As we commemorate the Yosemite Grant’s Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary, another anniversary is overshadowed by the festivities. Fifty years ago, Yosemite celebrated the official opening of the Pioneer Yosemite History Center (PYHC), perhaps not as momentous as the Sesquicentennial but noteworthy nonetheless.
When approaching the History Center in Wawona visitors pass a sign that reads, “A place of pioneers who profoundly inﬂuenced the birth and growth of the national park idea.” The PYHC traces the evolution of Yosemite as a national park with a display of historic buildings relocated from different parts of the park. Visiting each building and learning the history of its inhabitants will reward the visitor with a better understanding of some of the complex issues that are part of the Yosemite story.
The idea of creating the Pioneer Yosemite History Center began in the mid 1950’s as part of the Mission 66 project, a ten year plan to celebrate the National Parks Service’s 50th anniversary. In an era when a historical building could easily be considered an “eyesore” and destroyed, several park employees were determined to relocate some historic buildings to a single location, preserving the buildings and the stories behind them. Wawona was deemed an ideal location because of the already established historic buildings (the Wawona Hotel and Hill’s Studio are registered National Historic Landmarks). Over the course of the next ten years, buildings from different locations in the park were moved to the History Center. Most of the buildings and structures that make up the Pioneer Yosemite History Center are more than a century old, and some of them are individually listed on the National Register.
The History Center may at first glance look like a recreated historic village, but since the buildings originated from various areas around Yosemite, the History Center is more like a book with each building representing a different chapter and a different theme. When seen as a whole, the buildings provide visitors with a greater appreciation for the continuing development of Yosemite National Park and the evolving concept of the National Park system.
The task of relocating the buildings and designing the History Center in the mid-1950’s fell primarily on Chief Naturalist, Douglass Hubbard. The first step in creating the PYHC was the reconstruction of the Wawona covered bridge that had been damaged by the flood of 1955. Then came the task of identifying which historic buildings should be included and subsequently dismantled, moved and reassembled. Hubbard explained the challenges of this:
“The log buildings had to be numbered, dismantled, dipped in sodium pentachlorophen and rebuilt. The stone jail had to be split in two and dragged onto a trailer… The Wells Fargo building was three feet too wide for the Wawona tunnel so [Glenn] Gordo [the man responsible for moving the buildings] chain sawed three feet out and squeezed the building together.. and one night after midnight we dragged it through the tunnel scrapping first one side and then another.”
The Pioneer History Center opened to the public in 1961, but was formally dedicated in 1964, the centennial year of the park. Among the guests and dignitaries attending was Clarence Washburn, a member of the family that developed and managed the Wawona hotel from 1875 until 1932. Also in attendance was Tom Gordon, one of the last stage drivers employed by the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company.
Many people recall the times during the 1970s and 1980s when the buildings were open during the summer and staffed with actors/historians reenacting the roles of the different explorers, pioneers and others that helped develop Yosemite as a national park. Although the buildings no longer remain open, visitors can take a self-guided walk through the History Center at any time of the year. Peering through the windows and using a little imagination, they can almost see and hear the folks that “profoundly inﬂuenced the birth and growth of the national park idea.” During the summer months guided walks are available, as well as rides on a replica wagon of a bygone era. Blacksmiths ply their trade five days a week. Check the Yosemite Guide