Yosemite Selfie


In this post, I’ll discuss a few hotels and other buildings buildings, only one of which was in the valley. La Casa Nevada was out back between Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls and the Mountain House was up at Glacier Point.

Lower Village (mine)

Various early buildings super-imposed on a contemporary map of the valley  [1]

Upper Village Closeup

Map and Legend of Old (Upper) Yosemite Village to 1956 [2]


La Casa NevadaLa Casa Nevada 1870 (Not Mapped)

This site was put up by Mr & Mrs Albert Snow after they completed a horse trail from Happy Isles to a flat between Vernal and Nevada Falls. They opened the hotel in the 1870 season. In October of 1874, George Anderson stayed there and then made the first ascent, by anyone ever, of Half Dome on October 12, 1874. He then led a party up to the top just 4 days later. The Hotel Register states, in part, “Ascent of the South Dome [as many still called Half Dome at the time] — …was accomplished this morning by a party of Englishmen and Americans under the guidance of … George Anderson … which has always been considered impossible….” The entry was dated October 16, 1874. The registry of this hotel in the possession of the Yosemite Museum and on my visit last September was on display. The page showing had James Hutchings flowery signature as a registered guest. The hotel remained a popular “haunt” for over 20 years until it burnt down in the early 1890s.

CosmopolitanThe Cosmopolitan Saloon 1870 (#34 on the Old Yosemite Village map)

By all accounts, this was a spectacular monument for the well-to-do visitor to Yosemite. According to J. H. Beadle, a noted author and journalist of the time, “But the wonder—among the buildings of Yosemite—is the ‘Cosmopolitan,’ containing saloon, billiard hall, bathing rooms, and barber-shop, established and kept by Mr. C. E. Smith. Everything in it was transported twenty miles on mules; mirrors full-length, pyramids of elaborate glassware, costly service, the finest of cues and tables, reading-room handsomely furnished and supplied with the latest from Eastern cities, and baths with unexceptionable surroundings, attest the nerve and energy of the projector. It is a perfect gem. The end of the wagon-road was twenty miles away when the enterprise began, and yet such skill was used in mule-packing that not an article was broken. I have not seen a finer place of resort, for its size. The arrangements for living are such that one could spend the summer there delightfully, and we found several tourists who remained for weeks.”

I would say that on a scale of 1 to 10, where “1” was the worst tent at Camp 4 during the 1970’s and “10” is the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee), the Cosmopolitan rated a 14! It was truly extra ordinary. It was a Saloon and Bath house of extraordinary ordination, but not a hotel. It was closed down as a saloon by the park commission in 1884 as “inappropriate” saying that any saloon in Yosemite should be operated in conjunction with a hotel. Nevertheless, the rest of the establishment operated for another 50 years, until 1938 when, on December 8, it was destroyed by fire.

mountainhouseMountain House at Glacier Point 1875 (Not mapped)

In 1871, James McCauley took on a commission from the state to carve out a horse trail from the Valley Floor to Glacier Point. James McCauley completed the 4-Mile Trail in the summer of 1872. Apparently, Charles Peregory had, at one time, planned on settling there, for he had built a shack around the time that he was building his Mountain View Hotel mentioned in a previous post. It was never used commercially. It was used by the builders of the 4-Mile trail for storage and as a bunk house. When the State of California finally took over claims in the valley in 1874, the Yosemite Grant Commissioners leased the shanty to McCauley for 10 years provided that he builds a suitable hotel on the site.

He completed a two story hotel after a couple years and immediately put it up for sale in August of 1876. In 1877, McCauley ended up sub-leasing it to Thomas and Elizabeth Glynn. McCauley and his wife, Barbara (his bride from the year before), took over running the hotel in 1880. Barbara prepared meals and did the house keeping. James waited tables, ran the bar and entertained the guests. One of those entertainments started off innocently enough by testing how long it took certain items to take to fall when dropped off the cliff. I found this quote from A Hundred Years in Yosemite by Carl Russell which he called Derrick Dodd’s Tough Story:

As a part of the usual programme, we experimented as to the time taken by different objects in reaching the bottom of the cliff. An ordinary stone tossed over remained in sight an incredibly long time, but finally vanished somewhere about the middle distance. A handkerchief with a stone tied in the corner, was visible perhaps a thousand feet deeper; but even an empty box, watched by a field-glass, could not be traced to its concussion with the Valley floor. Finally, the landlord appeared on the scene, carrying an antique hen under his arm. This, in spite of the terrified ejaculations and entreaties of the ladies, he deliberately threw over the cliff’s edge. A rooster might have gone thus to his doom in stoic silence, but the sex of this unfortunate bird asserted itself the moment it started on its awful journey into space. With an ear-piercing cackle that gradually grew fainter as it fell, the poor creature shot downward; now beating the air with ineffectual wings, and now frantically clawing at the very wind, that slanted her first this way and then that: thus the hapless fowl shot down, down, until it became a mere fluff of feathers no larger than a quail. Then it dwindled to a wren’s size, disappeared, then again dotted the sight a moment as a pin’s point, and then—it was gone!

After drawing a long breath all round, the women folks pitched into the hen’s owner with redoubled zest. But the genial McCauley shook his head knowingly, and replied:

“Don’t be alarmed about that chicken, ladies. She’s used to it. She goes over that cliff every day during the season.”

And, sure enough, on our road back we met the old hen about half up the trail, calmly picking her way home!

It was also McCauley that started the Firefalls. The details of how it got started are a bit sketchy. According to Fred McCauley (one of James’ twin boys), Father started the Firefall in 1872 when he pushed his campfire over the Glacier Point cliff. He experimented with gunny sacks soaked in kerosene, fireworks, and even dynamite bombs for spectacular effects.”  Soon, it became an almost night spectacle that continued in the park until 1968 (with a few interruptions).

After the initial 10-year lease, McCauley leased on a year-by-year basis from the commissions. At the close of the 1897 season, McCauley closed the mountain house to return to winter home in Big Meadow (what is now call Foresta). The commissioners immediately leased the property to the Washburn Brothers (who had been running what they called the Wawona Hotel since they bought out “Clark’s Station” in 1876 and renamed it). This somewhat clandestine action wasn’t without good cause. The state spent nearly $1500 in 1895 to effect repairs on the hotel after receiving numerous complaints.

In defiance, McCauley and his eldest son, Jules road back up to the hotel with the plan to stay through the winter as they felt the commissioners could do little about it during the winter. But, the Mariposa County Sheriff shortly after took possession for the state. By all accounts, McCauley left a broken man and never quite recovered from the humiliation he felt.

The Mountain House and the yet to be built Glacier Point Hotel both burnt down in July of 1969 and neither were ever rebuilt.

Big Trees Lodge (Wawona Hotel — Not Mapped)

Wawona Hotel (Big Trees Lodge)

Wawona is the location that Galen Clark chose as his home when he came to the mountains in 1857. He soon opened his home to travelers coming through Mariposa on their way to Yosemite Valley. It was then called “Clark’s Station.”  It became a popular stop. Galen was a gracious host regaling his tenants with stories of the Valley and the local Native Americans. The food was good and the rates reasonable. Maybe, even, too reasonable. As was characteristic his whole life, due to mounting debt (see his story in the post at this link), he had to sell the place in the mid seventies. Nevertheless, he was a very likable man. The Washburn brothers, who bought the place from him, gave him free lodging for life! And they insisted in paying all funeral costs upon his passing in 1910.

Edward, John and Henry Washburn took on “Clark’s Station” also known as Clark and Moore’s in 1874. Galen, trying to stave off creditors, partnered with Edward Moore in 1869, but it was insufficient or too late. They renamed Clark’s Station to Big Tree Station. In 1876, as demand increased, an additional building, they named, “The Long White” (and later changed to “The Clark Cottage”) was constructed, then in 1878, a fire destroyed all buildings except a stable and most of the Clark Cottage. This building remains as the oldest building the park.

Washburn's Buggy

In 1882, Jean Bruce Washburn, Henry’s wife, suggested name be changed to Wawona. She was an observer of the lore of the Native Americans and felt this name was more “mellifluous”. Today, there is some disagreement as to what “Wawona” means. Shirley Sargent’s history said that it was taken to mean Big Tree, but an earlier and, maybe, more authoritive work of Barrett and Gifford, Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Area (1933) said it is the name of a flower. Whatever the true meaning, obviously, Mrs. Washburn thought it meant “Big Tree”. So the name, and the meaning, has stuck. So much so that when the park had to change the name of the hotel (for trademark reasons), they chose the name “Big Trees Lodge” rather than Dense-flowered Evening Primrose Lodge[3].

Today, the lodge has grown from the original 160 acres that Galen Clark homesteaded back in 1857 to over 4000 acres containing the hotel complex, gift shop, Gas Station, Stables, the Hill Studio and an outdoor museum of buggies and other horse drawn tools and a number of historic buildings relocated from various part of the park.


[1] Map from Yosemite brochure handed out at park entrance labeled “last updated 2012”. Red typing overlayed by me.

[2] From Self-Guiding Auto Tour of Yosemite National Park (1956) by Richard P. Ditton and Donald E McHenr, Yosemite: Yosemite National History Association , 1956. 78 pp, Illustrated. “Digitized by Dan Anderson, January 2007, from a personal copy. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact. —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us

[3] Wawona’s Yesterdays Shirley Sargent, Yosemite National History Association, 1961 as digitized by Daniel E Anderson at Yosemite.ca.us. “It was permanently named Wawona, the Indian word for Big Tree,  by Jean Bruce (Mrs. Henry) Washburn in 1884” and “Dense-flowered Evening Primrose (Boisduvalia densiflora [Lindl.] Wats.). Winiwayu (C), wawō'na (S). The seeds were gathered with a seed-beater and burden basket, parched, pulverized, and eaten dry. Those stored were unparched.” Miwok Material Culture by SA Barrett and EW Gifford, Cannon Printing Company, Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, 1933.