JOHN MUIR AND THE SIERRA NEVADA
ON MARCH 27, 1868, a young Scotch-American, John Muir by name, arrived in San Francisco on the steamer "Nebraska" which had sailed around the Horn, but which he had boarded on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama. With a young Englishman he made straight for the Oakland ferry without giving so much as a glance to the straight rows of buildings on San Francisco's gridiron streets. From Oakland the two young men started on a walking trip which took them down the Santa Clara Valley, across the Pacheco Pass, into the San Joaquin Valley. The scene, as he saw it from the pass, Muir has recorded in his journal:
"Looking down from a height of 1,500 feet, there, extending north and south as far as I could see, lay a vast level flower garden, smooth and level like a lake of goldthe floweriest part of the world I had yet seen. From the eastern margin of the golden plain arose the white Sierra. At the base ran a belt of gently sloping purplish foothills lightly dotted with oaks, above that a broad dark zone of coniferous forests, and above this forest zone arose the lofty mountain peaks, clad in snow. The atmosphere was so clear that although the nearest of the mountain peaks on the axis of the range were at a distance of more than 150 miles, they seemed to be at just the right distance to be seen broadly in their relationship to one another, marshaled in glorious ranks and groups, their snowy robes so smooth and bright that it seemed impossible for a man to walk across the open folds without being seen, even at this distance. Perhaps more than 300 miles of the range was comprehended in this one view."
They crossed the San Joaquin at Hill's Ferry and then followed the Merced toward the Yosemite, which they approached by way of Deer Flat, where the wagon road ended.
The Yosemite was calling to John Muir as a magnet to highly tempered steel. He did not even wait to earn money first, though his pockets had little enough in them. He must see the valley. In this there seems to be something of Fate, for this poor farm boy, born so many miles away in Scotland, had traveled far and incurred much physical discomfort to reach these "mountains of Light," where he spent so many fruitful years of his life, leaving the world richer for his love and learning of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, until this day little known and less understood.
He and his companion spent eight or ten days in the valley, visiting the walls, making sketches, and collecting flowers and ferns. The return trip was made by way of Wawona, where Galen Clark, a Yosemite pioneer, had located. The month in the Yosemite cost John Muir and his friend only three dollars each! Ferns and boughs or the springy forest floor furnished their beds; their shelter, a tree, a cave or the star-lit sky; their food, the scanty provisions they carried in their knapsacks. When they came out of the valley they put their strong young muscles to work in the harvest fields and so earned a small income which more than paid for their Spartan living.
In one of his early journals, Muir recorded: "This Yosemite trip only made me hungry for another far longer and further reaching, and I determined to set out again as soon as I had earned a little money to get near views of the mountains in all their snowy grandeur, and to study the wonderful forests, the noblest of their kind I had ever seensugar-pines eight and nine feet in diameter, with cones nearly two feet long, silver firs more than 200 feet in height, Douglas spruce and libocedrus, and the kingly Sequoias."
After spending some time in breaking mustangs, running a ferry, and shearing sheep, he became a sheep-herder in the employ of an Irishman, "Smoky Jack" Connel. On November 1, 1868, he wrote to his friend, Mrs. Carr, whom he had first come to know at the University of Wisconsin before her husband, Professor Carr, came to the University of California: "I am engaged at present, in the very important and patriarchal business of sheep. I am a gentle shepherd. The gray box in which I reside is distant about seven miles northwest from Hopeton, two miles north of Snelling's. The Merced pours past me on the south, from the Yosemite; smooth domy hills and the tree fringe of the Tuolumne bound me on the north; the lordly Sierras join sky and plain on the east; and the far coast mountains on the west. My mutton family of 1,800 range over about ten square miles, and I have abundant opportunities for reading and botanizing."
In that charming book, "John of the Mountains," it was recorded by the editor, Mrs. Linnie Marsh Wolfe: "Early in June, 1869, the tall auburn-haired young shepherd John Muir took charge of the sheep of another Irishman, Pat Delaney, and went with them in quest of high green pastures. Assisting him were two dogs and the sub-shepherd Billy, so he had leisure to explore much of the Divide between the Tuolumne and Merced Basins, climb Mount Hoffman and Mount Dana, and penetrate Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake, which lay on the ashen plain 'like a burnished disk.'"
Muir never loved the sheep. He saw the devastation which the "hoofed locusts" were bringing to these enchanted valleys and precious meadows. In the end he fought bitterly to save the best of the high Sierra from destructive grazing.
When Muir returned from this shepherd's expedition, he took up his abode in Yosemite "as a convenient and grand vestibule to the Sierra." He sold the labor of a friend and himself to J. M. Hutchings, a pioneer in the valley, who, through the California Magazine, had done much to bring the charms of Yosemite to the public. Hutchings was operating a hotel, and wished to work up some of the down timber into buildings. Muir had had experience in a sawmill in Wisconsin, and so undertook to construct the sawmill. But this work was merely a means to an end. Muir spent as much time as he could on his "observatory," Sentinel Dome. From this and other points of vantage he sought to read the markings on the rocks. He was already developing his theories of glacial action. He wandered into the heights whenever he could. When the summer was over and he was down in the foothills, he determined to spend a winter in the mountains, and so on November 16, 1869, he set out "for Yosemite in particular, and the Sierra in general." He had a companion with him, and in his journal recorded: "I had long lived in bright flowery summer, and I wished to see the snow and ice, the divine jewelry of winter, once more, and to hear the storm-winds among the trees and rocks, and behold the thin azure of the mountains, and their clouds."
On December 6, 1869, Muir wrote to Mrs. Carr: "I am feasting in the Lord's mountain house, and what pen may write my blessings! I am going to dwell here all winter, magnificently 'snow-bound.' Just think of the grandeur of a mountain winter in Yosemite!" Muir remained in the Yosemite through 1870 and into 1871. In September of 1871 he left the employment of Mr. Hutchings. He had in these years saved enough money to last him, he thought, for years to come, for he dressed in "tough old clothes, gray like the rocks," and could live for months on scanty rations.
Now began in earnest his "glorious toil" with "unmeasured time, and independent of companions and scientific association." Ever since he had arrived at Yosemite in 1868 he had reveled in the beauty of the High Sierra whenever he could make expeditions into the mountains. Now he spent long days and nights in studying the Book of Nature. He evolved and elaborated his theory concerning the creation of Yosemite and other granite valleys in the Sierra. His glacial theory was more daring than it seems today, for he was then a young, unknown man who appeared to many as a vagabond wanderer, only working at anything recognized to be work when he was forced to earn his scanty bread and tea. His theory contradicted the views of some of the most eminent geologists of his day.
John Muir has written many descriptions of Yosemite, at first detailed and fragmentary and later more comprehensive. Long after his life in Yosemite, he gathered together articles he had written for the Atlantic Monthly and in 1901 issued a book on "Our National Parks." The descriptions in this book have combined perspective with the first-hand impressions contained in his journals, wherefore a few of his pen pictures are copied here:
"Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best. Though extremely rugged, with its main features on the grandest scale in height and depth, it is nevertheless easy of access and hospitable; and its marvelous beauty, displayed in striking and alluring forms, woos the admiring wanderer on and on, higher and higher, charmed and enchanted. Benevolent, solemn, fateful, pervaded with divine light, every landscape glows like a countenance hallowed in eternal repose; and every one of its living creatures, clad in flesh and leaves, and every crystal of its rocks, whether on the surface shining in the sun or buried miles deep in what we call darkness, is throbbing and pulsing with the heartbeats of God. All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summitthe rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine. And how bright is the shining after summer showers and dewy nights, and after frosty nights in spring and autumn, when the morning sunbeams are pouring through the crystals on the bushes and grass, and in winter through the snow-laden trees!
IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
"The average cloudiness for the whole year is perhaps less than ten-hundredths. Scarcely a day of all the summer is dark, though there is no lack of magnificent thundering cumuli. They rise in the warm midday hours, mostly over the middle region, in June and July, like new mountain ranges, higher Sierras, mightily augmenting the grandeur of the scenery while giving rain to the forests and gardens and bringing forth their fragrance. The wonderful weather and beauty inspire everybody to be up and doing. Every summer day is a workday to be confidently counted on, the short dashes of rain forming, not interruptions, but rests. The big blessed storm days of winter, when the whole range stands white, are not a whitless inspiring and kind. Well may the Sierra be called the Range of Light, not the Snowy Range; for only in winter is it white, while all the year it is bright.
"Of this glorious range the Yosemite National Park is a central section, thirty-six miles in length and forty-eight miles in breadth. The famous Yosemite Valley lies in the heart of it, and it includes the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, two of the most songful streams in the world; innumerable lakes and waterfalls and smooth silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canyons, the brightest crystalline pavements, and snowy mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet, arrayed in open ranks and spiry pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous canyons and amphitheatres; gardens on their sunny brows, avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges, and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completing their sculpture; newborn lakes at their feet, blue and green, free or encumbered with drifting icebergs like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars."
Four years before John Muir first saw Yosemite, Congress had in 1864 passed a bill, introduced by Senator Conness, to grant to the State of California "the 'cleft' or 'gorge' in the Granite Peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains . . . known as the Yo-Semite Valley, with its branches or spurs" but it was stipulated that the State of California "shall accept this grant upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation" and "shall be inalienable for all time." To the State of California also was granted "the tracts embracing what is known as the 'Mariposa Big Tree Grove.'" Here is an Act of Congress, passed eight years before the Yellowstone Act became a law, in which there is a recognition of a public land-use for recreation! Though the act was passed only thirteen years after the first discovery of Yosemite, a number of counter private interests had already grown up.
After the visit of the first tourist party, organized by J. M. Hutchings, accompanied by Thomas Ayres, an artist, in 1855, many people desired to see this wonderland. It was only natural that some sort of accommodation for the public should be undertaken. The land was in the public domain and subject to entry. One homesteader and three who owned hotels or lodges, including Mr. Hutchings, were involved. The Act of Congress made no provision for caring for these private holdings. After prolonged litigation, the courts decided against recognizing the claims, but finally the California State Legislature appropriated $60,000 to recompense the four claimants, and it should be recorded that $5,000 of this appropriation was returned to the State treasury. Thus it was not until 1875 that the Commissioners secured full control of the valley.
The Board of Commissioners appointed by the Governor in 1866 had appointed Galen Clark as guardian of the park, but there were many vicissitudes in the administration of Yosemite, and there was very little money made available to meet the necessary expenses of protecting and administering the park. In 1880 the legislature provided for a new commission. But the criticisms continued.
In the meantime John Muir had begun to publish accounts of Yosemite. On February 5, 1876, he had an article in the Sacramento Record-Union, and after that a long line of publications came from his gifted pen. In 1880 Muir married Louie Strenzel, daughter of a pioneer orchardist and horticulturist, and during the succeeding years became an expert orchardist and leading citizen in California.
Through the encouragement of Robert Underwood Johnson, then the editor of the Century, Muir began in 1889 to contribute to the magazine. Because Muir saw what was happening to his beloved Sierra country surrounding the Yosemite State Park, he advocated a national park. On October 1, 1890, Congress passed an act withdrawing from settlement all unappropriated lands in the designated public domain, and creating an extensive reservation to be under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior. The act stipulated that the regulations should "provide for the preservation from injury of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities or wonders within said reservation and their retention in their natural condition."
By this time Muir had become convinced that California needed an organization to watch the High Sierra country and help fight the battles which he foresaw would continue to arise. So in 1892, he brought together a group of public-spirited, conservation-minded menWarren Olney, Sr., Dr. Willis Linn Jepson, and Dr. Joseph LeConte, and they organized the Sierra Club, "to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast," "to publish authentic information concerning them," and "to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains." The Club was thus composed of mountain lovers and believers in conservation. The organization has grown in members and power. Through its annual outings, leading to detailed knowledge of the mountains, and the eminence of many of its members, the Club has been in a position to exercise a potent influence in legislative and administrative policies concerning the Sierra.
One of the first beneficial undertakings of the Club was to seek to bring about the recession to the Federal Government of the Yosemite State Park. Even under favorable circumstances it was an anomaly that the Federal Government should administer a rim of land around a core, set aside for the very same purpose, under the administration of the State. Then, as now, when the proposal was made to return to the Federal Government land which it had given to the State, there was bitter local opposition, especially in the county seats of the four nearby counties.
After the creation of the national park in 1890, Congress was slow in providing funds for administration. So the Department of the Interior called upon the War Department, as it had done in Yellowstone, and for twenty-three years the park was patrolled and protected by the Army.
While the four claimants in the floor of the valley had been compensated by the State, there were in the national park many private holdings which the Federal Government did not buy. This necessitated boundary changes, and the pressure was very great to take out of the park any land in which there might be potential mining values. In 1904 General Hiram Chittenden, known though his Yellowstone book, published in 1895 (see page 19), became chairman of a boundary commission, which agreed to eliminate from the national park large areas on the east and west. In 1906 a tract on the southwest was cut out of the park. Today many believe that some areas, not yet restored through the purchases of recent years, should be added to Yosemite, notably the lofty Minarets and stately Mt. Ritter, with their surrounding frame of high mountain peaks. Muir's journals of the seventies contained fascinating and detailed descriptions of this region.
From the South Fork of the San Joaquin Canyon he once recorded: "View very grand and universal. Ritter the noblest and most ornate of all." On a trip to the Minarets, he remarked: "The Minarets were now fairly within my grasp. I had been crossing canyons for five days. . . . Their appearance from here was impressively sublime because of their great height, narrow bases, linear arrangement and dark color. They are the most elaborately carved on the edges of any slate summits I have seen. Four lakes lie like open eyes below the ample clouds of névé that send them water. These névé slopes are large, and wonderfully adapted in form and situation for picturesque effects among the black angular slate slabs and peaks."
And again: "At the foot of a former moraine of this west glacier is a small lake not one hundred yards long, but grandly framed with a sheer wall of névé twenty feet high. . . . Beautiful caves reached back from the water's edge; in some places granite walls overleaned and big blocks broke off from the main névé wall, and, with angles sharp as those of ice, leaned into the lake. Undermined by the water, the fissures filled with blue light, and water dripped and trickled all along the white walls. The sun was shining. I never saw so grand a setting for a glacier lake. The sharp peaks of Ritter seen over the snow shone with splendid effect." Who can doubt that the highest use of this spectacular mountain region is that of a national park?
So long as he lived, John Muir did much to direct public interest to, and provide guardianship for, the High Sierra country. In many instances he succeeded, though it is well recognized today that some of the compromises forced upon the friends of the national parks should be remedied so far as this is yet possible.
The closing years of John Muir's life were darkened by the unsuccessful fight he and the Sierra Club made to save Hetch Hetchy from being turned into a reservoir. In this fight he was ably seconded by Dr. J. Horace McFarland, then President of the American Civic Association.
But in spite of all that the friends of Yosemite National Park could do, Congress in 1913 passed an act to permit the City of San Francisco to build a reservoir in Hetch Hetchya yosemite second in beauty only to the big Yosemite. No one dreamed at that time that within twenty-five years the Yosemite Valley would be so crowded with summer visitors that its very charm and beauty are threatened and that Hetch Hetchy would be sorely needed by its joint owners, the people of the United States, for the purpose to which it was dedicated when Yosemite National Park was created: "public use, resort, and recreation." But even then it was realized that the water flowed out of the park and that it was not a waste of water to permit the park waters to ripple down the floor of the valley to places where they could be impounded at possibly greater expense. It was not essentially a question of apportionment of waters. It was a question of money. The sacrifice of this exquisite valley was exacted, not to provide water for the people of San Francisco, but to save them money. John Muir and his associates knew then that the valley should have been held inviolate, and we recognize today as never before, the importance of protecting our national parks. Hetch Hetchy remains a horrible example of a disastrous mistake, which failed to save money.
The military regime in Yosemite came to an end in connection with the creation of the National Park Service by Act of Congress in 1916, following the initial proposal by Dr. J. Horace McFarland. The Sierra Club supported the movement. Mr. Muir died in 1914, soon after Congress authorized the Hetch Hetchy desecration.
In the years since then, Yosemite has been served well by three superintendentsW. B. Lewis and Colonel C. G. Thomson, now deceased, and the present incumbent, Lawrence Merriam.
During all this time, the park administrators have been harassed by private land holdings within the park and by too closely drawn boundaries. The most menacing holdings were tracts of timber within the park and on its border held by companies ready to begin cutting or actually harvesting their tree crop. In 1930, the park was put in a position to purchase over 10,000 acres of land at a cost in excess of $3,000,000, half of which was met by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Following legislation and appropriation of funds by Congress in 1937, nearly 8,000 acres of sugar pines near the Big Oak Flat Road were acquired, at a cost in excess of a million and a half, though the summer before the purchase was actually made, the lumber companies put as many men as they could work into the area and wrought a terrible devastation.
Much as Muir loved Yosemite, no one can read his voluminous writings, many of them published through the devoted service of Dr. William F. Badé, his literary executor, and not be impressed with his love and knowledge of the entire Sierra Nevada.
Muir first visited the Big Trees in 1875. He was not the discoverer of these trees. They were first seen by white man in 1858 when Hale Tharp, a pioneer who had settled on a ranch about two and a half miles below Three Rivers in 1856, made a trip to what we now know as Giant Forest. Tharp reported that there were about 2,000 Indians then living along the Kaweah Rivers.
It will be remembered that the famous Mariposa Battalion divided its forcesthat while two companies were scouring the Yosemite, another company under Captain Kuykendall went south to bring in the Indians on the Kaweah. Captain Kuykendall, according to Dr. Bunnell's account, "vigorously operated in the valleys, hills and mountains of the Kings and Kaweah Rivers and those of the smaller streams south. The Indians of the Kern River, owing to the influence of a Mission chief, 'Don Vicente,' who had a plantation at the Tejon Pass, remained peaceable, and were not disturbed. The success of Captain Kuykendall's campaigns enabled the Commissioners to make treaties with all the tribes within the Tulare Valley, and those that occupied the region south of the San Joaquin River." After an encounter on the Kings River, the Indians in alarm fled into the canyons. It was while pursuing the fugitives that Captain Kuykendall saw some of the country which he said "was simply indescribable." The stories of the South Sierra brought back by the Captain and his men "were received with doubts or as exaggerations." They declared that they had seen deeper valleys and higher cliffs than were described by those who visited Yosemite. One of the soldiers who afterwards visited Yosemite declared: "The Kings River country, and the territory southeast of it, beats the Yosemite in terrific grandeur, but in sublime beauty you have got us."
The Kings River had been discovered by an early Spanish explorer who crossed the river on Epiphany Sunday, 1805, and named it "Rio de los Sanctos Reyes"River of the Holy Kings.
Apparently none of the Mariposa Battalion caught a glimpse of the Big Trees of the South Sierra. That discovery was reserved for Hale Tharp some eight years after the military visit to the Canyons of the Kaweahs. That story has been told in the book on the "Big Trees," written by Walter Fry, United States Commissioner, and John R. White, then Superintendent of Sequoia National Park. Mr. Tharp was quoted: "During the summer of 1858, accompanied by two Indians, I made my first trip into the Giant Forest. We went in by way of the Middle Fork River and Moro Rock, and camped a few days at Log Meadow, and came out by the same route. . . . I had two objects in making the trip. One was for the purpose of locating a high summer range for my stock, and the other was due to the fact that stories the Indians had told me of the 'big tree' forest caused me to wonder, so I decided to go and see." Said Mr. Tharp: "I made my second exploration trip into the Giant Forest during the summer of 1860. . . . I took with me John Swanson. We camped one night at Log Meadow, then went on over into the Kings River Canyon, returning again to Log Meadow after a period of about two weeks. . . . So far as I am aware, I am the first white man who ever visited either the Sequoia National Park or the Three Rivers region."
In the spring of 1861 Mr. Tharp began to occupy the Giant Forest as a summer range for stock. He reported that "We saw hundreds of deer, grouse, quail, and a few bear on our trip. We also saw six of the mountain gray wolves." Mr. Tharp recalled that "from 1861 to 1890, when the park was created, I held the Giant Forest country as my range, and some of my family went there every year with the stock. When the land up there was thrown on the market, with other men we bought large holdings." Hale Tharp's summer home at Giant Forest consisted of a huge hollow sequoia log fitted with door, window, and stone fireplace. Messrs. Fry and White have described this fallen tree as 24 feet in diameter at the butt and have estimated its height to have been 311 feet when it fell. This house-in-a-log is now carefully preserved by the National Park Service as one of the antiquities of the park.
It was in 1879 that John Muir was reported to have visited Hale Tharp at Log Meadow, though Muir made his first trip to the Kings and the Big Trees in 1875. It was in 1873 that Muir's Journals carried entries of his climb up Mt. Whitney from the east.
Muir's 1875 trip, as recorded in his book on "Our National Parks," must have been a real adventure. He took with him a "little Brownie mule," but reported that "many a time in the course of our journey when he was jaded and hungry, wedged fast in rocks or struggling in chaparral like a fly in a spiderweb, his troubles were sad to see, and I wished he would leave me and find his way home." Muir told in his book, "I struck out into the majestic trackless forest to the southeastward (from Mariposa Grove), hoping to find new groves or traces of old ones in the dense silver fir and pine woods about the head of Big Creek, where soil and climate seemed most favorable to their growth, but not a single tree or old monument of any sort came to light until I climbed the high rock called Wamellow by the Indians. Here I obtained telling views of the fertile forest-filled basin of the Upper Fresno. Innumerable spires of the noble yellow pine were displayed rising above one another on the braided slopes, and yet nobler sugar pines with superb arms outstretched in the rich autumn light, while away toward the southwest, on the verge of the glowing horizon, I discovered the majestic dome-like crowns of Big Trees towering high over all, singly and in close grove congregations. There is something wonderfully attractive in this king tree, even when beheld from afar, that draws us to it with indescribable enthusiasm; its superior height and massive smoothly rounded outlines proclaiming its character in any company; and when one of the oldest attains full stature on some commanding ridge it seems the very god of the woods."
ON THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
While Muir declared that "no description can give any adequate idea of their singular majesty, much less of their beauty," yet he has left us some of the best descriptions anywhere to be found. He wrote: "Excepting the sugar pine, most of their neighbors with pointed tops seem to be forever shouting Excelsior, while the Big Tree, though soaring above them all, seems satisfied, its rounded head, poised lightly as a cloud, giving no impression of trying to go higher. Only in youth does it show like other conifers a heavenward yearning, keenly aspiring with a long quick-growing top. Indeed the whole tree for the first century or two, or until a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet high, is arrowhead in form, and, compared with the solemn rigidity of age, is as sensitive to the wind as a squirrel tail. The lower branches are gradually dropped as it grows older, and the upper ones thinned out until comparatively few are left. These, however, are developed to great size, divide again and again, and terminate in bossy rounded masses of leafy branchlets, while the head becomes dome-shaped. . . .
"Perfect specimens, unhurt by running fires or lightning, are singularly regular and symmetrical in general form, though not at all conventional, showing infinite variety in sure unity and harmony of plan. The immensely strong, stately shafts, with rich purplish brown bark, are free of limbs for a hundred and fifty feet or so, though dense tufts of sprays occur here and there, producing an ornamental effect, while long parallel furrows give a fluted columnar appearance. . . . A particularly knotty, angular, ungovernable-looking branch, five to eight feet in diameter and perhaps a thou sand years old, may occasionally be seen pushing out from the trunk as if determined to break across the bounds of the regular curve, but like all the others, as soon as the general outline is approached the huge limb dissolves into massy bosses of branchlets and sprays, as if the tree were growing beneath an invisible bell glass against the sides of which the branches were moulded, while many small, varied departures from the ideal form give the impression of freedom to grow as they like.
"Except in picturesque old age, after being struck by lightning and broken by a thousand snowstorms, this regularity of form is one of the Big Tree's most distinguishing characteristics. Another is the simple sculptural beauty of the trunk and its great thickness as compared with its height and the width of the branches, many of them being from eight to ten feet in diameter at a height of two hundred feet from the ground, and seeming more like finely modeled and sculptured architectural columns than the stems of trees, while the great strong limbs are like rafters supporting the magnificent dome head. . . .
"The bark of full grown trees is from one to two feet thick, rich cinnamon brown, purplish on young trees and shady parts of the old, forming magnificent masses of color with the underbrush and beds of flowers. . . .
"The cones are bright grass-green in color, about two and a half inches long, one and a half wide, and are made up of thirty or forty strong, closely packed, rhomboidal scales with four to eight seeds at the base of each. The seeds are extremely small and light. . . .
"The faint lisp of snowflakes as they alight is one of the smallest sounds mortal can hear. The sound of falling sequoia seeds, even when they happen to strike on flat leaves or flakes of bark, is about as faint. Very different is the bumping and thudding of the falling cones. . . .
"The Big Tree keeps its youth far longer than any of its neighbors. Most silver firs are old in their second or third century, pines in their fourth or fifth, while the Big Tree growing beside them is still in the bloom of its youth, juvenile in every feature at the age of old pines, and cannot be said to attain anything like prime size and beauty before its fifteen hundredth year, or under favorable circumstances become old before its three thousandth. . . .
KINGS RIVER CANYON
"It is a curious fact that all the very old sequoias have lost their heads by lightning. . . . But of all living things sequoia is perhaps the only one able to wait long enough to make sure of being struck by lightning. Thousands of years it stands ready and waiting, offering its head to every passing cloud as if inviting its fate, praying for heaven's fire as a blessing; and when at last the old head is off, another of the same shape immediately begins to grow on. Every bud and branch seems excited, like bees that have lost their queen, and tries hard to repair the damage. Branches that for many centuries have been growing out horizontally at once turn upward, and all their branchlets arrange themselves with reference to a new top of the same peculiar curve as the old one. Even the small subordinate branches halfway down the trunk do their best to push up to the top and help in this curious head-making."
Like all of Muir's descriptions these words reveal not only what he saw in a single contemplation but what he had observed over a long period of years. He knew the inner life of the sequoias as well as the face they turned toward the world.
Muir's writings, which began to appear in the late seventies, carried news of these impressive giant trees to the reading world, but it was as a result of local effort that the first legislation was proposed to protect these helpless giants which could be hacked down, even with the crude tools then in use, though many of the huge trees which were cut have never been removed from their graves and no one was the gainer. As in the case of many other fine movements there were several sources of information and action. Articles began to appear in the Visalia Delta in 1879. The first sawmills, according to Messrs. Fry and White, were about fifty miles east of Visalia, near what is now General Grant National Park. At the same time the California Academy of Sciences was already working for the creation of a liberal Sequoia National Park to embrace a great area in the Sierra between Sequoia and Yosemite. But in a letter to Colonel John R. White, dated June 8, 1929, Colonel George W. Stewart of Visalia, who was largely responsible for the long-continued effort to save the Sequoia country, told of the beginnings of the movement in Visalia. It seems that in 1879, Tipton Lindsey, Receiver of the United States Land Office at Visalia, suggested to J. D. Hyde, Register of the Land Office, that they make an attempt to have the General Grant Grove, then known as the Fresno-Tulare Grove, suspended from entry. As a result, the United States Surveyor-General at San Francisco, Theodore Wagner, formerly a resident of Visalia, issued an order suspending the four sections in which it was thought these trees were located. Later the order of suspension was amended to include the land now in General Grant National Park.
In December of 1881, Senator John F. Miller, who was familiar with the articles in the Delta, and had kept in sympathetic touch with the movement, introduced a bill into Congress to create a "national park of the whole west flank of the Sierra Nevada from Tehipite to a point southeast of Porterville and from the higher foothills eastward to the summit of the range." The bill was never reported out of committee because of the objections of the local residents.
Colonel Stewart, who had been absent in Hawaii for three years, again joined the Delta when he returned to Visalia. In his 1929 letter to Colonel White, he told of the case of three men who attempted to get possession of Giant Forest and surrounding timber by having a number of men from the Bay region apply for a quarter section of land each under the Timber and Stone Law, but the applications were suspended by the Land Office and the suspension was never revoked. Otherwise, no doubt, the Giant Forest would have fallen as other fine Big Trees fell before the crude cutting tools of the lumbermen, though, due to damages in felling, difficulties in "working" the lumber into useful shape and transporting it, there was always a high percentage of waste and often total loss.
The story recounted by Colonel Stewart in his letter to Colonel White cleared up a number of obscure points, and has given us an authentic record of what happened nearly fifty years ago to save the Big Trees for this and future generations. It is inconceivable that civilized America should now ever withdraw its solemn dedication of the Sequoia country to the enjoyment of the people. Colonel Stewart's account is that of an actor in the play. He wrote:
"At that time we had many editorials and special articles on forest fires, timber trespasses, the saving of the big trees, and kindred topics and were in the habit of sending marked copies of the Delta or clippings from its columns to the Secretary of the Interior. Later in 1885, in November, I believe, the Secretary suspended eighteen townships of mountain land from entry because of alleged incorrect surveys. The suspended area covered all, or practically all, of the sequoia groves on the public lands in Fresno and Tulare counties.
"In 1889 a meeting of Tulare County citizens held at Visalia adopted a resolution favoring the creation of a forest reserve to embrace a territory to be named later, and the meeting adjourned to meet later in Fresno. We went to that meeting with the suggested boundaries prepared, the same taking in the entire forest region from Yosemite (State) Park to some point in Kern County. The Fresno meeting approved the idea, and the first petition naming a large and definite area for a forest reserve was sent to Washington before there was any law therefor.
"Some time that year or early in 1890 . . . the Secretary of the Interior revoked the suspension of 1885 as to the township in which the Atwell mill is situated. . . . Four of us wired a protest to Washington and followed this with a numerously signed petition, and the Secretary rescinded his order revoking the suspension.
"A few weeks later there were current rumors that the Giant Forest region was to be opened to entry. We then began to realize that a mere suspension of lands from entry was not a very efficient protection with a man like Noble at the head of the Department.
"It was then that we thought of the Yellowstone National Park, and read the act creating it and decided that only a national park would insure the permanent preservation of the Giant Forest and other big tree groves.
"I was editor and publisher of the Delta at that time. Mr. F. J. Walker, who had been an employee and later a publisher of the paper, was then not otherwise engaged and devoted about three months of his time to helping me on the Delta, and especially for the purpose of making this fight for the Forest. We took the matter up with General Vandever, member of Congress from our District, who at once became interested and introduced the bill.
"We wrote letters to every person in the United States, in and out of Congress, whom we knew to . . . favor the idea. Their name was not legion in those days. The response, with few exceptions, was cordial. The one in the East who was head and shoulders above all others in the good work was the editor of Forest and Steam, and he interested a number of influential persons and organizations there. . . . We desired to have a large park, embracing Mount Whitney, the Kings and Kern rivers, and the big tree areas, but under the circumstances thought it inadvisable to attempt so much. We had some difficulty in convincing others that it was not an opportune time to ask for so much, and we deemed the proper course to be to confine our efforts to saving the big trees, then in immediate danger. The river canyons we thought could be added if we once had a park in existence. We didn't think then the enlargement of the park would be so long deferred.
"The creation of General Grant National Park was due to the timely suggestion of D. K. Zumwalt of Visalia at the psychological moment. Several people had been interested in the preservation of that area, but Mr. Zumwalt happened to be in Washington at the time the enlargement of Sequoia and the creation of Yosemite Park was up for passage, and his recommendation that the General Grant Grove be also made a park was acted upon favorably by General Vandever and by Congress."
But the hopes of Colonel Stewart and his friends who persuaded their enthusiastic supporters to accept half a loaf were to be long deferred. After the Acts of Congress of 1890, John Muir immediately set himself to work for the enlargement of Sequoia National Park to include Mt. Whitney, the Kern and Kings country. In an article in the Century Magazine in November, 1891, entitled, "A Rival to the Yosemite, the Canyon of the South Fork of the King's River, California," Muir presented to the American public the most remarkable descriptions of the Kings country which are extant. He wrote:
"The bottom of the valley is about 5,000 feet above the sea, and its level or gently sloping surface is diversified with flowery meadows and groves and open sunny flats, through the midst of which the crystal river, ever changing, ever beautiful, makes its way; now gliding softly with scarce a ripple over beds of brown pebbles, now rushing and leaping in wild exultation across avalanche rock-dams or terminal moraines, swaying from side to side, beaten with sunshine, or embowered with leaning pines and firs, alders, willows, and tall balsam poplars, which with the bushes and grass at their feet make charming banks. Gnarled snags and stumps here and there reach out from the banks, making cover for trout which seem to have caught their colors from rainbow spray though hiding mostly in shadows, where the current swirls slowly and protecting sedges and willows dip their leaves.
"From this long, flowery, forested, well-watered park the walls rise abruptly in plain precipices or richly sculptured masses partly separated by side canyons, displaying wonderful wealth and variety of architectural forms, which are as wonderful in beauty so color and fineness of finish as in colossal height and mass. The so-called war of the elements has done them no harm. There is no unsightly defacement as yet; deep in the sky, inviting the onset of storms through unnumbered centuries, they will stand firm and seemingly as fresh and unworn as new-born flowers. . . .
"When from some commanding summit we view the mighty wilderness about this central valley, and, after tracing its tributary streams, note how every converging canyon shows in its sculpture, moraines and shining surfaces that it was once the channel of a glacier, contemplating this dark period of grinding ice, it would seem that here was a center of storm and stress to which no life would come. But it is just where the ancient glaciers bore down on the mountain flank with crushing and destructive and most concentrated energy that the most impressive displays of divine beauty are offered to our admiration. Even now the snow falls every winter about the valley to a depth of ten to twenty feet, and the booming of avalanches is a common sound. Nevertheless the frailest flowers, blue and gold and purple, bloom on the brows of the great canyon rocks, and on the frosty peaks, up to a height of 13,000 feet, as well as in sheltered hollows and on level meadows and lake borders and banks of streams."
Muir described the charming Paradise Valley and the "spacious and enchantingly beautiful" Tehipite Valley. He crossed the divide to the Middle Fork of the Kings by way of Copper Creek to this valley, about three miles long and half a mile wide, with walls from 2,500 to nearly 4,000 feet in height. He found the famous Tehipite Dome "sublimely simple and massive in structure," "one of the most striking and wonderful rocks in the Sierra." There were detailed descriptions of scores of marvelous peaks, the Sphinx, "one of the most remarkable in the Sierra," Cathedral Rocks, "most elaborately sculptured, and the most beautiful series of rocks . . . seen in any yosemite in the range," Glacier Monument, "the broadest, loftiest, and most sublimely beautiful of all these wonderful rocks," the North Tower, "a square, boldly sculptured mass 2,000 feet in height," the Dome arches, "heavily glaciated, and offering telling sections of domed and folded structure," and many others.
Muir made a number of trips to the Mt. Whitney-Kings-Kern country. He must many times have traversed the Sierra crests south of Yosemite. His name today is attached to a grove of Big Trees on the Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park, to the Muir Woods of Sequoia sempervirens in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais, to a mountain in the High Sierra, to an incomparable Pass, and to the John Muir Trail of nearly 200 miles, as measured in the guide book of Walter A. Starr, Jr., published posthumously in 1934. But though there are these memorials to John Muir, much of the superlatively fine region he passionately desired to see in the National Park System still remains outside, some of it injured beyond repair, some of it capable of being restored to its wilderness state, some of it threatened with future destruction, but much of it, mercifully, still waiting for its crown of kingdom which would be bestowed by declaring it forever immune to commercial exploitation and for all time preserved for the people.
It was twelve years after the death of John Muir before the Mt. Whitney and the Kern regions were added to Sequoia National Park, and that addition was the result of an unwilling, but seemingly inevitable, compromise on the part of those who were fighting for a larger area, including the Kings country. Twenty-five years ago, John Muir died, confidently expecting that the Kings canyons, about which he wrote so eloquently in 1891, twenty-two years before, would be given national-park status.
The fine service which John Muir rendered to the American people in acquainting them with the intimate life of the Sierra Nevada through unrivaled descriptions and first-hand information, can never be measured. For John Muir not only saw and felt his scenery, but he spent days and years studying the Book of Nature in the Sierra so that he could read and interpret its story to the world. It was he who discovered the traces of the great glaciers which carved the yosemites of the Sierra. He knew its trees, its flowers and shrubs. He knew the animals which roamed its mountain fastnesses. He knew its weather and its habits of flood and storm. He knew its sunshine.
It seems incredible that this act to place the Kings canyons and high surrounding Sierra in the national-park category of land-use should have been so long delayed.
In 1940 the Kings Canyon National Park was created by Congress. This brought into the System the Middle Fork and par of the South Fork of the Kings River, the headwaters of the South Fork of the San Joaquin, a galaxy of high Sierra peaks, the famous Evolution Basin and 81 miles of the John Muir Trail. Genera Grant and a new tract of redwoods were included.
Last Updated: 18-Nov-2009