The Valley Of Waterfalls – Historic Landmarks

SINCE 1851, when the first stranger entered the Yosemite, it has been visited by some forty-three thousand persons. At first, the facilities of access and accommodation being very scant, the influx was so slow that at the end of ten years it had only reached six hundred and fifty-three for the entire period. Then it began to advance by leaps and bounds, till the yearly average has now risen above two thousand five hundred, a total which with the improvements in railroads and hotels that are still in course of erection will be largely augmented in the near future.

When I spoke of the discovery of the Yosemite Valley, I must be understood of course to refer to the first invasion of its borders by the foot of the white man. Long before, perhaps for centuries, it had formed a secure retreat for Indian tribes, who in the pathless glens and gorges of the Sierras conducted an internecine tribal warfare, or pursued an animal quarry scarcely wilder than themselves. It was by collision with these very Indians that the beautiful valley accidentally became known to the pioneers of what we call Western civilization, who at the beginning of the second half of the last century poured into California in the mad thirst for gold, sowing in rapacity and lust and crime the seeds from which civilization and religion, too often begotten in a like stormy travail, were at a later date to spring.

At first the Indians did not recognize as enemies the scattered groups of gold-diggers who suddenly alighted upon their borders. But when the groups became a swarm, ;over-spreading the country with lawless violence and sweeping all before them, jealousy and recrimination set in. These strained relations presently culminated in an attack by the Indians upon a trading-camp at Fresno, and the massacre of all the whites there assembled. This was in December, 1850. A company of volunteers was immediately raised among the traders for purposes of self-protection, retaliation, and revenge; but the evil grew so rapidly that more authoritative measures became necessary. Accordingly, in January, 1851, by order of the Governor of the State, a company of two hundred able-bodied militia was enrolled, Mr. J. D. Savage, the owner of the trading-station originally destroyed, being elected first commander. Recognizing, however, the justice of the irritation naturally felt by the Indians at the invasion of their patrimony, and anxious at all hazards to preserve peace, the Government very wisely despatched emissaries among the surrounding tribes, with power to negotiate and distribute gifts; while they set apart a reserve territory for such Indians as should be found amenable to these pacifying influences. Still there were some who held out, the principal of them being a tribe who were vaguely reported as dwelling in a deep, rocky valley to the northeast. Communication was opened with them, and their chief was summoned and came to a ” palaver.” But the requisite assurances not being obtain-able, the order to advance was at length given, and the expedition set out in quest of the mysterious retreat. It was on May 6th, 1851, that from the mountains on the south there burst upon the astonished gaze of the soldiers of the Mariposa Battalion the first sight of the enchanted valley. They gave to it the name Yo-Semite, from that of the tribe, the Yo-Semites, or Grizzly Bears, by whom it was inhabited, abandoning the beautiful name of Ah-wah-nee, or the Broad Cañon, by which it had been known in the Indian vocabulary. The difficulty with the Indians was soon at an end, and the war, before it had lasted six months, was concluded in July, 1851. It was a curious sequel to the pacific termination of the struggle that the leaders of both sides, I. D. Savage, and the Indian chief, Ten-ie-ya, each met at a later date with a violent death, the one at the hand of a fellow-white, the other in a foray with a neighbouring tribe.

The discovery of the valley was not followed by an immediate accession of visitors. It was not till four years later that a small body of enterprising men, who had heard the tales circulated by the disbanded militiamen, resolved to make another expedition to the deserted valley. Meanwhile, there having been no communication in the interim, the trails through the forest had been obliterated and the memory of the militiamen had grown dim. Nor was it till some Indians had been procured as guides from the Reserve that this pioneer party of tourists was enabled to make its way to the coveted destination. To any one acquainted with the natural features of this Californian scenery—an immense sweep of lofty mountains intersected by ravines and clothed with a dense forest-growth—the long seclusion of the valley, and the difficulty in re-discovering it even when already discovered, will not appear a matter of surprise.

From this expedition, which was thoroughly successful, and by whose members many of the names were given by which the mountains and waterfalls are now known, may be dated the opening of the Yosemite Valley to travellers and tourists. The prodigious increase in communication since that date has already been noted.

There yet remained one step before this splendid acquisition could be turned to real account, with a double regard for its own priceless security and for the free but orderly enjoyment of the public. The Government of the United States, which has never been behindhand in acts of similar liberal and far-seeing policy (for there may be statesman-ship even in landscape-gardening), took up the question in 1864. In the session of that year Mr. T. S. Conness, Senator for California, very appropriately introduced a bill for the public dedication of the Yosemite Valley, which was passed without demur by both Chambers of Congress. In this Bill, which was approved on June 30th, 1864, it was declared : ” Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, that there shall be and is hereby granted to the State of California the cleft or gorge in the granite peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, situated in the County of Mariposa in the State aforesaid, and the headwaters of the Merced River, and known as the Yosemite Valley, with its branches or spurs in estimated length fifteen miles, and in average width one mile back from the main edge of the precipice on each side of the valley; with the stipulation nevertheless that the said State shall accept this grant upon the express condition that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation; and shall be inalienable for all time.”

Then followed a similar provision for the neighbouring Mariposa Big Tree Grove.

The valley and its surroundings having thus solemnly been handed over to the State of California, the Governor of that State forthwith appointed a Board of Commissioners for the due administration of the trust, an act which in 1866 received the confirmation of the Senate and Assembly of the same State. The whole machinery was thus set in working order; and by the Board so nominated the valley is guarded and governed to this day.

Any Englishman who does not happen to be among the fortunate twelve hundred who have so far visited the spot, may at this stage very legitimately enquire, ” What is the Yosemite Valley, and what are its peculiar features? ” Without any desire to usurp the functions, and still less to imitate the style, of the numerous available guide-books, I would briefly answer as follows:

One hundred and fifty miles nearly due east of San Francisco, where the middle ranges of the Sierra Nevada rise from the San Joaquin valley in grand wooded outlines, sweep upon sweep, to a height of thirteen thousand feet above the sea, there is hewn from east to west a profound ravine between two confronting barriers of precipitous rock. Over a space varying from three-quarters of a mile to two miles in width, and along a line some six miles in extent, these grim natural fortifications look out at each other and down upon a peaceful valley slumbering in the deep trench, three-quarters of a mile in sheer depth, below. Many English persons are familiar with the noble spectacle presented by the northern front of the Rock of Gibraltar, on the side where a perpendicular face of rock, twelve hundred feet high, towers gloriously above the flat space known as the Neutral Ground. Conceive this cliff trebled in height, Pelion on Ossa and Olympus on both, extended over a line twice the length of the Long Walk in Windsor Park, and confronted at the varying distances I have named by another wall of like character and similar dimensions: conceive these parallel rocky walls, while retaining their uniform abruptness and height, to be shaped into stormy outlines of towers and pinnacles and domes: conceive further the intervening space to be sown with great trees and flowering shrubs, a paltry plantation when viewed from above, but a mighty forest-growth below, and; to be traversed by the coils of a winding river: conceive, I say, this startling combination of features, and you will still have but a dim and inadequate likeness of the Yosemite Valley.

But what is perhaps the chief characteristic remains to be told. I have called it the Valley of Waterfalls; and herein consists its distinction from all other remarkable valleys, so far as I know, in the world.

Straight over these mountain walls, not down the bed of converging ravines, but from upland valleys unseen above and beyond, come toppling the heaven-sent waters that sup-ply the shining River of Mercy (Rio de la Merced), murmuring so musically below. Almost may we say:

“Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do they come From God who is their home.”

For, as with a rush and a leap they spring from the craggy ledges, their forms are intertwined with rainbows and aureoled with light. Thus they descend, soft vaporous shapes, spray-clad, that glimmer along the aerial stairway like spirits passing up and down a Jacob’s ladder from heaven to earth, until the phantasy is shivered in the tumult and thunder of the plunge upon the echoing platform or in the deep, hollow pools at the base. From a distance of miles these waterfalls may be seen hung like white streamers against the mountain-walls. Even there a faint whisper sings in the air, deepening as we advance to a hum and roar, till about their feet the atmosphere is filled and choked with the stunning shocks of sound.

They vary considerably in height, being sometimes intercepted in their descent or broken up into more than one cascade. Fifteen hundred feet is the height of the highest or upper Yosemite fall; but this is the uppermost of a trio of cascades, one above the other, the united fall of which amounts to two thousand six hundred feet, and when seen from a distance can be mistaken for a single uninterrupted fall. Inevitably, too, but unfortunately, they vary in volume according to the season of the year, the depth of rainfall, and the duration of the winter snows. In the early spring, when the feeders are full, each brook becomes a torrent and each fall a cataract. Then the Yosemite is preeminently the Valley of Waterfalls; for not a mile of its rocky palisades can be passed but there comes foaming from the sky a precipitous shoot of what looks like molten snow. But in the late summer the bulk is often sadly diminished, the brooks dwindle into rills, and the watery fleeces become ribands and wisps and threads, fluttering feebly and forlornly down the stained tracks of their lost spring-glory.

Of these falls perhaps the most beautiful at all times and seasons is that to which the pioneer tourists of 1855 gave the name of the Bridal Veil. It falls sheer for nine hundred feet, the rocky rim from which it leaps being outlined as sharply as a razor’s edge against the sky. The name is not ill-applied, for as the breeze catches the descending jets, when not in full volume, it puffs them outward from the rock and wafts them in gauzy festoons from side to side. Hither and thither float the misty folds, like a diaphanous veil of tulle. Lower down the water, pouring in miniature cataracts from the ledges, alone shows what is the quantity and what the texture of the material. The Indian name for this fall was Pohono, or the Spirit of the Evil Wind. They connected with it some mysterious and baleful influence, hearing the mutter of spirit-voices in the sound, and scenting the cold breath of a destroying angel in the breeze of the enchanted fall. To pass by it was of ill-omen, to sleep near it was perilous, to point the finger of scorn at it was death. An Indian woman, who once fell from the slippery ledge at the top and was dashed to pieces, was believed to have been swept away by the Evil One. Unlike the artistic though rationalizing temper of the ancient Greeks, who recognized in the legendary carrying off of Orithyia by Boreas, the North Wind, the metaphor of a tempestuous love, the Indian mind, plunged in sad superstition, could see nothing in a similar fatality but the re-vengeful finger of doom. This is not the only case in which we cannot help regretting the substitution of a modern for the more significant or traditional Indian name. No great propriety and still less originality was shown in the selection of such titles as the Riband, the Vernal, and the Nevada. How much prettier, in meaning if not in sound, were Lung-oo-too-koo-yah, the Graceful and Slender One; Piwyack, the Shower of Diamonds; Yo-wi-ye, the Twisting One, and Tu-lu-la-wiack, the Rush of Waters. Gladly, too, would we see Mirror Lake reconverted into Ke-ko-tooyen, the Sleeping Water.

The Indian imagination seems to have been more poetically excited by waterfalls than by mountains; for the names which they gave to the latter were in some cases fantastic and less worthy of appropriation. The two extraordinary rocks on the southern side of the valley, which from their shape and juxtaposition are aptly called the Cathedral Spires,—being indeed as. like the west front of a Gothic minster as the architecture of Nature could be expected to model them—were known to the Indians as Poo-see-na-Chuck-ka, the Acorn Baskets, from the receptacle of that name, shaped like an inverted cone, which is carried on their backs by the Indian women. The three pointed rocks on the other side of the valley, now called the Three Brothers, were Pom-pom-pa-sa, or the Jumping Frogs. The Sentinel Dome was Ho-ko-owa, or the Lizard, from a dark, lizard-shaped stain in the rock. The North Dome,—that curious smooth cupola of granite that overhangs the entrance to the northermost of the two eastern forks—was To-coy-a, from the covering over the face of a papoose carried in its basket-cradle on its mother’s back. More fitly the Half-Dome,—most prominent of all the giants of the valley, being, as its name implies, a great bald hump of rock (four thousand eight hundred feet above the valley-floor and nine thousand above the sea) smooth and rounded on one side, but suddenly cleft in twain through the middle, as though by the slash of some Titan’s axe—was named by the Indians Tis-sa-ack, the Goddess of the Valley. Finally El Capitan (a name given by the Mission Indians who had borrowed it from the Spanish padres), that magnificent bluff, so familiar from a hundred photographs and sketches, which stands like a sturdy warder at the western threshold of the valley, was known as Tu-tock-ah-nu-lah, the Great Guardian Deity. There is another respect, besides the waterfalls, in which late summer and autumn in the Yosemite are the sufferers to the gain of the spring. This is in the matter of vegetation. At all times a rich forest-growth adorns the valley; and it is only by comparison with the celebrated Big Trees (Sequoia gigantia) that grow in the neighbourhood some thirty miles away, and are usually visited in the course of the same expedition, that these noble Yosemite stems, one hundred and seventy to two hundred and twenty feet high, straight as an obelisk and tall as a tower, are not considered giants in the land.

The roadway winds in and out of the solemn sylvan aisles, the light scarcely breaking through the clustered leafy capitals and shedding itself in dust of gold upon the big cones and needles that litter the forest-floor. Here are yellow pines and sugar pines, the red or incense cedar, the Douglas spruce, and three varieties of silver fir. Here, too, are the more familiar figures of the common oak and the evergreen oak, the quaking aspen and the willow, alders, poplars, maples, and laurel. The majority of these continue their bounty right through the summer; but it is in the undergrowth and shrubs and flowers that the visitor in the spring finds such an additional delight. Then the open spaces are gay with the festal bloom of the manzanita, with azaleas, yellow and white and pink, with the soft plumes of the California lilac, with dogwood and prim-roses, with the syringa, the butterfly tulip, and the white lily. The trails are bright with their colours and sweet with their fragrance, and all Nature smiles.

Being even at its base as much as four thousand feet above the sea, the Yosemite Valley enjoys a very equable temperature, the thermometer seldom pointing to more than 86° in summer. The orientation of the cutting is moreover the source of a twofold charm. Running, as the valley does, almost due east and west, the sea-breezes that pour in at the Golden Gate come swiftly over the intervening plains and blow an incessant draught from end to end of the gorge. To the same accident- of site we owe the splendours of sunrise and sunset. Did the valley face north and south, one face of it would be perpetually in shadow. As it is, when the morning sun has topped the eastern heights, its rays run swiftly from peak to peak right down the full length of the ravine, which in a few moments is flooded with the golden glory. Similarly as the declining orb sinks opposite the western doorway, both faces of rock, from El Capitan to the Half-Dome, attend the dying couch and are gilded with the vanishing beam.

If it be asked in what special features, other than the broad structural outlines which have already been described, the wonder of the Yosemite consists, I would reply, in the solemn uniformity of colouring, in the nakedness of the rocky fronts, and in the absolutely vertical cleavage from cap to base. There is none of that gorgeous variety of colouring that results from different rock-strata, or, as in the famous cañon of the Yellowstone, from the chemical action of mineral deposits and boiling springs. The rock is everywhere an ashen grey granite, which in places where the surface layer has scaled off becomes a pale, or, under the sunlight, a glittering white. Only here and there, where through the long years streams, too thin to make a waterfall, have trickled down the bare face, are black splashes and streaks like the dishevelled tresses of a woman’s hair. But the very absence of variety, the gleaming monochrome of stone, has an indefinable grandeur of its own, and strikes the spectator from below with a peculiar awe. The two other features I have mentioned are closely connected ; for it is the verticality of the cliffs that is responsible for the almost total absence of vegetation from their faces. Now and then a solitary pine has secured a precarious foothold upon some tiny ledge; but for the most part not even Nature is allowed to plant an excrescence. Where the sheer walls are interspersed with slopes, these lend whatever of contrast and colour may be needed, being sufficiently clad with under-growth and shrubs.

If a single point be named from which a finer view than elsewhere can be obtained, to the rocky height known as Glacier Point should be conceded the honour. It is three thousand and two hundred and fifty-seven feet in sheer height above the valley, which here expands to its greatest width. From east to west its length is laid bare, even to the end of the forks into which it bifurcates at the eastern extremity, and the most important waterfalls are all in view. A big stone pitched from the summit will not strike the rock till sixteen seconds have been counted, and then at a considerable distance from the bottom. A tale is told in one of the guide-books of an antique hen which, for the satisfaction of a party of visitors, was tossed over the precipitous bluff. Down and ever down sank the hapless fowl, till it became a tiny ball of feathers, then a speck, and finally vanished altogether in the abyss. The spectators, somewhat chagrined at this gratuitous sacrifice of animal life, ventured upon a remonstrance, but were met with the cheerful reply: ” Don’t be alarmed about that chicken, ladies! She’s used to it. She goes over that cliff every day during the season.” The story goes on to relate that the same party, descending the cliff in the course of the after-noon, encountered the old hen, uninjured, composedly ascending the trail.

Various theories have been advanced to explain the formation of this remarkable valley. There is one school of geologists, headed by Professor Whitney (the author of the best hand-book to the Yosemite), who believe it to have arisen, or rather sunk, from a subsidence in the soil between the rocky walls. Others have argued that it is a fissure cleft by volcanic action in the very. core of the granite. Were not both these theories unsupported either by local or collateral evidence, there is yet that in the valley itself which testifies irresistibly to a different origin. The mysterious handwriting of Nature is engraven upon the crags; and we must believe that the Yosemite, like many another deep valley and grim gorge, has been fashioned by the gigantic agencies of frost and ice. On the northern wall may be traced in many places the print of icy fingers, those unmistakable lateral striations that show where the remorse-less touch has passed. The rounded surface of the domes, the polished faces of rock, the burnished recumbent boulders, the evidence of summits and sides and base, all tell the same tale. In the northern fork, near the Mirror Lake, may be seen heaps of colossal dibris which, detached from the Half-Dome, have slid down some prehistoric ice-slope and have been deposited, not at the foot of the precipice from which they fell, but on the opposite side of the ravine. In more than one place are palpable relics of vast glacial moraines. There cannot be much doubt that at some remote period (we need not attempt to estimate when) the entire valley from roof to floor was packed with a huge ice-field, over a mile and a half in depth, that easily overlapped the rim and extended to the summits of the adjacent and superior heights. Then when the age of disintegration set in, how mightily must the giant fingers have torn and wrenched, have split and riven, have scraped and ground ! What a work of cleaving precipices and snapping projections, of crushing obstacles and pulverizing fragments! With what superhuman strength was the great ploughshare driven through the heart of the everlasting hills! We crawl like ants in the furrow, happy if in our day some Daniel arises to interpret to us the mystic handwriting on the wall.