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"The Great Yo-Semite Valley,” Hutchings’ California Magazine, Oct. 1859, by James M. Hutchings

Off for the Mountains.

’Tis a dull thing to travel like a mill-horse.

Queen of Corinth.

The reader knows as well as we do that, although it may be of but little consequence in point of fact, whether a spirit of romance; the love of the grand and beautiful in scenery; the suggestions or promptings of that most loveable of all lovely objects, a fascinating woman, be she friend, sweetheart, or wife; the desire for change; the want of recreation; or the necessity of a restoration and recuperation of an over-tasked physical or mental organization, or both;—whatever may be the agent that first gives birth to the wish for, or the love of travel; when the mind is thoroughly made up, and the committee of ways and means reports itself financially prepared to undertake the pleasurable task; in order to enjoy it with luxurious zest, we must resolve upon four things—first, to leave the “peck of troubles,” and a few thrown in, entirely behind; second, to have none but good, suitable, and genial-hearted companions; third, a sufficient supply of personal patience, good humor, forbearance, and creature comforts for all emergencies; and, fourth, not to be in a hurry. To these, both one and all, who have ever visited the Yo-Semite valley, we know will say—Amen.

Now as we cannot in this brief series of articles, describe all the various routes to this wonderful valley, from every village, town, and city in the State; as they are almost as numerous and as diversified as the different roads that christians seem to take for their expected heaven, and the multitudinous creeds about the way and manner of getting there, we shall content ourselves by giving the principal ones; and after we have recited the following quaint and unanswerable argument of a celebrated divine to the querulous and uncharitable members of his flock, in which we think the reader will discover a slight similarity between the position of Yo-Semite travelers, to that of the various denominations of christians; we shall then proceed to explain how and when we journied there, and who were of the party.

An aged and charitable christian minister bad frequently experienced much painful annoyance from an unmistakable bitterness of feeling that existed between the members of his church and those of a different sect; and as this was contrary to the word and spirit of the Great Teacher, and a great stumbling block to the usefulness and happiness of the members of both denominations, he notified them that on a certain Sunday, he wished his brother minister to close his doors, as he wished to address the members of both churches at the same time, on a very important subject. This was accordingly granted him. When he ascended the pulpit, he looked affectionately at his hearers, and thus began—”My christian friends, there was a christian brother—a Presbyterian—who walked thoughtfully up to the gate of the New Jerusalem, and knocked for admittance, when an angel who was in charge, looked down from above and enquired what he wanted. ‘To come in,’ was the answer. ‘Who and what are you?’ ‘A Presbyterian.’ ‘Sit on that seat there.’ This was on the outside of the gate; and the good man feared that be had been refused admittance. Presently arrived an Episcopalian, then a Baptist, then a Methodist, and so on, until a representative of every christian sect had made his appearance; and were alike ordered to take a seat outside. Before they had long been there, a loud anthem broke forth, rolling and swelling upon the air, from the choir within; when those outside immediately joined in the chorus. ‘Oh!’ said the angel, as he opened wide the gate, ‘I did not know you by your names, but you have all learned one song, come in! come in!! The name you bear, or the way by which you came, is of little moment compared with your being able to reach it at all, or the wonders you will now behold, and the gratification you will experience.’—As you my brethren,” the good man continued, “as you expect to live peaceably and lovingly together in heaven, you had better begin to practice it on earth. I have done.”


As this allegorical advice needs no words of application either to the Yo-Semite traveler or the christian, in the hope that the latter will take the admonition of Captain Cuttle, “and make a note on’t,” and with an apology to the reader for the digression, we will now proceed en route.

The resident of San Francisco can have his choice of two ways for reaching Stockton; one, for the most part, overland by stage, as follows:—

F’m S. F. to Oakland, by ferry, which is8
F’m Oakland, by stage, to San Antonio,2
San Leandro7
San Lorenzo11
Alvarado, or Union City,18
Mission of San Jose27
Hart’s Station30
Mountain House44
Harland’s Ferry60
French Camp66

Whole distance from San Francisco to Stockton, by this route, 79 miles.

Or, making his way to Jackson street wharf, a few moments before four o’clock, he can take one of the California Steam Navigation Company’s boats, and arrive in Stockton, by water,—distance 124 miles—in time for any of the stages that leave that city for the mountains. We chose the latter route; and, on the evening of the 14th of June of the present year, found ourselves on board the Helen Hensley, Capiain Clark, (one of the oddest looking, and at the same time one of the most intelligent specimens of steamboat captains we ever met.)

As the steamboat Antolope, bound for Sacramento, was heavily freighted, we had the advantage of taking and keeping the lead, and arrived at Benicia at twenty minutes to seven o’clock—distance thirty miles, from San Francisco—at least half an hour ahead of her; a circumstance of very unusual occurrence, and which seemed to afford considerable satisfaction to the more enthusiastic of the passengers; for, whether a man may be riding on any four legged animal, from a donkey to a race-horse, or in any kind of vehicle, from a dog-cart to a train of cars; or in any sailing craft that floats, from a flat-bottomed scow to a leviathan steamer, such is his perverse desire to be able to crow over something or somebody, that if he breaks his neck in the attempt to pass a fellow traveler; or runs the risk of losing a wheel, or his life, while driving furiously; or takes an extra and speedy, though not always the most popular, method of elevation, upon the broken fragments of an exploded boiler, he is sure to wish for the success of that particular animal, vehicle, or craft, on which he may for the time be a passenger! We do not say that we, (that is, our boat), were “racing,” for we were not; nor do we say that we were in any danger, for the officers of the boat—and of all these boats—were too careful to run any risks, especially as all “racing” is strictly prohibited by the Company.

The run across the straits of Carquinez, from Benicia to Martinez, three miles distant, took us just ten minutes. Then after a few moments delay, we again dashed onward; the moonlight gilding the troubled waters in the wake of our vessel, as she plowed her swift way through the bay of Suisun and to all appearance deepened the shadows on the darker sides of Monte Diablo, by defining, with silvery clearness, the uneven ridges and summit of that solitary mountain mass.

At twenty minutes past eight, P. M., we entered the most westerly of the three mouths of the San Joaquin river, fifty-one miles from San Francisco and twenty-one above Benicia—after passing the city of New York on the Pacific, the intended “Eden” of speculators and castle-builders —without performing the fashionable courtesy of calling.

The evening being calm and sultry, it soon became evident that if it were not the hight, of the mosquito season, a very numerous band were out on a free-booting excursion; and although their harvest-home song of blood was doubtless very musical, it may be matter of regret with us to confess that, in our opinion, but few persons on board appeared to have any ear for it; in order, however, that their musical efforts might not be entirely lost sight of, they took pleasure in writing and impressing their low refrain in red and embossed notes upon the foreheads of the passengers, so that he who looked might read—musquitoes! when, alas! such was the ingratitude felt for favors so voluntarily performed, that flat-handed blows were dealt out to them in impetuous haste, and blood, blood, blood, and flattened musqitoes was written in red and dark brown spots upon the smiter, and behold! the notes of those singers were heard no more “that we knows on.”

While the unequal warfare is going on, and one carcass of the slain induces at least a dozen of the living to come to his funeral and avenge his death, we are sailing on, up one of the most crooked and most monotonous navigable rivers out of doors; and, as we may as well do something more than fight the little bill-presenting and tax-collecting mosquitoes, if only for variety, we will relate to the reader how, in the early spring of 1849, just before leaving our southern home on the banks of ‘the mother of rivers,’ ‘the old Mississippi,’ a gentleman arrived from northern Europe and was at once introduced a member of our little family circle. Now, however strange it may appear, our new friend had never in his life looked upon a live mosquito, or a mosquito-bar, and consequently knew nothing about the arrangements of a good femme de charge for passing a comfortable night, where such insects were even more numerous than oranges. In the morning he seated himself at the breakfast-table, his face nearly covered with wounds received from the enemy’s proboscis, when an enquiry was made by the lady of the house, if he had passed the night pleasantly? “Yes,—yes,” he replied, with some hesitation, “yes—tol-er-a-bly pleasant—although —a—smallfly—annoyed me—somewhat! “At this confession, we could restrain ourselves no longer, but broke out into a hearty laugh, led by our good-natured hostess, who then exclaimed: “ Mosquitoes! why, I never dreamed that the marks on your face were mosquito bites. I thought they might be from a rash, or something of that kind. Why! didn’t you lower down your mosquito-bars?” But as this latter appendage to a bed, on the low, alluvial lands of a southern river, was a greater stranger to him than any dead language known, the “small fly” problem bad to be satisfactorily solved, and his sleep made sweet.

Perhaps it would be well here to remark, that the San Joaquin river is divided into three branches, known respectively as the west, middle, and east channels; the latter named, being not only the main stream but the one used by the steamboats and sailing vessels, bound to and from Stockton—or at least to within about four miles of that city, from which point the Stockton slough is used. The east, or main channel, is navigable for small, stern-wheel steamboats, as high as Frezno City. Besides the three main channels of the San Joaquin, before mentioned, there are numerous tributaries, the principal of which are the Moquelumne, Calaveras, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers. An apparently interminable sea of tules extends nearly one hundred and fifty miles south, up the valley of the San Joaquin; and when these are on fire, as they not unfrequently are, during the fall and early winter months, the broad sheet of licking and leaping flame, and the vast volumes of smoke that rise, and eddy, and surge, hither and thither, present a scene of fearful grandeur, at night, that is suggestive of some earthly pandemonium. The lumbering sound of the boat’s machinery having suddenly ceased, and

our high-pressure motive power having descended from a regular to an occasional snorting, gave us a reminder that we had reached Stockton. Time, forty-five minutes past two o’clock, on the morning of the 15th. At day-break we were again disturbed in our fitful slumbers by the rumbling of wagons and hurrying bustle of laborers discharging cargo; and before we had scarcely turned aver for another uncertain nap, the stentorian lungs of some employee of the stage companies announced that stages for Sonora, Columbia, Murphy’s, Mokelumne Hill, Sacramento, Mariposa, and Coulterville, were just about starting. The moment that “Coulterville” was included in the list it recalled us to wide-awake consciousness that as we had come on purpose to go by that route, we had better be moving in the premises. Therefore, hurriedly making our toilet, and hastily going ashore, we each deposited seven dollars in the palm of the agent as our fare to the Crimea House, at which point another deposit of five dollars was to insure us safe and speedy transit in some other conveyance from that place to Coulterville.

A portion of our pleasant little party having joined us in Stockton; and, as we are now all snugly ensconced in the same stage, we will proceed to initiate tb e reader into the dramatis personae. of this (to us) deeply interesting performance. Rev. F. C. Ewer, and lady; (and when we mention “Rev.” we hope that no one, at least in this instance, will associate it with anything prosy, or heavy, or dull, otherwise we wish at once to cut his or her acquaintance at the outset,) Miss Marianna Neill, Mr. L. C. Weed, our excellent photographer, and your humble servant, J. M. H. “All aboard!” cried the coachman; “all set,” shouted. somebody, in answer.

“Crack went the whip, and away went we.”

There is a feeling of jovial, good-humored pleasurableness that steals insensibly over the secluded residents of cities when all the cares of a daily routine of duty are left behind, and the novelty of fresh scenes opens up new sources of enjoyment. Especially was it so with us, seated as we were, in that comfortable, old stage, with the prospect before us of witnessing one of the most wonderful sights that is to be found in any far-off country either of the old or new world. Besides, in addition to our being in the reputed position of a Frenchman with his dinner, who is said to enjoy it in three different ways; first, by anticipation; next, in action; and third, on reflection; we had new views perpetually breaking upon our admiring eyes.

As soon as we bad passed over the best gravelled streets of any town or city in the State, without exception, we threaded our way past the beautiful suburban residences of the city of Stockton, and emerged from the shadows of the giant oaks that stand on either side the road, the deliciously cool breath of early morning, laden as it was with the fragrance of myriads of flowers and scented shrubs, was inhaled with an acme of enjoyment that contrasted inexpressibly with the stifling and unsavory warmth of a lilliputian state room on board the steamboat.

The bracing air had partially restored the loss of appetite resulting from, and almost consequent upon, the excitement created by the novel circumstances and prospects attending us, so that when we arrived at the Twelve Mile House and breakfast was announced, it was not an unwelcome sound to any one of the party. This being satisfactorily discussed, in eighteen minutes, and a fresh relay of horses provided, we were soon upon our way. At the Twenty-five Mile House we again exchanged horses. By this time the day and our travelers had both warmed up together; and before we reached Knight’s Ferry, as the cooling breeze had died out, and the dust had begun to pour in, at every chink and aperture, the luxurious enjoyments of the early morning were departing by degrees—in the same way that lawyers are said to get to heaven!—and when a group of sturdy, athletic miners was seen congregrated in front of the hotel, and the bell and its ringer had announced that Knight’s Ferry and dinner were both at band, it would have been the height of preposterous presumption in us to attempt to pass ourselves off for “white folks” before we had made the acquaintance of clean water and a dust-brush.

After taking refreshments with loss of our appetites and forty-five minutes, we not only again “changed horses,” but found both ourselves and our baggage changed to, another stage—as the newest and best looking ones seemed to be retained for the level, and city end of the route, while the dust covered and paint-worn are used for the mountains. As we shall probably have something to say concerning these towns on our return, we will respond to the coachman’s “all aboard,” by calling out “all set,” and thus leave it for the present.


At the Crimea House, our bags and baggage were again set down, and after a very agreeable delay of one hour, during which time the obliging landlord, Mr. Brown, informed us that errors of route and distance had been made by journalists who were not quite familiar with their subject, and by which those persons who travel in private carriages were liable to go by La Grange, some five miles out of their way.

Here a new line as well as conveyance was taken, known as the “Sonora and Coulterville,” and as that bad now arrived, we lost no time in obtaining possession of as good seats as we could find, and reached Don Pedro’s Bar about six o’clock, P. M. But for an unusual number of passengers, we should have been here subjected to another change of stage; now, fortunately, the old and regular one would not contain us all, so that the only change made was in horses, and after a delay of twelve minutes, we were again dashing over the Tuolumne river, across a good bridge.

Now the gently rolling hills began to give way to tall mountains; and the quiet and even tenor of the landscape to change to the wild and picturesque. Up, up we toiled, many of us on foot, as our horses puffed and snorted like miniature steamboats, from hauling but little more than the empty coach. The top gained, our road was through forests of oaks and nut pines, across flats, and down the sides of ravines and gulches, until we reached Maxwell’s Creek; from which point an excellent road is graded on the side of a steep mountain, to Coulterville, and all that the traveler seems to hope for, is that the stage will keep upon it, and not tip down the abyss that is yawning below. Up this mountain we again had to patronize the very independent method of going ‘afoot’; and while ascending it, our party was startled by a rustling sound being heard among the bushes below the road, where shadowy human forms could be seen moving slowly towards us. Hearts beat quicker, and images of Joaquin and Tom Bell’s gang rose to our active fancies. “They will rob and perhaps murder us,” suggested one. “We cannot die but once,” retorted another. “Oh, dear! what is going to be the matter,” was sent in a loud, shrill whisper from the owner of a treble voice in the stage. “Let us all keep close together,” pantomimed a fourth, an outsider. “I shall faint,” (another sound from within.) “Please to postpone that exercise, ladies, until we reach plenty of water,” respectfully and cheerfully responded a fifth, and who evidently had some particular interest in the speaker.

“That’s a hard old mountain,” exclaimed the ringleader of the party that had caused all our alarm, as he and his companions quietly seated themselves by the side of the road. “Good evening, gentlemen.” “Good evening.” Why, bless my, soul, these men who have almost frightened us out of our seven senses, are nothing but fellow travelers!” “Could’nt you see that?” now valorously enquired one whose knees had knocked uncontrollably together with fear only a few moments before. At this we all had to laugh; and the driver having stopped, said, “get in, gentlemen,” we had enough to talk and joke about, until we reached Coulterville, at a quarter to ten o’clock, P. M. Here, by, the kindness of Mr. Coulter, (the founder of the town,) our much needed comforts were duly cared for; and, after making arrangements for an early start on the morrow, we retired for the night, well fatigued with the journey; having been upon the road fifteen and one-half hours.

As we wish to make these sketches of use to future travelers, we have been particular in noting time, cost, distance, and numerous other particulars, and as we have reached the end of our journey by stage, we append the following:

LeftStocktonat 1-4 past 6, A. M,made.Miles.
FromStocktonto 12 Mile House1.3512
From"to 25 Mile House4.1523
From"to Foot Hills4.3530
From" to Knight’s Ferry5.4037
From" to Rock River House,
(including detention for dinner)
From Stockton to Crimea House8.4048
Here we exchanged stages, and delayed one hour.
From Stockton to Don Pedro’s Bar,
(including delay at Crimea House)
From Stockton to Coulterville,
(exchanged horses and was delayed 12 min.)

Our first considerations the following morning were for good animals, provisions, cooking utensils, and a guide,-the former (all but the good) were supplied by a gentleman who rejoiced in the uncommon and somewhat ancient patronymic of Smith, at twenty-five dollars per head for the trip of eight days, almost the original cost of each animal, judging from their build and speed, so that the bill run as follows:—

5 saddle horses, one for each person,$125
1 pack mule25

We hope before the next traveling season commences that reasonable arrangements will be made for a daily line of good saddle animals, both here and at Mariposa, (a most excellent starting point,) for it is much to be regretted that such exorbitant charges should preclude persons of limited means from visiting this magnificent valley. For the supply of provisions and cooking utensils, Mr. Coulter and the guide relieved us of all anxiety; and, at a quarter to nine the next morning, we were in our saddles, ready for the start. How we were attired or armed; what was the impression produced upon the bystanders; or, even what was our own opinion of appearances, “deponent saith not.”

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