The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter Seven:
Changing of the Guard

As the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913 further testified, the earlier reduction of Yosemite National Park had done nothing to resolve the issue of park integrity. About the only thing preservationists still had to cheer about was California's agreement in 1905 to return Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the federal government. Congress formally accepted both tracts the following year; the agency responsible for protection was also quickly identified. For the first time since its arrival at Wawona in 1891, the cavalry was put in charge of both the high country and Yosemite Valley. With the transfer of army headquarters from Wawona to the valley in the summer of 1906, preservationists looked forward to a new era for the park, characterized, above all, by military efficiency and unified management.

Yet as the cavalry soon discovered, the management of Yosemite Valley called for more than patrols and the ejection of trespassers. For fifteen years that distinct but limited role had meshed ideally with the needs of the high country and with military tradition. Suddenly the cavalry was ordered to fill the void left in Yosemite Valley by the abolishment of the state park commission. As a result, the army found itself dealing not only with shepherds and poachers but also with valley residents, tourists, and park concessionaires. Clearly the requirements and expectations of management had multiplied severalfold. In the high country, cavalry authority had gone basically unchallenged. In the valley, on the other hand, people conditioned by forty years of management give-and-take expected more say in the overall operation of the park.

Concessionaires, visitors, preservationists, politicians—all required considerably more of the acting superintendent's time and attention. Resource management alone called for a greater variety of decisions. For example, sighting a bear or a mountain lion in the high country was likely to raise excitement and perhaps even a demand that the animal be killed. Still, generally there was less concern in the backcountry about visitors' safety. In Yosemite Valley the presence of wildlife in close proximity to residents and visitors evoked not only excitement but also occasionally fear. Such concerns were often baseless, but that was not the point. Simply, what the cavalry decided seemed more immediate and visible. In the high country, sightings of so-called dangerous animals might in fact be ignored. In the valley, the luxury of decision making in isolation had been largely stripped away.

It followed that the question would be asked yet again: Was army management for the park any more appropriate or desirable than the previous custodial arrangement with the state of California? The answer came in 1914 when civilian rangers replaced the troopers and the cavalry era drew abruptly to a close. The search for management unity now turned to Congress and to the expected authorization of the National Park Service. Another milestone in the history of Yosemite National Park was about to be realized.

The retrocession of Yosemite Valley to the federal government closed one period of management debate and opened yet another. Advocates of the transfer, among them the Sierra Club and the Southern Pacific Railroad, looked forward to the advantages of unified control. [1] "The state commissioners have done as well as could be expected," the Sierra Club's board of directors remarked in a special letter to Congress. Diplomatically, the Sierra Club dropped any direct reference to the commission's alleged corruption and management ineptitude. Instead the board emphasized the commissioners' struggles with the state. "They receive no salary," the club stated, for example. "All the time they give to the affairs of Yosemite Valley must be sacrificed from the time devoted to their regular vocations." Moreover, the commission's budget was a "paltry ten or fifteen thousand dollars annually." And it was "with difficulty" that the commission had convinced the legislature to appropriate even that amount. "The State commissioners are entitled to praise for what they have accomplished in the face of such adverse conditions," the club therefore admitted, seeming to ignore the earlier criticism of some of its distinguished members. Nevertheless, the underlying problem remained unresolved: "The State is unable to properly care for Yosemite Valley." [2]

Shrewdly, the Sierra Club's definition of "proper" care included projects intended to promote tourism. To be sure, federal ownership of Yosemite Valley would allow the "construction of the best roads, bridges, and trails," the club stated emphatically in its letter to Congress. "Ample hotel accommodations of the best quality would be provided. A telephone system for the entire park to guard against forest fires would be inaugurated." Similarly, the system of toll roads approaching the park—so despised by tourists—could "be abolished, and in all probability a splendid boulevard constructed up the Merced Canyon, which would reduce the time and expense of travel one-half and greatly increase the comfort." In fact, better roads and hotels probably "would attract immense numbers of tourists from all parts of the world," people presently discouraged only "by the arduous nature of the trip and the lack of accommodation." [3]

Leading opponents of recession, among them concessionaires and local developers, took precisely the opposite stance, suggesting that the state was more amenable to all forms of commercial enterprise. Another argument underscored the potential injury to California's pride and reputation if Yosemite Valley reverted to federal control on the strength of earlier charges against the state park commissioners. [4] Given these objections, the strategy of the Sierra Club was indeed most effective. Of course, the club undoubtedly heeded suggestions from the Southern Pacific Railroad, whose own interests in tourism and passenger traffic would be far better served by federal appropriations for valley improvements. Indeed, as early as January 5, 1905, John Muir appealed directly to Edward H. Harriman, whose railroad empire included not only the Southern Pacific but also the Union Pacific and Illinois Central lines. Unquestionably, Harriman's influence with the California legislature effected the approval in 1905 of the state's transfer bill. Muir, greatly pleased, appealed to Harriman a second time in 1906, requesting assistance in winning congressional acceptance of the state's intended gift. "I will certainly do anything I can to help your Yosemite Recession Bill," Harriman wrote Muir on April 16, 1906. [5] And once again the industrialist was as good as his word. His request that a vote be taken was speedily honored, thereby freeing the bill from the threat of a lengthy deadlock. Accordingly, on June 11, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed H.J. 118, a joint resolution of the House and Senate accepting California's act to reconvey Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. [6]

As yet, little had been said about natural resources; the Sierra Club, for one, seemed to retain its long-standing confidence in military efficiency, promising that "perfect order would prevail, no matter how great the number of visitors," just as soon as army protection was extended to the valley. [7] On an ominous note, however, an amendment to the resolution accepting Yosemite Valley was the instrument for a second reduction of Yosemite National Park. That second reduction, it will be recalled, cost the national park another 10,480 acres, adding slightly over sixteen and a third square miles to the 542 taken out the previous year. In short, another important gain had been offset by another significant loss. The monumental core of Yosemite National Park might have had greater security, but resource issues affecting forests and wildlife were still basically unresolved.

Not to be discouraged, Major H. C. Benson, acting superintendent, continued to press for the recognition of wildlife problems in the park. Indeed, wildlife conditions were uppermost on his mind that summer of 1906 as he moved park headquarters from Wawona to Yosemite Valley. As he had already observed, the boundary adjustments of 1905 had seriously disrupted the park's original wildlife range. More to his amazement, conditions even in Yosemite Valley seemed entirely out of hand. "The Yosemite Valley itself has, during recent years, been a death trap to all game that was unfortunate enough to enter it," he reported. "Practically every person living in the valley kept a rifle, shotgun, and revolver, and any animal or bird... was immediately pursued by the entire contingent, and either captured or killed." In fact, he concluded, his words still tinged with amazement, "A bear pen constructed about three years ago was found by me within 400 yards of the Sentinel Hotel." [8]

An incident early in September dramatized Benson's point. As he reported, "Two bears entered the valley, causing great consternation among those people who had been living here for some time." Everyone "seemed to think that these bears should at once be pursued and driven out." His sympathies obviously lay with the bears. "It is hoped that within a short time game will learn that the valley is a safe retreat and not a death trap," he concluded. Toward that end he recommended year-round protection of the park, further underscoring the futility of seasonal patrols. "Immediately upon the withdrawal of the troops from the park it is overrun with pot hunters, and these same men often remain throughout the entire winter, killing and trapping all the game in their vicinity." [9]

In retrospect, Benson was among the first to identify the foundations of wildlife management in national parks. Contemporary thinking focused on Yosemite's grand scenery. A good many people in awe of the park's waterfalls and cliffs had practically no regard for its wildlife populations, especially for animals believed to pose danger to residents and visitors. In Benson's view, at least, national parks should be sanctuaries for both people and wildlife. The problem was that national parks had not been established on biological principles but rather, far more basic, in celebration of the grandeur of the American scene.

Another problem was psychological. Unlike scenery, wildlife was capable of arousing the deepest fears and emotions. The California grizzly was extinct in Yosemite; the species still causing so much excitement was the black bear, Ursus americanus. This bear not only was historically more common but also was considerably less dangerous. Even so, most Americans visiting Yosemite at the turn of the century would not have been swayed by the argument that their ignorance of such distinctions was setting the stage for wildlife problems well into the future.

Much as the extermination of the buffalo became a symbol of America's vanishing frontier, so bears were to become symbolic of national-park wildlife and its needs. At the turn of the century, bears in Yellowstone delighted tourists; attracting the animals required little more than scattering food and garbage around camps and hotels. [10] In Yosemite the wildlife picture in 1900 was somewhat less dramatic. There, to reemphasize, the grizzly was already extinct; decades of illegal poaching and grazing had taken their toll of other wildlife species as well. "To see Bear or Deer, or any other animal life at times required days of travel," Gabriel Sovulewski, one of the earliest civilian rangers, recalled in 1936. Simply, the animals "were killed on sight." Traps also "were plentiful" for both large and small game. Further corroborating Major Benson's observations, he reported, "I found Bear traps on the floor of Yosemite Valley as late as 1906," even "after the Valley was ceded back to the United States and became part of the national park." As a result, he concluded, "It was several years before the wild animals became friendly and were not afraid to face men, women, and children on the floor of the Valley." [11]

What Sovulewski failed to mention in 1936 was his initial advocacy of the elimination of the bear population. "It is not necessary for me to call your attention to the question of bears in the valley," he wrote Benson's successor, Major William W. Forsyth, on November 11, 1910. No doubt the major had already received "many complaints." The "bear question" nonetheless was "very serious"; therefore, "if possible, some action should be taken to rid the valley of their presence." In Sovulewski's opinion the matter had come down to a choice "between campers and bears." More specific, "if the bears remain here," he warned, "camping in Yosemite Valley will be a very serious proposition." [12]

Typically, Sovulewski had not distinguished between normal bear behavior and that induced by lack of human knowledge. Always the problem was bears, not people. In that vein Mack A. Erwin of Selma, California, an advertising representative for several park concessionaires, also took "the liberty" to give Major Forsyth "the facts," opening his letter of complaint by noting that he, his wife, and four children had already suffered two encounters with Yosemite's notorious "beasts." The first occurred the night of August 19. As the Erwins slept, "three grown bears pillaged the camp and took everything in the shape of edibles." Erwin awoke to find the bears walking around his sleeping children, "all," he added for emphasis, "under the age of 5 years." The following evening he built a large campfire and lit a kerosene lantern, hoping these "would bluff the bears." Only then did he walk to the village, leaving his family behind in camp. The ruse was a failure. Just minutes after he had left, "the five bears came marching up and before Mrs. E. was aware they were within 20 feet of where she was washing the dishes. Seeing her, the two large ones reared up and gave a mad growl—showing defiance." Although his wife quickly gathered up the children and immediately fled the area, "before she had gotten 30 yards away," Erwin remarked, "the bears had climbed upon the table and they remained until they cleaned the camp." [13]

At last he acknowledged that tourists who fed bears "might in part be responsible for the presence of the beasts." Open refuse in the garbage pits also seemed enough "to induce any bear to make his nightly calls." Erwin confessed, "That alone would bring them down into the valley." Still he did not admit his own complicity in the problem; his observations of human carelessness ended where his campsite began. "The last experience leads me to believe that the bears are a menace to life and at all times they are a source of annoyance," he wrote, again ignoring that food left in the open explained the bears' raid on his camp. "I cannot get my family to go back to the Park to camp and I have heard dozens of others say the same." Nor would the situation improve. "Until the bears are either killed or caged there will be a constant decrease in private camping." The rights and safety of park visitors came first. "Sleeping in the open is the most attractive health feature that this Valley affords," he explained, "and the presence of the bears forbids this!" [14]

A less destructive prohibition that would allow bears and people to coexist—banning food left out in the open around buildings and camp sites—still eluded Erwin and his contemporaries, including Major Forsyth. In both his annual and monthly reports he too left open the possibility that some of the bears might have to be destroyed. For example, he wrote the secretary of the interior on November 4, 1910, justifying that point of view, "It is, in my judgment, a matter of time only, when some frightful disaster will occur on one of the high trails due to some riding party meeting a bear." Forsyth could just imagine the horror of horses and mules tumbling "over the cliff." He therefore asked for authority "to hunt the bears out of the Valley using shot guns loaded with very small shot." "In this connection," he concluded, further revealing the power of public opinion, "a copy of a letter from Mr. Mack A. Erwin, Selma, California, is enclosed." [15]

Although painful, the method outlined by Major Forsyth at least avoided killing the bears outright. But again the enormity of his request was swallowed by emotion. As long as people considered bears a threat to life and limb, any sign of an animal's real or imagined aggressiveness was bound to occasion a deadly response. Just two years later, for example, Forsyth presented evidence suggesting that his program failed to distinguish between bears acting aggressively and those reacting in self-defense. Ranger Gaylar, assigned to pepper the animals with buckshot, reported that he had killed "perhaps eight or ten bears" in his own self-defense. Under the circumstances, of course, it would have been impossible to determine whether the bears really meant anyone any harm or had simply lashed out at Gaylar's own aggressiveness. [16]

Undoubtedly Ranger Gaylar had overreacted; his response was nonetheless in keeping with current perceptions. Opinions about wildlife were still largely influenced by frontier myths and emotions. Obviously lacking was scientific knowledge of animal behavior. Certainly any conviction that bears also had a right to live unmolested in the Yosemite environment had yet to win an effective minority of converts. Extending the concept of sanctuary from scenery to wildlife was just beginning in national parks. And even as that process gained momentum not every species received equal consideration. The temptation was much too strong to judge animals in human terms, to distinguish between "good" and "bad" species as well as between individual animals displaying "moral" or "immoral" behavior.

The result in Yosemite was the persecution of any animal or species of wildlife believed to jeopardize visitor enjoyment of the park. The list included black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. Fur-bearing animals were also trapped and hunted for their skins. Understandably, biologists would look back on the period as one of ignorance and tragedy. But of course park managers viewed the situation through entirely different eyes. The long-term tragedy was the compounding of emotions, the persistence of prejudice against wildlife even in the face of emerging scientific awareness. Greater knowledge of wildlife behavior did not immediately lead to greater human tolerance. Especially in the case of confrontations between animals and people, the burden of guilt almost always fell on the animals. More than any other gulf between common sense and prejudice, this double standard—that only the animals could do wrong—would have to be bridged if parks were indeed to become refuges for both wildlife and people.

Wildlife aside, the priority of park management was accommodating more visitors. Still at issue throughout the period was the level of accommodation. A keen awareness of the process by which temptations became "needs" had led in 1865 to Frederick Law Olmsted's singular warning not to allow anything into Yosemite Valley that might distract visitors from their natural surroundings. Subsequently, the California commissioners learned by bitter trial and error how easily preferences among visitors could evolve from luxuries into needs. Simply, taste became necessity. In Olmsted's view, succumbing to that argument would be management's worst failure, for the park would be undermined by compromise after compromise, each an imposition on the resource rather than a legitimate social need.

As a group, concessionaires obviously had the most to win from labeling wants as needs and, it followed, more to lose from an impairment of such labeling. All that visitors really needed, namely nourishment and a place to sleep, was basic to the range of services most concessionaires hoped to provide. Profit was in luxuries, especially those easily transported and saleable at a premium, including postcards, candy, and small souvenirs. Alcoholic beverages also met sales criteria perfectly. Thus it was small wonder that the consumption and sale of beer, wine, and liquor served as a telling symbol of the ploys used to justify every park compromise as a pressing social need.

Unlike food and shelter, liquor was something everyone could certainly live without. Yet reporting to Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble just after the establishment of Yosemite National Park, Charles D. Robinson, the same local artist who had brought charges of misconduct against the Yosemite Park Commission, defended alcohol as both a legitimate sales item and a necessity. "I would state that there has always been a bar of some description attached to the various hotels," his letter began. Entering the valley, the visitor passed, in succession, "a licensed bar at the store of A. Cavagnaro," another "at the Barnard Hotel attached to the hotel building," and still another "at the Stoneman House in a separate building distant from the main hotel building between 400 and 500 feet." The detached structure "also kept a general store and a billiard room." On trails leading out of the valley the thirsty traveler could find refreshment "at Snow's Hotel or Casa Nevada at the base of the Nevada fall," and "also a bar at McCauley's Glacier Point hotel at the summit of Glacier Point." [17]

On the question of the need for these bars Robinson was most emphatic. "Up to the present time," he maintained, "the bars attached to the hotels have been found almost indispensible for the use of guests." The need obviously was greatest "upon first ascending from the Valley floor." At those "great altitudes," where visitors first encountered "extremely dry and ratified air," many experienced "sensations of faintness and sometimes of slight heart failure or great difficulty in breathing." For these reasons, Robinson noted, "stimulants" were "absolutely necessary at these summit hotels." The need applied to "many women" as well as most men, who there discovered "for the first time in their lives, perhaps, symptoms of heart disease." Accordingly Robinson decided, "Remedies in the shape of stimulants must be immediately at hand." Alcoholic beverages were no less welcome, "if not equally necessary," on the visitor's return to the valley floor. The problem again was the number of people "unused to such unwonted exertion" as was required for these trips in the high country "of intolerable severity." Robinson's conclusions thus seemed inescapable: "In the confines of the New National Park, if it be ever opened to public travel, I think that the presence of liquors will be absolutely necessary and their absence attended with positive danger." [18]

Having concluded that liquor equaled safety, Robinson's argument bridged the remaining gap between credibility and absurdity. Liquor suddenly became a requirement for the protection of the visitor. Of course the argument was ridiculous; tourists were more likely to kill themselves by intoxication than by gasping for breath in rarified air. The point is that simply repeating the argument gave it a hint of plausibility. From there, the power of precedent was on Robinson's side. The longer visitors enjoyed alcoholic beverages in the park, the harder it would be to deny them the privilege.

The pattern, once established, was most difficult to break. Whatever the project, once qualified as essential it was likely to win support. In that vein the commission concluded its own forty-two-year administration with efforts to control flooding and erosion by confining the Merced River to a single valley channel. Such a feat, the commissioners confidently reported as early as 1892, was "by no means beyond the resources of engineering science and practical construction." In due course intelligent management would "curb the stream in floodtime and preserve the groves and meadows from the damage which it now inflicts at will." This, coupled with the clearance of encroaching vegetation, would finally deliver Yosemite Valley "from the two capital dangers of fire and water which have heretofore menaced it." [19]

The transfer of management authority from the commission to the cavalry did nothing to erode arguments that protecting human lives and property justified the further manipulation of natural resources. Once begun, the development of the park had become self-fulfilling. Those advocating change need only twist their arguments from obvious expressions of individual preference into all-embracing statements of common social need. Protection, in contrast, called for discipline and restraint, for resisting inevitable tendencies to define everything as either useful or profitable. Those were the standards Frederick Law Olmsted had espoused; they were not yet, however, turn-of-the-century standards for the majority of Yosemite's managers, visitors, and leading concessionaires.

With David A. Curry, the outspoken founder and original proprietor of Yosemite Valley's Camp Curry, the promotion of tastes as needs came sharply into focus. In 1899 Curry and his wife, Jennie, both Indiana schoolteachers, placed several tents on the valley floor just beneath Glacier Point. Such were the humble but breathtaking beginnings of the Currys' summer camp. Through personal and professional contacts, including an earlier transportation venture in Yellowstone National Park, they attracted nearly three hundred guests in the first season. Indeed, by the end of the summer their number of tents had nearly quadrupled. [20] Little more evidence was required to convince the Currys that their initiative, experience, and eye for location had combined to provide them with a lucrative opportunity.

The Currys, moreover, knew how and what to advertise. Most notably, they quickly revived the firefall, the celebrated evening cascade of glowing embers pushed over the cliff at Glacier Point. Ever afterward associated with Camp Curry and its founders, the spectacle in fact dated back to one Fourth of July in the early 1870s when James McCauley, owner of the Four-Mile Trail from the valley to Glacier Point, decided to entertain valley spectators. Others had approached him with a plan to throw fireworks off the cliff; McCauley reciprocated with a scheme of his own, announcing his intention to build a large fire and push the flaming embers over the precipice. At least fifteen hundred feet of sheer granite fell away from Glacier Point to the first ledges down below; people in the valley would enjoy unobstructed views of the entire cascade, accompanied by the booming reverberations of the detonating fireworks. [21]

As the Currys soon recognized, the location of their camp directly beneath Glacier Point invited periodic revivals of the firefall as a drawing card for patronage. Occasionally guests were asked for contributions and a worker was dispatched up the cliff to prepare the pile of firewood and, on cue from Camp Curry, to send the burning embers on their brief but spectacular journey into the abyss. In addition to attracting guests, the firefall stymied the competition. How indeed could other camps and hotels emulate the Currys' spellbinding stunt? Ever mindful of their competition, the Currys assumed financial responsibility for the firefall in order to sponsor it nightly throughout the summer months. [22]

The Currys, it may be argued, now had everything they could have wished for—superior location, grateful guests, and the promise of repeat business for years and years to come. Yet the outward appearance of Camp Curry as just a small family enterprise was an illusion they fostered as carefully as the firefall. In truth the Currys were driven to success in every sense of the American Dream. Expansion was the objective of any entrepreneur; to accept the status quo was in effect to admit one's failure. The strategy of park concessions dictated constantly importuning park management to allow operations to be enlarged from season to season. Growth was the objective and the Currys played the game masterfully. The stipulation that the government would establish national parks but turn them over to private enterprise for the development of visitor services was rarely defended with greater conviction than by David Curry.

Outspoken, determined, and some would say ruthless, he rapidly alienated every park superintendent with whom he had to deal. Indeed, hardly had military supervision come to Yosemite Valley when Curry and Major H. C. Benson were already at odds. On July 11, 1907, for example, Benson reported to Secretary of the Interior James A. Garfield that "J. B. Cook and David A. Curry, business lessees of Yosemite and Curry camps respectively," had submitted letters "relative to the increasing of facilities for the accommodation of guests." In Benson's opinion Camp Curry had already exceeded its capacity; further expansion, in other words, seemed totally unjustified. "It will be noted that Mr. Curry claims his present capacity to be 318," Benson wrote. However, it appeared he maintained that number only at great discomfort to his guests. Sanitary facilities especially were "exceedingly bad." Specifically, only ten toilets served the 318 people Curry claimed he could accommodate. His cesspool also was "very small, not properly constructed and very unsanitary." Simply, to raise the capacity of his camp during periods of peak demand, Curry resorted to separating "men and wives, putting all men in one tent and the women in another, where they are packed in like sardines." In truth his capacity was closer to "about 175." At least Benson was "of the opinion that the accommodations should be of such a nature that people would be able to have separate beds and separate tents if they desire it." [23]

But sanitary problems would only worsen if expansion was approved. Secretary Garfield agreed, and on August 1 ordered M. O. Leighton, the chief hydrographer of the U.S. Geological Survey, to make a full investigation. Just three weeks later Leighton strongly advised against further expansion unless Camp Curry was moved to a more suitable location. "The present site has now been in use nine years," he remarked. A projected increase from 250 to 500 guests per day would intolerably strain the primitive methods of waste disposal currently in use. "There are on the borders of the camp troublesome accumulations of garbage and other organic matter," Leighton further noted, specifying the exact nature of his and Major Benson's concerns. Certainly uncovered garbage and untreated human wastes could not be considered anything but "a menace to the health of the persons patronizing the camp." [24]

In Curry's defense, pollution problems were widespread throughout Yosemite Valley. [25] Nor did the push for expansion of visitor services come from park concessionaires alone. Originally the California commissioners, and now the Department of the Interior as well, were also eager to accommodate more tourists in the valley. Curry was often singled out because he was so visible and abrasive. Rather than admit his own part in the park's evolving problems, he constantly shifted blame onto management authorities. Here again, not until he faced losing Camp Curry's enviable location did he finally agree to improvements in its waste disposal systems. But, to reemphasize, Curry was not motivated by a deep sense of responsibility to his guests. Even in the present location, he finally conceded, Camp Curry would be prohibited from further expansion until it was purified. The depth of his frustration—and his priorities—showed through in his response. "I have told thousands of tourists that it is the finest camp ground God ever made," he complained in a letter to the secretary of the interior, bitterly objecting to Leighton's recommendation that Camp Curry still be moved. "Its present location affords the best show ground for avalanches of fire from Glacier Point, and Curry's stentorian voice, both of which have become advertising features in its present location." [26]

Even more to the point, he openly accused park officials of trying to drive him out. The accusation was bound to win the enmity of the superintendent and his staff, who in turn saw Curry's insubordination as the product of his greed. In a report dated October 6, 1908, Major Benson went so far as to describe him as "a detriment to the Valley, as he is constantly complaining of conditions that exist, imagining that everybody is imbued with the single idea of annoying him and preventing him from making money." In truth the only problem was Curry himself. "He stirs up discontent in his camp against the existing order of affairs," Benson wrote, noting Curry's habit of lambasting park officials during evening displays of the firefall and at other public gatherings. Similarly, Curry falsely accused his competitors of disrupting his operation. Thus Benson felt obligated to be blunt in his own right. "He has now been in the Valley for ten years and has reaped a good harvest, and in my opinion, the Valley would be very much better off without his presence in the future." [27]

Yet public opinion, Curry realized, was far more important than Benson's. Accordingly, each time the Department of the Interior suggested that Camp Curry be relocated, its proprietor took his case directly to Congress and the press. In the end, his array of printed circulars, newspaper advertisements, letters to the editor, and personal correspondence to leading politicians proved highly effective, not only for these current issues but also for several others that were to follow. With the exception of a multiple-year lease, Curry ultimately won practically everything that he had initially been refused, including the right to expand both his camp and its visitor services. [28]

Thus Curry symbolized the growing influence that concessionaires wielded over the development of the park. The key to expansion, Curry demonstrated, was not to take "no" for an answer. Whatever its drawbacks, persistence paid off. "I asked for studio privileges at Camp Curry for the present year," he wrote on September 21, 1911, for example, "which were not granted. I now renew my request." Shrewdly, he justified this pure convenience as a necessity for visitors, as another pressing social need. "Camp Curry is distant more than a mile from all the studios at present," he noted. "It requires too much exertion for 3800 guests, staying an average of six or seven days each, to walk more than two miles every time they wish some little thing from a studio." For instance, requiring "tourists to walk over two miles for a barber," he complained, "for soft drinks or ice cream, for cigars, for newspapers, for fresh fruit, or for studio privileges, is to curtail 50 to 75 percent of their desires in all those lines." [29]

Curry's underlying motive had at last been revealed. Rather than protect his guests from overexertion, he simply hoped to steal more business from existing competitors. Nor did he seem in the least concerned that those smaller concessionaires currently specializing in selling the items that he had enumerated might, because of his request, lose most of their business to Camp Curry. "The establishment of a studio at Camp Curry would damage very little the present studio concessions," he argued, offering no evidence whatsoever in support of his claim. Instead he reemphasized his camp's isolation, acknowledging only in passing that studio privileges "would increase my own receipts." [30]

Thus did Curry's formula—ask and ask again—lead incrementally and steadily toward expansion of his camp. From every standpoint of business his formula was sound; for park legislation, it masked a troubling inconsistency. For whom and for what were national parks intended? If private entrepreneurs controlled all visitor services, was not expansion for the sake of greater profit the logical outcome? Why should David Curry be blamed for promoting his interests? More fundamentally, the flaw was in park legislation. In effect, Congress had authorized competitive management units. Even though concessionaires were regulated by the government, the fact remained that they would never relent. Any government weakness, it followed, in turn would lead to concessionaires' greater strength. Curry graphically depicted how to manipulate that arrangement. To use the vernacular, the squeaky wheel got the grease.

In that regard, nothing more angered park officials than Curry's constant willingness to go over their heads by appealing directly to the secretary of the interior, the Congress, and the public at large. On February 4, 1913, for example, he complained bitterly to Representative John E. Raker of California that park management had absolutely no understanding of why he should be "entitled to normal business security." "We certainly appreciate your efforts in our behalf lately," he began his letter, "though I fear we shall not get our desires. We, as business men, would like to be treated like business men. We are more like mendicants who ask and are refused without being vouchsafed any reason." Similarly, a one-page printed circular dated April 10, 1914, implored the reader, "as a friend of Camp Curry," to write Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, "asking his favorable consideration of questions now pending, concerning the concession of the Curry Camping Company," and also to write the reader's congressman, "asking him to cooperate with his fellow Congressman, Hon. J. E. Raker, who represents the Yosemite district, in presenting to the favorable consideration of Mr. Lane the claims of the Curry Camping Company." [31]

Above all, Curry vehemently objected to the firefall's abolishment, for which, he claimed, "no reason had been given." The Interior Department's edict, handed down on March 3, suggested only that the firefall might be a hazard. "You realize the pleasure and amusement caused by the fire fall to Camp Curry's guests and other Yosemite tourists," Curry wrote in protest. "Camp Curry wants the fire fall restored." The remainder of the circular enumerated his long-standing grievance: He too should be allowed to sell postcards, fruit, candy, guidebooks, magazines, maps, fishing tackle, and photographs. Similarly, he still insisted that Camp Curry be awarded a multiple-year lease. "I am starting for Washington at once and hope a letter from you will go forward immediately," he concluded, "lending your support to as many of these propositions as you believe are worthy." [32]

Public opinion, Curry realized, was a powerful ally, at times even stronger and more influential than park management itself. It was said, for example, that the abolishment of the firefall in 1914 was intended solely to punish him for his ridicule of park authority. [33] Even so, the decision did little to dampen his militancy. He simply found all the more reason to mimic James Mason Hutchings, portraying his camp as just another small family business and himself as a businessman who was being unreasonably harassed by government bureaucrats. Meanwhile, whatever the grievance, the key to courting public opinion was to state that whatever the public wanted was in fact a crying need. "Candies are as immediate necessities for the ladies as cigars are for gentlemen," Curry therefore argued in his printed circular. "Camp Curry wants the right to sell fruits and candies as well as the other necessities which are allowed." [34]

The argument was not to end there. Rather, Curry and other concessionaires solidified their positions in the park, time and again resorting to "need" as justification for a widening range of projects and services, from the sale of small items like candy and cigars to the expenditures for larger capital investments like auditoriums and swimming pools. Each "need", when introduced, invariably took on a life of its own. The guest who found candy and swimming pools one year expected similar luxuries on the next visit. The possibility that one or more might undermine the purposes for which the park supposedly had been established seemed to elude even government officials. The issue of park control still begged for resolution, not only to strike a working balance for accommodations and services but also to ensure that increased development would not overwhelm the natural scene.

The military, it was finally recognized, was not appropriate to that task. For one thing, military regulation of civilians in peacetime was probably illegal; in either case, protection was no longer a simple matter of standing between poachers and resources. David A. Curry was only one example of the growing number of individuals seeking to exploit the park legally. As management duties multiplied in political and social complexity—and as park visitation dramatically increased—it seemed less and less desirable that the military should intervene in wholly civilian matters.

A final consideration was military prestige. The army's original mission—to protect the high country's forests and meadows—had been simple and pure. Finally involved in the civilian intrigue so common to Yosemite Valley, the army was frequently portrayed as just another government bureaucracy. Inevitably, tensions between civilians and military superintendents steadily multiplied. So too, the motives and convictions of the common soldier were increasingly called into question. [35] The outcome was inevitable; in 1914 civilian rangers replaced the military throughout Yosemite National Park, and the era of army administration came abruptly to a close.

The arrival of the civilian rangers presaged the establishment of the National Park Service, approved by Congress and the president on August 25, 1916. Preservationists' hopes had at last been realized; for the first time, national parks had an agency of their own to oversee the protection and enhancement of their natural resources. That ideal, at least, was winning acceptance as the sole priority of park management. But in Yosemite, especially in the confines of the valley, there was still good reason to doubt whether that ideal could withstand unforgiving realities.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap7.htm — 17-Mar-2004