Dani's Niche

Family history. A novel idea.


Camping in Yosemite, 1898: Part One

It was not just the weather that was cold and gloomy that day in January 1898. Dan had done everything he could to keep his beloved wife Lizzie alive. In the end she was so weak and miserable from the tuberculosis, I knew that when she slipped away it was for the best.

Lizzie was my big sister, eleven years older than I. More than that, she was my best friend. When she fell ill and I sought to cheer her, it was she who had words of encouragement, but those were not the words that came to mind as I stood at her grave. Instead it was those she had whispered several weeks before. “Take care of my girls, won’t you Lou?” I had taken her hand and promised, “You know I will.”

The last year of her illness I helped care for her needs and for the girls, ages four and two, as Dan took the five of us to various locations, sometimes for month-long stays, in search of a restorative climate. Finally he brought Lizzie home to spend her last days in a familiar setting. The first months after her death, I was glad to have Verna and Alta to keep me busy. Dan seemed to deal with his loss by tending to his horses and mules, his grain, and his farm implements.

One month later we suffered another blow when Dan’s mother passed away. In spite of the deaths of the two women closest to him and the severe drought that had taxed his emotional and physical resources as a farmer, Dan announced we would be taking a month’s vacation. He said it would do us good. I did not question his decision.

Planning and preparing kept us occupied for many days as we would be carrying several hundred pounds of food plus all the supplies for the four weeks. When the wagon was packed and the horses readied, Verna and Alta took their places and I climbed up to join them. When Dan snapped the reins and we pulled away from the ranch,  I wondered what he was feeling. Instead of Lizzie, his nineteen-year-old sister Grace sat next to him waving at the ranch hands who would keep the farm going.

On Wednesday June 15th, we were finally on our way from the homestead east of El Paso de Robles, in California’s central coast, to Yosemite Valley where we would marvel at the magnificent sights we’d only read about and viewed with our stereoscope. A few hours later we met up with Dan’s brother Will and his wife Maggie in their smaller wagon. After a brief rest, we let them take the lead, keeping enough distance between so we didn’t eat their dust. All of us wore wide-brimmed hats for protection from the sun. Dipping our heads kept the blowing sand and dust from our eyes.

The twenty or so miles we traveled each day seemed to pass quickly as everything around us was so different from home. As we bounced along over rough road I could not help fixing my eyes on the broad shoulders of the big man in front of me. One would never guess he was nearly forty with the stamina of a younger man and a full head of dark hair under his dust-speckled hat. Lizzie had found a good man. And he had found a good woman. 

Though I loved the girls, on the wagon I could not escape their constant chatter and questions. Grace must have noticed for when we stopped to water the horses and stretch our legs on the third day, she suggested we change places. Grace climbed in back with the girls where she kept them occupied searching and counting all the animals they saw along the way. Dan and I sat side by side, the squeals of the girls and the din of jingles, rumbles and snorts a background to our silent thoughts.

The wagon swayed over a rough stretch and my shoulders pushed against his. I grabbed the rail and straightened. Our eyes met when he looked at me with the slightest turning of his head and smiled. I turned away quickly as if to view the distant mountains we would soon cross.

That night as I huddled in the warmth of the campfire, staring at the dancing flames, I realized that though our destination was the beautiful Yosemite Valley, I must not miss the wonders of the journey to reach it.

Grace sat on the log beside me, pencil in hand. “38 rabbits,” she said as she wrote the words before closing her diary. I wondered if she had counted the quail and foxes too. 

I reminded her, “Tomorrow is another day and there are only a few hours till we’re on the road again.” She followed me to our tent where the girls were already asleep. I curled up in my blanket but lay awake thinking about the next day. I decided that when it was my turn to sit up front in the wagon with Big Dan, I would have one of the girls sit between us. Surely there would be room for three.

Grace’s diary

The words in italics are as Grace wrote them. The regular font is my paraphrase of her accounts. The small print is information I’ve added for readers who might like interesting details about some of the sights.

After four days of hard traveling across the Central Valley, we rested on Sunday June 19th in the foothills of the great Sierra Nevada. It gave Dan and Will time to grease the wagons for the fourteen mile climb to Fish Camp. It gave me a chance to write in my diary and whittle my pencil.

Monday June 20 Left Dupello about half past five. First place of interest (five miles) was Coarse Gold mining town up the mts. Pretty little place. Left the next place Fresno Flats and commenced a long climb of 14 miles. Ate lunch on a small stream of water and then we started on through redwoods, firs and black oaks. Scenery perfectly grand after 14 miles of grade three miles of down hill and then we came to Summerdale or Fish Camp 200 miles from home. Camped under large fir trees so very very tall. Lou and I both sick. Glad when night came.

The next day we stopped to rest and fish. Will came back with six mountain trout. Dan chased a pig with potatoes. We packed and prepared for an early start to Yosemite Valley on the morrow. 

Wednesday June 22 Got up five minutes past three o’clock. Left Fish Camp twenty minutes to six traveling through a dense forest nearly all the way to Wawona which is a distance of eight miles. Wawona is indeed a fine summer resort with a large hotel and pretty grounds and a large fountain in front of hotel. A mile away was the W.S. camp (A.E. Wood) and here we came to the Toll Gate where we had to pay 13.50 for the two teams. 

Who was A.E. Wood? Yosemite Valley was the first tract of land set aside for preservation and public use when, in 1864, President Lincoln created the Yosemite Grant. Yosemite National Park was established in 1890. U.S. Cavalry troopers from the Presidio in San Francisco became its first park rangers, managing it during the summer months between 1891 and 1913. In April 1891, Captain Abram Epperson Wood led his unit, with their camp at Wawona, to “prevent timber cutting, sheep herding, trespassing or spoliation in particular.” Captain Wood died in 1894. His replacement, Captain G.H. G. Gale, had the camp name changed from Camp Wawona to Camp A. E. Wood, now the Wawona Campground. In 1899 the “buffalo soldiers”(black cavalry units) took up the patrols to protect the park from exploitation and development.

After crossing a large stream of clear running water we traveled on about twelve miles through trees and up mountain and down mountain. A very cold day. Ate lunch in sun. Let horses feed on the grass. Left here about one o’clock and crossed Grouse Creek. Met Guardian of the Valley.

The first Guardian of the Valley was settler Galen Clark, who discovered the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias at Wawona, an indigenous encampment. He completed a bridge over the South Fork of the Merced River in 1857 at Wawona for traffic headed toward Yosemite Valley and provided a way station for travelers on the road the Mann brothers built to the valley. He was “guardian” from 1856 to 1897. No name for the “guardian” in 1898.

Traveled uphill about two miles very steep grade. Arrived at the summit and there expected to get our first view of the Valley but could see only rocks and mountains in the far distance. We passed several large farms which the stage company owns where they change horses. After feeling somewhat discouraged we traveled on until all at once we came upon Inspiration Point (3 miles to bottom) where we could get a good view of the Valley. The only fall in sight was the Bridal Veil. 

After stopping here and looking down upon the grand valley we moved on just a little ways and came to what is known as Artist’s Point where a still better view of the Valley may be seen. 

–to be continued in my next post as we follow Grace’s account, view vintage photos, and learn more about Dan and Lou

Grace’s diary is from my personal collection. Photos are in public domain.

copyright by danyce gustafson