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Yosemite: the Park and its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene

historic resource study
historical narrative

Sawmill, McCauley Ranch, cover photograph, volume 3



Historic Resource Study


A History of the Discovery, Management, and Physical Development of Yosemite National Park, California

Volume 3 of 3
discussion of historical resources,
appendixes, historical base maps,


Linda Wedel Greene
September 1987


U. S. Department of the Interior / National Park Service


It has taken an extensive number of pages to tell the story of the construction and development of administrative, interpretive, and visitor-related facilities and services in the park. It could easily take two or three hundred additional pages to fully present and assess the complex, detailed, and often acrimonious discussions through the years about the placement and extent of that development. Possibly no other area in the National Park System has been studied to the extent of Yosemite in terms of the potential effects of human use on the environment, a process begun early by the state administrators and their critics and continued by the army and the National Park Service. It is interesting and informative to note the parallels in the problems facing park management yesterday and today in terms of valley congestion, appropriate concession facilities, visitor use of the backcountry, stream erosion, prescribed burns, and the like. The solutions of today are as open to question and discussion as those of the 1880s and 1890s.

Initial visitation to Yosemite Valley was limited to a select few in the earliest days—those who could afford both the cost of transportation and the amount of time it took to reach the remote area over primitive, winding trails, and who were not afraid to “rough it” when it came to visitor services and accommodations. The destination of those early travelers was primarily the valley floor, where the scenic values for which the area had been set aside were concentrated, with an intrepid few going on to the Mariposa Grove if time allowed. Most of that visitor impact concentrated on the south side of the valley near the trailhead of the Four-Mile Trail. During the army tenure, the focus of park administration turned to the north side of the valley at the eastern end. Park administrators spent most of their time warding off cattlemen and sheepmen, working on roads and trails, planting fish, watching for forest fires, and protecting wildlife. Because initially visitors were few and far between, their impact on the flora and fauna was minimal and of little concern.

The gradual improvement of the early trails into dusty stage roads increased tourist travel markedly, but it was the extension of railroads to the vicinity of the park that caused a sudden, dramatic upswing in the number of park visitors. The lack of hotels, grocery stores, and campgrounds was accentuated. The feverish construction that that influx precipitated resulted in another hodgepodge of structures that continued to spread haphazardly along the valley floor and were designed only to meet immediate needs. Little thought was yet given to the proper function of each structure, to future needs, or to the effect of the buildings on park values and the landscape.

Another factor that drastically threatened the scenic integrity of the valley was the arrival in the early 1900s of a new class of tourist—the leisurely auto traveler—who after World War I in sheer overwhelming numbers filled hotels and campgrounds to overflowing and then in desperation drove and camped over the meadows, leaving behind a residue of camp litter, garbage, and environmental desolation. It has been said that the automobile is responsible for most of the present-day administrative headaches. Cars brought in more people, necessitating better roads, garages and gas stations, parking lots, more hotels, more campgrounds with sanitary facilities, more stores, more recreational opportunities—more of those amenities that tend to detract from the values for which parks are established.

Despite the later improvement of roads and trails into the backcountry, most visitors insisted on spending most of their time within a single square mile of the valley floor. It was inevitable that as awareness of detrimental effects on the environment grew and concerns were more widely voiced, the undisciplined development of the valley floor would cause widespread consternation. The continued uncontrolled use of the valley in the 1920s clearly highlighted for the first time the conflict between preservation of the natural resources and their use and enjoyment by the visitor. The reconstruction and paving of roads during that period, further facilitating travel, only ensured that further devastation would be wrought upon the resources unless steps were taken.

Realizing the need to develop a program of park management that would assure visitors a quality experience without endangering the scenic values they were enjoying, the Park Service in the 1920s, and continuing into the 1930s and 1940s, began to define the basic objectives of its administration at Yosemite, to determine the uses to which the park should be put, and to formulate scenic standards that would guide the direction of future park improvements. To help with this program, the Department of the Interior established a Board of Advisors for Yosemite, composed of outside experts in various professional fields as well as in park planning, and developed a cadre of professionals within the Service in such fields as landscaping, engineering, sanitation, construction, and interpretation to help implement the desired goals.

In the belief that the values on the valley floor were so great that intensive use there should be limited to as small an area as possible, Director Stephen Mather and others visualized a new centralized village layout farther up the valley. There administrative and service functions could be housed in a spot more removed from public view and less intrusive on the environment, thus keeping the balance of the valley as aesthetically pleasing as possible.

The planned elimination of the ancient and outdated structures at the Old Village area in the 1920s became the first step in implementing a policy of naturalization of the valley floor, in keeping with the opinion voiced by the Advisory Board as early as 1928 that every square foot of land used for housing or other development withdrew from the park’s scenic values and defeated the purpose for which it had been created. Unfortunately, the ultimate removal of that complex might have reinforced the idea that all manmade structures should eventually be removed when their useful days were considered over in order to restore the landscape to a pristine condition.

Yosemite has from the beginning been considered by most people—visitors and administrative personnel alike—a “natural” rather than a “cultural” area. Certainly most visitors through the years have come primarily to see such celebrated wonders as the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and the Yosemite gorge itself, rimmed by sheer granite walls punctuated by the striking formations of Half Dome and El Capitan and traversed by a beautiful river fed by numerous sparkling waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet from the rim into the canyon below.

Those who advocate the removal of historical remains on the basis of their intrusiveness on the environment argue that Yosemite was set aside to preserve for generations yet to come not only its spectacular natural wonders, but also its varied ecosystems. Actually, the valley and Mariposa Grove were set aside for their superlative scenic values only. Ecological considerations were a much later development in the establishment of parks and monuments. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that only the valley floor and the rim far enough back to include the waterfalls were originally set aside. The later extension of the reserved area beyond the rim of the valley was an attempt to include the watersheds and the forests in the high country to prevent their exploitation by private utility, stockraising, and commercial interests. This is not to say that many conservationists, such as John Muir and Robert Underwood, were not already thinking in terms of related ecosystems, but such considerations did not yet play a major part in policy decisions on Yosemite boundaries.

Because the act establishing the policy framework of the National Park Service mentions the conservation of scenery and natural and historic objects, it is legitimately argued that many of the significant historical remains in Yosemite have a valid right to remain there and be protected by the same safeguards against unwarranted destruction as the natural ones. The removal of the Old Village structures on the valley floor was justified as helping to preserve the scenic values of the park, because they were not harmonious with the landscape and often detracted from its enjoyment by the public, indeed often obscuring views of the resources. We did, however, in the process of removal, lose some interesting early guest facilities that were both historically and architecturally significant.

Yosemite’s historical resources are numerous and varied. They include early homesteads and supporting facilities; early concessioner guest accommodations and service buildings; structures connected with cooperative research programs in natural resources management carried on with state and other federal agencies; Park Service structures, including beautiful rustic-style residential, interpretive, and administrative facilities; early roads, scenic trails, fine stone bridges, and a variety of sign types; and a significant number of attractive rustic-style structures built by skilled Public Works Administration laborers and by Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees under the Emergency Conservation Work Act during the 1930s.

Many of those resources are significant architecturally and several historically in terms of their association with important people and events and with educational and interpretive programs that were later copied throughout the National Park System. The sites and remains of CCC camps are of great interest because of the contribution of the corps to construction and development work and natural and cultural resources management in the state and national parks during a time of stringent budget and personnel restrictions. Many former enrollees who come to the parks today are anxious to revisit the camp sites where they once lived and worked. The CCC comprised a major part of their lives at one time as well as of American social history and should be part of the park interpretive program. Although the most significant PWA and CCC buildings in Yosemite have either been nominated to the National Register or are in the process of being nominated, the other Depression-era structures scattered throughout the park are also considered an important resource. Although they possess varying degrees of architectural significance, they are illustrative of an important period of our cultural and political history.

Often structures and sites of past activity are as great an educational and interpretive asset to the park as are its natural resources and should not be wantonly destroyed or damaged. The tendency to try to erase rather than preserve and interpret the history of the parks is an unfortunate one that cheats the public and the park alike, for it overlooks ail the advantages that historical resources offer in terms of public education, enjoyment, visitor safety, and adaptive use. In the same way that enlightened natural resource management gradually abolished the bear feeding program and the elimination of predators in Yosemite, bettering the condition of wildlife in particular and the resource management program in general, the thoughtful and planned management of historic resources can lead to a more satisfactory situation meeting the requirements of both cultural resource management and park administrative and interpretive needs.

With the completion of the study on significance of selected historical resources in 1979 and of this Historic Resource Study, the majority of the most important historical resources of the park have been identified. Several structures of marginal historical and architectural significance, although not eligible for the National Register, are nonetheless considered useful adjuncts to the interpretive program of the park in terms of illustrating the stories of early settlement, park management, concession development, and Park Service educational and administrative growth. Those structures have been identified in the park building inventory, Appendix G of this report, and should be on its List of Classified Structures.

The integrity of historical structures at Yosemite is continually affected by regularly scheduled rehabilitation and maintenance work. The concern is that such work not be implemented without proper regard for the historical nature or fabric of the structures. We need to ensure that all park employees possess an awareness of the significance of the park’s resources, including those not on the National Register, and of the importance of conserving and maintaining them with some degree of integrity.

If a structure or complex has been determined to be significant and eligible for the National Register, the National Park Service must make every effort to protect its site integrity and its general appearance in terms of existing form and fabric, and to preserve the architectural and historical qualities for which it has been nominated. Routine maintenance should only be performed in accordance with historic preservation standards and guidelines. Any adverse effects on a component of a historic district become a threat to the integrity, and therefore the significance, of the complex as a whole. Any major change to structures must be preceeded by a review and approval process to insure that it is not a negative impact on historical and/or architectural significance. National Register properties to be adversely affected by management actions should undergo recordation for the Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Buildings Survey as part of the mitigation process.

The future of each structure not on the National Register or eligible for nomination should also be carefully reviewed when maintenance action is necessary, when conflicts with implementation of the General Management Plan arise, when rehabilitation is contemplated, or when it is simply thought that a structure is no longer needed to prevent the irreparable loss of useful educational and interpretive resources. Such a review should determine the best treatment for the building—preservation, stabilization and possible adaptive use, natural deterioration, or removal, either by demolition or relocation—based on considerations of its educational and interpretive value, in the context of the historical themes presented in this study, and of all other options available. If possible, general historical appearances and settings should be retained, with adaptive use where feasible and necessary to preserve the useful life of a significant building. With proper planning, the interior functions of individual structures can be changed while preserving outward historical appearances. New structures should not be built for park purposes when it is possible to use historical buildings for the same purpose.

Full protection of Yosemite’s historical resources is dependent upon faithfully followed and carefully documented procedures. Whenever a structure is to be adversely affected, either by maintenance and rehabilitation work, by adaptive reuse or restoration/stabilization, or by the addition of any type of “improvements,” complete mitigation procedures must be followed. All structures in the park proposed for such work or for removal should be reviewed to ensure that historically or architecturally significant properties are not inadvertently altered or removed without proper consideration of their values and that compliance according to national historic preservation legislation is followed. As trails foreman Jim Snyder cautions, “With cuts in budget, personnel, and programs, it is all the more important that resources of all kinds continue to receive thoughtful survey and evaluation during day-to-day park operations.”1

[1. Jim Snyder to Steve Botti, 11 February 1986, re: Historic Resources in Wilderness. ]

Cultural resources management, which entails documentary research, the physical retrieval of historical and archeological data, the interpretation of that data to the public, the avoidance of impact to cultural sites, and the preservation of significant resources, is a complex and continual responsibility of Park Service managers. In order to fulfill that responsibility, employee and visitor education, a systematic monitoring process, an active research program, and long-term planning are essential. Chapter IX presents some specific recommendations related to cultural resources in Yosemite National Park whose implementation might facilitate this management process.

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