By the early 1900s, old Hutchings House, subsequently called “The Sentinel Hotel”, was the only hotel in the valley. Stoneman House had burnt down 3 years earlier. The Cosmopolitan, stores, photo studios, Degnan’s Bakery, wood shops were all still there and in close quarters to the new “town center” in the Upper Yosemite Village. But these facilities didn’t have accommodations. By the 1920s, consideration was given to not only adding Hotels, but also upping the quality.
In some of my posts, I have qualified the names of some historical places without much explanation as to why. Well, I’m tired of it. This is what is going on:
Effective March 1, 2016, concession operations for Yosemite National Park changed from Delaware North Companies to Yosemite Hospitality, LLC. Such a change happens from time to time. Delaware North won the concession from Yosemite Park and Curry Company back in 1993, which had held “ownership” for over 70 years[iii]. As such, many of the names that we have associated with Yosemite had to change in order to avoid compromise of trademarks acquired and now owned by Delaware North.
I don’t know (or care at this point) what the whole story is behind it all. I read that, initially, part of the bid for the concessionaire was for the new concessionaire to purchase any trademarks acquired by Delaware North as part of the process (apparently as Delaware North was required to do when they took over in 1993). Then it wasn’t a requirement. Then the Delaware North said the new concessionaire had to, either buy the trademarks or change the names of the trademarked items, as continued use of them would constitute a violation in trademark. Yosemite National Park has chosen to change the names of the following as stated to avoid those violations:
The Ahwahnee The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
Curry Village Half Dome Village
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls Yosemite Valley Lodge
Wawona Hotel Big Trees Lodge
Badger Pass Ski Area Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area
Delaware North also trademarked the phrase “Yosemite National Park”, but the park service is in litigation “…in part over these trademarks, service-marks, and other intellectual property….”[iv] What other “trademarks, service-marks or intellectual properties” are in contention (aside from “Yosemite National Park”), I don’t know. Why Delaware North didn’t inform Yosemite, or the park service about the action, I don’t know. Why the park service didn’t trade mark these names themselves, I don’t know. But, that’s were we are.[v]
So with this statement, unless germane to the specific reference, I’ll just use the new name. When germane (usually in a historical context), I’ll use the name used at the time of the period in discussion. Since this article is historical, I’ll use the original names.
Mirror Lake House (Not Mapped)
It was built by Captain William James Howard on the shore of the lake about a mile in on the trail. It was a small place, but had a big dance floor which stretched out over the lake a bit[vi]. Mirror Lake is not “natural”, but a consequence of rockfall, which occasionally blocks flow of Tenaya Creek. But during the early years of the park, the “dam” was maintained by the park as a tourist attraction and source for ice. The captain built the “house” as a summer home for the Howard family. It is not clear if it actually served as a hotel, but the dance floor (said to be 60×40 feet) was the site of many a party consisting of other guests at the park. It could have been built as early as the 1870s. When the park service decided to stop maintaining the dam (and consequently, the lake) in the early 1900s, the house was no longer useful.[vii]
Glacier Point Hotel 1916 (Not Mapped)
This hotel was put up by the Desmond Park Service and the Gutleben Brothers contracting firm in 1916. In 1924, a transfer was made to the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. This was, probably, little more than a name change. Desmond Park became the Yosemite National Park Company in 1917 and because of a forced merger with Camp Curry interests, it became the Yosemite National Park and Curry Company in the mid 1920s and under their supervision, the property was completed.
The view from the hotel’s veranda was the best in the park, ever. In spite of this, neither this hotel nor the Mountain House (put up by James McCauley) ever did well financially. Because, even to this day, access to Glacier Point is severely limited during the winter, the hotel had a very short window to provide services and, consequently, rates were high. Furthermore, there was a campground nearby that was easily accessible (and much less expensive) during the in-season months. Aside from the view, there wasn’t much to do up there so there was no motivation in staying more than one night, if at all. The cafeteria and porch got a lot of use though, from day travelers as well as the guests, but it didn’t make up for the lack of “room-nights”. It was also expensive to keep. Even though there were no tourists during the winter, a small crew was necessary to stay during the winter to take care of the place, mostly to clear the roof of snow.
Even with the roof cleared, winter generally took a severe toll on the building requiring expensive repairs every year. The winter of 1968-69 was especially severe and necessitated that both the Mountain House and Glacier Point Hotel to be closed for repairs. On July 9, 1969 an electrical fire started at the bottom floor and both hotels laid waste within an hour. They were never rebuilt.
The Yosemite Lodge (at the falls) 1915 (See the “Lower Yosemite Village” map)
This site was used, originally, as the U.S. Army headquarters for protecting the Yosemite National Park in 1906. The Headquarters was originally in Wawona, but when the Yosemite Grant was receded back to the federal government from California in 1906, the headquarters was moved and rebuilt here. It was called Camp Yosemite. When the National Park Service took over in 1916, the U.S. Army vacated and the facility was transformed by the Desmond Park Company to a tourist’s lodge and called The Yosemite Lodge.
The headquarters became the “Lodge” and the troop barracks were transformed into hotel rooms or cabins. The facility grew to 546 rooms and/or cabins then the flood of 1997 destroyed 189 cabins and 108 rooms which were never replaced. The Lodges’ capacity now is just 249 rooms.
At the time, only the Sentinel Hotel complex and this facility were the hotel options in the park. There, of course, remained a camping option and a step up with Camp Curry. In the early 2000s, Delaware North Corporation, then the concessionaire for the park, changed the name to Yosemite Lodge At The Falls. In 2016, the Park Service renamed it to Yosemite Valley Lodge.
The Ahwahnee Hotel 1927 (Not Mapped)[viii]
Stephen Mather, the first National Park Director, in the early 1920s, believed the park needed accommodations for the affluent and influential visitor. His thinking was that the scenery would be best enjoyed on a full stomach and a good night’s sleep. The hotels at the time just didn’t offer that kind of comfort to the traveler. Characteristic of his concern was symbolized by Lady Astor, England’s first female member of Parliament, who upon seeing the Sentinel Hotel‘s “top of the line” accommodations found its drafty rooms and shared bath not up to her standards and left “in a huff”. This was not the impetus for Mather’s decision though Lady Astor’s visit was prior to the opening of The Ahwahnee, but it was during its construction. The decision to build accommodations for the affluent and influential visitor appears well conceived.
The site was chosen for its stunning views of Half Dome, Glacier Point and Yosemite Falls. The architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, was chosen in 1925. At that time, he had already designed and completed the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone, Cedar Breaks Lodge at Cedar Breaks National Monument (demolished in 1972) and the Bryce Canyon Lodge. In addition to the Ahwahnee, he later designed and completed 10 other structures, but The Ahwahnee is considered his masterpiece in this rustic style.
It was a massive undertaking. It required 5,000 tons of stone, 1,000 tons of steel and over 30,000 feet of timber to be trucked into the valley for construction. To help avoid the potential for fire, which many of the buildings before and since had suffered, the Redwood facade is actually concrete that was molded in rough-hewn wooden frames and then stained to color. The hotel opened in July 1927.
The hotel was designed to be an all-year hotel. However, even though, with the advent of automobiles being allowed in the park and attendance almost doubling from the year before, attendance during the winter was still skimpy. Emphasis by the park was placed on winter activities to draw more visitors. This was mostly a variety of winter sport activities, but from the outset, the Ahwahnee had hosted the Bracebridge Dinner show almost yearly since 1927. Originally, the Dinner was a Christmas Day show. But by 1957, due to popular demand, additional shows were added on Christmas Day. Eventually, the hotel resorted to a lottery allowing winners the privilege of buying tickets. This lottery lasted from 1977 to 2002. But with the addition of more show days, the lottery was no longer necessary. Now there are 8 show days presented during December.
Winter Sports added as a draw included Hockey tournaments, Olympic Speed skating, dog sledding, downhill skijoring (kind of like water skiing, but from horses and in the snow). There was even a man-made tobogganing run put in. Yosemite almost became the site of the Winter Olympics in 1932. In 1935, the ski area at Badger Pass was first opened. Even an Ice Skating rink was added at Camp Curry. All of these activities were added, in part to increase traffic during the Winter months.
The hotel was closed to the public from June of 1943 to December of 1945 to provide a convalescent hospital for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Its initial success as such was shaky, but by the end of the period, it was doing fine. Originally, it was thought that the park would be ideal for battle-stressed patients awaiting discharge or reassignment. But as it turned out, the patients found the high cliffs as claustrophobic and the isolation was difficult. In addition, the brief visits, due to bureaucratic backlogs, turned to lengthy stays because of delays in transfer orders. By the time the war was ending, the hotel was more of a hospital holding medical and surgical patients. These convalescents found the park’s beauty inspiring.
Mather’s motivation of providing suitable lodging for the “affluent and influential” worked initially. Yosemite had such dignitaries as President John F. Kennedy, the Queen of England, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and three other US Presidents (former). Celebrities also stayed and included actors, Jacky Benny, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Boris Karloff, Bing Crosby, Charleton Heston and Harrison Ford[ix]; musicians, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Joan Baez, and John Folgerty; sports figures from the San Francisco 49ers and NBA stars.
A number of feature films were shot using Yosemite as setting (at least partially) including The Shining (Stanley Kubrick’s)[x], Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, The Caine Mutiny[xi], Maverick, and The Long, Long Trailer[xii]. The small screen even gets into the picture every now and then. I once saw a shot of Half Dome in an early TV episode of Bones in a scene that was supposed to be a hiking trail in Washington State! The vast majority of films shot in Yosemite, however, are documentaries or inspirational/travelogue pieces, not feature films.
The reviews on this hotel are not always good. There is no question this is an historic and beautiful property, but those complaining report outdated and worn facilities, problems with cleanliness (mildew on shower curtain, hair in a soap container). Food service was occasionally borderline. The box lunches requested through the hotel was made with stale, hard bread. The breakfast buffet was dried out. I looked at 15 or 20 reviews on Trip Advisor, the majority were positive (there were no specifics, other than they had a good time) but many of them had qualifying comments, like “given the age and location”. Of the less than ideal reviews they all had at least one specific complaint and most of them had multiple issues. The vast majority enjoyed their stay in the valley, overall; even those with less than favorable reviews on the hotel itself. Even so, more than one complained that because of food and sleeplessness issues, their enjoyment of the park was compromised. Ironically, this is exactly was Mather’s vision of the Ahwahnee was designed to avoid. The hotel is no longer Stephen Mather’s vision of a comfortable, luxury facility; it is merely expensive.
We’ve never stayed there, so I can’t testify, personally, to the overnight accommodations. But we do visit the hotel (lobby, gift shop, lodge and grounds) almost every visit to the park. There is, truly, a grand hotel and almost breathtaking. The lounge area has a tall, double sided fireplace (see picture) tables and lounge sofas and chairs. The walls are adorned with tapestries and paintings, some by famous artists from Yosemite’s early history. On occasion, we try to do breakfast there. If you arrive right at 7:00 AM when the dinning room opens and are first (or near the first) in line, you can request “The Queen’s Table,” which is a table for two, right at the big window which looks out on Yosemite Falls. It is so named because this is where Queen Elizabeth was seated during her visit in 1983. We ordered a light breakfast (couple eggs, bacon, tea, toast) and with tip came to about $75 (this was in 2004; the first time we ate there).
To be honest, even as day visitors, we noticed there were cleanliness issues and felt some of the threadbare fixtures should be addressed. When we visit, this is soon forgotten. But then again, we’re just visiting, we’re not spending $500 plus per night to stay there, either. There is a fine line between rustic and worn and there are some obvious public places where The Ahwahnee has crossed that line. Nevertheless, we would like to stay there at least once in our life time.
In 2016, the Ahwahnee was renamed to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
[i] Map from Yosemite brochure handed out at park entrance labeled “last updated 2012”. Red typing overlayed by me.
[ii] 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”
[iii] Actually, Yosemite National Park and Curry Company only had concessions since 1925 (68 years), but in 1925, this concessionaire was really just a name change from Yosemite National Park (which had the concession since 1917) and that was due to a “reorganization” of Desmond Park Services, that had the concession since 1915. (See note viii, below)
[iv] News Release, January 14, 2016, Yosemite National Park to Change Historic Property Names (See Park alerts at NPS.gov/Yose)
[v] You might want to look at this link for some additional details: http://www.outsideonline.com/2048041/who-owns-yosemite
[vi] Yosemite’s Historic Hotels and Camps Alice van Ommeren, 2013, Acadia Publishing, page 54
[vii] The Last of the Rangers Jill L. Crossley-Batt, 1928, Funk and Wagnalls, Chapter 17-The Howards in Yosemite
[viii] Much of this information in more detail can be found in The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel by Keith S. Walklet, DNC Park & Resorts and Yosemite Association, 2004
[ix] Ford remains an activist for Yosemite having narrated at least one of its documentaries on the park and has been very vocal for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley.
[x] Though nothing from Yosemite appears in the film, sets depicting the “Overlook Hotel’s” Lobby, Lounge and Elevators were patterned after those of The Ahwahnee in Yosemite.
[xi] This movie, incidentally, contains a really nice view of the Firefalls from Glacier Point.