April 22, 2004

Tom addresses the Interior Secretary

Tom was invited by Yosemite Superintendent Mike Tollefson to give a 10-minute talk to then Interior Secretary Gail Norton while she lunched in the Sun Room at the Wawona Hotel.  Here's the transcript -- a brief history of the hotel and a word about preservation.

Transcript of talk at the Sun Room, Wawona , CA   April 22, 2004

Here we are in the “Sunroom”—in the newest building on the Wawona grounds—Arts & Crafts style—opened in 1918.  Actually, if one guy had gotten his way back in the ‘20s, we’d be standing in a lake—“ Lake Wawona ,” or a subdivision; another guy in the ‘30s thought they should just bulldoze this place and subdivide it into lots.  

Albert Gordon’s lived here all his life—he’s in his 80s—back in the ‘50s—in the winter when the hotel was closed—Albert was frantically putting out a fire over in the main building; a now-forgotten executive saw him and said “why are you bothering?[i]  It’s amazing to me that this place is still standing—thank goodness—and now finally we’re replacing the foundations!

So—how’d it get here?  Here’s the story, from the beginning:

9,000 years ago—according to local Indians—9,000 years ago the first people lived in the Yosemite area—and the archeologists pretty much agree with the Indians on that.  9,000 years ago Yosemite Valley was probably still a post-glacial lake—Wawona too.  Sometime later the terminal moraines give out, the lakes empty out and grass, shrubs, trees, and animals—stuff we now call “indigenous” —appear in the brand-spanking new Yosemite Valley .  Among these indigenous animals are us—people.  Yes! —People are indigenous to Yosemite …and thus worthy of federal protection.

In 1851 some more of these people come in to drive out the ones who were already here.  This new bunch are from Mariposa—just a few miles away—and word gets out about the beautiful Yosemite Valley .

Four years later, down in Mariposa, there’s a 41 year old miner named Galen Clark who’s having a particularly bad day.  Besides not being very good at mining, his doctor just told him he’s going to die any minute of consumption.  1855: that’s the year of the four first tourist parties ever into Yosemite , so poor doomed Galen Clark decides to join one of these tourist parties—literally I guess to see Yosemite and die.  They ride straight over Chowchilla Mountain to here (a day’s ride), camp, then next morning into Yosemite —have a look around, and come back out the same way, through here.

Having seen this area, I guess Galen decides it’s as good a place as any to die, so the next year—1856—he takes out a pre-emption claim on 160 acres right here, and the year after that in April he builds a cabin out front of where the Wawona Hotel now stands.  Of course, the local Indians are keeping a close eye on him, but he gets along with them well enough.

Since Galen’s new little cabin was right next to the new toll-trail into Yosemite, he immediately began offering room and board to tourists, and, by gosh, we’ve been in business ever since!  Every year more tourists came through, so Clark kept adding on to the cabin until by 1864 it measured some twenty feet by one hundred and twenty feet long.[ii]

And you’ll notice he’s failing to live up to his doctor’s bleak prognosis – it’s 1864 and Galen’s still failing to die, so they make him Guardian of the newly protected Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of big trees – the same trees that he and a friend discovered back in ‘57.  Clark’s got plenty of business at his hotel, called Clark’s Station, but isn’t charging enough for room and board, and is always making dumb investments and by 1874 he’s just in debt up to his eyeballs—$20,000.  Enter Henry Washburn, who’s making all kinds of money bringing in tourists on horseback.  So Washburn buys out Clark in 1874, and Galen Clark just continues to not pass on until – finally – 4 days short of his 96th birthday in 1910.  We attribute his longevity to the Wawona Air—so be sure to breathe a lot while you’re here.

So, Henry Washburn’s in charge: with his business partners he adds buildings (including the main one—we’re celebrating its 125th birthday this year[iii]); Henry builds the road from here to Yosemite Valley, expands his horse-stage business, schmoozes investors… his brother John Washburn runs the hotel complex, and his brother Ed Washburn is the book-keeper – these are the three youngest of 15 brothers – 15 boys…by two mothers; the first one died, understandably—all from Putney, Vermont.

Time marches on—John Washburn dies in 1917, and his son Clarence Washburn inherits control of the business – it’s a corporation by now, and Clarence is the majority stockholder.  Clarence built up the business to what we see today – he put in the golf course, tennis court, pool, new fountain, and this building – all around 1918.  And he decided in 1930 to sell.

The hotel company owned over 3,000 acres here – at that time, Wawona wasn’t part of Yosemite National Park .  One of the board thought the land should stay private, and be subdivided into lots and sold, but Clarence didn’t want to split up the family legacy so in ’32 he sold the land to the government, and the business to the Yosemite Park & Curry Co.

So here we are, and we’re not standing in a lake or a subdivision, we’re here in a place that the Indians called Pallahchun, which means “a good place to stop.”  And it still is—this place has been a way-station for thousands of years.  And this building is one of Yosemite ’s cultural resources.

The mission statement of the NPS has a built-in paradox; it says we’re supposed to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources … of the National Park System.”  Buildings like this one, the 1879 Yosemite Chapel, and the 1904 Le Conte Memorial in Yosemite Valley —you could say these buildings don’t naturally occur in mountain meadows and so we have cultural resources “impairing” the natural resources.  But imbedded in these structures is the story of how Yosemite came to be so well-protected.  Wawona, the Ahwahnee, Camp Curry , campgrounds, and the roads that guys like Washburn built, and this very building continue to serve as conduits through which people learn to love and protect Yosemite .

100 years ago somebody named Robinson petitioned the Yosemite Commissioners to let him build a resort hotel in the Hetch Hetchy Valley – they turned him down[iv].  Without hotels, Yosemite Valley might be a reservoir now, too.  That may seem farfetched, but I’ll bet that Wm. Mulholland wasn’t alone when he said he wanted to “dam Yosemite from one end to the other and stop the [blankety-blanked] waste.”[v] 

One lesson you could get from this is: The more stuff we build in Yosemite , the better protected it’ll be.

Well, no.  But the thing is, we bring culture with us to Yosemite just as naturally as birds bring their singing—and remember: we’re indigenous, so maybe—just like a bird’s nest in a giant sequoia—just maybe this building is a natural as well as a cultural resource.  It’s right there in the Park Service’s mission statement: cultural and natural resources are so intertwined that we’re supposed to protect both—unimpaired.  Our cultural heritage and values are so essential to the way we run Yosemite that I think they deserve as much attention as we give to natural resources.

Having worked here for over 20 years, I’m really happy to see the partnership of the Park Service and Delaware North to save these structures that have played such a vital role in preserving Yosemite .  Maybe it’s a paradox—or maybe it isn’t—when natural and cultural resources occupy the same space – but that dance between our culture and the environment is to me the most interesting part of being here.  And, as I like to point out, dance – and music – are the oldest ongoing cultural activities in Yosemite .

[i] Albert Gordon died in 2005 at age 86

[ii] Facts in this and the preceding paragraph were updated in 2006 to reflect my current research discoveries.

[iii] In 2004 we celebrated what was called by the marketing department “The Wawona Hotel 125th Anniversary.” Trouble is, it was only the anniversary of the Main Building – the business, as you have read, dates to 1857.

[iv] I have not verified this story with primary sources, but have it on good authority – I intend to check it later.

[v] This story was told by former Yosemite Superintendent Horace Albright, quoted in “ Cadillac Desert .”