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Yosemite Indians and Other Sketches (1936) by Mrs. H. J. Taylor

Chapter 10: Yosemite Fire Fall

I n creating Yosemite Valley, Nature endowed Yosemite National Park with gifts that she did not duplicate elsewhere. From three thousand feet above its floor the melting snows of the Sierra pour in waterfalls over the rock cliffs that wall in the Valley. Yosemite, Nevada, Vernal, Cascade, and Bridal Veil differ widely from one another but all command universal admiration. To these natural gifts man has added a unique and radiant spectacle— the Fire Fall of Yosemite. Millions have gazed upon it, spreading its fame throughout the world. It, too, has no duplicate.

Yosemite Fire Fall did not spring into being suddenly. Slowly and interruptedly it developed into the glowing beauty that we know today. In 1872 James McCauley, one of the earliest pioneers in Yosemite, built the Four-Mile Trail from Black’s and Leidig’s hotels to Glacier Point, thirty-two hundred feet above the Valley floor, and there operated a hotel known as the Mountain House. The Trail was a financial venture, and its construction involved Mr. McCauley to a considerable amount. The toll, placed at the reasonable amount of one dollar, was not sufficient to repay the cost.

The hotel at Glacier Point was also a new venture. Through Mr. McCauley’s efforts to advertise his Mountain House the idea of the Fire Fall was born. A folder published by the Yosemite Park and Curry Company in 1930, says: “At first he [Mr. McCauley] experimented with various kinds of fire works and blazing boughs which he lowered on wires from Overhanging Rock near the present Fire Fall Point. . . . All such displays were comparatively insignificant on the Valley floor 3200 feet below. Finally he conceived the idea of pushing over the embers. The first Fire Fall was pushed over the cliff in 1874 and was continued during the summer season on special occasions.” After Mr McCauley’s death, which occurred in an accident with a runaway horse, there was no Fire Fall for many years; it was all but forgotten. In 1899, Mr. and Mrs. D. A. Curry founded Camp Curry, which at once became popular and successful. Mr. Curry had heard of the Fire Fall and decided to display it on holidays and those occasions when prominent guests were in the Valley. At such times he sent some of his men up the Ledge Trail to gather the wood, prepare the embers, and push the Fire Fall over the cliff.

Interest in this spectacle grew with the oncoming tourists. Requests for the Fire Fall were so constant and increasingly numerous that Mr. Curry arranged it daily throughout the summer season. In recent years, since Winter Sports have attracted tourists in large numbers, the Fire Fall has also become a regular event during the winter season.

It takes time and preparation to secure a satisfactory Fire Fall. During the summer season one man gives all his time to it. Each day he gathers pine cones, bark, and dead timber, mostly red fir, which abounds in the vicinity of Glacier Point. About one-quarter of a cord is required for the daily Fire Fall. A special shovel with a very long handle was made to push the fire over the cliff. It takes practice to be able to push the embers in a steady stream of fire flowing fifteen to twenty minutes over the cliff. Wood must also be kept in readiness for an emergency. The Fourth of July is celebrated by a double Fire Fall; two streams of fire fall side by side over the cliff In the autumn, before snowfall, a supply of wood is stored where it will be available for the winter season.

Mr. Curry was the first to make a ceremony of the Fire Fall. The close of the camp program and the extinguishing of all the lights are the signals that it is nine o’clock—Fire Fall time. Then follow the calls between Camp Curry and Glacier Point that have echoed since Mr. Curry first called them. “Hello, Glacier Point!” And the reply, “Are you ready, Camp Curry?” Then, “Let the fire fall!” High up at Glacier Point the living embers slowly begin to fall and continue until they become a blazing stream of red and gold swaying in the wind while sparks fly off like stars. The stream grows smaller and smaller until it becomes a mere thread of gold drawing the curtain of night, and darkness descends.

Nine o’clock in Yosemite means the Fire Fall. In recent years it has been accompanied by music, song, and whistling. The Fire Fall never grows old. No one wants to miss it. It is ever new and never twice the same. Thousands gaze upon it in awe and silence as it falls over the cliff, a glorious, brilliant stream of fire. Slowly the glory fades into darkness and another splendor is stored in memory. The following poem, written by Roland Hartley in 1932, is presented with his permission.

Roland Hartley

Flung for a moment against eternal stone,
Fire comes faintly dripping from the dark,
Trailing its evanescent veil, alone,
Between immensities of night and stark
Insensibility of sleeping earth.
Brief token of man’s love of lovely things,
Fading, fading, vanishing into dearth
Of splendor, yet leaving high imaginings
To trace new glories in the star-spread sky.
Brief like the tenuous chain of human days,
Hung between darks like man who is born to die,
Yet leaving it light to brighten other ways
Even beyond it, fading and passing by.


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