October 2, 2010

Galen Clark (1814 - 1910)

Today I gave the following speech outside at the Pioneer History Center in Wawona. I felt it important to stress the role of Galen Clark, whose fundamental importance to the history of our National Parks is so routinely underreported, perhaps, ironically, because of his own humility.

My thanks to the Yosemite Conservancy for inviting me to speak today at our 35th annual Fall Gathering – and, yes, it’s the first Fall Gathering under our new name. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music – any of you who have ever sung around a Yosemite campfire have, perhaps unknowingly, participated in what may be the oldest cultural activity in Yosemite. I’d guess that people have been singing and dancing around campfires here for several thousand years, so let’s keep that tradition alive! What do you say! No, I’m not going to lead a sing along just now.

So -- we’re at a crossing, here. See, it’s always been easier to cross the river here because it’s nice and flat and shallow – animals naturally had figured this out a long time ago, and so had the first people coming through here some thousands of years ago. So in the late 1800s they called this area a “crossing” – the South Fork Crossing.

155 summers ago – on the far bank of the South Fork – over there, you can almost see ‘em – a dozen or so scruffy looking miners on horseback, kicking up dust as they come down the bank to cross the river – here they come. They just had breakfast and they’re about to make history as one of the first tourist parties to visit Yosemite – you can smell ‘em as they ride by. As tourists, these guys represent the seed of Yosemite’s first human threat, but then the guy who just cooked their breakfast represents one of the first seed of Yosemite’s protectors.

So here goes our parade of miners – these three brothers going by will start Yosemite’s first commercial tourist enterprise the next year, 1856, by building a toll-horse-trail from Mariposa to Yosemite, right through our crossing here. Cost four bucks a horse to use their trail.

Bringing up the rear is our cook with a couple pack animals – his name’s Galen Clark – his job is to cook and clean up after all these guys . . . but he’s not thinking about that too much. See, Galen’s at the bottom rung of the labor market, and on top of that he has serious health issues – his doctor says he’s got about six months to live – so Galen’s looking around here and thinking: “I’m 41 years old. Why don’t I just quit my crummy job, grab my rifle and fishing pole and live up here and die happy.”

Well that’s about what he did – except that he continually failed to die for 55 consecutive years after that. He was an interesting guy – they say around here in the old days that he didn’t wear shoes – said it was for his health. I don’t know. But this camp cook is why we’re all here, at this place. Clark and some others, having seen the gold rush and the mess it’d made of things, thought it’d be nice to keep people from wrecking the Big Trees and Yosemite Valley, so they pushed the idea through Congress – and here we are.

It all started right here at the South Fork Crossing, making this the single best place for the Yosemite Conservancy Fall Gathering. Clark said he’d built his first cabin in April, 1857 in front of what’s now the Wawona Hotel dining room. Since his cabin was right by that toll-horse-trail, Clark soon found himself catering to Yosemite tourists. The Wawona Hotel is the descendant of Clark’s little cabin, and the bridge over there is descended from Clark’s first bridge. The Yosemite Conservancy is descended from a group that helped preserve that bridge – The Yosemite Fund. The wagon shed just the other side of the bridge once housed another ancestor of the Conservancy – the Yosemite Association.

While the bridge and the crossing make an appropriate setting for us, the Wawona Fountain nicely symbolizes the convergence of all our support and effort, gathering it all together and raining it all over Yosemite. Like the Wawona fountain. Okay, well, the fountain’s not doing that just yet – we have to finish restoring it. Then it’ll do it.

That fountain’s really reality imitating art, you know. Maybe you do know -- when Thomas Hill did a painting of the hotel in 1885, he thought there ought to be a fountain so he painted one in. They distributed thousands of copies of that painting in a major Yosemite guide book, so everybody came here and said “Well, where’s the fountain,” and so in 1889 they relented and put one in. It was replaced in 1918, and for the next 90 years it’s been a focal point – yeah, especially last year when they had to wrap the fountain in tarps to keep it from completely falling apart. I just explained to people that it was an art installation by Christo. I hear that we’ll also be restoring the fountain in front of Hill’s Studio.

Not only is the Conservancy working to restore these fountains, last year we helped with the creation of that great exhibit in Hill’s Studio – I volunteered on the committee and got to see up close the wonderful teamwork that goes into these sorts of projects. And your donations are also supporting restoration of Clark’s Meadow out there – it’s called the Wawona Meadow, now, but an old map called it Clark’s Meadow. And these historic structures all around you are preserved in part by your donations.

So here we all are, a team, a family, protecting Yosemite for ourselves and from ourselves, for the future and from the future, just like our ancestor Galen Clark did, starting in his little cabin – right here – where he both catered to tourists and protected Yosemite from them. March 24th marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Galen Clark at the age of 96.

It is my belief that the National Parks started here, with Galen Clark, alone by his campfire, ruminating over how to protect those Big Trees, and Yosemite.

So really, we are on hallowed ground.

Maybe that’s why Galen Clark didn’t wear shoes.