California AHGP - New California - Chapter XXIII



Wherever the name of California is spoken visions of scenic glory fill the mind, for the climate of the far west is not more celebrated in song and story than are the wonders of Yosemite, the glory of the big trees, and the inspiration of peak and canyon.

For these reasons a brief history and description of the wonderful valley are a proper part of the story of California, particularly as each year brings more visitors than the year previous to the wonderland of the west.

Mr. W. S. Pladwell has made a careful study of Yosemite, and to him the author is indebted for much of the valuable matter contained in this chapter. He says:

The Yosemite Valley, situated in teh core of the high Sierra, has an area of about 36,000 acres, and is described as a cleft or gorge in the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, in the county of Mariposa, at the head waters of the Merced river. The territory embraced within the boundaries of the valley comprises the whole of the valley proper and extends back from the edge of the precipice for an average distance of one mile, off picturesque country, surpassed in natural curiosities and grandeur of scenery only by the beautiful Yosemite itself.

In the early fifties the white settlers of this region living among the foothills on the edges of the Sierra and on the plains of the great San Joaquin Valley, found it impossible to exist in peaceful relation with the scattered Indian tribes, which had been for centuries in undisputed possession of the land and regarded the invasion of the white men with fear and aversion. A number of depredations were committed and atrocities perpetrated before the white settlers banded together to drive them out of the country. Several battles and skirmishes were fought; the Indians, in accordance with their usual tactics lying in ambush, but they were repulsed after which they retrested farther into the fastnesses of the hills, where it was ascertained they had a stronghold and foraging ground to which they could take refuge in time of need and remain indefinitely without fear of famine or discovery.

In the spring of 1851 the "Mariposa Battalion," as the settlers styled themselves, under command of Captain Boling, determined to explore the mountains and route the Indians from their refuge. While engaged in active pursuit of the enemy they followed them into a wonderful gorge, where an engagement ensued. The Indians were defeated in pitched battle, a number killed and the remainder put to flight. Thus were the wonders of the beautiful Yosemite, until then unknown and untrodden by the foot of the white race, first disclosed to their enchanted gaze.

The attention of the general public was not attracted to the valley, however, until 1852, when the experience of Captain Boling and his party was published and the charm of the place, discovered under such peculiar circumstances, depicted in colors so glowing that lovers of nature flocked to the spot, and their enthusiastic endorsement soon brought the tide of travel slowly in that direction.

In one of nature's cataclysms, a mighty upheaval of the ages, was chiseled this wonderful gorge, a cleft among gigantic boulders. The softening hand of time bevelled the face of the rude rocks and covered the floor of the valley with soft tracery of foliage from her choicest storehouse. Against the radiant arch of the sky, gleaming like a translucent blue pearl, rise clustering peaks and stately domes, flashing with multi-colored lights from summit to summit. Down the sides of the majestic rocks twinkle the beautiful falls and cascades which make Yosemite unique and unlike any other valley under the sun. The exquisite Bridal Veil, so aptly named, with traces of tears mingling with happy leap of its waters plunges over the granite wall to an abyss of over nine hundred feet. Here and there the wind playfully catches up large gronds of the snowy, lace-like spray, throwing off myriads of glittering diamonds, in its descent to the dark abyss below. The Indians call it "Pohono," "Spirit of the Evil Wind." The water at the base twists into a thousand tortuous and fantastic shapes, veiled in the eternal sirling mists which, added to the deep, hollow roar of the dashing spray, calls into play all the weird superstition of Indian natures, and they people the place with gnomes and spirits of evil and would suffer torture sooner than approach it.

Vernal, Nevada and Yosemite Falls deserve separate descriptions. Each has its individual merits--none is like the other, and they are all unlike any other fall in the world--surrounded as they are by wild and beautiful scenery. When the Vernal Fall catches the sunlight it becomes a cascade of glittering diamonds. The Ribbon Fall is a delicate gossamer spray, rippling over the side of the gleaming rocks for two thousand feet. The great Yosemite plunges in three vast leaps, before being consigned in its writhing course to the keep canyon below, while the broad Nevada, a magnificent cataract of virgin white, surrounded by domes, pinnacles, peaks, precipices and spires, majestically and eternally wends its way onward, playing its part in the panorama of this wonderful scene.

From Inspiration Point, a magnificent view bursts upon the sight. When Emerson saw it he said it was "the only place that came up to the brag." The hills stands out in bold relief against an azure sky, cloud shadows veil the slumbrous but transparent atmosphere, softening the gorgeous coloring of mosaic russets and yellows. The daring points of Cathedral Spires are grandly outlined and look like areplica of some ancient Gothic cathedral. Built of massive irregular boulders of nature's own manufacture, in the midst of a scene so impressive as to defy description, it is a fitting alter for her worship. Who has not heard of El Capitan, the stately guardian of the valley, the majestic domes, beautiful arches and towering peaks that form the mural architecture of this wonderful storehouse of beauty?

The floor of the valley is covered with choicest of foliage, flora and the finest specimens of the forest, amid whose protecting shelter gentle creatures lurk. Here and there exquisite lakes mirror the surroundings, enhancing the beuaty of the scene. Springs and cascades leap laughingly from grim old rocks as if by enchantment, their rippling course ending in softly flowing streams of crystal purity. A sylvan fairyland is disclosed in all the wild pristine beuaty of nature's handiwork. One glances upward, and everywhere, in such great profusion as to almost tax the senses, stand out in bold relief the magnificent vision of sculptured chasm and cliff, their stern sublimity and rugged aspect softened by the lights and shadows which play over them, the exquisite colorings of nature's brush and the sparkling cascades and cataracts which leap from their sides everywhere in prodigal array. The gleaming great Half Dome, burnished like copper, the Royal Arches, Sentinels, infinite variety and limitless compass of cave and cavern, crag, precipice, canyon, gorge, toned and idealized with sky effects above and the dainty carpeting of nature below in soft tender greens and oases of lakes and purling streams. This is the Yosemite Valley, reposing within the bosom of California, unequalled anywhere, and wanting but the buiding hand to bring the world to its feet in homage and admiration.

In 1864 certain influential citizens of California and lovers of nature generally, fearing the beautiful spot would be given over to pre-emption and settlement, thus causing its division into small holdings and depriving the public of a place of resort and recreation, interceded with congress to grant to the state the land comprising the valley and its approaches. Congress being so moved, did by an act grant to the state of California the "cleft or gorge in teh granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, situated in the county of Mariposa, in the state of California, at the head waters of the Merced river, with its branches and spurs, in estimated length 15 miles and an average width one mile back from the main edge of the precipice."

This grant to the state of the land described was made upon the express condition that the premises should be held for "public use, resort and recreation" and should be inalienable for all time, but leases not exceeding ten years may be granted for portions of the premises. All income derived from these leases or privileges to be expended in the preservation or improvement of the property or for roads leading thereto. Boundaries to be established at the cost of the state by the United States surveyor general for the state of California, whose official plat, when affirmed by the commissioner, shall constitute evidence of the "Locus, extent and limits of the cleft or gorge." The premises to be managed by the governor of the state, with eight other commissioners appointed by him, who shall receive no compensation.

Section 2 of the same act granted to the state the tracts of land embracing what is known as the "Mariposa Big Tree Grove, not to exceed the area of four sections and to be taken in legal subdivisions of one quarter section each, upon the same stipulations and provisions that govern the Yosemite Valley."

Frederic F. Low, then governor of California, on September 28, 1864, issued a proclamation reciting the act of congress granting Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove, to the state, and appointed the eight other commissioners, to whom was confided the management of the valley, and warns and commands all persons from committing any "trespass, acts of destruction or devastation" within the boundaries of the grant.

Thereafter the commissioners formally took possession of the premises.

The surveys necessary to establish the boundaries of the grants in question as required by the act of congress were made in the autumn of 1864, and the official plat of the work was approved by the commissioners and accepted by the commissioner of the general land office; thus the "locus, extent and limits" of the grants of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove were determined.

This grant of congress was formally accepted by the legislature of California on behalf of the state, by an act approved April 2, 1866. This act appears in form "To ratify the appointment by the governor of the eight commissioners mentioned in the proclamation," and directs that their title shall be known in law as "The Commissioners to manage Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove" and defines their powers and duties.

It will thus be seen, by the enactment of these laws the state of California became bested with full title to the "cleft or gorge" known as the Yosemite Valley, together with the land within the boundary described in the act, and the land known as the Mariposa Big Tree Grove.

The commissioners hold this property for the uses and purposes mentioned in the act creating the grant, and the Supreme Court of California, in the case of F. F. Law, governor, H. W. Cleveland, et al., commissioners, vs. J. M. Hutchings, cited in the 41 California Reports, Page 34, the opinion being written by Mr. Justice Crockett, from which no dissent was made, declares that so long as the powers of the commissioners remained unimpaired and the trust remains in force under which the state holds these lands, the right of the commissioners to their possession cannot be successfully resisted, and declares that the attempt of the state legislature to make a grant of a portion of these lands to the defendant Hutchings, would be an open and flagrant violation of the trust in which these lands were conveyed to the state, and therefore void.

The Supreme Court of the United States, at the December term, in 1872, on appeal taken by defendant Hutchings, cited in the 15 Wallace, Page 77, Mr. Justice Field delivering the unanimous opinion of the court, sustained the decision of the supreme court of California, that the act of congress of June 30, 1864, granting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California, passed the title of those premises to the state, subject to the trust specified therein and to be "held for public use, resort and recreation and be inalienable for all time."

By these decisions of the courts of last resort, the title of the state to thelands described in the act of congress was confirmed, subject to the trust specified and to be held for public use and recreation forever.

Commissioners for the management of the Yosemite Valley have been in charge since the appointment of the first board by Governor Low in 1864 to the present time, a period of forty years. The gentlemen appointed from time to time to this important office have been selected from among our best citizens, men of culture, refinement and education, eminently qualified to adorn this important position, who are lovers of nature and deeply interested in the development of the state. these gentlemen have put forth their best efforts in all these years, with the limited appropriation made by the legislature, to improve the conditions in the valley, building roads and trails of approach, clearing the underbrush, erecting habitations for the entertainment of tourists and advertising the natural wonders of the valley. Every report made by these commissioners since the beginning recites to what degree and extent they are hampered by thelack of sufficient funds to carry on much needed improvements and provide for the steadily increasing influx of tourist travel. Some legislatures have been very niggardly, others more generous, but the generosity always inadequate to fulfill the demands. The total appropriations for the care and management of the Yosemite Valley since the cession to the state has been $495,442.83, including traveling expenses of the commissioners, salary of guardian and $60,000.00 appropriated to pay claims of the so-called squatters within its precincts. $40,000.00 of these moneys was applied to the necessary adjunct of a hotel, but the amount was insufficient to erect one of adequate size and accommodation, or furnish it with modern appliances to meet the requirements of a discriminating public. $25,000.00 was used for the installation of an electric lighting plant.

A visit to Yosemite without staying over at Wawona and the Big Trees is like going to Rome without seeing the Vatican.

Muir has fitly described the Big Trees as the kings of the world's conifers; the noblest of a noble race. The elevation of the Big Tree belt is from 5,000 to 8,000 feet above the sea. From the American River Grove to the forest on King's river, the trees are found only in small, isolated groups, in some cases as far as 40 miles apart. D. J. Foley's Guide quotes from John Muir as follows:

"But from King's river southward, the Sequoia is not restricted to mere groves, but extends across the basins of the Kaweah and Tule rivers in noble forests, broken only by deep canyons. Advancing southward, the giants become more and more irrepressibly exuberant, heaving their massive crowns into the sky from every ridge and slope. But though the area occupied by the species increases from north to south, there is no marked increase in the size of the trees. A height of 275 feet and a diameter near the ground of about 29 feet, is about the average size of a full-grown tree favorably situated. Specimens 25 feet in diameter are not rare, and a few are nearly 300 feet high. In the Calaveras Grove there are 4 trees over 300 feet in height, the tallest of which, by careful measurement, is 325 feet. The largest I have yet met in my wanderings is a majestic old monument in the Kings river forest. It is 35 feet 8 inches in diameter inside the bark 4 feet from the ground.

"Under the most favorable conditions, these giants probably live 5,000 years or more, though few of even the largest trees are more than half as old. I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death; barring accidents, they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all the diseases that afflict and kill other trees. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground upon which they stand. The age of one that was felled in the Calaveras Grove, for the sake of having its stump for a dancing floor, was about 1,300 years, and its diameter, measured across the stump, 24 feet inside the bark. Another that was felled in the King's river forest, a section of which was shipped to the World's Fair at Chicago, was nearly 1,000 years older (2,200 years), though not a very old-looking tree. The colossal scarred monument in the King's river forest, mentioned above, is burned half through, and I spent a day in making an estimate of its age, clearing away the charred surface with an ax, and carefully counting the annual rings with the aid of a pocket lens. The wood rings in the section I laid bare were so involved and contorted in some places that I was not able to determine its age exactly, but I counted over 4,000 rings, which showed that this tree was in its prime, swaying in the Sierran winds, when Christ walked the earth."

Wawona, the beautiful mountain retreat that enchants travelers, is the ideal viewpoint and starting point for sightseers. Foley's delightful Guide says:

"Within a radius of 10 miles about Wawona are to be found more interesting, varied, and inspiring scenic attractions that in any similar compass the world over. Eight miles to the southeast is the great Mariposa Big Tree Grove, in which are many of the largest trees in the world. This is the state's grove, and is managed by the Yosemite commissioners. Nothing more delightful and inspiring can be imagined than a picnic jaunt to these wonders. Eight miles westward Signal Peak looms up like a grim sentinel, guarding this peaceful nook. Five miles off to the northeast are the Chilnualna Falls, that would be famous wonders any other place than in this land of big things, while off in the same direction is beautiful Crescent Lake, only 12 miles away, and alive with trout. There is also good fishing in the South Fork of the Merced, which flows within a stone's throw of the hotel.

"A good road and trail enable the visitors to reach the Chilnualna Falls, so that they can enjoy their 300 feet of descent and the sparkling, roaring, foaming cascades below. Rev. John Hannon says that 'Capitol Dome, a towering mass of granite, takes the Chilnualna in its hands, and with its rocky fingers is giving out from its cascades a music of magnificence and beauty nowhere else to be found.'

Wawona is the Indian name for big tree, and it takes its name from the Mariposa Grove near by. In early days it was known as Clark's, or the Big Tree Station. At one time it was owned by Mr. Galen Clark, formerly guardian of the Yosemite, whose home is now there. Wawona is about 26 miles from the Yosemite and 40 from Raymond, the nearest railroad point, the present terminus of the Yosemite branch of the Southern Pacific. It is 4,000 feet above sea-level. Here are the headquarters of the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Co., the largest and most complete now on this coast. To give the visitor some idea of what it costs to operate this stage line, we will mention just one item of expense, and that is, that it takes about 500 horses to stock this road for the season of travel. To get the roads in good condition usually means an outlay of from $3,000 to $5,000. During a year when much snow has fallen, it has frequently to be shoveled out of the entire road between here and the Yosemite. Big drifts of it are sometimes blown out by blasts of black gunpowder.

"The Washburn Bros. not only know how to please their patrons, but they also do it. No wonder, then, that Wawona is yearly becoming more popular. An electric road from Raymond is all that is now necessary to make this one of the greatest resorts of the world. Such a road will, no doubt be built at an early date.

"Signal Peak is one of the many interest points of view in and around Wawona. It has an altitude of 7,500 feet above the sea. there is a good wagon road completed to within a few rods of its summit. Signal Peak stands out alone, above all its surroundings. Semingly it was put there to guard the beautiful glen below, and so near by, Wawona. From its summit, the view is almost as complete as in mid-ocean. The radius of this great circle is about 200 miles, so that over 1,200 square miles are to be seen from here, and there is not an uninteresting square mile in this vast area. There is no other point on this western coast where one can see so much territory at once as from here. 'The rugged, snow-clad peaks of the High Sierras, the towering walls of the Yosemite, the heavily-timbered slopes of the nearer mountains, the vast valley of the San Joaquin, and the far-off summits of the Coast Range melting away in the distance, all combine to form an entrancing panorama, which will never be effaced from the memory of any true lover of nature who has once gzed upon it.' So wrote a visitor in the hotel register at Wawona some years ago. He put it in the same class as the Yosemite and the Big Trees--more can not be said."

Standing within the shadow of the Big Trees one feels a sense of the world's age such as no other scene inspires. To behold giants that were old almost before historic epochs, to hold converse with such heritages of the past takes one nearer to the origin of the world than he can get by any other earthly experience.

Return to History of the New California Table of Contents