.
7 Emil F. Ernst, “The Historic Anderson Cabin,” Yosemite Nature Notes. (October 1954), p. 172-173.
8 Douglass Hubbard, “First Man to Climb Half Dome Built Old Pioneer Cabin,” Wawona Hayburner (May 1963), p.2.
9 Mariposa Gazette, August 5, 1876.
10 Union Democrat, October 30, 1875.
11 Mariposa Gazette, June 4, 1876.
12 Letter written by Laurence Degnan to Douglass Hubbard, August 16, 1957, p. 1,2.
13 Mariposa Gazette, June 10, 1882.
14 Mariposa County Superior Court Probate Minutes, Volume 1, Minutes for January 2, 1885. p. 351.
15 Lloyd Brubaker, et. al., Guide to the Pioneer Cemetery. (Yosemite: Yosemite Natural History Association, 1972), p.6-7.
16 Mariposa Gazette, June 13, 1885.
Next: Lost Lake • Contents • Previous: Everything