David Curry yelled, “Hello, Glacier Point!”
And the tourists yelled back, “Hello, Camp Curry!”
“Is the fire ready?”
“The fire is ready!”
“Let the Fire Fall!”
“The Fire Falls!”
At that a sack of burning embers was kicked off Glacier Point, creating a waterfall of fire for the amusement of tourists. Curry, who reinstated the Yosemite fire fall in the early 1900s, was following the 1897 ritual from an Irish immigrant James McCauley. It became a nightly summertime entertainment until the National Park Service ended it in 1968. Only McCauley would yell out, “Let ‘er go, Gallagher!” before the burning flames cascaded over Glacier Point. Curry and his wife Jennie, affectionately called Mother Curry, established Camp Curry in June of 1889 for tourists who did not want to spend too much money on the local hotels. They advertised "a good bed and clean napkin with every meal" for $2 a day. In 1936 prices for a tent at Camp Curry were $4 to $8 per person daily while The Ahwahnee or Yosemite Lodge was between $5 to $10 per person. The tent camp began in 1899 with twenty-five tents and 290 guests. By 1922, Camp Curry had grown to 650 tents, 60 rooms in cottages, a cafeteria, a bakery, an ice plant, a candy kitchen, soda fountain, a studio, laundry, bathhouses, pool, auditorium, bowling alley, pool hall, a post office, and a store.”
Early tourists at Yosemite rivaled the bravery of John Muir. Tourists hiked the Half Dome a mile above Mirror Lake, and dangled their legs off the overhang above Tenaya canyon. Both men and women trekked across Mount Lyell Glacier and pick-nicked at the top of Mt. Lyell, 13,090 feet above sea level. In the 1916 film, Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry, tourists enjoyed eating dinner out of a can while relaxing at the highest mountain in Yosemite.
Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry (1916)
Winter visits in Yosemite were minimal, but there were pioneers like James Lamon who lived year-round in the park.
James Chenowith Lamon (pronounced “lemon”), was born in Virginia. After his 1851 trek towards the California Gold Rush, he built a cabin and made Yosemite his home. In 1859, federal law allowed folks to preemptively claim a homestead on public land so Lamon was able to buy the possessory rights. He was truly one of the first homesteaders in the area. Lamon settled into his cabin during the winters of 1862-64, while his closest neighbor was over 30 miles away. Another early pioneer and friend of Lamon, James Mason Hutchings, wrote about him in his 1888 book, In the Heart of the Sierras:
“…an Indian had been seen in the settlements with a fine gold watch, that, it was surmised, belonged to Mr. Lamon. Fearing that its supposed owner had been murdered, as well as robbed, three friends left Mariposa for the purpose of ascertaining the facts of the case. Upon arrival, to their great joy, they found the man, presumably murdered, busily engaged in preparing his evening meal. Both Mr. Lamon and his watch were proven to be safe. It can readily be conjectured that their congratulations and rejoicings must have been mutual, although viewed from widely different standpoints.”
A park ranger from the National Park Service explained that “Lamon demonstrated what the American Indians in the area had known for centuries, living through the winter in Yosemite Valley was possible. This is a fact that Hutchings and other settlers took note of and began making their plans to live year-round in the Valley too.”
With the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, winter sports at Yosemite commenced. Tourists strapped on primitive skis and snowshoes. At Camp Curry, an eight hundred-foot snow slide was carved through thick forest. Riding on trash can lids or hotel trays, the run became known as “Ash Can Alley.” After the All-Weather Highway, known today as Highway 140 and the El Portal Road was built in 1926, tourists began flocking to Yosemite in the winter. Don Tresidder, president of the concessioner in the 1920s, was inspired to make Yosemite the “Switzerland of the West” and he formed the Yosemite Winter Club (still in operation today). Winter in Yosemite boasted an array of winter activities: skating rinks, toboggan runs, dog sled rides, sleighing, skijoring (skiing behind a horse with a tow rope), hockey games, curling, and speed and figure skating. Tresidder was a visionary who wanted Yosemite to host the Olympic Winter Games in 1932, although in the end, Lake Placid won the bid.
In the 1880s, San Francisco was known as the Paris of the West. In The Parks in Railroad Advertising, the Northern Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroads competed for tourists. The rail lines happily took advantage of Yosemite's safe, “gentrified wilderness made civilized by the presence of the railroad.” The Southern Pacific marketed Yosemite to the "romantic tourist," or “the class of tourist who wanted to repose in nature but not participate in it too strenuously. Yosemite was a place of views and vistas; a valley where one could witness the sublimity of nature and ponder it without actually confronting it.” In 1880, Northern Pacific announced their "Yellowstone Park Line" and with sole access to America’s first national park, it capitalized on Yellowstone's reputation for wildlife, geysers, and unique beauty.
While the Great War closed borders for travel abroad, National Parks opened their doors to the American Grand Tour. The ability to travel west was a status symbol and trips to Yosemite were accompanied with a hefty price tag.
Prices from an 1889 official guide to the Yellowstone National Park:
Per day rates secured only by parties who hold, or who have used the $30 or $40 book ticket:
For a two-horse carriage and driver, accommodating three people, $10.00
For a four-horse carriage and driver, accommodating five people, $15.00
For seven-passenger wagon, $20.00
For one saddle horse, $2.50
For one pack-horse, $1.50
For one guide with his saddle horse, $5.00
Regular established prices without the book ticket are as follows:
For a two-horse carriage and driver, accommodating three people, $14.00
For a four-horse carriage and driver, accommodating five people, $18
For seven-passenger wagon, $25.00
The first documented commercial tourist party entered the park in 1872, six months before the land officially became a National Park. It is hard to imagine the thoughts of pioneers who braved the unknown wilderness in search of mythical geysers and hot-springs. But few rare tales do remain, one of a man named Calvin C. Clawson, who chronicled his journey through the mysterious wonderland in 1871. Clawson and five other venturous souls are considered Yellowstone’s first tourists. His party included Rossiter W. Rayomnd (1840-1919), Frederic Anton Eilers (1839-1917), Josiah S. Daugherty (1827-1910), Gilman Sawtell (1836-?), and Augustus F. Thrasher (1835-late 1870s?). They reached Yellowstone by horseback since there were no wagon roads until 1878. The common route to the park began by the newly constructed transcontinental railroad to Corinne, Utah, then by horse-drawn wagons four hundred miles north to Bozeman, Montana, and then southeast to Yellowstone River. “Clawson’s party took the western route, from Deer Lodge, Montana, to Virginia City, through Raynolds Pass to Henry’s Lake, and then into the present park via the Madison River.” Clawson’s motivation stemmed from vague accounts of old fur trappers and a copy of N.P. Langford’s 1871 magazine article.
Langford, N. P., 1871. The Wonders of Yellowstone. Scribner's monthly.
There were three enemies, according to Clawson, that the party feared: Bears, Rattlesnakes, and Indians. On the first day of their journey on September ninth, 1871, Clawson wrote, “We were going on a long journey to the happy hunting grounds of the Red Man and among the bottomless pits and lakes of fire and brimstone, and might never again return.” Clawson relied on advice from old mountaineers who warned that for grizzlies, yell loudly; For Indians, death by tomahawk would be quick and painless, although there was one thing Clawson dreaded, to have his hair “snaked off” in the midst of pleasant dreams. Rattlers were especially terrifying and at every day’s end Clawson gratefully wrote in his journal, “no snakes.”
An Account of a Bear Fight
“The serviceberry bushes were dreadfully mangled—some places they had been pulled down and delicious fruit eaten off; in others they had been trampled and wallowed over as though a dozen bears had been there at once. I sent the dog in and watched, but as he started nothing, I soon forgot everything, and wandered on, gathering and eating berries, which hung in great clusters on all sides. All of a sudden, however, I was brought to my senses by a terrible noise in the bushes ahead of me, as of the rushing and snorting of wild animals. Of course it was a bear out berrying, and he was coming directly towards me. Nearer and nearer he come, and I could see the tops of the high berry bushes bending before him. Now it occurred to me there might be two—two bears are a good many. I would have whistled for Nig but to attract attention would prove ruinous, for the bear was coming plenty fast already. If the gun (a Ballard) should fail, there would be no alternative but to trust my knife, and that would bring me face to face with the enemy. Old hunters say a bear can be successfully handled (in an emergency) by waiting till he rises on his hind feet, and then smite him under the fifth rib till he dies. They never tell how the bear amuses himself in the meantime—whether he ‘throws up his hand’ or goes for his foe ‘tooth and toenail.’ These things have to be considered. I considered them. I recollected that I had never seen but one man stabbed a bear; that was down in the bear river mountains, several years ago—we had to take two horses to get him (not the bear) to camp, he was too much scattered to carry on one, and the best surgical assistance never could make anything else out of him, although he lived. Closer and closer come the bears; I thought I got a glimpse of them through the bushes; there was a drove of them—two abreast, rushing on me; another minute and the fight would begin. There was no tree in reach. I held a council of war; a change of base was considered in order; I immediately stepped behind a point of rocks half a mile down the creek, and after waiting a reasonable time for the enemy to appear, I walked into camp, demoralized, but not damaged. The dog soon followed, panting as though he, too, had a race for life.”
The party may have rivaled the bravery of John Muir but preservationists they were not. Hunting in Yellowstone was not prohibited until 1883 and while in Madison Valley, the men were thirsting for their first kill. They came upon an eagle’s nest, and after killing the mother and decorating their hats with her feathers, they snatched her fledglings to show off at camp before letting them go, likely to die. Adventure was on the minds of tourists who rode into the park, rather than wilderness protection.
Clawson’s party finally came upon, what he called, the “escaped pipes of purgatory, that mingled with the clouds.” He was referring to the geysers, a place he termed the Valley of the Shadows, due to the narrow, ten-mile trail through the mountains of perpendicular rock. Clawson admitted that an involuntary shudder passed over him as he believed he was in a land of fire and brimstone. Upon entering Geyserland, Clawson noted,
“Here a singular feeling seems to take possession of the traveler, which in fact has been coming on by degrees for miles back. Everything is changed. He remembers leaving friends and a different world behind him. The air is changed. He snuffs sulfurous gases and inhales the steam of fire caves and gaping pits that seem ready to swallow up everything in reach. Almost the first remark of every one, after casting their eyes around over the Geyser Basin, is, ‘Well, isn’t this hell?’” After nearly riding away to escape the intimidating geysers, Clawson reluctantly stayed a bit longer. Clawson’s party noted several geysers, many of which are dormant today. These included the present-day Terrace Spring and the Morning Geyser, which Clawson referred to as the Young Terrible, and Terrible, who hissed and roared like thunder.
Emerging from Geyserland, Clawson was amazed at the unique landscape of Yellowstone. Upon seeing the fountains bubbling out of the earth, he demanded that the “The nations of the earth must now bow at the feet of Montana.” His party unofficially named geysers and unique features, some which remain until the present day. Clawson named the present-day Fountain Paint Pot the Painted Wells, noting the strange pink pigments of the thermal feature. That night, Clawson was awoken by the world’s largest geyser, the Excelsior, which, according to Clawson’s journal, shook the ground beneath him, and he “rejoiced to see the sunlight fall on the valley in the morning.” Passing through boiling basins with nostrils “full of brimstone and sulfur” the party made its way out of what Clawson called, “Satan’s Sanctum.”
The geysers were hell, but heaven was waiting.
Between the Lower Geyser Basin and Yellowstone Lake, Clawson felt as if he were standing on the “Apex of North America.” He predicted that Congress would protect this Wonderland. He offered to name the site, Hiawatha, for high waters, and noted that he “never saw a more beautiful spot on which to pitch one’s bones after a day’s travel.” Finally, Yellowstone Lake came into full view. Clawson described an otherworldly, indescribable view: “Unlike any other spot or place seen or heard of- as if not of this world- something so spiritual, beyond the reach of pen or tongue. The eye must behold the glory thereof to believe; And even then, doubting, looks again.”
The Northern Pacific advertised a Buffalo Bill style Wild West Show, with “authentic” cowboy country scenes. Not every scene was artificial. In 1887, a tourist was killed when he was caught in a skirmish between Chief Joseph's Nez-Percé men and the U.S. Cavalry in the Flight of the Nez Perce.
Some of the earliest visitors to Yellowstone toured the Minerva Terrace in 1888. They traveled via the Northern Pacific and in horse-drawn carriages. In Thomson P. McElrath’s 1880 book titled The Yellowstone Valley: A Handbook for Tourists and Settlers, various hikes and tours are outlined, which take between twelve to fifty days. McElrath advised tourists to travel in July or late August due to deep snow in late fall and winter months. These trips were typically for the wealthy. One Philadelphia gentleman who was touring with fellow capitalists remarked, “It is the finest trip in the world! I had intended visiting Europe next summer, but if I live I shall go to the Yellowstone Park again, instead!” Wagon roads existed but beyond many points, only saddle and pack animals could fit along narrow trails. The Omaha Daily Bee, June 07, 1908, announced a round trip getaway to Yellowstone was $78.25. This included railroad fare, stage fares, hotel costs, and a tour of the park.
It was typical for tourists to trample on geysers, as there was no boardwalks or designated paths in Yellowstone. In the Yellowstone Insider, an article read, “it was common practice to make souvenirs—more often than not, by chipping off a piece of geyser and carrying it out with you.” Tourists also made their souvenirs. Leaving horseshoes, bottles, and picture frames in the silica-filled springs for a day or two produced a hard, white coating, for a treasure that could last years.
Major problems arose when tourists began leaving their signatures in geyser cones. In a 1936 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Owen Wister wrote, “Why will people scrawl their silly names on the scenery? Why thus disclose to thousands of who will read this evidence that you are a thoughtless ass? All very well if you wrote your name, your address, and the date on the North Pole; but why do it in some wholly accessible spot where your presence represents no daring, no endurance, nothing but the necessary cash to go there?” Soldiers chiseled and rubbed out the graffiti. It was the only way the guardians could see if new names were added.
These are links to short Edison films from 1899, of tourists arriving in Mammoth Hot Springs.