Essay draft: tourists in the early national parks

When the trail guides Hopum and Lopim led Frank Hutchings over the crest of a hill and within sight of the towering granite formations of Yosemite Valley, Hutchings stopped in his tracks: “as the scene opened in full view before us,” he wrote later, “we were almost speechless with wondering admiration, at its wild and sublime grandeur.” The same two Indian guides had led the first white visitors to the valley just a year before, in 1854, and word of the majestic scenery spread like wildfire in California’s mining towns. “I have no doubt ere many years have elapsed,” Frank Hutchings would write to the editors of the Mariposa Gazette, “this wonderful valley will attract the lovers of the beautiful from all parts of the world; and be as famed as Niagara, for its wild sublimity, and magnificent scenery.”1 Hutchings was a believer: he would print other travelers’ stories in his Hutchings’ California Magazine, hoping to entice more and more Americans to travel west and see the Sierra Nevadas for themselves. If they stayed in his hotel when they arrived, all the better.2 Yosemite was only beginning to make itself known, but its new visitors could already see it was destined for something great.

The battle to preserve Yosemite and Yellowstone would pull Americans into some high-minded arguments about nature’s sanctity, and bring a new sense of stewardship. But to cut through all of the abstractions, just watch the travelers: They all recognized the power that the land held, and plenty of them were moved to write a word or two telling us what they saw there. But whether the visitors came with pack mules or with six-cylinder engines, it was tourism that brought people face to face with the wilderness.

Tourist industries like railroads and hotels would rush to seize the opportunity. In 1878, the travel writer Helen Hunt Jackson made a trip to what would later become Yosemite National park. In place of the Indian guides and game trails of the 1850s, now there was a whole new system of railroad timetables, ferry boat schedules, and warnings from fellow travelers. “Everybody was discussing routes with everybody else,” Jackson wrote of the Yosemite-bound tourists in San Francisco, and “each was sure that he was going the only good way.”3 Far from the trackless wilderness that the first visitors had sought, Jackson seemed torn between a yearning for the solitude of untouched wilderness (she insisted on calling Yosemite by the older name “Ah-Wah-Nee,” and coyly lamented the “philistines” who would rob it of the name) and a wish for greater conveniences: she was impatient with the change of train cars in Stockton, and indignant that the stagecoach company that carried tourists into the valley had added an overnight stay between “Chinese Camp” and Hutchings’s hotel farther up the valley. But the stagecoach still did a brisk business. As primitive as it might have been, the beginnings of a tourism industry had come to the parks.

Jackson would have her own version of Hutchings’s moment, though. When the stagecoach came over a mountain pass, offering its passengers their first full view of Yosemite proper, Jackson set all her complaints aside and offered one of the most generous paragraphs in her travelogue: “It seemed as if the whole world had become forest, we could see off so far through the vistas between the tall, straight, branchless trunks…The grandeur of these innumerable colonnades cannot be conceived.” And where the trees parted, the wider setting of the Sierra Nevada struck the travelers with renewed awe. “Sometimes, through a break in the tree-tops,” she wrote, “will gleam snowy peaks of Sierras, hundreds of miles away; but the path to their summits will seem to lead straight through these columns of vivid green.”4 Jackson’s Bits of Travel at Home, which recorded the journey, was a follow-up to her 1873 book Bits of Travel, which advised her readers on the best way to see Europe. Touring the American west might have been a novelty to the leisure class at the time, but when Jackson met Hutchings at last, she described in his “mobile, artistic face” the look of a connoisseur of beautiful places. One who, in Yosemite, found “in its grand silences all the companionship he needed.”5

When better-developed railroads carried the writer Juliet Wilbor Tompkins to Yosemite in 1896, the voyage was already a family tradition: Tompkins carried a diary that her own mother had brought to Yosemite thirty years earlier, to “read it each day after I’ve made my own record.”6 Tompkins chastised her mother’s purple prose, and saw the scenery more as a curiosity than a revelation. Just like her mother had thirty years before, she had a run-in with a rattlesnake while taking a walk. But Tompkins was soon displaying the defeated snake to thrilled park guests, and writing with a little condescension for her mother, who had depended on a man’s help to escape her own encounter with a rattlesnake. The beauty of nature just wasn’t Tompkins’ topic. But still, sitting in front of the falls at Bridal Veil and talking about grander things with a friend, she admitted “you can’t help dropping some of your world-weariness in the face of all that stunningness.”7

John Muir himself might have agreed. Though the religion of his childhood left him cold, Muir would call his first night in the Sierras an experience “where one might hope to see God.”8 Over the years, no one did more to “evangelize” Yosemite to other Americans than Muir did. When Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of a national magazine, arrived in Sacramento in 1889 looking for new writers, he soon found himself on one of Muir’s famous camping trips in Yosemite. The experience so deeply impressed Johnson that he returned to Washington, D.C. and began lobbying congress to create a national park in Yosemite, and within a year he had done it.9 Muir’s visits to the Yosemite Valley were pivotal for the new preservation movement. On these trips he returned especially to the sequoias, which he called “the noblest of God’s trees:”10 “No other tree in the world, so far as I know,” Muir wrote, “has looked down on so many centuries as the sequoia.”11

Muir’s reputation was so well established that even a U.S. president considered him, of all the people in the world, “the one with whom it was most worth while thus to see the Yosemite.”12 At the end of a 1903 tour of the western states, Teddy Roosevelt met with Muir for a photo opportunity and a chat about California’s wild places. Then, with a moment’s decision, the president ordered his whole staff back to their hotel and let Muir take him on a three-day camping trip in Glacier Point and the Mariposa Grove. Muir was surprised to have so much access to the president, but he made the most of the chance to share the beauty of the high Sierras. Roosevelt considered himself an outdoorsman, but something about Muir’s feeling for the Yosemite Valley intrigued him. Riding through the valley, Roosevelt tried to make small talk about the bird songs they heard, but was surprised to find Muir wasn’t much of a birder; his passion was for ecology and preservation. “The hermit-thrushes meant nothing to him,” Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography, “the trees and the flowers and the cliffs everything.” The president wasn’t known for poetic words, but recalling their night sleeping in the Mariposa Grove, he described a sense of the sequoias’ trunks rising around them “like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than was ever conceived even by the fervor of the middle ages.”13

Muir convinced Roosevelt that the Yosemite national park should expand to include the Mariposa Grove. Back in D.C., Roosevelt championed the change, which became law in short order. The story of this hard-driving president’s unlikely friendship with the soft-spoken mountain man captivated readers around the country. It was reminder that the parks were a part of the American story—and that the job of conserving these spaces wasn’t finished.

On a sunny day in 1915, after a picnic lunch in Yosemite’s Buck Canyon, Stephen Mather rose up, stripped off his clothes, and jumped into the icy stream that ran down the center of the canyon. He shouted to his friends to join him, calling them chickens if they refused. “Albright, come on in!” he shouted to one of his companions, “This is your native Inyo County water.” But Albright, who later wrote down the scene, had never learned to swim—never mind the painful temperature of the fresh snowmelt in the stream. “I can’t swim here,” he hollered back, “this is Tulare County water.”14

The scene could have played out in any group of friends enjoying the High Sierra Trail. As it happened, Mather was an up-and-coming park advocate in the Interior Department, and the trip was his best shot at bringing together the wealthy and powerful policy-makers of the day into a real movement for a new, unified parks department. His “chicken clucks” goaded a member of California’s board of control and a state engineer into joining him in the creek, while railroad executives and old-money socialites finished their lunches on the shore. Just as Muir had courted Roosevelt years before, Mather hoped that the scenery would move his guests to action. The picnic lunch had been prepared by Ty Sing, who by the 1915 trip had earned an unusual reputation as the best gourmet chef in the U.S. Geological Survey. This was the famous “Mather Mountain Party,” and it spared no expense to impress its powerful guests with the beauty of the high Sierras and the Yosemite Valley.

A few days down the trail, Albright and the state engineer would be “startled to see a mule rolling over and over down the rocks, spraying knives, grapefruit, and assorted items.” This was Ty Sing’s chosen pack mule, who had apparently fallen asleep on a long trek and walked right over the edge of a 300-foot cliff. Among other treasures, the mule lost Ty Sing’s prized sourdough starter, so there would be no more of his famous biscuits on this trip. Delicacies like cantaloupe, fresh fish, and lemonade had disappeared with another faithless pack mule a few days earlier, so for the rest of the trip, Mather and his friends would have to eat a slightly reduced menu off of their fine china on fresh-pressed linens. As Albright wrote, “’roughing it’ was not a term to be used for our dining.”15 The mule, maybe enjoying better luck than his human companions, “landed on all fours and promptly climbed back up the cliff.”16

Within a year, Mather’s politicking paid off. In 1916, congress passed a bill creating the new Parks Department, with Mather as its director. The department would take over management of the national parks from the mish-mash of federal and local agencies that had managed them until that time.17 The famous traveling party had hoteled, railroaded, and driven the park in their brand-new Studebakers, but thanks to their work to secure a new bureaucracy for park management, they wouldn’t be the last. Horace Albright, who chronicled the trip, was rewarded with a choice job as Mather’s assistant.

Emerson Hough was another writer on the Mather Mountain Party. He had tasted the champagne on E.O. McCormick’s private train car as a guest of the Southern Pacific Railroad executive.18 He had friends in high places, too, and he had seen the parks from the most flattering angles and traveled in style. But what stuck in his memory was a humbler kind of tourist: “what we call the new people of America, who have never been out like this before.”19 The new rush of farm families from the midwest taking the “grand tour” for themselves moved Hough to write a whole novel that was part comedy and part travelogue, fictionalizing the story of one family’s vacation. Until the highways and the national parks opened the country to these travelers, Hough wrote, “Maw has been getting the Sunday dinner. Paw has been plowing, paying the taxes which this Government has spent for him.” By the end of the nineteen-teens, though, “now Paw pays income tax also; and both he and Maw construe this fact to mean that they can at last read their title clear to a rest, and a car, and a vacation.”20

The new tourists would take the parks department up on all its promises. Cars were convenient: dirt roads led all the way to trailheads and campgrounds, unlike the railroads, which transferred riders to coaches for the last leg of a trip. And they were also easier to load up with camping equipment, which meant families had the option of camping, rather than staying in an expensive lodge. Once they got inside the parks, the new visitors camped, cooked, hiked, and vacationed in numbers the parks had never seen before. Driving the family car through the Wawona Tunnel, cut through the trunk of a living sequoia, became a rite of passage.21I have met maw this summer,” Emerson Hough wrote, “ninety thousand of her, concentrated on a piece of mountain scenery about fifty miles square—Maw on her first vacation in a life of sixty years.”22

The national parks were an American idea. The United States was the first country to create a national park, and got to build the whole tradition of park tourism from the ground up. We didn’t do it overnight, and it didn’t happen without help from industries like the railroads. But when the leaders of the new National Park Service went to work in the nineteen-teens, they were taking charge of some of the country’s most beloved places. The parks were already an institution, and citizens from all across the country counted their first trip to Yosemite or Yellowstone as a pilgrimage: it was a chance to stand where presidents, pioneers, and visionaries had stood, to breathe the air and see the sights that had inspired so many of their countrymen, and to wonder what these great lands were destined for.

1Frank M. Hutchings, “Second Tourist Party to Yosemite Valley,” Mariposa Gazette, August 9, 1855.

2Ken Burns, et. al., The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, episode 1.

3Helen Hunt Jackson, Bits of Travel at Home, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878: 88.

4Jackson, Bits of Travel at Home: 94.

5Jackson, Bits of Travel at Home: 108.

6Juliet Wilbor Tompkins, “My Mother’s Diary,” Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 15, April-September, 1896: 160.

7Tompkins, “My Mother’s Diary,” 160.

8John Muir, My first summer in the Sierra, Manuscript ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916: 49.

9Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness in the American mind. New Haven: Yale univ. Press, 1982: 132.

10John Muir, The Yosemite, New York: The Century Company, 1912: 145.

11Muir, The Yosemite, 131.

12Theodore Roosevelt, an Autobiography, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922: 321.

13Roosevelt, Autobiography, 322.

14Albright, Creating the National Park Service, 71.

15Albright, Creating the National Park Service, 71.

16Albright, Creating the National Park Service, 74.

17Burns, The National Parks, episode 3.

18Albright, Creating the National Park Service, 87.

19Emerson Hough, Maw’s Vacation: the Story of a Human Being in the Yellowstone, Saint Paul: J.E. Haynes, 1921: 6

20Hough, Maw’s Vacation, 6.

21National Park Service, “The Myth of the Tree you can Drive Through,” (accessed February 15, 2017.)

22Hough, Maw’s Vacation, 5.