I counted over 4000 rings, which showed that this tree was in its prime, swaying in the Sierra winds, when Christ walked the earth. No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history. John Muir
De tout ce dont la Nature a orné la surface de la terre, rien n’éveille plus notre sympathie, ni ne s’adresse plus puissamment à notre imagination, que ces arbres vénérables qui ont résisté à l’usure du temps, témoins silencieux de la succession des générations de l’homme, avec le destin duquel leur propre destinée présente une ressemblance si touchante, par leur naissance, leur maturité et leur déclin. John Muir
It seemed to me I had entered God’s holiest temple, where that assembled all that was most divine in material creation. Lafayette Bunnell
La Mariposa se dresse là comme Dieu l’a créée. Thomas Starr King
I lay for half an hour alone at the root of the most colossal bole (…) Are you as old as Noah? Do you span the centuries as far as Moses? Can you remember the time of Solomon? Were you planted before the seed of Rome took root in Italy? At any rate, tell me whether or not your birth belongs to the Christian centuries; whether we must write “B. C” or “A. D.” against your infancy. (…) One calculation led Mr. Greeley to believe that the oldest of these trees were of substantial size when David danced before the Ark, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when AEneas fled from the burning wreck of Troy. In an English journal they were estimated by a distinguished botanist at three thousand years. Dr. [Jacob] Bigelow, by counting the rings in a section of the trunk of one of the largest, which had been felled, and computing from that, reduced these pretentions materially. He made it about 1900 years old,—a tender contemporary of Cicero and Julius Caesar. But since then, a merciless savant, Dr. [John] Torrey the botanist, declares that he has counted every ring on the tree that was cut down, and his figures have felled a vast pile of our poetry. Why must there be scientific men, who delight in bothering theologians, and in erecting their chevaux de frise in the path of all galloping romance? He makes our tree about eleven hundred years old. If this calculation be trustworthy, the column at whose root I sat took its first draught of sunshine in the time of Charlemagne. It is three hundred years older than the Norman Conquest and the great Hildebrand. 96 It was a giant in the time of the first Crusade. And it antedates the foundation stone of the oldest Gothic spire of Europe. A genial evening of life to the Methuselahs of the wilderness, who were babies of a century a thousand years ago. Thomas Starr King
L’Amérique du Nord présente, dans sa configuration extérieure, des traits généraux qu’il est facile de discerner au premier coup d’œil. Une sorte d’ordre méthodique y a présidé à la séparation des terres et des eaux, des montagnes et des vallées. Un arrangement simple et majestueux s’y révèle au milieu même de la confusion des objets et parmi l’extrême variété des tableaux. Alexis De Tocqueville
If you delay, your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest round about is being cleared…I don’t give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract. Alexis De Tocqueville
They are about to consummate the barbarism by throwing a wire bridge over the river just below the American Fall…what they will not do next in their freaks it is difficult to surmise, but it requires very little to show that patriotism, taste, and self-esteem, are not the leading features in the character of the inhabitants of this part of the world. Sir Richard Bonnycastle (1849)
Je pense que je ne verrai jamais un poème beau comme un arbre. Les poèmes sont créés par des fous comme moi, mais Dieu seul peut créer un arbre. Joyce Kilmer (1913)
Je crois bien que jamais je ne verrai un panneau d’affichage aussi beau qu’un arbre. En fait, je ne verrai pas un seul arbre avant que tous les panneaux soient tombés. Ogden Nash
The “Bridal-Veil” fall in Yosemite “leaps out of a smoother channel, in a clear, symmetrical arch of indescribable beauty; has a larger body of water, and is surrounded by far loftier and grander precipices” than the Staubbach fall in the Swiss Alps. James Hutchings
Despite the best intentions of the preservationists, their cause succumbed to the unassailable American will-to-profit. The last chance to preserve a semblance of an enduring cultural tradition in America needed more than patriotic defense to survive. Contrary to popular memory, the parks were not the result of preservationists’ aims to protect the environment or preserve monuments to the American heritage; rather, the development of a system of National Parks relied almost exclusively on the profit potential of the landscape. The earliest park sites were chosen in part because the sublimity of their rugged beauty expressed a monumental tribute to the American identity, but more significantly because the protected land removed from the public domain was economically worthless. As the early history of the park system demonstrates, sites like Yosemite and Yellowstone were carefully chosen iterations of America. In both places, the high rugged terrain offered the monumentalism appropriate to a symbolic expression of the American character, but conveniently enough, it also prevented profitable activity such as mining, timbering, or farming and were therefore much more justifiably preserved. But both parks, although worthless for traditional industries, became even more valuable when the country discovered that where industry was unable to access the resources, tourism could. The millions of dollars generated by tourist revenues–not a spiritual desire to preserve the landscape–proved in the end to be the winning defense for the park system. Joshua S. Johns
Pour de nombreux Américains de la fin du xixe siècle, la nature sauvage – ou supposée telle – avait le goût du paradis perdu. Les écrits écologistes de Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) ou de John Muir (1838-1914) leur apprenaient que c’est un antidote aux poisons de la société industrielle. Et beaucoup croyaient que le salut du monde passe par la sanctuarisation de son milieu naturel. (…) Si les Américains se sont passionnes pour les séquoias, c’est parce que leur taille phénoménale était le signe d’un destin grandiose dont les racines remontaient à la naissance du monde. Ces vestiges naturels offrent à la nation américaine un patrimoie propre, bien plus ancien que celui des nations colonisatrices. Ils parlent d’un temps géologique qui n’a rien à voir avec l’échelle des civilisations européennes. C’est le temps de la nature, celui de l’Amérique, directement hérité du Créateur, sans intervention superflue des prétenitons humaines. (…) Ce qui frappe surtout les observateurs, c’est que la plupart des arbres sont contemporains du Christ. (…) D’oùle véritable culte dont ils peuvent faire l’objet de la part de tous ceux qui voient dans Yosemité comme le temple naturel de l’Amérique. (…) La réputation de Yosemite doit aussi beaucoup à l’image qu’en ont donnée les photographes et les peintres. Carleton Watkins (…) visite le site en 1861. Il en revient avec des des photograzphies qui, plus encore que les morceaux d’écorce envoyés par Geeorge Gale, frappent ‘imagination des Américains de la côté est. (…) Ainsi, les reproductions, les tableaux, les livres, les reportages, les sermons ont contribué à faire de cette vallée boisée de la Sierra Nevada un lieu de rédmption pour le nouveau peuple élu. La forêt, perçue comme dangereuse du temps des premiers colons, est devenue un havre de paix dans une nation en guerre. pour finir par former l’un des paysages mythiques des Etas-Unis. Bruno Cabanes
The Mother of the Forest, Genesis, Adam, Methuselah, The President, The Senate, The House, Washington, Franklin, John Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Cleveland, Monroe, General Sherman, General Grant, Robert E. Lee …
En ce 150e anniversaire de la création du Parc de Yosemite …
Où le moindre site naturel est à présent dument viabilisé et doté de sa boutique de souvenirs …
Et dont l’accès, pour les plus courus protection oblige, est non seulement payant mais rationné, nécessitant souvent, quand il n’est pas tenu secret, une réservation plusieurs mois à l’avance …
Comment imaginer ce qu’a pu représenter un site comme Yosemite lors de sa découverte ?
Le côté phénomène de foire suscité par la prodigieuse grandeur de ces mastodontes de plus de 100 m (redwoods) et de près de 2000 tonnes (sequoias) qui verra leur premier découvreur, un homme d’affaires du nom de George Gale, arracher sur une hauteur de 35 m l’écorce d’un monstre de 30 m de circonférence pour en envoyer, pour qu’ils y soient reconstitués, les lambeaux vers les villes de la côte est, en assurant ainsi la mort quelques années plus tard …
La frénésie marchande de ces forestiers qui abattirent, souvent à perte faute de pouvoir les transporter, tant de ces illustres géants …
La fierté d’avoir enfin, derrière ces troncs bimillénaires, non seulement un héritage propre mais un patrimoine bien plus ancien que toutes les ruines réunies de ces civilisations européennes qui les avaient toujours regardés de haut …
Ou, comme l’exprimèrent tant de reproductions, tableaux, livres, reportages ou sermons mais aussi les noms mêmes qu’ils leur attribuèrent, la vénération quasi-religieuse devant des vestiges naturels contemporains du Christ et remontant, croyait-on, à la naissance du monde …
Au point qu’en pleine guerre civile, le président Lincoln ait pris la peine de signer un projet de loi qui en ferait, même avant Yellowstone , le premier parc naturel au monde …
Et qui, via l’industrie touristique alors naissante et aujourd’hui si décriée, en assurerait un siècle et demi après la préservation …
Our Trees Are Better Than Your Ruins: National Parks and National Identity in Nineteenth Century America
US history scene
Jul 25th, 2013
On June 30 1864, in the midst of a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln signed “An Act authorizing a Grant to the State of California of the Yo-Semite Valley, and of the Land embracing the Mariposa Big Tree Grove.” For the first time, ideological values implicit in the setting aside of land for public recreation and enjoyment had been given priority over the potential for material and financial advancement. Eight years later, in 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park (the federal government was required to take control of the park, as Wyoming was then only a territory, rather than a state). These unprecedented acts of wilderness preservation laid the foundations for a now global model of national park creation. Everyone who today enjoys the natural wonders of the world owes such enjoyment to these preservation efforts in the early United States.
The artist George Catlin (1796-1872) is widely credited as being the first prominent spokesperson to propose national parks in the 1830s. Over thirty years before the Yosemite State Park Grant, Catlin advocated for a “nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty,” to be accomplished by “some great protecting policy of government.” For Catlin, the park would be a “specimen” for America to “hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages!” ((George Catlin, Letters and Notes on their Manners, Customs, and Conditions, written during eight years’ travel amongst the wildest tribes of Indians in North America, 1832-1839 (Scituate, MA.: Digital Scanning, 2000), 295)) In summary, a national park could become a vital source of national pride.
Lecture by the historian Roderick Nash on the “Meaning of Wilderness” in the United States:
Americans endured ridicule on many fronts following the rampant commercial exploitation of Niagara Falls. The first words of Alexander De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America stated, “North America has striking geographical features which can be appreciated at first glance” and noted the “simple majesty of their design.” ((Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Anchor Books, 1969), 23)) He bemoaned the failure to properly protect such wonders: “I don’t give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract [Niagara].” ((John Opie, Nature’s Nation: an Environmental History of the United States (Montana: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1998), 375)) In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States government failed to preserve potential sources of national pride and identity in the East. Some individuals began searching for a new national icon to deflect derogatory British observations about America’s lack of culture and “civilization.” ((John Shultis, “Improving the Wilderness: Common Factors in Creating National Parks and Equivalent Reserves During the Nineteenth Century,” Forest and Conservation History 36, no. 3, (1995): 122)) This laid the groundwork for a more focussed and ultimately more successful effort in the West, culminating in the creation of national parks.
The official wording of the Congressional acts described each of the proposed parks as a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” ((“An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park,” U.S. Statutes at Large vol. 17, 32-33; “An act to set apart a certain tract of land in the State of California as a public park,” U.S. Statutes at Large vol. 26, 478; “An Act authorizing a Grant to the State of California of the Yo-Semite Valley, and of the Land embracing the Mariposa Big Tree Grove,” U.S. Statutes at Large vol. 13, chap. 184)) Specifically, there were three main principles upon which National Parks were built: cultural arguments based on comparisons with Europe; the desire to preserve only the most “wonderful” and curious natural features; and the necessity of proving the material worthlessness of the land and its unsuitability for other potentially more profitable purposes. Each nineteenth century park conformed to this three-component model, and contained essential similarities that conclusively explain how and why preservation of natural areas occurred.
New World Nature and Old World History: Comparisons with Europe
Warren Baer, editor of the Mariposa Democrat, published the first detailed and extensive account of the Yosemite Valley in 1856. He bemoaned the desire of the American traveller to obtain a sight of the Alps of Switzerland or valleys of Italy, many of which “possess no wonderful attributes of greatness, save in the mind of the traveler, that will compare with the scenery, separately or in whole, of the Yosemite Valley.” ((Warren Baer, “A Trip to the Yosemite Falls,” Mariposa Democrat 5 August, 1856, accessed 21 May, 2013, http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/a_trip_to_the_yosemite_falls.html.))
Similarly, James Hutchings, a failed businessman who had entered the publishing industry and led one of the earliest expeditions to Yosemite, wrote in a travel guide that the “Bridal-Veil” fall in Yosemite “leaps out of a smoother channel, in a clear, symmetrical arch of indescribable beauty; has a larger body of water, and is surrounded by far loftier and grander precipices” than the Staubbach fall in the Swiss Alps. ((James Hutchings, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (San Francisco: J. M. Hutchings, 1862), accessed 14 May, 2013, http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/scenes_of_wonder_and_curiosity/)) This explication of the ways in which the Yosemite Fall was superior to its famous European counterpart demonstrates that the aim of much of this literature was to express the ways in which America’s nature could compete with and surpass European equivalents. Nowhere was this clearer than in a letter in The Times in 1869, in which the English author said of Yosemite: “All the Americans I have seen are very proud of it, and some less well informed than the rest have been almost offended at my saying that much grander mountain views could be found in the Alps.” ((The Times, 30 October, 1869)) Promotional materials for the early parks emphasized that, by travelling to these Western natural sites, Americans would be honouring the pioneering experiences of the early frontiersmen. Visitors could engage with the uniquely American history of westward expansion, and in doing so could achieve some physical and spiritual freedom. ((Elliott West, “Selling the Myth: Western Images in Advertising,” in Montana: The Magazine of Western History 46, no.2: 1996, 36-49))
While the political implications of this desire to match the famous grandeur of Europe’s art and nature through the newly discovered wonders in Yosemite are difficult to prove, the volume of literature that stresses the comparison between the two continents indicates that it was of no small significance. Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York’s Central Park) – one of the first people to suggest that natural scenes were favourable in securing the “health,” “vigor,” and “happiness” of men – directly criticized the system in England whereby wealthy land owners created private parks solely for the enjoyment of their own families. For Olmsted, such a system represented a “monopoly” in which the vast majority of the population, including those who would gain most from a period of recreation, were excluded from the physical and psychological benefits offered by such parks. ((Frederick Law Olmsted, Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865, accessed 19 May, 2013, http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/olmsted/report.html)) Yosemite Park was to be a cultural asset superior to anything in Europe, and a conspicuous example of American democratization.
Olmsted’s argument is evident in a widely repeated incident from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, to which part of a fallen Sequoia tree (the General Noble Tree) had been sent in order to demonstrate its immense size.
The rejection of the existence of such a tree by many of the visiting English patrons became a ground for dispute for supporters of the Yosemite Park idea, and later became a useful tool to strengthen cultural arguments for preservation. One recital of the incident recalled how one Englishman, after being repeatedly assured by the American “gentlemen” who had transported the tree to Chicago that the object was real, “gave one look of rage at our honest-eyed friend, and bolted from the neighbourhood.” ((Thomas Starr King, A Vacation among the Sierras: Yosemite in 1860 (Book Club of California, 1962), accessed 21 May, 2013, http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/vacation_among_the_sierras/)) The incident did not only appear in much of the Yosemite literature, but was also repeated by Senator Conness during the longest of the debates on the passing of the park bill: “The English who saw it [the tree] declared it to be a Yankee invention” and thought that “it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country.” ((Congressional Globe, 1864, 2301)) What may at once have been deemed a trivial incident later became considered worthy of repeated recitation in an effort to justify the preservation of the trees through the creation of the park.
Age estimates of the park’s trees became another means of comparison with Europe. Many publications, stressing the unique physical attributes of the Yosemite region, highlighted the possibility that the United States possessed trees that out-dated many of Europe’s ancient spectacles. Thomas King, a noted political orator during the Civil War, described how one member of a travelling party to the Sierras believed that “the oldest of these trees were of substantial size when David danced before the Ark, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when Aeneas fled from the burning wreck of Troy.” ((King, A Vacation among the Sierras)) Such comparative thinking entered the official discussions on the park’s creation; one of the first questions to be asked of Senator Conness concerning the trees was, simply, “How old?” ((Congressional Globe, 1864, 2301))
These comparisons played an equally vital role in the creation of Yellowstone Park as it had for Yosemite, influencing both press coverage and official documentation. A report from the Committee on Public Lands was used as a basis for the initial presentation and discussion of the bill. The report observed, “all these springs are adorned with decorations more beautiful than human art ever conceived, and which have required thousands of years for the cunning hand of nature to form,” and that “the geysers of Iceland sink into insignificance in comparison with the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole Basins.” ((“The Yellowstone Park: Report of the Committee on Public Lands,” Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives for the Second Session of the Forty-Second Congress, 1872)) There are detailed similarities between 1872 and 1864 in terms of an emphasis on the superiority of American natural wonders. More specifically, this illustrates a continuation of the desire to not only highlight superior physical attributes, but also the age of the natural features.
The Chicago Tribune, citing a report of the Yellowstone Expedition in 1870, stated that those in the field were “satisfied this wonderful region … needs to become known to attract as much attention as any other on the face of the globe.” ((Chicago Tribune, 11 October, 1870)) The St. Paul Daily Press similarly stressed the extent to which the United States was setting a global precedent: “such a grand national park [Yellowstone] in the heart of the continent, is one of those conceptions that is purely American in their magnificence.” ((St. Paul Daily Press, 6 March, 1872)) The very fact that, within twenty-one years of the creation of Yellowstone, six other countries had designated lands as national parks or equivalent reserves reinforces this point that the United States had constructed a model for the rest of the developed world to follow. ((John Shultis, “Improving the Wilderness: Common Factors in Creating National Parks and Equivalent Reserves During the Nineteenth Century,” Forest and Conservation History 36, no. 3, (1995): 121-22))
Preservation of the Wonderful
Whereas the wonders of Yosemite were effectively advertised by authors and artists, like King, Greeley, Horace, and Watkins, the natural landmarks of the Yellowstone region were brought to a wider audience mainly through published accounts of two expeditions: the 1870 Langford-Washburn expedition, and the 1871 Hayden expedition. ((N. P. Langford, “The Wonders of the Yellowstone,” Scribner’s Monthly 2, no. 1, (1871): 2-17.)) These accounts primarily described the physical attributes of specific natural phenomena, especially concentrating on the uniqueness of the many geysers in the region. Langford, in particularly emotive language, suggested, “the springs themselves were as diabolical in appearance as the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth, and needed but the presence of Hecate and her weird band to realize that horrible creation of poetic fancy.” ((Ibid., p. 10))
The findings of Professor Hayden’s expeditions into the Yellowstone region were reproduced in the illustrated magazine Scribner’s Monthly, where Hayden wrote about the wonders of the area and the necessity of park legislation. Of the Yellowstone Mountains, he noted, “several members of the party, who were familiar with the mountains of Central Europe, were struck at once with the resemblance to the Alps.” The establishment of these parks necessarily included recognition of the pioneering exploration that had uncovered America’s natural wonders. These expeditions, like that of Lewis and Clarke, were evidence not only of American bravery and of the pioneering spirit, but also served as a timely reminder of the huge scale of the American nation. The discovery of wonderful, unique natural phenomena in the darkest recesses of the country created an aura of mystery and wonder.
The increasing use of the natural world as a subject for artistic expression facilitated this cultural transition. Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, in particular, painted and disseminated images of America’s wilderness, in which man was subservient to his awesome surroundings. Such images conformed to the mid-nineteenth century growth of transcendentalism. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau reinterpreted the role of nature by suggesting that, in order to become closer to God, one must embrace his natural creations. By preserving God’s greatest creations in perpetuity, for all Americans to enjoy, the creators of the national parks ensured the spiritual well-being of those willing to embrace the wilderness.
Unsurprisingly, not all motivations for the creation of national parks were purely ideological.
In contrast to the passing of the 1864 bill, proposed legislation for Yellowstone encountered real opposition within Congress. The resulting debates highlight the importance of the “worthless land” component of the park model. Much of the opposition to the park bills in Congress was based on an unwillingness to close off areas of land from private enterprise. Park promoters would be required to emphasize that the parks would not cause financial loss and would be self-funding.
The first of these debates involved Senator Cameron, who questioned the “necessity” of the federal government owning such a large tract of land, especially as the proposed park was to be “several times larger than the district of Colombia.” ((Congressional Globe, 1872, p. 484)) The second debate included the most outspoken opposition to the establishment of public parks at any point in the nineteenth century. Senator Cole of California criticised the legislation based on a two main issues: “I cannot see how the natural curiosities can be interfered with if settlers are allowed to approach them;” “If it cannot be occupied by man, why protect it from occupation?” Senator Trumbull’s answered that federal ownership was necessary in order to prevent an opportunistic group of people planting themselves “across the only path that leads to these wonders, and charge every man that passes along…” ((Ibid., p. 697))
In both debates, defenders of the park bill cited the findings of the Hayden report that indicated the unsuitability of the parklands for agricultural or arable purposes. The altitude of the land meant that it was not available for private occupation, hence the setting aside of the land would inflict no damage on any material interests. ((Ibid., pp. 520, 697))The new phenomena of large public parks were tolerated only after the satisfactory appeasement of economic, as well as ideological and environmental, interests.
Despite these economic caveats, the early stages of the national parks system have retained a legacy of romantic cultural thought, grounded in the democratic ideal of making the greatest of America’s wilderness available to all. As a young country, the United States is rarely able to claim to have first discovered or established specific cultural principles. National parks are a notable exception. Now a global institution, the preservation of some of the world’s most unique natural wonders can truly claim to be “America’s Best Idea.” Marrying cultural and social concepts, it represented an antidote to nineteenth century American regionalism. Although primarily located in the West, these natural phenomena belonged to all Americans.
A VACATION AMONG THE SIERRAS—NO. 4
Thomas Starr King
San Francisco, November, 1860.
THE BIG TREES
Dear Transcript: We were very tired when we dismounted at Clarke’s log hut and canvas dining tent in the glorious forest, thirty miles from Mariposa. Tired in body and in brain,—tired by our seven hours of horseback riding, and by the perpetual feast of floral beauty and sugar-pine magnificence which had delighted eye and heart. But it did not require a long time to restore us. Half an hour’s rest under one of the stately firs that tower above the cabin, and a cup of tea with our noon meal, fit for a mandarin, (almost as delicious, friend Transcript, as our excellent hostess in West Cambridge has often prepared for us) put us in good working trim for the afternoon’s excursion. We were only five miles from the Mammoth Trees. An easy upland ride of an hour would lead us to the grove where the vegetable Titans, we had so often read about with a wonder tinged with unbelief, held their solemn court.
And I confess that I began to doubt, as the time for mounting again approached, as to the existence of the marvels. Was it possible that, before sunset, I was to stand by a living tree more than ninety feet in circuit, and over three hundred feet high? Think what these figures mean, my hasty reader, when transformed into solid bark and fibre. Take a ball of cord, measure off a hundred feet from it, cut it and tie the ends, and then by the aid of four or five companions, stretch it into a circle, (if you have a parlor spacious enough to permit the experiment), and imagine that space filled with the column of a vigorous cedar. Now conceive this tree rooted on the Common near the Park street entrance. What do you say to the idea of looking up its smooth trunk to a point higher than the topmost leaf of any elm on the Tremont street mall, and of seeing there a bough thicker than the largest of those elms shooting out from it? What do you say to the fact that its plume would nod a hundred feet above the vane of Park street spire? What do you say to the possibility, if it lay hollowed on the ground, of driving a barouche and four through it, without their being able to touch the highest point of its curved ceiling “with a ten foot pole?” Then think of it cut up into six thousand cords of wood. I forget how much space the iron fence encloses around the great Elm on the Common. If it is not so much as thirty-four feet in diameter the fence would not encircle the tree we are speaking of. At any rate, if such a Colossus should spring near the frog pond, the old elm would look, by the side of it, like General Tom Thumb at the knee of Hercules. When I recalled the wonder and delight I had felt in seeing a hemlock six feet in diameter near the Dixville Notch in New Hampshire, and thought what a tree must look like that is more than five times such bulk, I confess that, although I was strangely excited at the possibility, I was prepared to find that all visitors had greatly exaggerated, and that as to such structures and the marvel of them, we must “walk by faith, not by sight.”
At any rate, we will enjoy the ride in search of the grove. The flowers are plenteous along all the steadily rising trail. Here and there we must pause before one of the seductive sugar pines, which looks so full of melody that it seems as if the first breeze that brushes it would make it break forth into a Mozartish song. Then we must begin to train our eyes to the general scale of the structures in the forest. There lies now part of a tree trunk on a slope near our track. How long is it? I measured it two or three times with my eye, and said, “seventy-five to eighty feet.” Another of the party said, “a hundred.” A third, who was a better mathematician than the others, insisted that it would reach a hundred and twenty-five feet. I laughed at him, and then the banker dismounted from his mule, and paced the side of the trunk. It was a hundred and fifty feet long. We had not learned to allow for the fact that the ordinary trees we were riding under were two hundred feet tall. What if we should meet a grizzly on a flowery bank under one of the graceful sugar pines? While we were discussing this possibility, we came upon fresh traces of a very large one. I was eager to get a glimpse of him, but the majority of the company prayed that they might not see one of the shaggy monsters, and their prayer was answered.
There are two large groves of the mammoth trees in California. The one which is usually visited is in Calaveras County. It contains hardly a third as many trees as the Mariposa cluster which we are in search of in this letter, but is much more easy of access. 90 It covers about as much space as the Common, and a good carriage road leads to the heart of it. At the portal of the grove stand a pair of sentinels, twenty-five feet apart, which are sixty feet in circumference and three hundred feet high. They are well named the “Two Guardsmen.” What a pity, for Dumas’s sake, that there is not one more! Passing these warders, you drive up to a hotel, and find the grounds trimmed up and the trees named and labelled for guests. Some of the labels are of gilt letters on marble, we are told, and are tastefully inlaid in the bark from six to twenty feet above the ground. The “Hercules” in this group is ninety-three feet in circumference. The “California” seventy-three feet in circuit, shoots up straight as an arrow three hundred and ten feet. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a tree which has been burnt out; it is eighty-three feet in circumference and will lodge twenty persons. The “Mother of the Forest” is three hundred and twenty-seven high and nearly eighty feet in girth.
The bark of this empress of the grove, to the height of one hundred and sixteen feet, is now in the English Crystal Palace at Sydenham. 91 One of our party saw it there some two years since, and heard an indignant Englishman exclaiming to the exhibitor that it was never taken from a single tree; that no tree ever could have grown so large. Our companion mildly interfered in the dispute, and assured the Englishman that he had stood in the grove a year before; that there were larger trees in it than this one thus flayed; and that, in spite of the fact that the bark had been completely removed to the height of over a hundred feet, the tree was as green as any of the majestic fraternity. The Englishman gave one look of rage at our honest-eyed friend, and bolted from the neighborhood. Our friend told the simple truth, for the tree flourished two years after the spoliation, which, we rejoice to say, is longer than the villainous speculation did. One of these Calaveras trees, three hundred feet high, was cut down a few years ago, eight feet from the ground. 92 Part of the trunk is used as a bowling-alley, and the stump, twenty-five feet in diameter, covered with a canopy of green boughs, is now a dancing saloon. To cut it down, pump augers were used from either side, until the tree was completely severed from the base. But so nicely poised was it, that it would not fall. Only by driving in large wedges with immense battering rams could its equilibrium be disturbed sufficiently to make it top-heavy. Five men were at work twenty-five days in this wretched drudgery of destruction.
The Mariposa grove stands as the Creator has fashioned it, unprofaned except by fire, which, long before the advent of Saxon white men, had charred the base of the larger portion of the stalwart trees. We rode on for an hour, climbing all the time, till we reached a forest plateau five thousand feet above the sea. This, in New England, is the height of Mt. Madison, where not a shrub can grow. Riding on a few rods, through ordinary evergreens with dark stems, we at last catch a glimpse of a strange color in the forest. It is a tree in the distance of a light cinnamon hue. We ride nearer and nearer, seeing others of the same complexion starting out in most impressive contrast with the sombre columns of the wilderness. We are now in the grove of the Titans. The bark has a right leonine effect on the eye. We single out one of them for a first acquaintance, and soon dismount at its root.
I must confess that my own feeling, as I first scanned it, and let the eye roam up its tawny pillar, was of intense disappointment. But then I said to myself, this is doubtless one of the striplings of the Anak brood—only a small affair of some forty feet in girth. I took out the measuring line, fastened it to the trunk with a knife, and walked around, unwinding as I went. The line was seventy-five feet long. I came to the end of the line before completing the circuit. Nine feet more were needed. I had dismounted before a structure eighty-four feet in circumference and nearly three hundred feet high, and I should not have guessed that it would measure more than fifteen feet through. It did not look to me twice as large as the Big Elm on the Common, although that is only eighteen feet in circumference, and this was twenty-eight feet in diameter. During the day I had seen a dozen sugar pines which appeared to be far more lofty.
The next one we measured was eighty-nine feet and two inches in girth; the third was ninety feet. There are nearly three times as many of the giant species in this grove as in the Calaveras cluster. Divided into two groups, there are six hundred and fifty of them within a space of one mile by three-quarters. Col. [James Lloyd La Fayette] Warren, the faithful and self-sacrificing friend of agricultural interests in the State, proprietor and editor of the California Farmer, measured the principal trees of one group on this ridge, some three years ago, and found one of 102 feet, two of 100 feet, one of 97, one of 92, one of 82, one of 80, two of 77, three of 76, and thus gradually diminishing, till more than a hundred trees were on his list that measured fifty feet and upward in circumference. 93
This crowd of majestic forms explains the disappointment in first entering the grove. The general scale is too immense. Half a dozen of the largest trees spaced half a mile apart, and properly set off by trees of six and eight feet in girth would shake the most volatile mind with awe. Four days afterwards, on the homeward path by another trail, I struck off the track with one of our party to see some “big trees” that were reported to us as a mile from the path, near “Crane’s Flat.” We found them. 94 The first one we approached was the only one of the species in the range of vision, and reared its snuff-colored column among some ordinary firs. How majestic it swelled and towered! My companion and I both exclaimed, this is the largest tree we have yet seen; this will measure more than a hundred feet. We gazed a long time at its soaring stem, from which, a hundred feet above us, the branches that shot out bent suddenly upwards, like pictures of the golden candlesticks in the Hebrew temple. It seemed profane to put a measuring tape upon such a piece of organized sublimity. But we wanted to know how much more than a hundred feet could be claimed for it, and I made the trial. It was just fifty-six feet in circuit,—but little more than half the size of the monarchs in Mariposa which it seemed to excel so much in majesty. There were a hundred trees in the Mariposa grove larger than this, and all of them together did not make half the impression on me that this one stamped into the brain at the first sight. We need to see the “Mother of the Forest” towering near Trinity Church in New York, and over-topping its spire with a column whose life is older than the doctrine of the Trinity, to appreciate its vastness.
We ought to see the “Fountain Tree” of the Mariposa grove, a hundred and two feet in circuit, rising near the Bunker Hill monument, and bearing up a crown eighty feet above it, to feel the marvel of its bulk and vitality. Think of that monument as a living structure. Conceive it as having grown from a granite seed, whose outpouring life absorbed from the earth and attracted from the winds fine granite dust, to be slowly compacted, by internal and unerring masonry, into the solid squares of its strength and its tapering symmetry! A work far more marvellous than this has been wrought by each fragment of a cone that took root five thousand feet on a ridge of the Sierras, centuries ago, and now is represented by an organism of thirty feet diameter. Indeed, it is quite probable that there have been a few trees in both the Mariposa and Calaveras groves, which have built their sublime columns out of the air through the energy of a single seed, in whose trunk Bunker Hill monument could have been inserted and hidden, while the stem would still spring more than two hundred feet above its apex-stone. For the ruins of one now lie in the Mariposa grove which was forty feet in diameter, and must have towered more than four hundred feet high.
Many of the Transcript readers know already that a petrified cedar has been discovered near Honey Lake, over the eastern slope of the Sierras, which measures forty-two feet in diameter at the butt, and is over six hundred and sixty feet long. 95 I have conversed with one of the prospecting party who discovered it, an intelligent and reliable man. He showed me specimens of the petrifaction from different parts of the tree. The bark is nearly snow white, and I took in my hands a piece from a heavy and gummy knot which was knocked off five hundred and twenty feet on the stem. By pacing, the trunk measured over six hundred and sixty feet, as it lay on the sloping and barren ground. At that point it was four feet in diameter, the residue, probably forty feet, being hidden by sand. Think now of a tree seven hundred feet high! Reared by one seed out of air and cloud, and then turned to solid stone! Here are three Bunker Hill monuments already built of enchanted rock. Is the Greek fable of Proteus, who changed from shape to shape to escape his pursuers, a mere fantasy? And the conception of the Medusa’s head,—how does it read by the side of that solid tree upon which the Gorgon face of nature has been turned?
The afternoon hours we passed in the Mariposa grove were strangely short. One needs a long summer day for the proper study even of half a dozen of the chief senators in the group. What is an afternoon among six hundred? I lay for half an hour alone at the root of the most colossal bole—my companions out of sight and hearing—and watched the golden sunshine mounting the amber trunk, and at last leaving a hundred feet of it in shadow to flood its mighty boughs and locks with tender lustre. What silence and what mystery! How many centuries of summers has such evening splendor burnished thus the summit of the completed shaft? How long since the quickening sunbeam fell upon the first spear of green in which the prophecy of the superb obelisk was enfolded? Why cannot the dumb column now be confidential? There comes a breath of wind, cooled by the snow on higher swells of the Sierras, which can be seen from the western edge of the grove;—why will not the old patriarch take advantage of that ripple through his leaves and whisper to me his age? Are you as old as Noah? Do you span the centuries as far as Moses? Can you remember the time of Solomon? Were you planted before the seed of Rome took root in Italy? At any rate, tell me whether or not your birth belongs to the Christian centuries; whether we must write “B. C” or “A. D.” against your infancy. I promised the stalwart greybeard that I would tell nobody, or at most only the Transcript, if he would just drop into my ear the hour of his nativity. Perhaps he would have told me, if my party had not returned to disturb the conditions of a communication. Possibly he would have said that his memory was treacherous, and that I must ask the scientific men.
I have asked them, and they differ. One calculation led Mr. Greeley to believe that the oldest of these trees were of substantial size when David danced before the Ark, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when AEneas fled from the burning wreck of Troy. In an English journal they were estimated by a distinguished botanist at three thousand years. Dr. [Jacob] Bigelow, by counting the rings in a section of the trunk of one of the largest, which had been felled, and computing from that, reduced these pretentions materially. He made it about 1900 years old,—a tender contemporary of Cicero and Julius Caesar. But since then, a merciless savant, Dr. [John] Torrey the botanist, declares that he has counted every ring on the tree that was cut down, and his figures have felled a vast pile of our poetry. Why must there be scientific men, who delight in bothering theologians, and in erecting their chevaux de frise in the path of all galloping romance? He makes our tree about eleven hundred years old. If this calculation be trustworthy, the column at whose root I sat took its first draught of sunshine in the time of Charlemagne. It is three hundred years older than the Norman Conquest and the great Hildebrand. It was a giant in the time of the first Crusade. And it antedates the foundation stone of the oldest Gothic spire of Europe. A genial evening of life to the Methuselahs of the wilderness, who were babies of a century a thousand years ago.
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A history of the park system
Joshua S. Johns
May 15, 1996
In the introduction to The National Parks Portfolio of 1917, the first anniversary of the National Park Service, director Stephen Tyng Mather wrote that « this nation is richer in naural scenery of the first order than anyother nation…and is serenely ignorant of the fact. In its national parks it has neglected, because it has quite overlooked, an economic asset of incalculable value » (Yard 5). Mather expressed an opinion that was long in the making. By 1917, speaking of the economic potential of scenery was a reasonable assertion, but prior to this time the popular view, as Alfred Runte succintly states it, held that « wealth of resources, not of scenery, had become the nation’s ultimate measure of achievement » (Runte 53-54). This viewpoint, however popular, was already changing as early as the middle of the Nineteenth Century as some citizens began to interpret the wilderness of the American continent in more aesthetic terms which embraced the « wildness » of nature as a potent source of national pride and identity. (See Nature and the American Identity for further information)
Despite the shifting perceptions of the American landscape, the bountiful yield of natural resources that could be extracted from the earth for industry countered with a powerful argument against scenic preservation. Economic success would not be stifled by the protests of a few environmentally and aesthetically minded preservationists. Motivated by a pervasive sense of cultural anxiety about America’s inability to compete with the enduring cultural traditions and civil history of Europe’s ancient civilzation, early preservationists championed North America’s vast acreages of wilderness as our own unique cultural heritage. As interest in the American wilderness grew, places like the Hudson Valley of New York and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia became popular resort destinations for urbanites searching for the restorative power bestowed by a retreat to the « primeval » wilderness from which the United States emerged.
The influx of travellers who journeyed to the countryside in search of a wilderness experience created a demand for certain amenities and conveniences. Profiteers followed the crowds, and the popularity of nature retreats meant that the wilderness could not stay quite so wild. The early aspirations of preservation seemed dashed in what became known as « The Shame of Niagara. » Although Niagara Falls was recognized throughout the world as one of the most magnificent natural wonders, profiteers and industrial opportunists were free to take advantage of its popularity since no regulation or management existed. As a result, the brink of Niagara was clogged with the architectural pollution of hotels, shops, tourist traps, and industries–all tapping the economic resources created by the popularity of the falls. Americans swelled with pride at the mention of Niagara, and the pilgrimages made by scores of European tourists confirmed that the United States had at last arrived on the cultural scene.
Understandably, then, when several prominent Europeans criticized the falls, Americans were troubled. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville urged an immediate visit to Niagara because « if you delay, your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest round about is being cleared…I don’t give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract » (Runte 6). Other disgusted European visitors echoed the opinions of deTocqueville, but renowned English traveller Sir Richard Bonnycastle wrote perhaps the most scathing criticism of what he called « the Utilitarian mania » in 1849 when he said that
they [Americans] are about to consummate the barbarism by throwing a wire bridge over the river just below the American Fall…what they will not do next in their freaks it is difficult to surmise, but it requires very little to show that patriotism, taste, and self-esteem, are not the leading features in the character of the inhabitants of this part of the world (Runte 7).
Bonnycastle’s criticism, along with that of other Europeans, delivered a disheartening blow to the fledgling sense of cultural pride in the American conscience. As reports of the inconceivably magnificent landscapes of the trans-Mississippi west returned to the east during the 1860’s, preservationists and their supporters sensed a possibility for redemption from the catastrophe at Niagara. If the landscapes were as majestic as the tales suggested, they offered what was perceived as a last chance to preserve monuments to the American identity and tributes to the unique cultural history of the United States. The landscapes of the West could provide the perfect opportunity to prove to critics like Bonnycastle that Americans could indeed value their heritage, or an idea of it, more than the pursuit of material success.
Despite the best intentions of the preservationists, their cause succumbed to the unassailable American will-to-profit. The last chance to preserve a semblance of an enduring cultural tradition in America needed more than patriotic defense to survive. Contrary to popular memory, the parks were not the result of preservationists’ aims to protect the environment or preserve monuments to the American heritage; rather, the development of a system of National Parks relied almost exclusively on the profit potential of the landscape. The earliest park sites were chosen in part because the sublimity of their rugged beauty expressed a monumental tribute to the American identity, but more significantly because the protected land removed from the public domain was economically worthless. As the early history of the park system demonstrates, sites like Yosemite and Yellowstone were carefully chosen iterations of America. In both places, the high rugged terrain offered the monumentalism appropriate to a symbolic expression of the American character, but conveniently enough, it also prevented profitable activity such as mining, timbering, or farming and were therefore much more justifiably preserved. But both parks, although worthless for traditional industries, became even more valuable when the country discovered that where industry was unable to access the resources, tourism could. The millions of dollars generated by tourist revenues–not a spiritual desire to preserve the landscape–proved in the end to be the winning defense for the park system.
The Mother of the Forest and George Gale
A story about the killing of a 2,520 year old Sequoia in 1852 by George Gale for his carnival show.
June 11, 2008
« In the 1850s, Americans learned about California through the pages of newspapers and magazines. A businessman named George Gale and his partners provided the nation with its first big news story from California after the gold rush. In the process, Gale and his companions inadvertently assisted the forces that led to the protection of the natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Gale’s vaudevillian stunt, which received press attention in the United States and Europe, has since slipped into the forgotten pages of history, but its byproduct, the national park system, lives on.
The story begins in 1852, when miners looking for another lode in the boom-and-bust cycle of their existence stumbled across a grove of giant trees in a remote mountainous area in Calaveras County in northern California. In a moment of unimaginative nomenclature, the miners named the area the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees. Native American tribes knew of the region, of course, and white hunters saw the Calaveras giant trees in 1850. The Sierra region had received local publicity in 1851, when a battalion under trader James Savage invaded a valley south of Calaveras in Mariposa County, in a skirmish with a tribe of Indians, the Ahwahnechee. Savage accused the tribe of raiding his trading posts and he and his men burned out the Indians, who escaped under the leadership of a brave named Tenaya. A surgeon in the battalion, Lafayette Bunnell, took time from his duties to serve as a diarist for the trip and he remembered the scenery. « It seemed to me I had entered God’s holiest temple, where that assembled all that was most divine in material creation, » he wrote several years later. A second expedition, under John Boling, caught up with Tenaya and his band in May of 1851, killing one of Tenaya’s three sons. The following spring, the Indians attacked a group of miners, killing two. The regular army invaded the valley, killing five captive Indians. Newspaper stories of the battles in the valley, which was called by the Indian name Yo-Semite, did not travel beyond California. Meanwhile, rumors of a second grove of giant trees near Yo-Semite, bigger and more numerous than the Calaveras Big Grove, circulated among the local population.
As word of the huge trees in Calaveras County spread among folks scratching out a living in the region east of San Francisco, among those who rode out for a look was Gale. Some 20 or 30 miles from the mouth of the Klamath River, Gale stumbled into the grove. Among the 92 giant sequoias in the 160-acre valley, Gale saw what he mistakenly thought was a cedar tree — not just a backyard cedar, but a tree measuring 300 feet high, 92 feet in circumference at the ground and perfectly symmetrical from base to top. He called it « the Mother of the Forest, » and sent to town for a team of five men to chop it down.
Gale was not a lumberjack, nor did he own a sawmill or a lumberyard. He was about to become involved in show business, and in the tree he saw the biggest attraction of his career. But the Mother of the Forest did not die easily. After Gale’s men bored holes through the trunk of the giant sequoia with a long auger, they worked saw blades from one hole to the next. The sawyers, cautious of a 300-foot tree falling on them without notice, continued with great care. The five men worked 25 days to complete the task. According to one account of the event, the tree was so « straight and balanced » that it remained upright, even after it was sawed completely through. Wedges were forced into the cut with hammers and sledges; the trunk was smashed by a crude battering ram, fashioned from nearby lumber, but the Mother of the Forest did not topple.
Not until a wicked gale blew up, in the dead of night, did the tree begin to « groan and sway in the storm like an expiring giant and it succumbed at last to the elements… » Sounds of the crash of the giant sequoia carried 15 miles away to a mining camp; the tree buried itself 12 feet deep into the muck of a creekbed. Mud from the creek splashed 100 feet high onto the trunks of nearby trees. Later, forestry experts in the East estimated that the sequoia tree was 2,520 years old.
Gale’s men stripped most of the bark — which was two feet thick in places — in sections, so it could be pieced together like a grainy jigsaw puzzle for display in the sideshow. Reassembled, the bark section was 50 feet high, 30 feet in diameter and 90 feet in circumference. Another portion of the tree was cut across the diameter, showing rings representing forest fires, drought and rainy seasons over the previous two-and-a-half millennia. Stripping of the bark was done « with as much neatness and industry as a troop of jackals would display in cleaning the bones of a dead lion. » The rest was left to rot. The tree was so immense — and stored enough water in its system — that five years passed before its leaves turned brown and died. Gale shipped the bark to Stockton, on its way to San Francisco, then to the Atlantic States and finally London, to be seen « for a trifling admission fee. »
Sadly for Gale and his partners, reaction to the tree was of two kinds, and both doomed the sideshow. Citizens either thought the bark to be a fake, or, more surprisingly, were hostile to the killing of what was billed the largest tree in the world. The editors of Gleason’s Pictorial, a widely read magazine published in Boston, said, « To our mind, it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree… what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such a speculation with this mountain of wood? » Europeans cherish such trees, the editors said, and protect them by law. They hoped that two other American natural wonders, Niagara Falls and Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, would be safe from purchase and exploitation, and wryly asserted that the cave « is comparatively safe, being underground. » New York newspaperman Horace Greeley, after visiting the region a few years later, wrote, « …it is a comfort to know that the vandals who bore down with pump augers the largest of the Calaveras trees, in order to make their fortunes by exhibiting a section of its bark at the east, have been heavy losers by their villainous speculation. »
Economic speculation in the Calaveras Grove did not end with the bark exhibition, however. Another entrepreneur, seeing a tourist opportunity in the rugged hills 240 miles from San Francisco, built a hotel next to Mother of the Forest. The Mammoth Tree Hotel opened for business in 1855, with dances and theatrical performances held on Mother’s stump. Several dozen feet of the fallen tree’s surface were shaved flat; a tavern and two bowling alleys, complete with 81-foot lanes, were built on the leveled area and soon were ready for customers. Tourists also traveled to another, larger tree in the grove called Father of the Forest that had died a natural death many years earlier; its corpse ran along the ground for 450 feet and, after a rain, held a pond in its trunk deep enough to hold a steamboat.
The publicity surely stimulated interest in the natural wonders of California. Historian Hans Huth said vandalism such as the killing of the Mother of the Forest caused Easterners to ponder their duty to protect nature. A more recent environmental historian, Donald Worster, insightfully argued that ecological thought reflected not just discoveries (such as the Mother of the Forest) but the specific cultural conditions in which those discoveries arose. For example, the excitement caused by the felling of the giant tree caught the attention of one of the country’s most popular philosophers and poets, James Russell Lowell. In an article for The Spectator, reprinted in other publications, the well-known social critic called for a society for the protection of trees. « The American seems to have an hereditary antipathy to Indians and trees, both having been the foes he had to first encounter in conquering himself a home here in the West, » he wrote. Lowell, who had succeeded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as chair of modern languages at Harvard, wanted trees to be left alone, free of the interference of sideshow huckster and government forester alike. « That is the best government for trees which governs least… » he wrote. « Nature knows better than any city forester. » Lowell’s dislike of government foresters prevented him from extending his minimal interference notion to the idea of state protection. The idea had been on the books as early as 1817 in the United States, when the Secretary of Navy was authorized to reserve lands producing oak and cedar for the purpose of supplying lumber for ships.
In 1864, 11 years after Gale felled the Mother of the Forest and seven years after Lowell’s call for a tree protection society, the federal government granted the State of California an area of about eight square miles to be used as a park several miles south of the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees. Ironically, the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees was left out of the protected area, even after all the attention it received in the popular press. The new park was in Yosemite Valley, which was home to more giant trees — the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, plus spectacular and unusual granite formations, delicate waterfalls and scenery unlike any other in the world. The process of making Yosemite Valley a park, which began with the discovery of the Mother of the Forest, worked its way through the political arena with unusual speed. Yosemite Valley provided a model for a new kind of land use, a state park, which was to be joined by another model — a federal park — at Yellowstone eight years later. »
June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln creates Yosemite Park
On this day in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation giving Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.”
Championed by Sen. John Conness (R-Calif.), the Yosemite Grant included the first parkland the federal government ever set aside for preservation and public use. It set a precedent for the creation of Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park in 1872.
The need to preserve the magnificent landscape and the desire to attract tourists soon came into conflict, however. In 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect who served on the Yosemite board of commissioners, warned that “the slight harm which the few hundred visitors of this year might do, if no care were taken to prevent it, would not be slight, if it should be repeated by millions.”
As Olmsted predicted, the Yosemite Valley soon became a popular vacation destination. When it became apparent that the state could not adequately care for the park, public pressure grew to turn over management of its natural wonders to the federal government. The campaign led to the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt camped in the park with naturalist John Muir for three days. On that trip, Muir persuaded Roosevelt to remove control of the nearby valley and grove from California and return it to the federal government.
Today, the region, under the management of the National Park Service, encompasses nearly 1,200 square miles of the Sierra Nevada range. With elevations as high as 13,000 feet, the park includes a pristine alpine wilderness amid deep valleys, sweeping meadows, groves of ancient giant sequoias, towering cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, wildflowers and iconic rock formations.
Yosemite celebrates 150th anniversary
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act on June 30, 1864, paving the way for the national park system. American photographer Charles Leander Weed captured this view of Yosemite Valley that same year.
June 30, 2014
(CNN) — It was during the throes of the Civil War, with lots of bloody and brutal fighting still ahead, when President Abraham Lincoln turned his attention to the Mariposa Grove and the Yosemite Valley areas of California.
Lincoln’s signature on the Yosemite Land Grant bill on June 30, 1864, set a precedent for the preservation of the young country’s wilderness. That act 150 years ago was the first instance of the U.S. government setting aside scenic wilderness for public use and preservation.
The act put both tracts of land in trust for the state of California, and it set the stage for the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho as the first national park.
Calling it a « remarkable message of hope for a nation embroiled in a bloody civil war, » National Park Service director Joseph Jarvis suggested Lincoln’s actions may have been « assuring the nation of better times ahead, as if he knew that Americans would need places where they could go and find peace in the perfection of the natural world. »
The land around the grove and the valley became Yosemite National Park in 1890. Both pieces of land were re-acquired by the federal government and combined with the national park in 1906, which created the park much as we know it today.
Yosemite now hosts 3.7 million visitors annually, and the numbers are expected to swell for anniversary events through October. But the glorious groves of ancient sequoias, spectacular waterfalls and 750 miles of trails that are now Yosemite National Park’s 1,200 square miles are a joy for travelers to visit any time of year.
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How We Saved the Big Trees
Horace M. Albright with Frank J. Taylor
The Saturday evening Post
February 7, 1953
The mighty redwoods would be practically extinct today — if it hadn’t been for a 30-year crusade of dickering, swapping, money raising, and political trading. Here, by the ex-boss of our National Parks, is the story behind that garnering of $5,000,000 and the saving of 60,000 acres of sequoias.
One day last summer Bernard M. Baruch, who delights in philosophizing on park benches, found himself in a unique setting. On his 82nd birthday, the sage elder statesman sat on a log beneath the world’s tallest living thing, a 364-foot redwood known as The Founders’ Tree in California’s fragrant, cathedral-like Humboldt State Park, and cogitated.
“I have sat upon many park benches, but never before on one in such a setting as this,” mused Baruch. “In the shade of this majestic tree, a man may refresh his spirit, drawing upon the strength and beauty of this living column.”
Many people have drawn strength from these forest giants, some of them thousands of years old. One distinguished visitor, Sir George Campbell, a British representative at the birth of the United Nations in San Francisco, even urged his fellow delegates to “meet outdoors in the great redwood forests”
Most of the people who experience this spiritual lift take the Big Tree groves for granted. The Big Trees were always there; they always will be. It comes as a jolting shock to learn that, except for the dedicated 30-year battle of a small group of Big Tree enthusiasts, most of these magnificent groves would have been stumps by now. Also, to discover that there are still some Big Trees yet to be saved from the lumbermen’s saws.
Along with other zealots, I have been up to my eyebrows in the intriguing, and at times baffling, hobby of saving the Big Trees. Outside of national parks, we don’t want to save all the Big Trees, only the so-called “museum stands.” These are the occasional groves so outstanding in beauty, setting, size, and age that they should be preserved and protected for posterity. We think our grandchildren and their children ought to be able to enjoy these samples of the primitive beauty of the land as it was before the white man applied his ruthless civilizing process to the continent.
Now you would think it would be fairly easy to set aside a few groves of Big Trees out of the vast primeval forests that once blanketed much of our land. It wasn’t. It has turned out to be one of the most difficult projects ever attempted. In fact, nothing short of a crusade could have recovered a small part of the heritage we allowed to slip away through negligence and chicanery.
I was first caught up in this cause in 1915, when I was assistant to Stephen T. Mather, founder and first director of the National Park Service, and the most zealous tree saver of us all. Later, succeeding him as director, I was in a position to spearhead the drive for a while. Since I quit public service in 1933 to head the United States Potash Company, I have devoted time and energy to helping complete the job. Being in the mining business, which utilizes something left for us beneath the earth by time and nature, I feel it my duty to help restore some of our natural resources for future generations. I still keep in touch with national and state park affairs and serve on boards and committees of conservation organizations, including the Save-the-Redwoods League. Not a year passes without some tree-saving project having my attention, and I am in constant touch with Newton B. Drury, secretary of the Save-the-Redwoods League for 20 years, director of the National Park Service for 10 years, and now chief of the California state-park system.
It took a lot of dickering, swapping, money raising and political jockeying to recover the thousands of acres of forest land that have been restored to the people. The Founders’ Tree, under which Bernie Baruch sat, is named for three farsighted visionaries, Pres. Henry Fairfield Osborn, of the American Museum of Natural History; Dr. John C. Merriam, of the University of California, later head of the Carnegie Institution in Washington; and Pres. Madison Grant, of the New York Zoological Society. I came near being the fourth horseman in this founders’ group, when, in the summer of 1917, I met Osborn, Merriam, and Grant at the Bohemian Grove, a small but impressive stand of redwoods saved from destruction by the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. They asked me to join them in a scouting trip into the redwood lumbering belt, where they heard that the Big Trees were being wiped out like so many cornstalks. Unfortunately, I was unable to go.
When Osborn, Merriam, and Grant returned from the scenes of devastation, there was fire in their eyes. They lost no time in organizing the Save-the-Redwoods League, with the enthusiastic aid of Steve Mather, former Congressman William Kent, and leaders of California’s Sierra Club. Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, was the first president, and today his ashes rest in Lane Grove, a memorial to him amid the redwoods. Starting with $100 in the kitty, these men launched what is undoubtedly the greatest private conservation movement on record, one that has raised over $5,000,000, for the most part matched with state funds, to purchase some 60,000 acres of sequoias for the public. Although the league was interested mainly in saving redwoods, its example led to the recovery of many acres of other museum stands of virgin timber — sugar pine, yellow or ponderosa pine, Douglas and other firs, spruce, Eastern hardwoods, swamp cypress, even desert saguaros and Joshua trees — all over the country.
To most people, the Big Trees are the sequoias, popularly called redwoods. There are two kinds of sequoia — the gigantea and the sempervirens. Remotely related, the two types of redwood have quite different growing habits, which added to our problems in saving them.
The gigantea, or Big Tree, which is the bulkiest and oldest living thing, survives from pre-glacial days only in damp, sheltered glades from 3,000 to 8,000 feet high on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range. They have massive trunks insulated with spongy, reddish, almost-fireproof bark, and some of them are nearly 40 feet in diameter. Shallow-rooted, they balance on the surface, probably bulking over 3,000 tons. They sprout only from seed, and mature only after a millennium of growth. There are estimates of about 17,000 gigantea, 10 feet or more in diameter, growing in 70 small groves, extant out of ancient forests that are believed to have once grown widely in every Northern Hemisphere continent. These, generally speaking, are not only quite inaccessible to loggers, but the trees make inferior lumber, because of the brittleness of the wood.
The sempervirens, or coastal redwoods, on the other hand, thrive in the foggy, low regions from the Oregon border to below Big Sur, and fully 60 miles south of Monterey. Too numerous to count, they make excellent lumber, which is highly prized and high-priced. They are easily accessible by road and by railroad, and have been lumbered for a century. Not so thick of girth as the gigantea, they are taller and more graceful. Their grayish-brown bark is also almost fireproof. They grow in a dense, nearly unbroken forest that blankets valleys and hillsides in a narrow belt along the Northern California coast.
In one respect, the coastal redwoods are miracle trees. Soon after a monster is felled, its stump sends out hundreds of shoots. Within half a century a dozen survivors grow into marketable timber trees 100 feet tall. Hence their name, “sequoia everliving.” This reproductive facility made it all the harder to acquire stands of coast redwoods for park purposes, because timber owners are reluctant to part with redwood lands, even those that are cut over. They regard a stand of second-growth redwoods more highly than money in the bank.
When the Save-the-Redwoods crusade was launched in 1917 to protect some of these giants from the ax, there were only four small groves in public ownership. The state of California had one small grove set aside in Big Basin, near Santa Cruz, for a public park; Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties each had a small grove; and the Federal Government owned Muir Woods National Monument in the sheltered canyon at the base of Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco.
The Muir Grove had been bought by Congressman William Kent, who presented it to President Theodore Roosevelt for a national monument to thwart the plans of a local water company, which planned to flood the canyon for a reservoir. Kent had introduced a bill in Congress to authorize the purchase by the Federal Government of a sizable coast-redwood grove for a national park. When this was pigeonholed, Kent and his friend Mather concluded the only way to get another Federal grove was to raise money privately and buy it. With the Save-the-Redwoods League, they plotted to that end by stationing a large open automobile in the redwood area for what they called their “$10,000 tour,” a courtesy trip for anyone of means who might be inspired by a ride through the Big Tree groves to reach for his checkbook and help purchase a few trees.
To point up their sales talk, Mather and Kent took the tour themselves, with amusing results. On the Eel River in Humboldt County, they undertook to inspire some money-raising on a local level. Carried away by his own eloquence, Mather pledged $15,000 for himself, and an equal amount for Kent. This took Kent completely by surprise, but, being a man of means as well as a good sport, he wrote out his check to match Mather’s. That fattened the bank account of the Save-the-Redwoods League.
Later, in 1921, when the league was urging the California legislature to appropriate $300,000 to match private donations for the purchase of park areas, I was on a committee with Kent, Drury, and Dr. William Frederic Bade, president of the Sierra Club, to journey to Sacramento to appear before a joint senate-assembly committee considering appropriations. The legislators quickly endorsed our project, but thrifty Gov. William D. Stephens was so lukewarm, we feared he would veto the bill. Kent had known Stephens intimately when both were congressmen from California, so we decided to call on him.
The governor explained that the state was poor and the schools needed money, and he just couldn’t see spending the $300,000 for some trees. Kent leaped to his feet, pounded on the table, and shouted, “Hell, Bill, shut the schools down! The kids would enjoy it and it would only take them a year or two to make the work up! If these trees all go, it will take two thousand years to make them up!”
The governor signed the bill. The state funds enabled the league, which grew rapidly to 4,000 members, to double its purchases. Each of the league members contributed yearly, and there were some fat donations, particularly after the founders had lured some of their well-to-do friends into taking “the tour.” The $5,000,000 ultimately raised by the league, matched by state money, has bought 60 separate stands of trees along the Redwood Highway.
Mather hit the jackpot in 1926, when he induced John D. Rockefeller Jr., with his wife and three of his sons, to take the tour. After the trip, Mr. Rockefeller pledged $2,000,000 to purchase the Bull Creek Grove, near Dyerville, generally regarded as the most stately and beautiful forest in the world. A shy man, he declined to have the family name attached to the grove, and it has taken a quarter of a century, during which he has contributed many millions for tree buying in Yosemite, the Grand Teton-Jackson Hole country, Great Smokies, Acadia National Park and other areas as well, to persuade him to let the California Park Commission officially rename the Bull Creek stand The Rockefeller Redwood Forest.
Today the screens of big trees saved by the league line much of the Redwood Highway, making it one of the world’s inspiring scenic drives. But for the zeal of the Save-the-Redwoods League, it might have been a pavement running through 200 miles of desolation. Fortunately, the larger redwood companies played ball with us and kept their logging crews away from the highway until the league could raise money to buy the groves selected for purchase.
Saving the Big Trees in the Sierra Nevada was a more complicated task for several reasons. Some of these groves were privately owned, some were in national parks, a few in national forests. Though the giant redwoods made poor lumber, they always grew among stands of pines, firs and cedars coveted by the lumbering interests, and it was almost impossible to cut these trees without damaging the sequoias. Anyway, a Big Tree forest without pines, firs, cedars, and native shrubs all growing naturally and in a primitive state would not be worth saving. So everything had to be acquired.
Few Americans understand the peculiar status of their public domain. They assume that if timber is in the national forests, it is safe, but forget that the United States Forest Service is an agency charged by law to sell timber and to see that it is cut scientifically and profitably — except for occasional “primitive areas” which have been set aside to save primeval forest for inspirational and recreational uses. The conservation agency charged with protecting natural wonders, sublime scenery, and public forests unchanged for posterity is the National Park Service. One of the ironies of the situation is that millions of acres were allowed to slip from public ownership back in the ’80s and ’90s for less than two dollars an acre; today it is with difficulty that we buy the same tracts of timber back for $1,000 an acre, or even more. Many Big Tree groves were fraudulently filed upon in the easy-go days when the Federal Government was eager to settle the West fast. The giant sequoias almost always grow in or near damp glades, where their roots can pump up millions of gallons of water in the course of a year. In the spring and early summer, these glades are swampy. So many Big Trees were finagled into private hands under the infamous Swamp and Overflow Act — since repealed — which encouraged private enterprisers to drain swamps and turn them into productive farmlands.
Many were the wiles and stratagems of the timber hunters, as William B. Greeley, former head of the United States Forest Service, points out in his book, Forests and Men: “Agents of the General Land Office finally checked some S. and O. claims in California, whose swampy character seemed to coincide most strangely, 40 by 40, with choice stands of redwood timber. The locator had attested to the marshy nature of the ground by a sworn statement that he had crossed it in a bateau. What further proof could any reasonable official ask? His affidavit neglected to include a minor detail that the bateau was mounted on axles and wheels, and drawn across the sections of dry land by a yoke of oxen.”
Luckily, the first lumbermen who attempted to turn the Sequoia gigantea into boards found that they had tackled more than they could handle. The Big Trees were simply too huge, as became evident in a ghastly way in the Converse Grove on the western edge of Kings Canyon National Park. Here, 40 years after the lumbering was attempted, lay giant trunks scattered over an alpine basin, shattered into many pieces as they crashed to earth. The lumbermen departed, leaving the logs on the ground, after felling once-majestic trees that were giants when the Christian Era began.
After that debacle, the giant sequoia groves were safe from destruction for a time, for the selfish reason that it did not pay to make lumber of them. As John Muir, the implacable mountaineer, naturalist, and founder of the Sierra Club, once remarked, “No doubt these trees would make lumber after passing through a sawmill, just as George Washington, after passing through the hands of a French cook, would have made food.” Nevertheless, Big Trees are being lumbered this year in the Dillon Grove on the edge of Sequoia National Park, one tree having yielded over 7,000 grape stakes. Spurred by high prices, lumbermen are splitting the huge trunks with enormous wedges, driven by bulldozers, then hauling them off to the sawmills.
The first museum stand of these Big Trees earmarked for posterity was the Mariposa Grove, now in Yosemite National Park. It was ceded by Congress in 1864 to the state of California, becoming the first state park in the United States. It was returned to the Federal Government in 1906. Two landmarks in this grove — the Wawona Tree, so huge that sightseeing busses drive through it, and the Grizzly Giant — are rated by botanists as among the oldest living things on earth.
Sequoia National Park was created in 1890, specifically to save several fine Big Tree stands, but the superlative grove of the area, the Giant Forest, was already in private hands, as a result of a filing under the Swamp and Overflow Act. Almost half a century passed before the people got it back. By that time the Giant Forest was cluttered with shacks, an eyesore in one of Nature’s noblest temples. In 1915, Steve Mather obtained an option to buy the grove for $50,000. By the time Congress got around to appropriating the money, the option had expired and the owners were demanding $20,000 more. Fearful that the price would go still higher, Mather took his troubles to Pres. Gilbert Grosvenor and the trustees of the National Geographic Society, with the result that the society made available the funds to complete the purchase of this magnificent property. The General Sherman Tree, probably the largest in the world, is in the Giant Forest.
Mather made other purchases out of his own funds and with the aid of gifts from friends. Several of these deals took place concurrently with the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills scandals, which got Mather’s superior, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, into much trouble because he had accepted financial assistance from oilman Edward L. Doheny. Mather used to boast that he “took money from Doheny.” When pressed to explain what he did with the money, Mather always replied, “I bought Big Trees.” Mather, Doheny, Sen. W. F. Chandlery of Fresno, and George Eastman, the camera magnate, put up the cash to purchase the forests along the roads in Sequoia National Park.
By the time the National Park Service was created in 1916, logging railroads had pushed into the Yosemite National Park area, threatening devastation along all three approaches — the Wawona, the Big Oak Flat and the Coulterville roads. Mather, when he took over as director of the National Park Service, could foresee the day when travelers to Yosemite’s grandeur would have to motor more miles through devastated mountainside. Unable to persuade Congress to buy back the timber the Government’s land agents had virtually given to lumbering interests, Mather utilized authority granted in a 1912 Act of Congress and undertook to swap trees along the much-used Wawona road.
The plan was to trade the lumber companies out of screens of sugar pines, yellow pines, cedars, red, white, and Douglas firs by offering them other timber lands inside the park, in areas not visible from the roads. Although the lumber companies agreed in theory to the program, it wasn’t so easy to work out in practice. The loggers demanded bonuses for changing their operations, for moving their railroads and camps, for selective cutting within the park, and for going to the remote areas.
The screens of trees we wanted varied from 200 feet to half a mile in width, depending on the terrain and the view. We couldn’t have the strips too narrow or the timber might be blown down in violent storms; we didn’t want them too wide or the timber would cost too much. It took four years to work out the swaps to save some 10,000 acres of carefully chosen stands of trees. We gave the lumber companies a lot more than they gave us, but we got the Big Trees we wanted, all the way along a new mountain highway, then projected and since completed. The south entrance to the park was saved.
That left the north entrance, via Big Oak Flat, still in danger of devastation. Much of the mountainside outside the park was already cut over, and the loggers had left a scenic mess, if I ever saw one. Unfortunately, we didn’t have comparable timber to exchange on this side of the park, so the swapping idea was out. While working on this pressing problem, Director Mather’s health failed, and then it was up to me to save the timber along these two roads. I had to do it fast or the fine forests would be beyond salvation. The only way to preserve them was to buy the timber back at around five dollars per 1,000 board feet for trees, mostly sugar pine, that we could have bought for two dollars per 1,000 ten years before. It would take a lot of money — over $3,000,000 — to do the job. Even so, in retrospect it was a bargain; fine sugar pine today is worth $45 to $50 per 1,000.
First I talked with Rep. Louis Cramton, of Michigan, and with other congressional leaders who controlled the purse strings, and asked them if they would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to match, dollar for dollar, any money I could raise from private sources. This looked like a bargain to them, so they told me to go ahead. While I was wondering where to turn for money, Nicholas Roosevelt, New York Times writer and wilderness enthusiast, visited Yosemite National Park. He wandered afoot among the huge pine and fir forests, took pictures of the areas being devastated by the loggers, and reported what he had seen so graphically in the Times that it aroused John D. Rockefeller Jr. to quick action. He offered to match, dollar for dollar, whatever the Federal Government put up to buy the trees.
We had the money, but we still didn’t have the trees, because there were two big lumber interests involved, and they were hard traders. One was Jim Tyson, an old-time timber operator and as tough a dealer as I have ever encountered. The other, Alexander Fleming, was a benefactor of California Institute of Technology, who took the attitude that the more dollars he could extract from the Rockefellers, the more it meant for his favorite charity. Luckily, when he had just about bogged down and the fate of the trees was dismal indeed, the San Francisco bankers who had financed the lumbermen and who knew they were losing money at the time on their logging operations cracked down and forced them to accept our offer of $3,300,000 for 15,560 acres of timber. Mr. Rockefeller put up half and Congress voted the other half. Thus we were able to restore to Yosemite National Park much of the valuable land and timber lost in the earlier days.
Farther north are the Calaveras Big Tree Groves, majestic stands of giant sequoias, intermingled with tall and stately sugar and yellow pines, firs, and cedars. Although the Calaveras Groves were not designated park areas, we had planned to get these fine trees in public ownership since 1924, when Mather and I first went in on horseback to see them. Discovered by A.T. Dowd, a miner, in 1852, the Calaveras Big Trees were famous long before Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove and Sequoia’s Giant Forest were known.
The first reports of the gold seekers as to the size of the Calaveras trees were regarded as tall tales. To prove the reports true, five loggers spent 22 days felling one of the giants, after which they smoothed off the stump to make a dance floor twenty-five feet across. The bark from a section of this giant, thirty feet in length, was skinned off the log and sent to London, where a room was built of it in an effort to convince skeptics. Thus the North Calaveras Grove became one of the wonders of the world for early-day travelers to visit. It was made a state park in 1932.
What the thousands of visitors to this grove didn’t know was that a few miles distant, in the Stanislaus River watershed, was another stand of sequoias even more magnificent. This is the South Calaveras Grove, owned by the Pickering Lumber Company, of Kansas City. The South Grove was in no critical danger in 1924, when we visited it via foresters’ trails, so we concentrated our efforts on saving trees about to be felled. Today it is a different story. As a result of the postwar building boom and the increased demand for lumber, the loggers are on the very edge of the South Calaveras Grove. In fact, it is in deadly peril, and saving it is our major objective right now.
In the North Calaveras Grove deal, the Save-the-Redwoods League put up $72,000 and the Calaveras Grove Association raised $32,000. The state matched this money out of a $6,000,000 fund set aside several years ago to acquire sites for state parks. The South Calaveras Grove deal is even more involved. The standing timber has skyrocketed in value, and this means we have to raise millions where we used to raise hundreds of thousands. More than $2,000,000 in cash may be required, half of it to come from private donations, half from the state’s fund. The United States Forest Service is helping out by ceding to the state of California a strip of sugar-pine-and-fir acreage for a parkway between the two groves of sequoias. The Forest Service will also swap other timber for sugar pines owned by the private lumber interests lying immediately north of the South Grove. The sugar pine has been called “our most handsome tree” and “The Queen of the Sierras.”
The spectacular success of the Save-the-Redwoods League inspired similar tree-saving drives in other states. In fact, the movement gained such momentum that in 1921, Mather organized in Des Moines the National Conference on State Parks and set up a small division of the National Park Service to aid state park drives. He kicked off one of the first of these personally around a campfire on Mt. Rainier, where the Washington State Park plan was born in 1921. The Save-the-Trees drive in that state concentrated on the approaches to Mt. Rainier National Park, and on the Olympic National Park, in which thrives a unique rain forest of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and hemlock, giants reaching 200 feet into the sky, with trunks 10 feet through. One Douglas fir in Olympic Park is over 17 feet through, and the largest Alaska cedar ever found, located in this park, is 20 feet in diameter. The annual rainfall of 140 inches a year accounts for the growth.
Usually these state drives gave birth to state parks, but occasionally to a national park. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains more than 500,000 acres, with upward of 200,000 acres covered with virgin forests consisting of 130 species of native trees, including many hardwoods. It was acquired with a $5,000,000 contribution from John D. Rockefeller Jr. in honor of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, matched by a similar sum from the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. This great park was officially dedicated in 1940.
Ten years later, Mr. Rockefeller saved an 1,100-acre tract of virgin Eastern forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. When our option on this tract, which also included the superb Linville Falls and Gorge, was about to expire without his offer to contribute one half the purchase price being matched, he wired me to acquire the property even if he had to meet the entire cost. He did and the sum was $95,000.
There are still notable stands of native trees in peril, and the danger is that with so much accomplished, the people will become complacent and say we have enough trees in public ownership. Idaho may have enough, Washington may have, and likewise Maine. But with our fast-increasing population, we need more public forests in more states. We don’t want to save all the redwoods, or all the sugar pines, or all the hardwoods. All we hope to do is to keep intact for as long as the trees live the finer groves in which public enjoyment outvalues manyfold the dollar earnings from harvesting timber.
“Yosemite: The Story of an Idea” (1948) by Hans Huth
Foreword, by Carl P. Russell; signed by David R. Brower
For one thing, Dr. Huth, in reiterating that Yosemite, not Yellowstone, was the first park of national importance, has made it imperative that future historians abandon the common assumption that the national park idea was born at a campfire in Yellowstone in 1870. Six years before that campfire, Congressional action had already been taken to set aside Yosemite Valley, that it might be enjoyed in perpetuity as a scenic resource for all the people. The proper place of Yosemite in national park chronology is pointed out by Dr. Carl Russell in One Hundred Years in Yosemite. It is of major importance here that Huth traces the course of man’s interest in nature in this country and demonstrates that no other chronology was possible. He shows the importance of Yosemite not only as a birthplace of an idea, but also as a place where the idea could grow.
Perhaps Hans Huth’s insight with respect to our national parks is due to his not having grown up among them. He obtained his Ph.D. in Berlin in 1922 and by 1936 had been a curator in the museums of Munich and Berlin and the former Royal Palaces and Gardens in Prussia. He came to this country in 1938, having been invited to lecture at New York University and collaborate in history with the National Park Service, by which he was later appointed consultant. Now Associate Curator of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has published books on decorative arts, sculpture, and gardens, and has contributed to historical and art periodicals here and abroad.
Germany has respected cultural objects for generations and has interpreted historic relics for students and the average citizens in an organized way. Huth could see readily enough the practicability of using historic objects as teaching materials in the United States; they could also serve as a type of documentary evidence against which the written word could be checked. He has been instrumental in initiating this method in this country. At the same time, he has manifested great interest in nature protection. He has combined his several interests in “Yosemite: The Story of an Idea.” It is important that the results of his objective study of a park he has never seen be published now, when too many others who have not seen our scenic resources are opposing the concepts and attempting to negate the action of the men of vision of whom he writes.
—David R. Brower
Yosemite: The Story of an Idea
By Hans Huth
Theodore Roosevelt gave status to conservation as national policy by creating, in 1908, the National Conservation Commission. The importance of what he had done did not really engage the public mind until the Dust Bowl catastrophe of the early ’thirties. Only then did the nation learn what it means to have the heavy topsoil of the plains, no longer protected by the original vegetation, carried away by the Mississippi and poured into the Gulf of Mexico. The dramatization in the Dust Bowl of what might be termed a cumulative calamity served to advance the conservation of the nation’s natural resources and the preservation of the educational and recreational values inherent in state and federal parks. The preservation of these values had been initiated at the now famous Conference of Governors in 1908 through the leadership of J. Horace McFarland, at that time President of the American Civic Association. He was the only representative who was farsighted enough to recommend guarding the national domain for its scenic value, which he felt represented “a distinctly important natural resource.” From this time on, the American Civic Association became active in arousing sentiment in favor of establishing a bureau of national parks. Appropriate legislation was finally drafted and passed by Congress in 1916.
In the course of the growth of the National Park System it has been frequently stated that with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1874, the idea of national parks was born. More specifically, it has been said that members of the Washburn-Doane Expedition of 1870, in a campfire discussion in Yellowstone, laid the foundation for the national park pattern, and that from there on, like apostles, they carried the new gospel to the people.
If things really had happened this way, it would indeed have been something of a miracle. It would have meant that public opinion had been prepared for this supposedly new and unique idea in little more than a year, and that Congress was ready to act favorably “to set apart the vast territory of Yellowstone as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Ideas of such far-reaching consequence do not ripen overnight; they develop slowly. Any attempt to elucidate the evolution of the national park idea must start by exploring two different processes. One is the legal procedure used for transforming an area into a park for public use, as exemplified in the history of the setting up of Yosemite or Yellowstone as segregated areas under state or federal authority. The other is a process which seems more important and has been given little attention—the shaping of public opinion so that it will either demand or suffer conservation measures. Contrary to the usual assumption, it was not the establishment of Yellowstone but rather the setting apart of Yosemite which was preeminent in the basic conditioning of opinion. Yosemite is the point of departure from which a new idea began to gain momentum. Where the idea will lead can hardly be envisaged, but we do know that the manner in which the entire park system developed in this country is specifically American; the system is an institution admirably suited to fill the needs of the people.
II. The American and Nature
What was the attitude of the colonials toward nature, and how did it develop later? To find the answer to this question we could make a detailed study of the treatment of nature in early colonial literature; but it should suffice here to pick out a few significant opinions. Of course we need not stop to inquire about the pioneers’ point of view. They blazed the way and were forced to be uncompromising; they consequently rejected in nature that which was not of immediate and practical use—a philosophy borne out in a little poem published in 1692: In such a wilderness . . .
When we began to clear the Land . . .
Then with the Ax, with Might and Strength,
The trees so thick and strong . . .
We laid them all along . . .
[These] we with Fire, most furiously
To Ashes did confound. 1
We might also mention one Reverend Johannes Megapolensis, who visited the Cohoes Falls in 1644. Taking no delight in the extraordinary sight of nature, he noticed nothing save the obvious consequences brought about by the descending mass of water. To him, the boiling and dashing water made only a horrible noise and the trees looked as if they were standing in the rain. 2 To traveler and settler alike, nature seemed uncouth in the extreme, and they felt that they were in a “most howling wilderness amidst wild men and beasts.” 3 Toward the beginning of the eighteenth century there were occasional changes in this attitude, even in the core of Puritan stock. For example, Jonathan Edwards, the Connecticut minister, who was dismissed from his pulpit for his too strict adherence to the Puritan dogma, rather freely expressed his deep love for the beauties of nature which he considered an emanation of the Son of God. “We behold the fragrant rose and lily . . . the easiness and naturalness of trees and rivers are shadows of His beauty . . . the golden edges of an evening cloud . . . the blue sky . . . the ragged rocks . . . and the brows of mountains.” 4 While such sentiments apparently were admitted in disguised form, a New Englander ordinarily would have frowned on the enjoyment of nature as a pastime, since it would have been neither “useful ” nor “innocent,” but plain wasteful, and therefore vicious and leading to excess and sin. Southerners, of course, were more tolerant, but still contemplations of nature were rare before 1750. Perhaps we may evaluate in this context a statement made by Colonel William Byrd, the owner of Westover, to whom the ideal goal of a Southern gentleman was the possession of “a library, a garden, a grove, and a purling stream.” How far such desires indicate any special addiction to nature is difficult to define. Certainly we do not find one line in Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line (1728-1736) which would prove any special interest in nature. The few such statements we do find in colonial literature are simple and lack expressive power. Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did writers express more clearly defined thoughts about their relations with nature. We must be wary, however, of the à la mode stylists, who cannot be considered as being sincere inasmuch ‘as their conventionalized pastoral sentiments did not spring from any newly won or intimate relations with nature.
What we must study are the writings of such men as William Bartram, Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Alexander Wilson, and Philip Freneau. All these men came into close contact with nature by profession as well as by avocation, and all of them were conscious of the newness of their adventure on being confronted with virgin woods, savannahs, and lakes, not previously charted by white men. They as well as their readers had been prepared for their fresh experience by the works of English deists, such as Lord Shaftesbury, who had shaped their minds to perceive the possibility of a new kind of relationship between man and nature. At the same time they became acquainted with critics of the type of Edward Burke, whose recognition that a quality like “sublimity” should be coordinated with the beautiful, laid the foundation for a new aesthetic doctrine which was immediately taken up and applied. A little later the English Reverend William Gilpin became known as the erudite who had spent years in search and description of the “Picturesque.” Scarcely any writer on “nature” in the beginning of the nineteenth century failed to follow him and use his vocabulary. Only after the integration of such new definitions were writers properly equipped to furnish more unconventional and precise appraisals of nature. Imbued with this new spirit, William Bartram, 1739-1823, traveling between 1773 and 1777, asked his countrymen to behold “as yet unmodified by the hand of man . . . the unlimited variety and truly astonishing scenes of landscape and perspective.” 5
Bartram’s deeply felt emotions led him through all sensations of “vastness” and he would lose himself completely “amidst sublimely high forests, awful shades.” 6 His travel accounts, first printed in Philadelphia in 1791, did not find widespread recognition among his contemporaries; still it was he who strongly influenced Chateaubriand, and, much later, his view was one of the decisive factors in shaping Thoreau’s ideas. Philip Freneau’s poems (1752-1832) dealing with nature subjects are still well known, and it is unnecessary to single out any of them to show how well suited they were to persuading his fellow countrymen to share his deep devotion to nature. In Alexander Wilson’s (1766-1813) epic poem, “The Foresters, Descriptive of a Pedestrian Tour to the Niagara,” even the title reveals an attitude toward the natural wonders of this country. The poem is not well remembered now and probably was never very popular. But Wilson himself, wandering up and down the seaboard states and penetrating into remote places to peddle subscriptions to his bird publications, was a well-known figure and a most eloquent advocate in the propagation of love for and interest in the beauties of nature. In his time the public knew Wilson far better than they did his competitor, Audubon, who came into public view and gained a certain popularity much later.
Among the scores of travelers who roamed through the country for various purposes, it is easy to pick out some who took real interest in the scenes with which they were confronted. From Andrew Burnaby (traveled in 1759-1760) on, these men displayed increasing amazement at the wonders of natural grandeur which they beheld. St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (1731-1813) hates to dwell in “accumulated and crowded cities” and enjoys “in our woods a substantial happiness which the wonders of art cannot communicate.” 7 To visitors beholding Natural Bridge in Virginia for the first time, it is, according to Thomas Jefferson, impossible for their emotions “arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here . . . the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable.” 8 To understand this praise we must realize that Natural Bridge was one of those objects to which a “curio” value had attached. The appreciation of this value, which has nothing to do with the aesthetic or sentimental merit of an object, was one of long standing. It had interested travelers the world over, ever since they had first set out on pilgrimages. Trenton Falls, Mammoth Cave, and, of course, Niagara Falls were some of the other places in this country regarded as “curious” and “landmarks,” to be seen by every foreign traveler. So in evaluating the “raptures” of travelers, we must be careful to distinguish mere delight in a curio value from the growing appreciation of scenic qualities of nature. In the travel accounts of Timothy Dwight, president of Yale in 1795, we are immediately reassured that the joy he expressed in the sights he beheld was genuine. An untiring traveler of the American countryside, he wandered “with emotions, similar to those with which, when a child, he roamed through the wilderness.” 9
Evaluation of the attitudes toward nature of writers of the early nineteenth century is difficult only because it becomes hard to know whom to select among the many who were taking an increasing interest in the American scene. Above all is of course James Fenimore Cooper, whose Pioneers must be regarded as one of the most significant books in this respect. Here is one of its typical passages in which Natty Bumpo expresses his feelings:
. . . “when I felt lonesome . . . I would go into the Catskills and spend a few days on that hill . . .” “What see you when you get there?” asked Edwards . . . “Creation, lad, all creation,” said Natty. “How should a man who has lived in towns . . . know anything about the wonders of the woods? . . . None know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.” 10
A study of William Cullen Bryant’s (1794-1878) poems will clearly prove that devotion to nature was one of his outstanding characteristics. This devotion is early expressed in “Thanatopsis,” and it is later confirmed by James Russell Lowell who hailed the dean of American poets on his seventieth birthday:
The voice of the hills did his obey;
The torrents flashed and trembled in his song;
He brought our native fields from far away . . .
While much interest has been shown lately in Thomas Cole’s painting (1801-1848), some attention should also be given to his journals for their warmhearted descriptions of the “sublimity of untamed wilderness, and majesty of the eternal mountains:” 11 But Cole did not confide his thoughts only to his journal; we know at least of one lecture on “American Scenery,” which he gave in 1835 before the New York Lyceum. 12 Though we do not know the contents of this paper, we can well imagine how Cole talked about “primeval forests, virgin lakes and waterfalls,” feasting his eye and being hallowed “to his soul by their freshness from the creation.” 13
Another romantic writer was Charles Fenno Hoffmann (1806-1884), the first editor of Knickerbocker Magazine. In 1834 he set out all alone to travel west on horseback. He too was enchanted by the beauty nature had lavished on the country and asked, “Why are there none to sing her primeval glories in our land?” 14 More important, however, was George Catlin (1796-1872), another untiring explorer and painter, whose particular interest lay in the “looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America.” Traveling up the Missouri River into the heart of the Indian country (1832), Catlin beheld the vast forest covering the banks of the river and he, perhaps as the first man in this country to do so, had the imagination to conceive the idea that these realms “might in future be seen (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse . . . amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.” 15 This passage was first published in one of the letters Catlin sent to the New York Daily Commercial Advertiser in 1833 from the Indian Territory. Thus was planted the seed of an idea which, although it took more than three decades to develop, was immediately well circulated in the widely read New York newspaper.
Henry Thoreau’s Walden and the thirty volumes of his journal dedicated to recording observations on nature should be enough to show his interest in our problem. In one of his most pertinent passages he wrote:
Why should not we . . . have our national preserves . . . in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be “civilized off the face of the earth” . . . for inspiration and our true re-creation? Or should we, like villains, grub them all up for poaching on our own national domains? 16
Of Emerson’s many statements concerning either his appreciation or his deep understanding of nature and the intrinsic qualities of his native soil, one might quote a remark he made in his Boston lecture about “The Young American” (1844) as reported in the Dial: “The interminable forests should become graceful parks, for use and delight.” 17 This passage, deleted in later book versions, seems to be the one publicly pronounced which follows Catlin’s postulate of 1833 most closely. Cole took up the same idea by stating that “Americans have a strong desire for excellence . . . a love of nature . . . one cause of it—the wilderness passing away and the necessity of saving and perpetuating its features. 18 All these remarks show that by the middle of the century, growing numbers of people not only had begun to take interest in the outdoors but also had realized that conservation measures were becoming necessary. The art critic, Tuckerman, corroborates this change in public opinion by pointing out how healthful “a lengthened sojourn in the primeval forests would be for refreshment and inspiration.” 19 Now at last the opportunity to enjoy the uncharted wilderness was no longer thought to be the exclusive privilege of the romantically minded traveler or artist.
The efforts of artists to interest the public in the great outdoors began very much later than those of writers. At first the artists were definitely carried away by the romantic movement which came to the fore at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before that time landscape painting in this country was almost nonexistent, since only portraits or historical paintings were held worthy of the profession. Perhaps some of the landed gentlemen had their country seats depicted, or occasionally some of the harbor towns and other sites of interest were painted and then engraved to show their topography. But “landscapes” as such were not yet generally appreciated and some English landscapists who came to this country to try out the field failed miserably in spite of the fact that one, William Winstanley, had been recognized by George Washington and had been recommended in 1793 to the Commissioner of the District of Columbia to paint “grand objects” such as the Great and Little Falls and Natural Bridge. Washington himself, encouragingly, had bought some of Winstanley’s “Landskips.” 20 Perhaps the first painter who did landscapes in a truly romantic mood, because he was enchanted by the American scene, was John Neagle, of Philadelphia (1796-1865). However, Neagle painted landscapes only as a sideline and never exercised any real influence, nor was he recognized as a landscapist outside his small circle. Only after 1825, when Cole had shown his landscapes in New York, did the public really become interested in the products of this new school of professional landscapists, later to be known as the Hudson River School. As Cole expressed it in 1835, “The painter of American scenery has, indeed, privileges superior to any other. All nature here is new to art.” 21 To understand the sudden turn which public interest took during this period, we must recall such factors as the publication of Irving’s Sketchbook in 1819-1820, Cooper’s Pioneers in 1823, and The Last of the Mohicans in 1826. With such books capturing strong public interest, it seems logical that thereafter paintings representing scenic objects should have been well received. Several series of prints showing landscape paintings were published after 1820; the most important of these, though it proved to be a failure,. was Asher Durand’s The American Landscape in 1830.
In the prospectus of this album, Bryant expressed the feeling that there was no want of taste in the community to ensure the most successful results to an “undertaking [to publish] the most prominent and interesting features of our varied scenery.” 22 In many titles of such publications we find the word “picturesque.” Even Bryant’s monumental book on the American scene, published as late as 1872, carried the title, Picturesque America. By this time, however, the term picturesque, an heirloom from eighteenth-century terminology, no longer was used with discrimination, and artists made fun of it:
To prose it here, to verse it there
And picturesque is everywhere.
Certainly the term was no longer characteristic of the work of American artists picturing their country and so advancing the knowledge of it. In the years following the early romantic period, artists on the one hand endeavored to show realistically what Cooper as early as 1828 had called “the American scene, embracing all that admixture of civilization and of the forest, of the works of man, and of the reign of nature, that one can so easily imagine to belong to this country”; 23 or, on the other hand, and somewhat later, they were out to paint “heroic landscapes.” These “grand style” objects presented by Church, Bierstadt, Kensett, and Moran, might be described with Catlin’s words as “the vast and vacant wilds which lie between the trodden haunts of present savage and civil life—the great and almost boundless garden spots of earth . . . the boundless plains of beauty and Nature’s richest livery.” 24 However varied artistic conceptions may have been, the resulting pictures were important factors in stimulating the public to take an interest in nature beyond its common utilitarian aspect. Aware of the basic facts underlying this gradual educational process, Emerson, apparently somewhat amazed by his own observations, did some explaining in his journal of October 13, 1837: “New Eyes. What is, appears. Go out to walk with a painter, and you shall see for the first time groups, colors, clouds, and keepings, and shall have the pleasure of discovering resources in a hitherto barren ground, of finding as good as a new sense in such skill to use an old one.” 25 But Emerson did not stay content merely to acquire a new aptitude for his eyes, he was willing also to draw a moral implication from this fresh way of considering nature. He adapted Gilpin’s problem of “searching the picturesque” to his own newly won conception and proceeded to apply it: “Our hunting for the picturesque is inseparable from our protest against false society.” 26 Generally speaking this was no new idea, since the litterateurs of the romantic movement had pronounced thoughts which were similar; however, in Emerson’s close study of nature with his “new eyes,” the idea is seen to be a new and consequential one.
We may get an even closer view of what was going on in the minds of Americans by analyzing some statements made around 1850, when writers noticeably began to look beyond the romantic aspect of nature and to grasp the specific esthetic values of the American scene. Undoubtedly this was at first done rather reluctantly. Even Cooper, who we might expect to say that the Rocky Mountains “must possess many noble views,” thought that nevertheless “the accessories are necessarily wanting, for a union of art and nature can alone render scenery perfect.” But then he goes on to admit that “the mountain scenery of the United States, though wanting in grandeur . . . is not without attractions that are singularly its own.” 27 In George William Curtis we find the same cleavage of opinion. In his book, Lotus-Eating: A Summer-Book, devoted to the pleasure of traveling in this country, he compares the beauty of Lake Como and Lake George. Remarking that there is a “positive want of the picturesque in American scenery and life,” Curtis goes on to make the remarkable statement that there should be another level of comparison than the one ordinarily used. Picturesqueness should not be the yardstick; but “space and wildness are the proper praises of American scenery . . . We have only vast and unimproved extent, and the interest with which the possible grandeur of a mysterious future may invest it.” 28
To gauge the progressiveness of such thoughts one should compare them with what John Ruskin, the recognized European arbiter of taste, told his friend, Charles Eliot Norton, in 1856, “I have just been seeing a number of landscapes by an American painter of some repute; and the ugliness of them is wonderful. I see that they are true studies and that the ugliness of the country must be unfathomable.” 29 In 1871, Ruskin supplemented this statement by another seeming equally strange: “I have kind invitations enough to visit America, I could not even for a couple of months live in a country so miserable as to possess no castles.” 30 So much cynicism and candor would be difficult to excuse if there were not Cooper’s or better still Curtis’s explanation by which to judge Ruskin’s dicta. After all, Curtis’s point of view was not so very different from Ruskin’s, since they both agree to the superiority of European scenery in certain respects. But beyond this Curtis recognized that the American landscape had quite specific attributes, such as Ruskin had never experienced and therefore could not realize. Agreeing with Emerson, Curtis felt that the landscape of the Western Hemisphere had very peculiar qualities, not merely of esthetic value but of vast social importance for the future. Altogether, Americans were to be considered as having a great natural advantage over Europeans. Artists were certainly ready to appreciate this and to help prepare the public to use “new eyes,” which through their efforts were gradually to become common property. Going out west to the Rockies and beyond, as well as to the north, painters were “discarding conventionalism . . . [taking] . . . nature in her beautiful American wilderness as their model . . . [making] . . . the woods and fields their studio . . . daring to paint trees green.” 31
It must be admitted that the process of inducing the public to visualize the great outdoors as a pleasure ground was slow, and not only Britons made gross misjudgments. As late as 1864, Tuckerman feared that “the American of education . . . who delights in the life and takes pride in the aspect of his native land, is the exception, not the rule . . . [because] there is too much monotony in the landscape . . . excepting certain shrines of pilgrimage long consecrated to enthusiasm.” 32
The early representatives of romanticism had influenced the public not only through their pictures and writings, but also by their way of living in the regions they had chosen to paint. Cole, by residing in the Catskills even during wintertime, “in search of the wintry picturesque,” 33 had incited other romantically inclined people to do likewise. By 1825 there were enough enthusiasts to patronize a hotel, the Mountain House, put up in the Catskills for no other purpose than to serve these Idealists in the pursuit of their nature cult—and the customers were awakened every morning to enjoy the sunrise. What a change since Dwight’s travels through the Catskills! In 1804 he only “occasionally passed a cottage and heard the distant sound of an axe and of a human voice . . . All else was grandeur, gloom and solitude. The mountains seem to shut out the few inhabitants from the rest of mankind like in Switzerland.” 34 In 1828 the Atlantic Souvenir published an account of a visit to the Catskills in which the American was admonished not to “leave this land for enjoyment, when he can view the rugged wildness of her mountains, admire the beauty of her cultured plains . . .” Theodore Dwight, a Hartford publisher and nephew of the Yale president, visited the Mountain House in 1834 and described the sunrise rites: “As soon as I could perceive the first blush of dawn, I dressed, and hastened to the roof of the hotel, to watch the approach of the day . . . There was more sublimity to be feasted upon every moment that passed, than some people witness in their whole lives.” 35 As if to answer the need for education to make people “see,” a curious book, The Scene-Shower, was published in 1844 by one Warren Burton. He wanted the public to be properly sensitive to landscape beauty. While the “scenery school” he suggested was never established, his book confirms the change in the public attitude. No longer did only the select few indulge in romantic travel and the “Saratoga crowd” take a cure at a spa; we find instead, according to Harper’s Monthly, that by 1854 various resorts had their staple attractions like the Mountain House’s “sunrising,” and just about everybody taking them in. 36
One of the reasons for this change was that traveling along the seaboard states had become easier. As long as the roads had been the main lines of transportation, traveling had been difficult, since horseback riding was not suitable for pleasure trips. For a holiday jaunt to Passaic Falls in 1797, for example, William Dunlap and his friends hired two carriages. Although they apparently were quite alone on their trip, they met many “merrymakers’ wagons, full of rustic beaux and belles” who, hardly interested in “nature” were crowding into public houses 37 But only great people owned carriages; stages were ridden only when they had to be, since they were uncomfortable and roads—even the national roads—were in hideous shape. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1827, traveling began to be thought of as a pleasure. Canal boats, moving four miles an hour and offering fair sleeping and dining facilities, made trips which were called the “Grand Tour,” up through New York State to Lake Ontario, where passengers could visit Niagara Falls conveniently. What a thrilling experience it must have been to sail through the new and thriving cities of Utica, Palmyra, and Rochester—and just outside town to enjoy “unbroken wildness”! In his essays and novels published after the early ’thirties, N. P. Willis, the fashionable chronicler of his day, described how tourists swarming around Lake George and along the St. Lawrence were eager to discover the “unhackneyed” beauties of silent lakes and vast forests. Theodore Dwight was thankful indeed that “our canals often introduce us to the hearts of the forests; the retreats of wild animals are almost exposed to our view.” But even though “our scenery, history and biography attract more attention than they once did,” many are brought up unfit to enjoy them and “despise those who frequent our wild scenes and select the beauties of nature.” 38
The romance of travel was being discovered by a steadily increasing throng. Sarah J. Hale, the publisher of Godey’s Magazine, felt that “circumstances had almost inevitably designed us as a nation of travellers,” though she felt that many travelers who could be sensitive to natural beauties did not yet take to touring the country for lack of intellectual and poetical associations with the scenery 39 The constantly increasing love of the out-of-doors caused many city dwellers who could afford it to take up summer residence in’ suburbs or even in the country and along the Hudson and Schuylkill. Some inconvenience was caused by the less fortunate who could make only Sunday trips to enjoy a country picnic and who, unmindful of the owners, would swarm ruthlessly across the well-tended lawns of country estates. It was a common sight to behold traveling groups visiting revival meetings, or going out for picnics and camping, as may be seen in Henry Inman’s painting, Picnic in the Catskills (about 1840; Brooklyn Museum). The larger the crowd, the more everybody enjoyed it. Frequently such mass entertainment centered around sporting societies, which had been known since the middle of the eighteenth century. In Philadelphia, for example, there was the “Fishing Company” (founded in 1732), made up of both sexes, which organized excursions on the Schuylkill and to the country in winter as well as in summer. In New York, Fanny Kemble, when she was entertained by the “Pacific Society” enjoyed walks through the woods with magnificent views across The Narrows. The widely read American Farmer recognized the value of outdoor recreation for “liberalizing the mind and invigorating the constitution,” and frequently published articles and poetry to encourage it. 40
May Day was one of the occasions when “hundreds of the refined citizens of Boston . . . witness the glorious spectacle of a rising sun . . . pedaneous excursions are planned and parties made up.” 41 A typical meeting place for such_outings was “Harmony Grove,” near Framingham, Massachusetts, where citizens could enjoy “a day of pleasant recreation among wood land and lake scenery.” 42 It boasted a natural amphitheater, cricket grounds, and all “superior accommodations to parties.” The grounds were easily accessible by the Framingham Branch Railroad. Paintings by W. J. Stillman (Camp of the Adirondacks Club, 1857; Concord Free Public Library), and Worthington Whittredge (Camp Meeting, 1874; Metropolitan Museum, New York), have recorded such meetings and their gay holiday spirit.
With the expansion of railroads in the ’thirties, traveling in some respects was made easier than in the heyday of the canal boats. Davison, the standard traveling guide for the Atlantic states, many times reprinted between 1822 and 1840, informs us that “the recent and gigantic internal improvements in the northern and middle states, and the development of new and highly interesting natural scenery, together with the increased facilities for travelling,” greatly augmented the number of tourists who undertook “what has been usually denominated the Fashionable or Northern Tour.” 43 Although trains, with their speed of two and three miles an hour, did not travel any more rapidly than canal boats, such distant regions as the White Mountains now became more easily accessible, though even in 1857 a trip to such a rugged area was thought of only as “being well for young lovers and romantic fools,” but as for “old gentlemen, they should stay in their comfortable town house.” 44 If the White Mountains were considered impossible for ordinary tourists, one can imagine that places beyond the Alleghenies were even less accessible.
The vanguard of tourists to the West was formed by artists, and John Banvard was one of the pioneers. He had traveled down the whole course of the Mississippi in 1840 and had painted scenes along the banks of the river on a canvas of enormous length especially woven for him at Lowell. Later, turning his flatboat into a show boat and floating down the Wabash, he exhibited his panorama to four thousand paying visitors—an audience which at this date was probably interested primarily in beholding the American scene in a comfortable manner. Other artists managed to go west by traveling with surveying parties. Albert Bierstadt, went along with General F. W. Landers’ expedition which mapped the railroad route across the Platte River and through Wyoming to the Pacific. Bierstadt, on his return, was the first to show the East a representative picture of the Rocky Mountains. When in 1857 he made his first trip to California, he became greatly interested in the Pacific Coast and was one of the first to show paintings of Sierra scenery in the Eastern cities. In time it became apparent that artists were an ever-increasing power in advertising the regions which were newly opened to the public. Recognizing this, the Baltimore and Ohio got some elegant publicity for its “picturesque” route along the Potomac and the Monongahela into West Virginia when, in 1857, the railroad invited twenty artists and photographers to enjoy the facilities of a special train which was fitted out with a kitchen car, dining saloon with piano, and a car “for photo purposes.” To top it all the train would stop wherever the artists wished to make sketches or take photographs. 45
But the West beyond the Rockies was not yet accessible to such leisurely travel. We may conclude, however, that the attitude toward nature had changed enough since colonial days to allow Americans to welcome easier access to the West when it should come.
III. Origin of the Park Idea
Neither the poet’s love of nature and the artist’s interest in its esthetic qualities, nor improvements in transportation and the citizen’s demand for recreational facilities need have produced the scenic park. But if these forces did not produce it, did the park movement, then, originate in Congress?
This could hardly have been expected, for as long as the idea of protecting public lands against usurpation was not urgent or even recognized, the idea of a public park would have seemed utterly futile to the representatives. If Congress did not even acknowledge any duty to further the fine arts with the taxpayers’ money, why should it feel justified in spending money on public lands to be withheld from “proper” use? Even some years after the Yellowstone Act had been approved in 1872, many in Congress expressed concern about this new “asset.” To them it would have been better to have sold the area as other public lands had been sold. After all was it not “a very expensive luxury?” The Federal Government was not supposed to go into “show business” nor was it supposed to “raise wild animals.” With such objections on record we may be rather sure that the park idea did not originate in Congress. Curiously enough, even Frederick Law Olmsted, when he tried to discover the origin of public parks in this country, had to give up—in all likelihood because he had been too close to the problem all his life. He said only that it did not seem to come as the direct “result of any of the great inventions or discoveries of the country,” but that it probably had been “a spontaneous movement of that sort which we conveniently refer to as the ‘genius of civilization’.” 46 This may be; but Olmsted seems not to have considered that type of public park to which most men go eventually.
It remains unknown whether Dr. Jacob Bigelow (1786-1879), of Boston, who became aware of the “impolicy of burials under churches or in churchyards approximating closely to the abodes of the living,” 47 made such observations because he had studied the immense European literature on the subject, or because, as an enlightened hygienist and a public-minded citizen, he was alarmed by the potential danger of the usual burying places’ “sad, neglected state exposed to every sort of intrusion, with scarcely any tree to shelter their barrenness.” 48 He waged a war to do away with the old customs and called a meeting in November, 1825, to advocate the establishing of a cemetery outside the town. Among his friends were such influential people as Joseph Story, John Lowell, Edward Everett, and Daniel Webster. While it took five years to put the plan into effect, a useful preliminary step was the founding of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1829. The members of this society merged with the sympathizers of the rural cemetery, suitable grounds were found at Mount Auburn, and on September 24, 1831, the first scenic cemetery was consecrated. Situated four miles from Boston, Mount Auburn was “the first example in modern times of so large a tract of ground being selected for the processes of landscape gardening to prepare for the reception of the dead.” 49
In the founding of Mount Auburn a chord was struck which was destined to be heard throughout the country. In his consecratory address Judge Joseph Story spoke of how touched he was by the “solemn calm, as if we were in the bosom of a wilderness . . . a spectacle well fit to excite in us a noble emulation.” How far the Père Lachaise in Paris, with its beautiful situation, may have served as an example to Boston, it is difficult to say. It is a fact, however, that a year after Dr. Bigelow initiated his movement, the Atlantic Souvenir of 1826 published an article in which an American visitor to the Père Lachaise described his’ impressions of this vast sanctuary, which presented “the appearance of a wide and variegated garden . . . where trees and shrubs conceal and disclose wild romantic beauty, tombs and temples.” 50 An English traveler visiting Mount Auburn in 1833 remarked that it was laid out in imitation of the Père Lachaise. 51 To a certain degree this was true, but there was at least one clear difference. The Père Lachaise was an old, established park and had been adapted to a new purpose. Mount Auburn was a spot considered to be of natural beauty and it was the intention to keep it that way and to “conserve” it. It was thought then that the necessary changes, such as the appropriate placing of monuments, would not destroy the idea of conservation, but on the contrary, would enhance the area’s natural beauty.
The English traveler added that “parties of pleasure come hither from the city in great numbers every day at the rate of six hundred visitors on some days.” 52 Fanny Kemble also mentions that Mount Auburn was a favorite trysting place 53 and Theodore Dwight even suggested that cemeteries should be planned “with reference to the living as well as the dead, and therefore should be convenient and pleasant to visitors.” 54 The founding of scenic cemeteries at New Haven (1833), New York (1836), Philadelphia (1836), and in many other places shows that the new idea was being rapidly accepted.
To a limited degree there had been “public” parks in this country since the beginning of colonization. When Penn laid out. the original plan of Philadelphia he assigned for public use a number of squares, the largest of which had measured ten acres. These were to be graced with trees and not to be built over, except perhaps with a few public buildings. Likewise there were “commons” such as those in England in most of the New England settlements. Primarily intended to serve as pastures, they were also used as parade grounds or for recreational purposes. But how little effort was spent to protect such lands from encroachment was evident in Washington, where L’Enfant’s grandiose plan providing for an elaborate park system was abandoned very early and only taken up again seriously in 1909 when the original plan was resurrected.
While all these city-bound areas of minor scale cannot be regarded as nuclei for the later park development, the natural burial grounds outside the cities, with their great numbers of visitors who were not mourners, must definitely be regarded as steps in the direction of conservation and the beginning of the park movement. It seems a logical sequence that we should find that William Cullen Bryant was the first to advocate a public park in New York, a park that would be on a scale which up to that time had been unheard of. Although Bryant had discussed the subject privately as early as 1836, his first public plea was published in the New York Evening Post on July 3, 1844. While there is no evidence that Bryant was influenced by the scenic cemetery movement, the author of “Thanatopsis,” “The Burial,” “A Forest Hymn,” and “An Indian at the Burial Place of His Father,” must have been deeply impressed by the rural cemeteries developing throughout the country. Bryant was joined in his efforts by Andrew Jackson Downing, the landscape architect. In his Horticulturist of 1849, Downing asked, “If thirty thousand persons visit a cemetery in a single season, would not a large public garden be especially a matter of curious investigation?” 55 Downing had traveled extensively abroad, and among the parks he had seen when he visited England, France, and Germany, he mentions as particularly beautiful the so-called “English Park” in Munich. Curiously enough, the establishment of this huge city park was due to an American Tory, Benjamin Thompson (later Count Rumford), who had taken up residence in Munich.
With such eloquent advocates as Bryant and Downing behind it, the proposal for a public park in New York was well accepted, and in 1851 the first act was passed authorizing the acquisition of the necessary lands. The appointment of Frederick Law Olmsted as a superintendent of the project initiated a new era in the best possible way. Olmsted had been a friend and pupil of Downing and had also garnered experience in Europe. After some years of fruitful work in establishing the park, Olmsted disagreed with the Park authorities. He gave up his position in May, 1863, and accepted another as superintendent of the mining estates of General Fremont, in Mariposa. In the light of Yosemite’s later role, this shifting of Olmsted’s position from New York to Mariposa must be regarded as a most fortunate coincidence.
IV. The Idea Grows
Even after the first excitement over the California Gold Rush had died down, the East learned little about the beauty spots of the newly acquired territory of California. None but the hardiest traveler, and certainly no “tourists,” would have been willing to stand the overland trek or either of the wearisome routes by sea. It is significant that one of the first big news stories to come out of California that was not concerned with gold was a show-business stunt. In 1852 the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees was discovered. The next year, two unscrupulous businessmen, George Gale and a companion, stripped one of the Big Trees, the “Mother of the Forest,” 315 feet in height and 61 feet in circumference, up to the height of 116 feet, and shipped the bark East for a show in some of the seaboard cities, and then at the Crystal Palace exhibition in Sydenham, London, in 1854. The pamphlet sold in London boasted that the possibility of seeing a forest of such gigantic size would fully repay the toil of a journey to California. The show turned out to be unsuccessful since, “owing to the immensity of the circumference, nobody would believe that the bark had come from one tree, and finally, being branded as a humbug, the exhibition had to be ended.” 56 While this was going on in London, the widely read Gleason’s Pictorial published a protest by a Californian to whom it seemed a “cruel idea, a perfect desecration to cut down such a splendid tree . . . in Europe such a natural production would have been cherished and protected by law; but in this money-making-go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it and the purchaser chops it down and ships it off for a shilling show. We hope that. no one will conceive the idea of purchasing Niagara Falls for the same purpose.” 57 The complainant went on to praise the beauty of the tree when it was still “a single sight worth a pilgrimage to see.” Another strong protest was raised in 1857 by James Russell Lowell, who became editor of the Atlantic Monthly in the same year. His article on “Humanity to Trees” proposed to establish a society for the prevention of cruelty to trees, since “we are wanton in the destruction of trees as we are barbarous in our treatment of them.” 58 In the next year, it was pointed out in Harper’s Weekly that the big tree was now fast decaying, having been peeled “with as much neatness and industry as a troupe of jackals would display in clearing the bones of a dead lion.” 59 In the same year the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table published his book, in which Holmes included a “Talk on Trees” therein professing his passionate fondness for them. However trifling the incident may seem to us now, it aroused a great deal of sentiment in the East, and caused people to ponder their duty of protecting nature against the vandalism of enterprising businessmen. At the same time it undoubtedly stimulated great interest in the wonders of California. The great event in California discoveries, i.e., the opening up of the Yosemite, 60 was publicized with much less fanfare than the Calaveras tree murder. The account in the Daily Alta California about the scenic wonders of the valley discovered by the punitive expeditionary force of 1851 against the “Yosemitos” Indians created no stir outside the state. An article published in the Mariposa Gazette of July 12, 1855, by James M. Hutchings, whose activities from then on were to be dedicated to the valley, was of broader interest. Real recognition in the East came in 1856, when the Country Gentleman 61 republished an article by the California Christian Advocate which declared the “Yo-hem-i-ty” valley to be “the most striking natural wonder on the Pacific” and predicted that it would ultimately become a place of great resort. Hutchings started his California Magazine in the same year and gave Yosemite good publicity in it. In 1855 and 1856 a California pioneer artist, Thomas A. Ayres, made his first sketches at the valley; some of these were lithographed and spread widely over the East. By 1856 Yosemite had become so well known throughout the nation that T. Richardson who published the first illustrated hand book of American travel of general importance, 62 dedicated about 125 words and ore illustration of Mirror Lake to the now celebrated valley of the Yosemite. Here the scenery was called “perhaps the most remarkable in the United States, and perhaps in the world.” With such nation-wide publicity the fame of Yosemite was bound to grow year by year.
As one might have expected, Horace Greeley 63 paid his respects to Yosemite as soon as possible and made the most of it. For reasons unknown, Greeley was in a tremendous hurry and did more horseback riding in the valley than was good for him, especially since he was riding “in torture” with Mexican stirrups that were too small. Being badly disposed, he was disgruntled at the lack of water in Yosemite Falls (it was August) and said so, which afterward caused a furious dispute. But he could not help being overwhelmed by the “grandeur and sublimity of the wonderous chasm”; he considered Yosemite the “greatest marvel of the continent,” and hoped that the State of California would immediately provide for the safety of the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees.
In view of the difficulties of transportation, making photographs in Yosemite was, of course, a major event in the early days. It was done for the first time in 1859 when C. L. Weed and R. H. Vance took photographs and also prepared stereoscopic slides. Their photos were on exhibition at the Fifth Annual Fair of the State Agricultural Society (May 21, 1859) in Sacramento and there earned great applause. At the same time Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion 64 published an illustrated article about Yosemite regretting that it was neither sufficiently known nor appreciated, a criticism not quite justified inasmuch as travel to the West was quite difficult and would remain so for some years to come.
The first really thorough description of the experience of an extended Yosemite trip appeared in a series of eight articles, which Starr King sent to the Boston Evening Transcript from December 1, 1860, to February 9, 1861. 65 Starr King, of course, was an expert in writing such accounts and had published White Mountains shortly before. His much-regretted transfer from Boston to San Francisco at least gave him a chance to explore the West and recount his adventures to the eagerly waiting friends at home. As his friend H. W. Bellows later wrote in an obituary on Starr King, 66 “no one had really seen the Sierra Nevada, Mount Shasta, the Yosemite Valley . . . until his fine eye saw and his cunning brain and hand depicted them . . . you will find the newspapers in which his portraitures of these sublime and charming scenes are found carefully laid away in hundreds of New England homes as permanent sources of delight.” His papers, entirely forgotten today, acquainted the East better than anything else with the fabulous beauties of Yosemite.
The most important photographic records following Weed’s were by C. E. Watkins (1863), which Oliver Wendell Holmes compared with the finest work done in Europe 67 They were constantly on exhibition at Goupil’s art galleries in New York.
With so much interest devoted to Yosemite by travelers, journalists, and writers from the East, it would be fascinating to know who in California was taking active interest in the destiny of the valley. We unfortunately know only very little about this. Certainly Starr King’s enthusiasm made him one of the leaders in the effort to conserve Yosemite, and it was well known that he was planning a book about the Sierra and Yosemite which would have been a sequel to his White Mountains book. Given his love of nature, his position as one of the most prominent and influential citizens of California made him the natural leader in the campaign. Among his friends was Judge Stephen Field, who had visualized the need of having the state make a geological survey. Owing to Field’s effort, Josiah Dwight Whitney had been appointed to carry it out, assisted by William H. Brewer and Clarence King. F. L. Olmsted’s papers 68 show that immediately after his arrival in California, in September, 1863, he became enthusiastic about the valley and tried to work for its conservation. But Whitney, though not his assistants, disliked this activity and tried to obstruct it.
The men who were recommended as the first commissioners of the Yosemite grant are most likely those who helped to prepare the act. They were Professor John F. Morse, Israel Ward Raymond, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Of Morse we know only that he was a well-thought-of physician in San Francisco. About Raymond we are better informed. It was he who addressed the decisive letter to Senator John Conness urging him to present a bill concerning Yosemite to Congress. Raymond was the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company of New York. He was known Ao have been a public-spirited citizen, and certainly did not take this step to further any of his business interests. Altogether, it is quite safe to assume that as a whole the group of men promoting the interests of Yosemite did so for idealistic reasons. This is demonstrated in the measures they recommended and pushed.
The coincidence of Olmsted’s arrival in California at the very moment when he was most needed has curiously enough never been noticed. For once it seems that the right man was in the right spot at the right time. Living in Mariposa, Olmsted was in close touch with Yosemite, and, we can be certain, thoroughly familiar with its problems. Certainly no one was better prepared to take an active part in urging the Yosemite grant and to keep the ball rolling. Preliminary discussions must have taken place, probably with Olmsted and the other potential commissioners, before Raymond addressed the following heretofore unpublished letter to Senator Conness: 69
88 Wall Street
New York, 20th February 1864.
Hon. John Conness
I send by Express some views of the Yosemity Valley to give you some idea of its character. No. 1 is taken from a point on the Mariposa trail and gives a view of about seven miles of the Valley, and the principal part of it. You can see that its sides are abrupt precipices ranging from 2500 feet to 5000 feet high. Indeed there is no access to it but by trails over the debris deposited by the crumbling of the walls.
The summits are mostly bare Granite Rocks in some parts the surface is covered only by pine trees and can never be of much value.
It will be many years before it is worth while for the government to survey these mountains. But I think it important to obtain the proprietorship soon, to prevent occupation and especially to preserve the trees in the valley from destruction and that it may be accepted by the legislation at its present session and laws passed to give the Commissioners power to take control and begin to consider and lay out their plans for the gradual improvement of the properties.
May not this be a sufficient description:
“That cleft or Gorge in the granite peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains situated in the County of Mariposa, State of California, on the head waters of the Merced River and known as the Yo Semite Valley with its branches or spurs in length fifteen miles and in width one mile back from the main edge of the precipice on each side of the valley the lines to be defined on Sectional lines when surveyed, by the Surveyor General of the United States and in the spirit of this act.”
I take this length and width to secure the approaches from any annoyance. The south end is narrow and filled by the Merced River. The North end leads to Mono, is narrow and filled with rocks, and impassable to a mule.
“Also all those quarter sections in Mariposa County on which stands the grove of Gigantic trees known as the ‘Mariposa Big Trees’ not exceeding in all Four Sections of one mile square each, the lines to be defined in the spirit of this act by the Surveyor General of the United States when surveying the said County of Mariposa.”
I say “quarter” section because the trees are too scattered to be covered by four square miles in compact.
If thought best to have a compact tract it should require six or eight sections.
“The above are granted for public use, resort and recreation and are inalienable forever but leases may be granted for portions not to exceed ten years. All income derived from leases or privileges are to be expended in the preservation and improvement of the prospectus or the roads leading thereto.”
The properties shall be managed by (5.7.9) commissioners who shall not receive any payment for said services. Vacancies for death, removal, or resignation shall be filled by the others subject to confirmation by the State Senate. The first Corns. to be:
The Governor of the State of California, Ex. off.
The Collector of the Port of San Francisco.
Prof. Whitney—State Geologist.
Fred Law Olmsted of Mariposa.
George W. Coulter of Coultersville.
[Added by Conness in space left by writer:]
The Mayor of the City of San Francisco.
Prof. John F. Morse do.
I. W. Raymond do.
Full reports to be made annually to the Senate of the State.
If we can obtain this grant, I believe we can get Subscriptions in California to make improvements. Submitting the above,
I am very truly yours,
(Sgd.) I. W. Raymond.
Conness sent this letter to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, accompanying it by the following letter of transmittal:
March 6, 1864
Hon. J. W. Edmonds
Herewith you will find a letter with a description of the land of the Mariposa Big Trees and Yosemite.
Will you have the kindness to prepare a bill and send it to the committee of the Senate or to myself. You might insert in this the springs in a separate section. Leave blanks for the names as commissioners or insert as you find them or insert as I have Prof. John F. Morse, I. W. Raymond, Stephen J. Field. This will make nine commissioners. Let the grant be inalienable, and in regard to the mineral springs take care to insert a provision which shall not confirm any state land warrant or state location made in pursuance of any land of the State of California.
(Sgd.) John Conness.
The General Land Office furnished the requested data promptly so that Conness was able to introduce the bill on March 28, 1864. There was some discussion on the floor of the Senate in which Conness stated that the bill had come to him from various gentlemen in California “of fortune, of taste and of refinement,” that the General Land Office also took great interest in the bill, and that there was “no other condition of things like this one on earth.” Finally he referred to the sorry incident of the killing of the Calaveras tree in 1853. The bill was passed, and on June 29, 1864, it was signed by President Lincoln.
So far nothing was extraordinary about the Yosemite grant, and national public opinion certainly was not aroused by the federal action; grants to states were given quite frequently. However, there was something peculiar about this grant, and as it happened, it was destined to set a precedent of real importance. The grant was given “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation, shall be held inalienable for all time.” These terms implied that no profit was to be expected from the new institution. Probably it was assumed that at least all costs of upkeep would be offset by revenue from leases or privileges; at any rate, Congress took no responsibility. What was really new about the grant was the fact that it served a strictly nonutilitarian purpose. It is necessary to stress this point in view of the claims that Yellowstone set this precedent.
On September 28, 1864, Governor F. F. Low of California proclaimed the grant to California and made known the Commissioners he had. appointed: Frederick Law Olmsted, J. D. Whitney, William Ashburner, I. W. Raymond, E. S. Holden, Alexander Deering, George W. Coulter, and Galen Clark. Olmsted became chairman and immediately took the lead in the effort to organize the protected area. At the same time he ordered a survey made and a map drawn by Clarence King. Since Olmsted needed this as soon as possible as a basis for the suggestions he planned to make, he magnanimously paid all expenses himself, with no more than a hope that he might be reimbursed by the California legislature two years later. All through 1865 Olmsted was hard at work preparing a plan of management. In a letter to his father ( July 5) he expressed his feeling that Yosemite was “far the noblest park or pleasure ground in the world.” Just at this time he received the first group of dignitaries from the East who wished to visit the park. They were Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House, and a group of friends from the East and from San Francisco. Among them were Samuel Bowler, publisher of the Springfield Republican, who had been interested in the Yosemite campaign; Charles Allen, Attorney General of Massachusetts; and Albert Richardson, the distinguished war correspondent of the New York Tribune. Altogether there were seventeen gentlemen and three ladies. The Easterners were proud that they had come across the plains, “simply to see the country and to study its resources.” In the travel account published later, Bowles made this remarkable statement:
“The wise cession and dedication [of Yosemite] by Congress and proposed improvement by California . . . furnishes an admirable example for other objects of natural curiosity and popular interest all over the Union. New York should preserve for popular use both Niagara Falls and its neighborhood, and a generous section of the famous Adirondacks, and Maine, one of her lakes and its surrounding woods.” 70
Here we have in unmistakable language a formula not just for the protection of this or that area of interest to some group or other, but for a systematic approach to an over-all system of protection of areas which illustrate specific features of nature throughout the nation. That is exactly the pattern which was followed many years later after the National Park Service had been established. It is well to note that Bowles made his statement in connection with Yosemite, which he must have considered as the first step in the direction he advised the country to take. Bowles’s; counsel undoubtedly represented the opinion of the distinguished group of men of which he was a member. The fact that Bowles felt that state legislatures should protect the areas is not important in evaluating his plan. One could hardly expect anyone in 1864 to envisage federal legislation for the purpose of conserving state areas. The way Yosemite had been handled made it quite evident that in spite of the fact that the grant was made to the state, the object of the grant was considered to be of nation-wide if not of world-wide importance.
Confirmed in his actions by Colfax and his party, Olmsted happily continued his efforts to organize the park. All his suggestions for improvements were summed up in a report approved by the Yosemite committee and submitted by him to the legislature. Unfortunately this report is lost [Editor’s note: this long-suppressed report was found in 1952—dea] and cannot be traced in the papers of the legislature in Sacramento. We can, however, get a glimpse of the thoughts which directed Olmsted in preparing his report by means of a questionnaire he addressed to three artists:
August 8th, 1865
Messrs. Williams, Hill and Watkins.
I address you in behalf of the Commissioners appointed under the Act of Congress, establishing Yo Semite and Mariposa Grove as a ground for recreation. The action of. Congress with regard to the Yo Semite was doubtless taken in view of the peculiar value of its natural scenery, the purpose of its action was to give the public for all future time the greatest practicable advantage of that scenery, and the duty of the Commission is to secure the accomplishment of that purpose. What effects natural scenery favorably or unfavorably to the enjoyment of mankind is the principal study of your lives and as you are at present making a special study of the scenery of the Yo Semite you may find it convenient to give some thought incidentally to two general questions your advise upon which would be of great service to the Commission:
1st. Are there any conditions affecting the scenery of the Yo Semite unfavorably which it would be in the power of the State to remove, or the further and increased effect of which might be prevented?
2nd. What can be done by the State to enhance the enjoyment now afforded by the scenery of the Yo Semite?
The Commission being required by act of Congress to perform its own duties gratuitiously and no provision having been made for meeting any expenses in the premises, I cannot promise the pecuniary remuneration for your advice which it would be your right to demand, but it is hoped that the importance of the Commission’s duty as a field of study for artists and the great interests of the public in having the action by the State well advised present sufficient grounds of apology for requesting your professional assistance as a favor.
I am, Gentlemen, very respectfully
Your obt. servant
Fred Law Olmsted
Apparently the artists had been commissioned to make a special study of the scenery of the park and the way it might be improved. Virgil Williams (1830-1886), from Massachusetts, had studied in England and came out West in 1862; C. E. Watkins was the photographer mentioned previously; and Thomas Hill (1828-1908), who had studied in Paris, had been living in San Francisco since 1861. Because one of Hill’s Yosemite paintings on exhibition in Boston in 1868 had been acclaimed as the best representation of the great natural wonder of California, it was chromo-lithographed by S. Prang in Boston and became widely known all over the country. Olmsted’s letter is interesting in several respects: first, it shows how eager Olmsted was to get the expert opinions of artists; secondly, it confirms Yosemite’s nation-wide importance; and finally, it shows again the lofty attitude of Olmsted, who expected everybody to work as he did without regard to remuneration. Unfortunately Olmsted could not wait to see his recommendations carried out; soon after his report was dispatched to Sacramento he accepted the appointment as landscape architect for Central Park and returned East in November, 1865.
After 1865 the Yosemite grant was developed normally; the occasional difficulties which arose were chiefly caused by the early settlers in the park who were unwilling to give up certain claims. The fame of Yosemite grew. At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1867 an international audience became acquainted with Yosemite through twenty-eight photographs by Watkins as well as through three hundred stereoscopic views. Copyrighted in 1863, portfolios with lithographs of California, including Yosemite, were published by Edward Vischer in 1870. In 1868 the first carefully prepared guidebook of Yosemite was produced by John S. Hittell, with twenty photos by “Helios,” pseudonym for Edward J. Muybridge, the first motion picture photographer. 71
The year 1868 brought John Muir to California. His profound devotion to the Sierra initiated a new era in spreading the glory of Yosemite. His enthusiasm is well epitomized in his letter inviting Emerson to Yosemite. “I invite you to join me in a month’s worship with Nature in the high temples of the great Sierra Crown beyond our holy Yosemite. It will cost you nothing save the time and very little of that, for you will be mostly in Eternity.” 72 In spite of his age, the sixty-seven year old Emerson accepted the invitation and braved the hardships of a journey to Yosemite. In May, 1871, he arrived in the valley. This is what he jotted down in his journal as his first impression: “In Yosemite, grandeur of these mountains perhaps unmatched in the globe; for here they strip themselves like athletes for exhibition and stand perpendicular granite walls, showing their entire height, and wearing a liberty cap of snow on the head.” 73
With Yosemite ranking so high in national favor, the propagators of projects for other scenic areas of some importance were busy trying to get them nationally recognized and protected. There were, of course, many such areas of more or less doubtful value, and their evaluation and recognition took its due course. One of the major areas was that of Niagara Falls. Claims had been made in 1835 that the falls were “the property of civilized mankind.” Since 1850 the legislature of New York was- lobbied in favor of a bill to protect the falls “against waste and degradation.” Once more Olmsted was among those who supported protective legislation. This was finally passed in 1883.
The Yellowstone case had been settled more than a decade earlier by the act of March 1, 1872, which created Yellowstone National Park as the first area under federal protection, exclusive of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the establishment of which was a history of its own. Much has been made of the belief that Yellowstone was the first federal park. One has become quite accustomed to reading statements that the establishment of Yellowstone “was the first step of any consequence taken to protect our natural resources, and from it our entire conservation program has grown.” 74 In another report we are told that the idea of the national park system was launched at that now historic campfire on Sept. 19, 1870. 75 We read it again in a brief history of the National Park Service published in 1940 as a Government publication by the Department of the Interior.
All these statements are based on Hiram M. Chittenden’s presentation of the events which led to the establishment of Yellowstone 76 Louis C. Cramton has refuted this story completely and says that the early explorer “David E. Folsom’s suggestion to General Henry D. Washburn (in August 1870) was the first recorded idea of a reservation of the Yellowstone area for public benefit . . . the Hedges proposal at the campfire put in train of action the movement to secure such reservation.” 77 Since the campfire story has already been discounted here, it is not necessary to discuss the consequence of giving up the sentimental legend. As we have seen, the “national park idea” has a very respectable pedigree and was anything but new in 1870. But there is one point made by Chittenden which deserves attention. It was mentioned earlier here that George Catlin was the first man in this country to conceive the idea of a national park. Chittenden in the first edition of his Yellowstone book 78 came to the same conclusion. Surprisingly enough he retracted this opinion in the second edition, maintaining that “Catlin’s idea of a National Park was solely [aiming at] . . . a home for the Indians . . . his name cannot be considered in connection with those who originated the idea of the Yellowstone Park.” 79 Undoubtedly Chittenden was correct in assuming that Catlin had in mind some kind of a national park which would form a sort of Indian Habitat. But while such an idea would hardly detract from Catlin’s original hope to conserve a portion of the American heritage for the public good, Chittenden apparently does not reason that way. It was only because Chittenden believed that Catlin had had the Yellowstone area in mind for his project that Chittenden asserted Catlin’s priority for the idea, and after concluding that Catlin’s suggestion had nothing to do with Yellowstone, Chittenden rejected Catlin as the originator of the general idea, as well as of the specific plan. From this it seems that Chittenden crystallized his thoughts solely around Yellowstone as the national park.
The same conception seems to have prevailed throughout the early debates of Congress concerning Yellowstone. It appears that creation of this one park was regarded as the supreme effort in this respect. A typical statement by Senator Vest may illustrate this attitude: “There should be to a nation that will have a hundred million or a hundred and fifty million of people a park like this as a great breathing place for the national lung, as a place to which every American citizen can resort.” 80 Special attention is called to this point of view because it does not show the same clear vision of the needs of the whole country and the possibilities offered by an entire continent as does the program proposed by Samuel Bowles and quoted previously, which represented the idea of a group of distinguished men who had studied the situation in Yosemite. Public opinion as echoed by the New York Tribune appears to have tended toward Bowles’s view. In a review of one of Nathaniel Langford’s talks propagandizing Yellowstone, the paper says that “while we always have our Niagara and Yosemite this new field of wonder . . . should be at once set apart as a public national park.” 81 Apparently Yellowstone was here thought of just as one of the “natural attractions,” to be set aside as Yosemite had been.
One more problem remains to be settled. That is, did the establishment of Yellowstone as a federal park advance the park idea more essentially than the earlier attempt to protect Yosemite? Of course there is no doubt that placing. Yellowstone under federal administration represented a completely new departure and as such this event is certainly worthy of due recognition. Early in the nineteenth century, Congress almost unanimously would have resented such threats to taxpayers’ money. But trends around 1870 were different, and it was no longer unheard of for Congress to pay attention to art, education, or similar, not quite tangible “values.” Therefore, the establishment of a federal park was not exactly a stupendous deviation from undertakings directed by the Zeitgeist of that era.
In the long run federal protection of deserving areas did prove to be the most satisfactory form of protection, and in this respect Yellowstone marks a certain beginning, but hardly a promising one, as beginnings are usually described. Buck as well as Cramton, in their studies concerning the early history of conservation and Yellowstone, have shown that those who urged the creation of the park were for the most part exponents of groups wishing to preserve the area for their own interests. Their lobbying, and not general public support, was influential in getting the bill adopted and we can well understand why the passing of the bill caused no “flurry either in Washington or in the country at large” . . . and “an attitude of indifference prevailed.” 82
The same attitude continued for more than a decade of the so-called formative period of Yellowstone. Travel was light. The park was remote, there were hardly any lodgings and no roads, scarcely any guards or rangers were on hand to advise visitors and the superintendent was usually absent. Tourists could not, therefore, have been expected to use the new “pleasuring ground” in any large numbers. It does not seem strange that in the early years the park “administration,” if this word is at all permissible, was ever close to collapse. More than once Congress was possessed with the urge to rid the federal administration of its incubus. After all, Congress had only been asked to protect Yellowstone because in 1870 it was in a territory and could only be taken care of under federal custody. To encourage Congress to adopt the bill, no appropriations were asked for, nor supposedly were they intended to be asked for in the next years. It could have been anticipated that such a situation would breed difficulties; but because of ‘the lobby’s pressure the bill passed and a trouble spot was created. Yellowstone had to muddle through its formative years rather desperately.
Yosemite, once it was set aside, progressed smoothly, contributing far more than Yellowstone, it would seem, toward advancing the idea of conservation. It makes little difference that one area was under custody of a state and the other of the federal government. Certainly the purpose to which Yellowstone was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” in 1872 did not differ from the purpose for which the Yosemite grant had eight years earlier been given in trust to the State of California, “upon the express condition that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation . . . inalienable for all time.” It should be remembered also that the attaching of stipulations to the California grant was no empty gesture. When it was reported in later years that the State of California was not doing so well as a trustee of the grant, a congressional investigating committee inspected the park with the result that, with the consensus of all interested, it was resolved that the park be placed under federal management. These difficulties began to turn up in the ‘nineties; Yosemite in its early years was favored by the gods. Appropriations for improvement were granted by the legislature of California as soon as necessary and possible. From the time on when the Central Pacific touched Stockton (1869), national tourist travel began to invade the valley. Yosemite was soon in a niche in the minds of the American people, who admired their country and took pride in it. Most people could not go out to California, but a chromo by Prang was within the reach of almost every lover of nature; the enormous editions of these lithographs, showing Yosemite, proved how eager people all over the nation were to satisfy their desire to become familiar with the wonderland of California.
Thus it seems certain that although Yellowstone was the first federal venture in the field of protecting areas, this fact alone did not advance the concept of conservation in the first decade and a half of the park’s existence. Had it not been for a group of senators faithful to the cause, the House would gladly have yielded to those who wished to drop the project or sacrifice it to the interests of pressure groups who would have destroyed the purpose of the park. It is questionable if Congress, with the Yellowstone experience alone, would have considered extending the national park system. Quite significantly, when the system was extended in 1890, it was to protect areas around Yosemite as well as those now called Sequoia National Park and General Grant Grove—all of them in California, where the park idea had developed so well.
In the year of the Yosemite grant another milestone was passed in the publication of George P. Marsh’s Man and Nature. This book, frequently reprinted until 1898, was the first to approach the theme of conservation in scholarly fashion. It was widely read and most influential; Bryant, for example, quoted it in his editorial on the “Utility of Trees” in the Evening Post of June 20, 1865. It is most likely that Marsh’s ideas influenced those men who were responsible for the Yosemite grant even before he published them [in 1863 and 1864]. By the time the Yellowstone problem was being discussed, his thoughts had become common property. Marsh recognized how complex conservation problems are; in his chapter, The Instability of American Life, he wrote, “We have now felled forests enough everywhere, in many districts far too much. Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions and devise for maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows and the pastures, to the rain and the dews of heaven . . . . ” 83 In a new edition of Man and Nature he added these words to his chapter, Forests of the United States: “It is desirable that some large and easily accessible region of American soil should remain as far as possible in its primitive condition, at once a museum for the instruction of the students, a garden for the recreation of the lovers of nature, and an asylum where indigenous trees . . . plants . . . beasts may dwell and perpetuate their kind.” 84 Though this was written shortly after the establishment of Yellowstone Park, it certainly must reflect thoughts that Marsh had developed much earlier.
As a logical consequence of these ideas, Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated the conservation program out of which the National Park Service grew. The idea the program represents is based on a series of trends— deeply rooted in the American pattern of life, developing in various strata, ranging over a long period of time—that were finally embodied in park, state, and federal initiative. The idea of keeping intact some of the grand scenery of the New World such as Chateaubriand had celebrated—
there is nothing of age in America but the woods . . . that is well worth monuments and ancestors— 85
was never quite lost sight of, from the day George Catlin conceived it until it matured in the protection of the jewel of all, “holy Yosemite.” With this achieved, other successes were no longer difficult. One pearl after another was collected and strung with the others to form a national park system which is the unrivaled adornment of this hemisphere.
1 Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, 1630-1707, ed., A. C. Myers (1912), p. 303.
2 Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664, ed., J. F. Jameson (1909), p. 170.
3 Letter from Plymouth Colony, 1680, quoted by Seymour Dunbar, History of Travel (1915), p. 15.
4 A. V. G. Allen, Jonathan Edwards (1890), p. 355ff.
5 William Bartram, Travels (London, 1792), pp. 48, 187.
6 Bartram, op. cit., p. 341.
7 St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer , ed. W. P. Trent (1904), p. 220.
8 Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on Virginia” , Works, ed., Lippscomb II (1905), pp. 31-32.
9 Timothy Dwight, Travels, IV (1822), p. 59.
10 James F. Cooper, The Pioneers, chapter 26.
11 Louis Noble, The Course of Empire (1853), p. 241.
12 Noble, op. cit., p. 195.
13 Noble, op. cit., p. 202.
14 Charles F. Hoffman, A Winter in the West, II (1835), p. 316.
15 George Catlin, The Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indian, I (London, 1841), p. 262.
16 Henry Thoreau, “Chesuncook,” in Atlantic Monthly, II (1858), p. 317.
17 Dial (1844), p. 489.
18 Noble, op. cit., p. 398.
19 Henry T. Tuckerman, in Home Authors, Home Artists (1852), p. 134.
20 George Washington, Letters, XXXIII (1940), p. 83.
21 Noble, op. cit., p. 202.
22 John Durant, Asher B. Durand (1894), p. 73.
23 James F. Cooper, Notions of the Americans (1828), p. 332.
24 Catlin, op. cit., II, p. 155.
25 Ralph W. Emerson, Journals, IV (1910), p. 321.
26 Ralph W. Emerson, “Nature,” in Complete Works, III (1876), p. 178.
27 James F. Cooper, “American and European Scenery Compared,” in Home Authors, Home Artists (1850), p. 61.
28 George W. Curtis, Lotus-Eating (1850), pp. 137-40.
29 John Ruskin, Letters to C. E. Norton, I (1904), p. 29.
30 John Ruskin, Arrows of the Chase (New York, 1894), p. 148.
31 Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion (Oct. 22, 1859), p. 261.
32 Henry T. Tuckerman, America and Her Commentators (1864), p. 415.
33 Noble , op. cit., p. 343.
34 Tim. Dwight, op. cit., p. 18.
35 Theodore Dwight, Things As They Are (1834), p. 197.
36 Harper’s Monthly, IX (1854), p. 147.
37 William Dunlap, Diary, I, (1931), p. 64.
38 Theodore Dwight, op. cit., pp. 232, 192, 225.
39 Sarah J. Hale, Traits of American Life (1835), p. 187.
40 See American Farmer, VII (1825), p. 148.
41 Horatio Smith, Festival Games and Amusements (1832), p. 325.
42 Gleason’s Weekly, II (1852), p. 384.
43 George M. Davison, The Travellers Guide (1837, 7th ed.), p. xvi.
44 Harper’s Weekly (August 22, 1857), p. 536.
45 Cosmopolitan Art Journal, II (1857-1858), p. 207.
46 Frederick L. Olmsted, Forty Years of Landscape Architecture , II (1928), p. 14.
47 C. W. Walter, Mount Auburn (1847), p. 10.
48 Joseph Story, An Address Delivered on the Dedication of Mount Auburn (1831), p. 12.
49 Walter, op. cit., p. 14.
50 Atlantic Souvenir (1826), p. 56.
51 E. S. Abdy, Journal, I (1835), p. 120.
52 Abdy, op. cit., p. 120.
53 Fanny Kemble, Records of a Girlhood (1879), p. 590.
54 Theodore Dwight, op. cit., p. 102.
55 Andrew J. Downing, Rural Essays (1853), p. 157.
56 Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion (1859), p. 264.
57 Gleason’s Pictorial, V (1853), p. 216.
58 Crayon, LV (1857), p. 96.
59 Harper’s Weekly (1858), p. 357.
60 For the history and bibliography of the Yosemite Valley see: Carl P. Russell, One Hundred Years in Yosemite (1947).
61 The Country Gentleman, Albany (October 8, 1856), p. 243.
62 Illustrated Handbook of American Travel (1857), p. 377. Later known as Appleton’s Handbook.
63 Horace Greeley, An Overland Journey (1860), p. 381.
64 Ballou’s Drawing Room Companion (May 21, 1859), p. 325.
65 Boston Evening Transcript (December 1, 15, 31, 1860; January 12, 19, 26 and February 2, 9, 1861.)
66 H. W. Bellows, In Memory of Starr King (1864), p. 22.
67 Atlantic Monthly, XII (1863), p. 8.
68 I should like to extend my thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted (fils), who kindly permitted me to consult his father’s unpublished papers, and to Francis P. Farquhar and Carl P. Russell for valuable suggestions.
69 The papers quoted are filed in the U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C., under: General Land Office—Letters Sent Concerning Private Land Claims, Vol. 25 (1862-65), and Miscellaneous Letters Received 033572.
70 Samuel Bowles, Across the Continent (1865), p. 231.
71 John S. Hittell, Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties (1868).
72 Ralph W. Emerson, Letters, VI (1939), p. 155.
73 Ralph W. Emerson, Journals, X (1914), p. 354.
74 New York Times (March 30, 1947).
75 National Park Supplement of the Annual, published by the American Planning and Civic Association (1936), no. 4, p. 3.
76 Hiram M. Chittenden, The Yellowstone National Park (1905), p. 89. Reprint, with minor changes of text and some notes added, 1940.
77 Louis C. Cramton, Early History of Yellowstone National Park (1930), p. 35.
78 Chittenden, op. cit., (1895), p. 1.
79 Chittenden, op. cit., (1905), p. 96.
80 Paul H. Buck, The Evolution of the U.S. National Park Service (1921, Government reprint, 1941), p. 29.
81 New York Tribune (January 23, 1871).
82 Buck, op. cit., p. 9.
83 George P. Marsh, Man and Nature (1864), pp. 328-9.
84 George P. Marsh, The Earth As Modified by Human Action (1874), p. 327.
85 François René de Chateaubriand, “Voyage en Amerique,” Oeuvres, XII (1836), p. 18.
About the Author
Hans A. Huth was born in Halle/Salle, Germany November 11, 1892. He earned is Ph.D. in Berlin in 1922 and was a curator at the Munich and Berlin museums and the former Royal Palaces and Gardens in Prussia. In 1938 he came to the United States after being invited to lecture at New York University and to collaborate in history with the National Park Service (NPS). During World War II Huth remained in the U.S. as a German refugee. Dr. Huth’s assistance with the NPS brought a new level of professionalism to the NPS museum program. Huth’s “Story of an Idea” is an acccount of changes in the American attitude toward nature that led to the creation of Yosemite National Park and National Parks in general. After Huth wrote the article, Yosemite Superintendent Carl P. Russell urged David Brower, Sierra Club Bulletin editor, to publish it in the Bulletin, which Brower did with a forward written by Russell and signed by Brower. In a 2000 essay, Brower said this “was one of the most important articles the club ever published.”
From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s Huth was curator of decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). Dr. Huth remained interested in National Parks and expanded this article, “Story of an Idea,” to book form as Nature and the American (Three Centuries of Changing Attitude) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957). In the mid-1960s Huth assisted in gettting the Wilderness Act of 1964 passed by Congress.
Dr. Huth died July 1, 1977 in Carmel, California. His wife Marta Huth (born December 25, 1891) died March 1985 in San Francisco, California.
Hans Huth (1892 – 1977), “Yosemite: The Story of an Idea,” Sierra Club Bulletin 33(3):47-78 (March, 1948). Foreword written by Carl P. Russell under signature of David R. Brower. Copyright 1948 by Sierra Club. 22 cm. Library of Congress call number F868.S5 S5 1948. LCCN 09000892. ISSN 0037-4725.
Also reprinted by the Yosemite Natural History Association in 1964.
Converted to HTML by Dan Anderson, August 2007, from a copy at University of California San Diego Geisel Library. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.
—Dan Anderson, http://www.yosemite.ca.us
I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Je pense que je ne verrai jamais
Un poème beau comme un arbre.
Un arbre dont la bouche affamée, se presse
Contre le sein nourricier de la douce terre ;
Un arbre qui regarde Dieu tout le jour
Et lève ses bras de feuilles pour prier ;
Les poèmes sont créés par des fous comme moi,
Mais Dieu seul peut créer un arbre.