"Improvements" in Yosemite

Why preserve Yosemite? John Muir offered important reasons, but historically the question cannot be answered from this one man's point of view. The movement to preserve Yosemite was motivated by a variety of factors including:

• an eagerness to make money,

• competition to establish American landmarks to rival the wonders of Europe,

• the desire to save a piece of the natural world for posterity,

• and though the term was not used, a growing recognition that an entire ecosystem needed be preserved if its centerpiece, Yosemite Valley, was to be saved.

Business interests came first, though and James Mason Hutchings led the way. Hutchings was a promoter and former gold miner with an eye for the sublime. He led one of the first tourist parties to visit Yosemite in 1855 and brought with him a leading San Francisco illustrator, Thomas Ayres, to capture the scene in his sketchbook. Hutchings' goal was to promote Yosemite and other promising California tourist destinations in his Illustrated California Magazine. And not coincidentally, when Hutchings bought one of the valley's first hotels in 1859, it was featured in his magazine. In his role as innkeeper, Hutchings entertained artists and literary figures with national reputations and they spread the word about Yosemite. His list of notable visitors was long. It included artists Alfred Bierstadt and Thomas Hill and the photographer Carlton Watkins whose work was important in helping the California congressional delegation promote legislation granting control of Yosemite Valley to the state. In the following passage from his book, In the Heart of the Sierras, Hutchings describes his early hotel experience:

These [improvements to his newly purchased hotel] were found to be very limited, as they consisted of a two-story frame building, sixty by twenty feet, having two rooms, an upper and a lower. Its doors and windows were made of cotton cloth. Verily, a primitive beginning for novices in hotel keeping. When our first guests arrived (and their arrival caused quite a flutter in the household), the ladies were domiciled upstairs, and the gentlemen down. This arrangement we felt not only had its inconveniences, but was contrary to law, inasmuch as it sometimes separated man and wife. So novel a disposition of visitors, whose names, many of them at least, were already inscribed on the temple of fame, only became a subject for mirthfulness, never of censure. They saw that we were attempting our best—and the very best among us could do no more— and accepted it accordingly.

This, however solacing to our sensibilities, was not satisfying to our convictions. We determined upon changing it. But how? The nearest saw-mill was some fifty miles distant, and over a mountainous country, that was only accessible over steep and zigzagging trails. We knew that almost everything could be packed upon mules; we had even seen our donkey trotting along with two wagon-sides upon him, when only the tips of his ears and the lower part of his limbs were visible; but how could lumber be packed fifty miles? This, therefore, was given up as Quixotic. Bolts of muslin could be packed, and were; and rooms were accordingly made out of that. Guests, in this way, were thus provided with apartments, it is true; but, unless their lights were carefully disposed, there were also added unintentional shadow-pictures, which, if contributory of mirthfulness in a maximum degree, gave only a minimum degree of privacy in return. Better accommodations must be provided, no matter at what cost the lumber might be procured. Two men were accordingly engaged to run a human saw-mill....

Carefully setting and filing the mill-saw—my first attempt—a small log was fastened in its place, and the mill started. To my joyful surprise the cut was completed to the end without stopping. Again the word “Eureka” was on my lips, but was arrested by the thought—”Is it straight and true?” It was. At this twofold success a boisterous shout of exultation at once relieved my joyous feelings. One cut continued to be successfully made after another; so that when the day closed, there was one-fourth as much lumber sawed, single-handed, as the two men had made in a whole winter! Day by day the quantity produced increased so encouragingly that we felt justified in employing a good practical sawyer [John Muir], and with him a couple of carpenters, so that the much-needed improvements could be commenced with satisfactory earnestness, and presumptive hope of ultimate and early realization. It was a “one-horse” saw-mill...

The ring of the hammer and soft rasping sound of the saw now added their music to that of the water-fall and singing pines, and cloth partitions soon became numbered among the makeshifts of the past. The old house was rejuvenated by porches, and made convenient by lean-to’s, in which were kitchen, store, and sitting-room—now known as “The Big Tree Room;” about which, and its associations and stories, more will be said hereafter. Buildings, made necessary by the rapidly increasing throng of tourists, began to spring up as though by magic, and no sooner was one completed and occupied than another was required. The return home of one party of visitors, mentally full to overflowing with praises concerning the wonderful sights they had seen, superinduced others to seek similar delights....

At the commencement of this encouraging influx of tourists, our utmost accommodations, primitive as they were, were limited to enough for twenty-eight. On one occasion, when every room was occupied, and just as all were about retiring for the night, the muffled tread of horses, mingled with the sound of human voices, was heard upon the outside. To our dismay we learned that a party of eleven had just arrived! What could be done, when every sleeping-place already had its occupant? Dumbfounded with surprised regret, the situation was explained to the new arrivals.

“Cannot take care of us, did you say?”

“That is really the case, as every bed we have has now a tenant.”

“But, what can we do, Mr. H.? We are all tired out—especially the ladies—and there is no other place where we can go. (at that time ours was the only inn at Yo Semite.)

“Such an inquiry I know is very pertinent at such a time. Well, come in, and we will do the best we can to make you comfortable. Impossibilities must be made possible under such circumstances.”
“Thank you—and God bless you.”

These glad tidings were soon communicated with an exultant shout to those outside, and “three cheers” from the tired travelers rung out upon the silent midnight air, sufficiently loud to awaken the now surprised sleepers. Fortunately a bale of new California blankets had been received but a few days before, and with these we improvised both beds and covering. Provisions were abundant.

While supper was progressing with commendable zeal, and apparent satisfaction, new sounds seemed to be floating on the darkness, and the astounding revelation came with them of the arrival of eight others! Good heavens! why India-rubber contrivances would be inadequate for such emergencies. Any number of queries at best, however, would prove but indifferent substitutes for bedding and food. These, too, must be cared for, in some way. And they were. The antiquated proverb, “It never rains but it pours,” now became strikingly illustrated; for, before morning dawned, other arrivals had increased the number of guests to fifty-seven! twenty-eight, be it remembered, being the maximum limit in accommodation. The most remarkable feature of this then unparalleled advent of visitors remains to be told: Twenty-seven departures occurred one morning, nineteen the following, the next day every one of the remainder left us, and but five persons, altogether, arrived at Yo Semite in thirty-one days thereafter! Such experiences are by no means proportionally infrequent in hotel life here, even at this present day.

As time gently lifted its misty veil new revelations of majesty and beauty were almost constantly being added to the already comprehensive galaxy of wonderful sights, and the necessities of the hour called for the surveying and constructing of horse-paths to these newly discovered scenic standpoints. Bridges were built, and wagon-roads made passable on the floor of the valley, to subserve the convenience of those who were unable to enjoy the exhilarating exercise of horse-back riding. This progressive development, moreover, was, at that day, accomplished entirely by private enterprise.

In due season new hotels sprung up into existence; and, in addition to “the butcher and baker, and the candlestick maker,” came the store, the blacksmith’s shop, laundry, bath and billiard rooms, cabinet shop for Yo Semite-grown woods, and other conveniences needed by the incoming visitor.

To Start You Thinking -

1) Tourism brought with it new environmental impacts on Yosemite Valley. Make a list of the ways in which the influx of tourists affected the physical and cultural geography of the valley according to Hutchings' description.

2) James Hutchings and John Muir used the periodicals and artists of their day to spread the word about Yosemite. Describe how you would use the different media and artists today to promote the newly discovered valley?

mage from Thomas Ayres, "View of the Yo Semite Valley", 1865 as found in H. J. Taylor, Yosemite Indians and Other Sketches, San Francisco: Johnck & Seeger, 1936.

text from James Mason Hutchings, In the Heart of the Sierras, Oakland, Cal: Pacific Press Publishing House, 1888.

Last modified in February, 2011 by Rick Thomas