Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: Trees of YosemiteContentsPrevious: In the Beginning

Yosemite Tales and Trails (1934) by Katherine Ames Taylor


NATIONAL PARKS don’t just grow. They are made at tremendous cost and effort. Few realize, perhaps, the obstacles which have been overcome, the battles fought, that we might roll into these National Wildernesses today, over good highways or railroads, to find perfect accommodations, plenty of food, Rangers to guide us, trails to follow, a telephone, even, on some mountain top to connect us with home a thousand miles away. Creating a National Park is a long and painful process, and the story lies not only in what has been accomplished, but in the many evils which have been prevented.

In Yosemite, for example, it has been proposed, at one time or another, to:

1. Dam the valley and flood it with water, like Hetch-Hetchy, to furnish power for the Mariposa region.

2. To raffle the valley off for a dollar a chance.

3. To surrender it to homesteaders who would have exploited it with toll-roads, bridges, and trails, and overrun it with chickens and live stock.

4. To relinquish the High Sierras to the sheep-herders for range for their flocks.

5. To erect a great hotel on the top of Half Dome, letting the Vernal Falls furnish power to run elevators through tunnels to the top!

All of these enterprises, and many others, have been thwarted, but it has meant fighting every step of the way. Everything accomplished in Yosemite has been bitterly and violently opposed by some faction, and the wonder is we have any National Park at all.

Trouble began first with the homesteaders. Several families were already established and living in the Valley when, with the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, it was set aside as a State Park. Among these were J. M. Hutchings and J. C. Lamon. And though the Government offered to lease a hundred and sixty acres to each of them at a nominal rent, they refused, and fought ten years to maintain their holdings. Eventually the courts won out and they came to terms, receiving compensation for their claims. But the delay and the wrangles had created bad feeling, making the people of California either hostile or indifferent to the fate of the Park.

A unique close-up of Half Dome, showing the formation of this monumental rock. By Ansel Adams
[click to enlarge]
A unique close-up of Half Dome, showing
the formation of this monumental rock

As a State Park, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were governed by a board of commissioners who appointed Galen Clark as guardian of these wonders. But for all the gold which had been taken from the state and from that very region it was always a problem to wrest sufficient funds from the legislature to make the most necessary improvements in Yosemite, or even to pay the guardian’s wages, which were small but often ran years in arrears.

Sheep-herders presented the next problem. For years sheep- and cattlemen had been grazing their flocks and their herds in the High Sierra meadows, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Not only did these animals denude the forests and meadows, like the “hooved locusts” John Muir called them, but the sheep-herders were careless about their campfires, and forest fires were a constant menace, ravaging whole mountain sides. It was even suspected that many of these fires were set deliberately to assure a plentiful grass crop the following spring.

It was sheep, then, as Doctor Carl Russell points out, which were largely responsible for the creation of a National Park. For years John Muir and Robert Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, fought to have that country immediately adjacent to the State Park set aside as a National Forest or Reservation to preserve and protect it from the depredations of the sheep- and cattlemen. In 1890 they succeeded, and Congress established a Reservation which included most of the Park of today, a region of forests, glaciers, mountain peaks, and lakes surrounding Yosemite Valley.

For sixteen years following there were really two Yosemite Parks one, the Valley and the Mariposa Grove, state owned; the other, surrounding it, a National Park. Military troops patrolled and administered one; State Commissioners and a Guardian patrolled and operated the other. And the result, of course, was constant friction and trouble.

Galen Clark never became reconciled to Uncle Sam’s troops, who made their headquarters at Wawona, on the site of his former camp. When a fire broke out in Yosemite there was usually an argument as to whether it was the duty of the state or Federal government to put it out, and while they argued the fire burned. Galen Clark thought little of the troopers as fire-fighters. He tells of one fire which burned in the Park Reservation for six weeks one summer, running over a territory thirty-five miles square. For the whole six weeks the Valley was full of smoke and tourists who came could see little of it. Finally the fire burned into Galen Clark’s region. He took ten men, and in three days put it out.

“With a dozen of these California foothill boys,” he declared, “I can do everything five hundred soldiers with a brigadier general in command of ‘em can do, and do it a blamed sight better, too!”

He tells a story, too, about the way the troops enforced and prevented poaching in the National Park. Five soldiers caught an old-timer one day who had been deer-hunting. They disarmed the hunter and started marching him into camp. On the way a deer crossed their path, and each of the soldiers in turn shot at it and missed!

“If you want that deer,” laconically remarked their prisoner, “give me my gun and I’ll get him for you.”

Amusedly the soldiers handed the gun over. One shot, and the deer was dead.

“Keep your gun,” remarked the leader admiringly, “and hike out.”

Yet life was not all hunting and fishing and fire-fighting for Uncle Sam’s troops. Mr. Sovulewski, who was with that early unit, tells of the difficulties they had in covering that thousand of square miles of territory, with practically no trails, and only inadequate maps to guide them. Underpaid as these men were, they were often in the saddle sixteen to twenty hours a day, covering sixty miles of riding in the day’s work. It was not easy going, for their problem was to outwit men who knew every foot of the country, and drive them from the Park.

Even after they caught these trespassers the law provided no punishment for them. But the troopers solved that matter very ingeniously. They would escort the guilty herder across the mountains to some far boundary of the Park and let him go, turning his sheep loose at an equally distant point. By the time the two got together again the sheep-herder had suffered enough losses to realize it was cheaper to find another range.

The duplication in effort and expense incurred by this dual administration finally convinced the people of California that they would be better off if they receded Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove back to the Government to be administered as one National Park. This was accomplished in 1905, but only after another long, long battle led again by John Muir and the Sierra Club of California, to whom the world owes a great debt of gratitude.

In 1906 Congress formally accepted the State Park and the following year Major Benson moved his troops from Wawona into the Valley and established Fort Yosemite where the Yosemite Lodge stands today.

For seven years the military continued to govern the Park, keeping the troops there during the spring and summer and early fall. In the winter the park was abandoned, except for Galen Clark and a civilian assistant or so. Under the able administration of Colonel Benson the beginnings of our present road and trail systems were laid and much was accomplished in the way of mapping the terrain to make it more accessible.

In 1916 the National Park Service was created as a division of the U. S. Department of the Interior, with Stephen T. Mather as first Director of all the National Parks. Since that time Yosemite has been under the direction of a civilian superintendent representing the National Park Service, in charge of a force of civilian rangers, engineers, and other employes. Their task is a big one, that of maintaining order and protecting the wild life, building roads and bridges, keeping others in repair, providing water, electricity, telephone service, and sanitary facilities for the tens of thousands who make Yosemite their temporary home each year.

And they continue to fight our battles for us. Through their unremitting efforts they have succeeded in taking over all of the toll-roads into the Valley and making them free. They have accomplished miracles in buying up private holdings in the Park, or trading National Forest stands for those they could not buy outright. Mr. Mather, when he failed to get the appropriations he needed to save some special tract, frequently dipped into his own pocket to provide the funds. In this way he gave the Tioga road to the Government and saved large groves of Big Trees in Sequoia National Park. He spent more than twice the amount of his salary to provide a personnel to work with and for him on this great job of preserving the wilderness.

And his successor, Horace M. Albright, has followed faithfully in his footsteps. Largely through his efforts in 1930 alone fifteen thousand five hundred and seventy acres of private holdings were returned to the Government at the cost of $3,300,000. Half of this cost was assumed by one man, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the remainder coming from Congress.

Having achieved these National Parks for you, the administration’s policy now is to make them as enjoyable as possible. To their many other duties they have added that of educating the public to what lies in these preservations. A Ranger Naturalist Service has been inaugurated to take any who are interested on nature trips of one, two, or three days, studying geologic formations, wild life, and wild flowers. The Yosemite Museum is a treasure-house of exhibits which will make Yosemite’s Past and Present many times more vivid and real to you.

The next time you pay your taxes, then, console yourself a bit by the knowledge that you have one investment in the National Parks which will always bring returns. To clip a coupon just take to the high trails of any one of these and you will find you have a country estate no king could own!

Next: Trees of YosemiteContentsPrevious: In the Beginning

Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management