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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar

Joseph Le Conte

For over fifty years the Le Contes, father and son, have been identified with the Sierra Nevada. Joseph Le Conte, the elder, was invited to the University of California in 1869, where for the rest of his life he taught the natural sciences in close association with his brother John.

In the summer of 1870 at the end of his first year at the University, he and one of his colleagues, Professor Frank Soulé, were invited by eight of their students to go on a camping trip. The journal of this excursion is one of the most delightful documents in the literature of the Sierra Nevada. It was first published in a limited edition in 1875 and was reprinted by the Sierra Club in 1900. 71 I cannot refrain from quoting a portion of the opening paragraph, as it links together the father and son; though it may now afford a little embarrassment to the latter. Under date of July 21, 1870, the journal says “I left my home and dear ones this morning. Surely I must have a heroic and dangerous air about me, for my little baby boy shrinks from my rough flannel shirt and broad-brim hat, as did the baby sun of Hector from his brazen corslet, and beamy helm, and nodding plume.”

In Yosemite the University party met John Muir and welcomed him as a kindred spirit. Continuing to the higher mountains, they camped at Lake Tenaya, where the journal records what must always be a great stimulation to the imagination of those who are familiar with the thoughts of Le Conte and Muir:

After supper, I went with Mr. Muir and sat on a high rock, jutting into the lake. It was full moon. I never saw a more delightful scene. This little lake, one mile long and a half mile wide, is actually embosomed in the mountains, being surrounded by rocky eminences two thousand feet high, of the most picturesque forms, which come down to the very water’s edge. The deep stillness of the sight; the silvery light and deep shadows of the mountains; the reflection on the water, broke, into thousands of glittering points by the trilled surface the gentle lapping of the wavelets upon the rocky shore—all these seemed exquisitely harmonized with each other, and the grand harmony made answering music in our hearts. Gradually the lake surface became quiet and mirror-like, and the exquisite surrounding scenery was seen double. For an hour we remained sitting in silent enjoyment of this delicious scene, which we reluctantly left to go to bed. Tenaya Lake is about eight thousand feet above sea level. The night air, therefore, is very cool.

The Tuolumne Meadows were visited and Mount Dana was climbed. The party then descended Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake and went north to Lake Tahoe.

Two years later Le Conte visited the glacier of Mount Lyell and from his observations wrote of the glacier systems of the Sierra, upholding views that Muir had expressed but which members of the Whitney Survey had treated rather severely as the rush statements of an amateur. 72

Joseph Le Conte made many visits to the Yosemite during the next thirty years, but it was not until 1900 that he visited Kings River Canyon, accompanied by his son and daughter. Although seventy-seven years of age, he enjoyed that outing to the utmost and it must have been one of the culminating spiritual experiences of his life. The following year, on a visit to Yosemite, while in apparently good health, he was suddenly stricken and died in the Valley on July 6. 73 Shortly afterwards the Sierra Club erected a beautiful stone Lodge in the Valley in his memory.

71 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1900, III, 1, pp. 1-107.

72 Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 1872, IV, p. 159; American Journal of Science, Third Series, 1873 , V, p. 332.

73 Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, edited by William Dallam Armes, 1903; Frank Soulé, in Sierra Club Bulletin, 1902, IV, I, pp. 1-11.

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