The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Two:
First Park

Like a precious stone that escapes detection in the sands of a beach, Yosemite was protected over the centuries by its isolation. In turn the Spanish, Mexicans, and mountain men had claimed the High Sierra, but even the few explorers who finally entered the mountains left without publicizing all they may have seen. The miners of 1849 not only invaded California; many stayed and promoted it. Put another way, the Ahwahneechees were not only victims of gold but also casualties of publicity. Even as the gold ran out, tourists quickly replaced miners. The future of Yosemite Valley had already been sealed. As the Ahwahneechees themselves had learned by bitter experience, isolation did nothing to deter invasion once the location of Yosemite Valley was either suspected or known.

It remained for a young Englishman, James Mason Hutchings, to see in the description of Yosemite's wonders a means to fame and fortune. A frustrated miner but keen observer of the California scene (following his failure in the goldfields he turned to publishing a popular newsletter for miners), Hutchings sensed his opportunity in 1855. He retained an artist, Thomas A. Ayres, and with two other companions and two Indian guides entered Yosemite Valley in late June of that year. For Hutchings the five-day excursion marked the beginning of a lifetime involvement with Yosemite as publicist, settler, developer, and concessionaire. [1] Yosemite, in retrospect, had come to its first important threshold of development and had quietly passed over it, all without the slightest hint of public debate or at least some expressions of mild concern.

Like any committed publicist, Hutchings welcomed the fast-approaching close to Yosemite's days of isolation. By the end of 1855 several other parties of tourists had experienced the valley's grandeur; all told, the number of bona fide visitors had already reached forty-two. [2] The following July Hutchings did his own part to make certain the number steadily increased. On the strength of his many travels and obvious talent as a journalist, he released the first issue of Hutchings' California Magazine. "We wish to picture California, and California life," he wrote in the opening of his introductory note, "to portray its beautiful scenery and curiosities; to speak of its mineral and agricultural products; to tell of its wonderful resources and commercial advantages; and to give utterance to the inner life and experience of its people." In other words, he intended to promote California in every manner possible. Nor did he apologize for his commitment to boosterism, tourism, and economic growth. "Whatever we believe to be for the permanent prosperity of California, we shall fearlessly advocate, in any way that suits us." Of course, as publisher he intended to profit only by increasing his circulation. "Therefore," he concluded, "placing ourselves in the hands of a generous public, we make our bow, and introduce to your kindly notice the first number of HUTCHINGS' CALIFORNIA MAGAZINE." [3]

The subject of many feature articles, Yosemite Valley soon passed from obscurity into state, regional, and national prominence. [4] To be sure, the tide of description quickly swelled as eastern journalists and travelers also discovered Hutchings's favorite topic. Among the most effective publicists was Horace Greeley, editor and publisher of the New York Tribune. On a whirlwind visit to the valley in August 1859, he endured endless hours in the saddle, all the while anticipating the thrill of his first glimpse of Yosemite Falls. Typically, however, that late in the season the cataract had almost dried up, prompting Greeley to denounce it as nothing but "a humbug." Yosemite Valley, on the other hand, was well worth "a fatiguing visit." Indeed, he agreed, it was "most unique and majestic," unsurpassed by any other wonder like it "on earth." The following year the Reverend Thomas Starr King of Boston also made a visit and, several months afterward, described his horseback ride up the valley for the Boston Evening Transcript. "Is there such a ride possible in any other part of the planet?" He asked his readers to imagine formations such as "The Sentinel," standing 4,347 feet. "Reader, do you appreciate that height?" Similarly, before King's party "had been twenty minutes in the Yosemite Valley," they were "standing at the foot of a fall as high and more beautiful than the celebrated Staubach, the highest in Europe." Further try to comprehend, he asked, "such stupendous rock scenery." Certainly nothing "among the Alps, in no pass of the Andes, and in no Cañon of the mighty Oregon range" could rival it. Perhaps only "the awful gorges of the Himalaya," he finally conceded, could equal the tremendous uplift of the Sierra Nevada. [5]

The more such descriptions appeared in the popular press, the more Americans realized what Yosemite, symbolically, might mean to their culture. Among the few natural wonders renowned throughout the East, the most visited, Niagara Falls, had already been lost to private ownership and the attendant commercial ills. Once trees and wildflowers had framed the Niagara River; by 1850 hotels, shops, stables, signboards, tourist traps, and other eyesores all competed for public attention. [6] In dramatic contrast Yosemite was fresh, mysterious, inspiring, and, above all, unrivaled through out the world. "Niagara itself," agreed Albert D. Richardson, another popular correspondent, "would dwarf beside the rocks in [Yosemite] valley." Europe itself could claim nothing of comparable grandeur, either natural or human made. In that vein Samuel Bowles, editor and publisher of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, asked his readers to imagine how "The Three Brothers," "Cathedral Rocks," and "The Cathedral Spires" each replicated "the great impressiveness, the beauty and the fantastic form of the Gothic architecture. From their shape and color alike," he concluded, straining his analogy to the limit, "it is easy to imagine, in looking upon them, that you are under the ruins of an old Gothic cathedral, to which those of Cologne and Milan are but baby-houses." [7]

In Yosemite Valley, America came closer to ending its long and frustrating search for a distinctive national identity. Accordingly, describing the valley in combination with the giant sequoias proved doubly irresistible. Of the three groupings within a day's ride—the Merced, the Tuolumne, and the Mariposa groves—the latter was by far the largest and most popular. "Here," Horace Greeley informed his readers in 1859, "the Big Trees have been quietly nestled for I dare not say how many thousand years." But "that they were of very substantial size when David danced before the ark, when Solomon laid the foundations of the Temple, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when Aeneas fled from the burning wreck of vanquished Troy, when Sesostris led his victorious Egyptians into the heart of Asia," Greeley had "no manner of doubt." Thus did the giant sequoias further compensate the United States for lacking a national history that sparked interest overseas. The explorer Clarence King later agreed with Greeley's assessment that the United States had a traditional past; American history simply required occasional measurement in "green old age." King's implication, like Greeley's, once again was obvious; the cultural possibilities of these enduring giants seemingly had no end. Meanwhile, for the traveler, "if he love the tree for its own grand nature," King concluded, "he may lie in silence upon the soft forest floor . . . and spend many days in wonder, gazing upon majestic shafts . . . up and through the few huge branches, and among the pale clouds of filmy green traced in open network upon the deep blue of the sky." [8]

Thoroughly fascinated, Americans thronged to exhibit halls, art galleries, and photographers' studios to see such descriptions lent visual expression. After all, in Hutchings's words, Yosemite Valley, like Niagara Falls, had become fixed in the American mind as another "scene of wonder and curiosity." C. L. Weed made the first photographs of the valley for Hutchings in 1859; romanticized versions appeared that October as engravings in the Hutchings' California Magazine. [9] Two years later Carleton E. Watkins, another rising photographer, also visited Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove. The artist Albert Bierstadt followed in the summer of 1863. For seven weeks he sketched Yosemite's cliffs, domes, and waterfalls; on canvas the wonders grew even larger than life against their unmistakably exaggerated backgrounds. But exaggerated or not, Bierstadt's grandiose paintings were the talk of critics and the art-viewing public. "Adventure is an element in American artist-life which gives it singular zest and interest," wrote H. T. Tuckerman, a reviewer, in praise of Bierstadt's work. The artist had captured not only the "bold and true significance" of American scenery but also the spirit of "pioneer enterprise and hardy exploration" that seemed to imbue the nation's art as a whole. [10] Yosemite, it followed, was open to some artistic license. More than a natural wonder, it had become fixed in the national consciousness as an icon of American culture. From Hutchings's early travels to Bierstadt's imaginative paintings, the period of transition spanned a total of barely eight years. Between 1855 and 1863, Yosemite's timeless hold on the American imagination had already become a foregone conclusion.

If Americans had thought seriously about Yosemite's future in 1855, instead of waiting, as was the case, until 1864, the development of the valley might have been strictly curtailed right at the outset. But the United States as a whole still knew little about the area; more significant, scenic preservation was not yet part of the nation's frame of reference. Americans simply could not debate an issue that had yet to evolve. In the process of transforming Yosemite Valley from natural wonder to icon, Americans naturally assumed that its development for tourism was both legitimate and necessary.

Hardly had the first tourists arrived in 1855 when a few entrepreneurs, sensing the possibilities of the valley as a summer resort, contemplated building the first camps and rustic hotels. By 1857 a primitive structure opposite Yosemite Falls was serving guests; two years later a slightly more elaborate structure, the Upper Hotel, had also been completed, a short distance up the valley. [11] Yosemite had passed over another threshold of change, again without discussion or evidence of widespread concern about the consequences.

The first settler to arrive in the valley was James C. Lamon. A transplanted Virginian who had come west in search of gold, Lamon claimed a portion of the upper, or eastern, end of the valley in 1859. There he put up a cabin, planted an orchard, and tended a garden, all with the intention of selling fruit and produce to summer guests. The importance of establishing a residence in Yosemite Valley as a prerequisite for commercial advantage was also not lost on James Mason Hutchings. In 1860 he published Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity, a guidebook further extolling Yosemite's distinctive grandeur, in March 1862, after a heavy winter snow, he made a round trip to the valley, seeking to prove that it could be reached and inhabited throughout the year. In part influenced by Hutchings's reports, Lamon wintered the following season in his cabin on the valley floor. Further encouraged by Lamon's success, Hutchings returned in 1863 and purchased the financially troubled Upper Hotel. Like Lamon, he "preempted" or claimed by right of first occupation, portions of Yosemite Valley covering more than one hundred acres of land. [12]

As Hutchings and Lamon undoubtedly were aware, both of their claims were technically illegal. Under the land laws of the United States, the right of preemption, or homestead, applied only to surveyed portions of the public domain. For obvious reasons government surveyors gave highest priority to lands desirable for settlement; the Sierra Nevada, as a result, had not yet been surveyed. And even if it had, Hutchings and Lamon would not have been granted clear title to their homesteads until each had satisfied the General Land Office that his claim was legitimate. To do this, the claimant had to demonstrate either permanent residence or improvements over a period of five years, or he had to be willing to pay the federal government $1.25 per acre. The key restriction again was the limitation of any claim to the surveyed public lands expressly designated for settlement. Until Yosemite Valley had been legally surveyed and further designated for settlement exclusive of any other public use, neither Hutchings nor Lamon had a binding claim to permanent ownership. [13]

Bluntly put, both men were squatters who simply hoped their claims would be recognized once Yosemite Valley had been surveyed. Like the location of the latest gold strike, the variables of America's land laws—and how each might be circumvented—were common knowledge all across the advancing frontier. As former gold seekers themselves, Hutchings and Lamon certainly knew the advantages of staking any kind of claim to a disputed piece of property. Having publicized Yosemite Valley and proven it habitable year-round, they now stood to profit from the greater number of tourists certain to follow. Meanwhile, like many other frontier settlers, they further gambled on the inconsistencies of federal land laws. Regardless of the fact that Yosemite Valley had not yet been surveyed, Hutchings and Lamon had settled there first and thereby had positioned themselves to insist on a recognition of their claims. Here again, as the frontier experience showed, the determined settler or speculator who backed his claim to a piece of property by also occupying it was almost certain to have some influence over its final dispensation.

Of course, neither Hutchings nor Lamon could have predicted the campaign for the government preservation of Yosemite Valley, an event that finally occurred during the winter and spring of 1864. Precisely how the campaign evolved remains largely a mystery. It is known that on February 20, 1864, Israel Ward Raymond, the California state representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company of New York, sent a letter to John Conness, the junior senator from California, urging the preservation of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Apparently, Raymond's letter elaborated on previous exchanges or discussions among himself, Senator Conness, and several others. "I send by express some views of the Yo Semite Valley to give you some idea of its character," Raymond began. These views included a photograph, taken at Inspiration Point, showing "about seven miles of the Valley, and the principal part of it." Indicating the elevations necessary for making any effective comparisons, Raymond continued: "You can see that its sides are abrupt precipices ranging from 2500 to 5000 feet high. Indeed there is no access to it but by trails over the debris deposited by the crumbling of the walls." [14]

In retrospect, Raymond's next statement was crucial to the eventual establishment of the park. "The summits are mostly bare Granite Rock," he remarked. "In some parts the surface is covered only by pine trees and can never be of much value." Undoubtedly, as a result, it "will be many years before it is worth while for the Government to survey these mountains." Still, he considered "it important to obtain the proprietorship soon, to prevent occupation and especially to preserve the trees in the valley from destruction." [15] With this statement he underscored that Yosemite's potential economic value, exclusive of tourism, was minimal at best. Meanwhile, the valley obviously had the enormous scenic appeal that justified its being protected from the few individuals who might wish to settle there.

Raymond further included a brief description of the property that ought to be protected in the Mariposa Grove; he then came to the key statement of his entire proposition. "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." Perhaps the wording inalienable forever was his own terminology; more likely, however, it resulted from discussions with one or more of the persons whom he listed as possible commissioners of the grant, especially Frederick Law Olmsted, the distinguished co-designer and first superintendent of Central Park in New York City. Although Olmsted and Raymond have not been linked directly, Raymond certainly was familiar with Central Park and Olmsted's growing reputation. Similarly, he could have met with Olmsted previously, either in New York or California; in 1863 Olmsted had gone to California to manage the Mariposa Estate, located about a day's ride west of Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Although he did not see the valley proper until August 1864, he was already well aware of its existence and fame. [16] Meanwhile, Senator Conness himself was crucial to the survival of the inalienable clause; he forwarded Raymond's letter to the commissioner of the General Land Office, requesting that a bill be prepared, and, significantly, he repeated Raymond's words: "Let the grant be inalienable." [17]

On May 17, 1864, the Senate Committee on Public Lands reported favorably on Conness's bill; he asked for its consideration immediately and was granted his request. "I will state to the Senate," he began his speech, "that this bill proposes to make a grant of certain premises located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the State of California, that are for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world." This statement, of course, repeated Raymond's assurance that Yosemite's striking beauty masked nothing of obvious commercial value. The most telling part of the speech, however, was Conness's own. Deviating momentarily from Raymond's original argument, he forcefully reminded the Senate that the British had earlier denied the very existence of the giant sequoias. "From the Calaveras grove some sections of a fallen tree were cut during and pending the great World's Fair that was held in London some years since," Conness noted. "The English who saw it declared it to be a Yankee invention, made from beginning to end; that it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country; that it could not be." Even though merely transporting the exhibit had cost "several thousand dollars, we were not able to convince them that it was a specimen of American growth." Few statements more graphically depicted the cultural significance that Americans had since bestowed on Yosemite Valley and the giant sequoias. "They would not believe us," Conness repeated for effect. If the English were so stubborn, America's duty was unmistakably clear. "The purpose of this bill is to preserve one of these groves from devastation and injury," he concluded, although obviously he did not intend to slight the significance of Yosemite Valley as well. "The necessity of taking early possession and care of these great wonders can easily be seen and understood." [18]

Introduced in those words, as a measure in defense of American pride and patriotism, Conness's bill was assured of success. Nor did England's sympathy for the Confederacy during the Civil War, then already in its third and bloodiest year, hurt the bill's chances. By reminding the Senate of England's earlier denouncement of the giant sequoias, Conness also subconsciously reminded his colleagues of Britain's lingering sentiments toward the American South.

Given the expense of the Civil War, his assurance that the park would cost the government nothing for maintenance and support proved equally important in securing the bill's passage. "The object and purpose is to make a grant to the State," he carefully noted, "to be taken charge of by gentlemen to be appointed by the Governor, who are to receive no compensation for their services, and who are to undertake the management and improvement of the property by making roads leading thereto and adopting such other means as may be necessary for its preservation and improvement." The application for protection itself came "from various gentlemen of California, gentlemen of fortune, of taste, and of refinement," who asked simply "that this property be committed to the care of the State." The one and only objective of the bill was the "preservation both of the Yosemite valley and the Big Tree Grove," that each "may be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind. It is a matter involving no appropriation whatever," Conness remarked, underscoring this most important qualification. "The property is of no value to the Government," he also restated, further invoking Raymond's compelling observation. "I make this explanation that the Senate may understand what the purpose is." [19] The House of Representatives speedily ratified the measure; accordingly, on June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Park Act into law. [20]

Its significance, of course, was easily lost at the time, especially since the bill had been passed in the midst of civil war. In retrospect, however, the United States Congress had done nothing less than approve a model piece of legislation leading to the eventual establishment of national parks. Meanwhile, Yosemite's own history as solely a natural wonder had drawn to a close. Its legacy of accomplishment and controversy as a park was about to begin.

Yosemite surmounted the first of its bureaucratic obstacles with relative ease. The passage of the Yosemite Park Act of 1864 provided for transferring the valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state of California. The official acceptance of the grant required the approval of the state legislature, which would not meet again until 1866. As a result, Governor Frederick F. Low issued an interim proclamation of acceptance on September 28, 1864, and, further in keeping with his prerogatives under section one of the enabling act, announced in the proclamation his first appointments to the Yosemite board of park commissioners. [21]

Of considerable note, the name heading the governor's list was that of Frederick Law Olmsted. Aside from his probable influence on the park legislation itself, his appointment as nominal chairman of the commission underscored his growing reputation in park management and design. The seven other appointees included Israel Ward Raymond and Josiah Dwight Whitney, state geologist. The commissioners immediately authorized a survey of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to determine, as required by the act of June 30, 1864, "the locus, extent, and limits" of the grant. The survey was completed that fall by James T. Gardner and Clarence King, whose names were synonymous with exploration of the region. Finally, on April 2, 1866, the legislature and the governor of California jointly approved an act of acceptance, and the transfer of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state became official. [22]

The Park Commission, in turn, voted on May 21 to make Galen Clark, one of its members, the first official guardian of the grant. [23] In a more serious vein, the commissioners further addressed the problem of outstanding land claims in the valley. Fortunately, a solution, so it seemed, had already been written into the Yosemite Park Act. In keeping with Israel Ward Raymond's original recommendations to Senator Conness, the bill authorized private individuals to apply for the privilege of building and operating tourist accommodations in the park. Leases to this effect were to be granted for ten-year intervals. Accordingly, the commissioners offered James Mason Hutchings and James C. Lamon the right to maintain their existing properties in the valley for a period not to exceed the ten years allowable under the terms of the Yosemite Park Act. [24]

As Josiah Dwight Whitney, the commission's secretary, later reported to the state legislature, the terms offered Lamon and Hutchings were extremely generous. In Lamon's case, for example, the commissioners charged "the nominal rent of one dollar per annum." By 1866 he claimed 378 acres in the upper portion of the valley; of these, 20 had been cleared and planted with fruit trees and berries. The berries especially, Whitney noted, "have found a ready market in the valley among the visitors." The point again was that Lamon had not established clear title to his property prior to June 30, 1864, nor could he have done so regardless of the park act unless Yosemite Valley had been surveyed and opened to settlement. Still, in view "of the useful character of the work done by him," Whitney remarked, and because "his buildings are not at all conspicuous in the valley," the commission agreed that he should be offered a lease in keeping with the most liberal interpretation of the Yosemite Park Act. [25]

In Hutchings's case, the commissioners tried to be no less accommodating. Moreover, they remained sympathetic even though Hutchings, unlike Lamon, had claimed "the best meadow land, and the best or one of the best sites for building in the valley." Further weighing his investments in and contributions to the valley's notoriety, the commissioners were also disposed to offer him a ten-year lease to his land, house, and hotel, again "at a mere nominal rent." [26]

Nonetheless, neither Hutchings nor Lamon accepted the commission's offer, insisting that the terms instead infringed on their property rights. Thus the commission had "no alternative," Whitney reported, but to begin "legal proceedings against both these gentlemen as trespassers." Simply stated, the question before the courts would be "whether the State really is the proprietor of the grant made by Congress, or, in short, whether the United States have authority to dispose of the unsurveyed and unsold public land." [27] King and Gardner's survey authorized by the Yosemite Park Commission had established only the boundaries and topography of the grant; in any event, federal acceptance of such limited surveys in no way obligated the General Land Office to sanction any previous settlement claims.

Meanwhile, Hutchings and Lamon prepared to take their case to the California state legislature. Early in 1868 the legislature found overwhelmingly in their favor, passing an act of restitution even over the veto of Governor H. H. Haight. On the ratification of the measure by the United States Congress, each claimant would receive clear title to 160 acres of land in Yosemite Valley. [28] The qualification that Congress itself must ratify the award proved, in the end, to be of special significance. Otherwise, the ramifications of the dispute were already becoming obvious. If Hutchings and Lamon won their case, any land claim, no matter how tenuous, could conceivably undermine the Yosemite Grant, not to mention irreparably compromise all future attempts to establish scenic parks on the public domain.

On June 3, 1868, Representative George W. Julian of Indiana asked for consideration of H.R. 1118, "an act to confirm to J. M. Hutchings and J. C. Lamon their preemption claims in the Yosemite valley, in the State of California." Following the line of argument they themselves had repeatedly advanced, Julian depicted Hutchings and Lamon as men whose investments were in fact personal sacrifices in the national interest. Long before June 30, 1864, according to the text of H.R. 1118, both claimants had made "permanent and substantial improvements" in the valley "to the great convenience and comfort of visitors." In other words, the United States had Hutchings and Lamon alone to thank for the fact that Yosemite Valley "was no longer a remote and solitary wilderness." The provision in the Yosemite Park Act allowing only ten-year leases to private developers was obviously "wholly inadequate" to attract other innkeepers and investors. Hutchings and Lamon had staked their fortunes on Yosemite Valley regardless of such risks. They "had built their cabins, planted their orchards and vineyards, and expended several thousand dollars in establishing for themselves a comfortable home," Julian stated, further pleading their case on the floor of the House. Adding to his imagery of their alleged wilderness ordeal, he concluded that all the while, they had faced "the privations and hardship incident to a life remote from society and civilization." [29]

In a similar vein, Representative James A. Johnson of California took up the argument where Julian left off, noting that if the government offered "inducements to those who are hardy and enterprising enough to advance ahead into the unbroken wilderness and blaze out a way for civilization to follow," but then reneged on those inducements, "that Government is not a Government of law, of justice, or of right between man and man; but is a plundering despotism, robbing its own citizens." The Yosemite Park Act aside, the Constitution and laws of the United States made no provision "for the creation of fancy pleasure grounds by Congress out of citizens' farms." Here again, the portrayal of Hutchings and Lamon as struggling pioneers rather than frontier opportunists proved compelling. When the speaker ended debate and the vote was called, the motion for restitution was easily approved. [30]

If the bill had carried in the Senate as well, the Yosemite Park Act might have been irreparably undermined by any land claim, no matter how specious. Instead, the Senate held firm to the preservation principles first enunciated by Israel Ward Raymond and John Conness. On July 23, 1868, Senator George H. Williams of Oregon reported to his colleagues that the Committee on Private Land Claims, to whom H.R. 1118 had been referred, had instructed him "to make an adverse report, and to move the indefinite postponement of the bill." The report itself emphasized that Yosemite Valley had "never been surveyed"; accordingly, it had "never become subject to pre-emption or private sale." It followed that Hutchings's and Lamon's rights to the lands they occupied were no more "than might arise from an expectation that at some subsequent time they could obtain title from the United States" (italics added). In any event, especially given the topography of Yosemite Valley and its environs, the claimants at least "had some reasons to suppose that there would be delays and difficulties in perfecting their titles" and, more specifically, "that the public surveys would not, for a long time, if ever, be extended to it." Meanwhile, "the remarkable features of the place" should have forewarned Lamon and Hutchings that Yosemite Valley might "not be treated by the government like agricultural lands of an ordinary character." [31] This observation was "especially true of Mr. Hutchings," Williams wrote, emphasizing that his claim was even more tenuous than Lamon's. Hutchings had "commenced his residence there long after public attention had been attracted to the valley, and only a month or two before it was granted by Congress to the State." If anything, Williams continued, Hutchings was entitled "to credit and possibly compensation," but not land. To be sure, he had "visited the valley frequently before 1864, and published interesting descriptions of it"; the point again was that no law provided "for the inception of a title in that way." Settlers residing on the unsurveyed public lands of the United States did so "at their peril," Williams concluded. "The government is under no equitable obligation to maintain their claims to the prejudice of the public interests." [32]

In the instance of Yosemite Valley, "one of the wonders of the world," only its preservation in trust, Williams argued, protected those public interests. "It stands unrivalled in its majesty, grandeur, and beauty," he wrote. "It is one of those magnificent developments of natural scenery in which all of the people of the country feel a pride and an interest, and to which their equal right of access and enjoyment ought to be protected." It was toward "this end," he emphasized, that Congress had granted Yosemite to California in the first place. Clearly, the acceptance of the grant bound California to honor its conditions. As Williams noted, "That State was required and expected to take the valley and hold it for 'public use, resort, and recreation,' and Congress in effect by the act of 1864 reserved it for such purposes" (italics added). Instead California had voted to allow the possibility "that ultimately it would go into the hands of those who would levy tribute upon the travelling public, and make this beautiful valley odious for the extortions of its greedy and sordid possessors." Admittedly, it had been said that Hutchings and Lamon were "good and deserving citizens; that they will protect the valley." Then what about the other people who had supposedly made similar claims? Could the same be said for them? In either case, "passage of the bill before the Senate would be to give up the idea of the public enjoyment of the valley, and surrender it wholly to the purposes of private speculation." [33]

The key again, Williams concluded in his report, was the intent of the original legislation to protect Yosemite Valley "inalienable for all time." The California legislation awarding Lamon and Hutchings title to lands in the valley was a breach of that faith, a measure approved "in utter disregard of the conditions and purposes of the grant." The duty of the Senate was unmistakably clear. "All parts of the country are interested in keeping this property out of private hands," Williams reiterated. Congress had no obligation whatsoever "to ratify the act of California granting to Hutchings and Lamon parts of the Yosemite valley." The American people instead overwhelmingly demanded "that it should be protected for their own 'use, resort, and recreation.'" [34]

In retrospect, preservation had withstood its first significant challenge. Above all, the Senate's insistence that California honor its obligation to protect Yosemite Valley in trust for the American people as a whole, "inalienable for all time," gave crucial impetus to the national park idea. Except for the cession of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to California for management, every other guiding principle of the national park idea was already in place by 1864. The petition of Lamon and Hutchings forced Congress to reaffirm those principles as early as 1868, four years prior to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.

Traditionally considered to be the birthplace of the national park idea, Yellowstone was in fact the beneficiary of the Yosemite Park Act and, equally significant, of its reaffirmation by Congress in 1868. By way of precedent, the Yosemite Grant had already been publicized, established, challenged, and upheld. Under the circumstances, the idea of public parks came more readily into focus; long before Yellowstone had been explored and promoted, the model pointing the way to its protection had been conceived and sustained.

In the final analysis, the matter of ownership was the only major distinction between the two parks. [35] That distinction was reduced to a technicality the moment the United States Senate refused in 1868 to ratify California's legislation allowing private claims in Yosemite Valley. To be sure, it was California in the first place that had submitted the legislation to Congress for final review and approval. In effect, that gesture alone validated the act of June 30, 1864, by indicating that California both recognized and accepted the limitations inherent in the transfer of Yosemite Valley from federal to state ownership. The fact remains that Yosemite Park originated as a piece of federal legislation, and was awarded to California only as long as the state observed the express conditions contained in the act. Obviously, if California had pressed the point in 1868, either by failing to submit its legislation to Congress for review or by ignoring Congress's final determination in the dispute, further legislation leading to the revocation of the Yosemite Grant would have loomed as a very real possibility.

Such disparities as its name and ownership aside, Yosemite was in fact the first national park, the first park not only established but also upheld by Congress. The irony was that Congress, having disallowed private ownership in the park, nonetheless openly promoted private investment in its facilities. On the one hand, individual initiative was strictly curtailed; on the other, the Yosemite Park Act legally sanctioned and encouraged it. Only leases were to be granted for public camps and hotels; no properties supporting these concessions could be privately owned. The point is that a major foundation of the park experiment had been grounded in contradiction. Individuals could still profit by promoting development; they simply could not acquire the attractions themselves.

Concessionaires, it followed, would hedge their investments with a greater say in park matters. Indeed, by 1868 potential investors were already complaining that ten-year leases were not long enough. [36] Granted, James Lamon and James Hutchings had apparently lost their battle to claim land in Yosemite outright, but in truth the convictions of private property that they had defended still largely prevailed. Private property remained sacred; it was simply granted in different form. Accordingly, Yosemite Valley, even as it became a park, still faced the critical problem of limiting change and development. With barely a pause for reflection, the nation had allowed business a legal means for exploiting the preserve. What Yosemite might have been had every form of commercialism been excluded from the outset was a riddle therefore left to future generations.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap2.htm — 17-Mar-2004