Friday, July 13, 2012



  I am going to take you to an often overlooked section of Yosemite National Park, the Pioneer History Center in Wawona.  Wawona is usually accessed upon entering the park from the South entrance, but can be reached from the valley as well.  This site is where the people instrumental in building the park are honored.  While their stories are not well known their efforts, experiences, and issues faced during the establishment of the national park need to be recognized.

     The PYNC is NOT a village, but a gathering of eight historic structures representing different eras in Yosemite's history.  These buildings were moved here over 40 years ago from other parts of the park where they were constructed over 100 years ago in an effort to protect them.  Each structure represents a different chapter in the Yosemite story.

      Why Wawona you ask? The covered bridge over the river is the only one in any of the national parks.  It was built in 1857 by Galen Clark who opened the first stop for visitors in Wawona.  Later, it was bought and covered by the Washburns.  In the late 1800's Wawona was the largest stage stop in Yosemite with all traffic having to stop here. 
     Once manned by costumed volunteers interpreting Yosemite's history on a daily basis, today visitors can take a self guided walk using the interpretive plaques in front of each of the buildings or join a guided history tour with a ranger.  Otherwise, the buildings are opened  annually on the Fourth of July.  So let's travel back in time to the days of the park's pioneers and learn some of Yosemite's history.

                              THE ARTISTS' STUDIO

     As early as the 1850's explorers, writers,tourists, and artists visited Yosemite and extolled its spectacular beauty far and wide.  It was they who brought to the public's attention the 30 foot wide trees and 1,000 foot waterfalls.  One such artist was Norwegian Chrstian Jorgenson who came to Yosemite in 1898 and built a l room residence/studio in 1900 on the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley which he and other artists used until 1935.  Some of his work is displayed in the Yosemite Museum in the valley.  Can you imagine a better place to paint?

                                GEORGE ANDERSON'S CABIN

     George Anderson, a Scottish sailor turned gold seeker, built a floorless, primitive house in the 1870's in Foresta where he resided in the winter.  Summers were spent in Yosemite Valley where he worked as a blacksmith.  When Half Dome was declared to be one of the only prominent points in Yosemite that would probably never be trodden by human foot In 1871 master trail builder John Conway and his sons were some of the first who took up the challenge.  Barefoot (can you imagine-you've seen Half Dome!!) they went up the east slope and drove spikes into fissures in the rock, tying rope around each pin for 200 feet.  Above this the had had no fissures unless they drilled so they quit.  Along came George who finished the trail by drilling his way all the way to the top inserting bolts 5-6 feet apart and fastening his rope to each.  He finished on October 12, 1875 then since everyone wanted to climb it he hired out as a guide.

                               THE HOMESTEAD CABIN

     Most of us know about the Homestead Act of 1862 which allowed any citizen to settle on land that belonged to the National government by claiming a plot of 160 acres or multiples thereof.  It required you to build on it, clear portions of it, and farm it.  After five years it would belong to you.  Without the homesteader Yosemite National Park would still be the domain of the sheepherder, cattleman, hunter, miner and trapper.  You would have only been able to see the valley by horse or mule back for many more years.  The homesteader built the first primitive trails, roads, took in guests, acted as guides, and spread the word of Yosemite's wonders.

     Our homesteader Jeremiah and Mary Kay Hodgdon came to California by covered wagon on the Oregon Trail in 1850. With he help of his son, Tom, they bought up failing homesteads accumulating over 160 acres at Hodgdon Meadows and 200 acres in Aspen Valley to be used for cattle grazing. In 1879 Tom built a two story log cabin and added a lean to kitchen in 1885.  But by this time John Muir was trying to convince Congress to establish Yosemite as a national park.  When that happened concerns over damage caused by cattle and sheep grazing in the high country to watershed and waterfalls prompted expanding the boundaries of the national park in 1890. Legal battles between residents and the government resulted in the end of the Hodgdon cattle business.  This cabin represents those disputes. The vacant cabin was used by soldiers as living quarters from 1891-1920.     

                                   THE BLACKSMITH

     Without the blacksmith all metal work wouldn't get done.  Most people think he only shoed horses but a blacksmith does it all including forging hooks or hinges for doors and gates, spits for fireplaces, wagon rims, or lid lifters for your stoves.  By 1900 many people made the trip here on horseback or horse drawn stage taking eight hours to go 25 miles from Wawona to Yosemite Valley.  A four horse stage changed horses four times in one trip-that's 16 horses-get the picture?  This man was VERY important.

                                 THE  CAVALRY OFFICE

     For 23 years from 1891-1914 U.S. Cavalry troops maintained and protected Yosemite.  They used soldiers because no extra money had to be appropriated.  In 1891 after a 250 mile road from the Presidio in San Francisco, Abram Epperson Wood and 150 soldiers set up headquarters along the South fork of the Merced River, now the Wawona Campground.  Problems they dealt with included miners who trespassed, hunters who depleted the game, campers who started fires, and ranchers who illegally grazed their stock.  The cavalry decided this was a plum assignment-wouldn't you?  They helped convince the public that preserving the park was in their best interest.  When earlier problems ended they built roads and trails, searched for lost tourists, fought forest fires, stocked fish, acted as guides, and kept the high country from being ruined


      During 1914 Civilian rangers who became part of the National Park Service when it was created two years later replaced the Army in managing and protecting the park.  Can you imagine the work load of 15 men (5 full time and 10 part time)most of whom were former Army scouts,replacing 150 Cavalry officers?  Their duties were made even more difficult by the fact that automobiles were now allowed to enter the park.  Buildings were built by the Cavalry for $150.98 in supplies and $685.36 for labor and were turned over to the park when they left.   They served three purposes: a checkpoint and patrol base for an important are of the park, a ranger may need one as a refuge when on long patrol (some were gone over 30 days), and as a refuge for tourists caught in a storm, falling ill on a trail, injured or lost.  It would be unlocked with a supply of firewood and a small supply of food staples all of which were to be replaced.  This particular cabin was located in Crane Flat , just south of the Tioga Road and Big Oak Flat Road junction, about 15 miles from the valley.  All cars were required to stop here for their tick of passage  $5. .  Rangers were paid $100 a month in salary, but they had a great outdoor life albeit primitive


  This is my favorite building because I portray Bridget Degnan who came to

 Yosemite from Ireland with her husband, John, and their baby in 1884.  John was a laborer and caretaker for the state administrators of the Yosemite Grant.  Their first Yosemite home was in one end of an abandoned barn in the valley where she took in an occasional border in an empty horse stall and sold an occasional loaf of Irish soda bread made in a Dutch oven placed under the coals of the fire which was her stove and kitchen.  Visitors in the park at that time had no where to stay or find food, so they would knock on her door.  After moving into a home she acquired a portable wood burning stove that enabled her to bake 50 loaves of bread at a time which she sold 2 for 25 cents.  Since both her business and her family were growing John built them a two story home in 1898 near where the chapel is today. in the valley.  This building in the center is the bakery that was attached to the rear of the house.

She turned her dining room into a restaurant to keep up with the increasing visitors and their demands.  In 1900 she commissioned an oven builder in San Francisco to make a fuel powered masonry and brick oven capable of baking 100 loaves at a time. The oven you see in the picture is that oven and measures 13'X13'X17 1/2".  She made 300-400 loaves of bread a day along with other baked goods.  Bridget was the first independent concessionaire in Yosemite and the family kept this concession until 1975 when the park demanded that they leave National Park land..


With news of Yosemite's beauty spreading, visitors needed transportation.  The stage coach connected the railroads which did not go beyond Raymond.  Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Co. owned by the Washburn brothers who also operated the Wawona Hotel was the only way to ride into the park from the south.  The Washburns built and owned many of the major roads.  They began running stages from Mariposa and Raymond in 1874, a 74 mile trip with 9 stops.  The first stage into the valley was in 1875.  20-40 drivers were employed earning $60 a month plus room and board and drove about 40 coaches sometimes 10-11 a day.  Passengers would stay on in Wawona and rest for the next 26 miles of their trip to the valley.  A stage from San Francisco to Yosemite would take 4 days and cost $80 without food.  Freight was hauled in heavy wagons with 20 mules pulling loaded with up to 5 tons.
    The Washburns obtained a Wells Fargo & Co. franchise in 1883.  This 24 sq ft building was built in 1910and included living quarters for the manager.  A telegraph was in use, a safe provided limited banking facilities and a telephone came in 1907.  The agent could buy, sell, store and ship gold.  Reservations for the hotel in the valley could be made here as well as travel arrangements.  In 1930 stagecoaches were replaced by motorbuses, but autos could only go as far as Wawona.

                     POWDERHOUSE AND JAIL

     The black powder and dynamite used in the routine state work in Yosemite Valley was kept in this stone building originally located in the old Upper Village in Yosemite Valley.  It was built by John Degnan and had 6" of sand in the ceiling for protection from fire.  Later the powder house was converted into a jail, but a very poor one.  In 1915 two young car thieves escaped by digging away the mortar between the rocks with a leg the twisted off the cot.  After that they embedded horseshoes in the floor for a chain base.  Sometimes this building also served as a morgue. 

     Our annual FOURTH OF JULY festivities are free (except for stage coach rides). .  The schedule is as follows:
         10-12 a.m.   All historical buildings are open for viewing.  Stage coach rides are available.

          12-2:00 p.m.  Closed for lunch

         2--2:30        Welcome in front of the Grey Barn, viewing of the stagecoach arrival, patriotic speeches
                             and patriotic songs are sung by the audience

         2:30-4:00 p.m.  Buckshot invites all to join in for the games: sac race, 3 legged race, egg toss, tug of

                              war and nail pounding.  These are grouped by ages icluding adults.

        4:00 p.m.    PYHC closed

        5-7:00 p.m.  Barbecue (fee) sponsored by the Wawona Hotel on the lawn in front of the hotel

        8-10:00 p.m.  Barn Dance in the grey barn (free) all ages welcome. Live band and caller.  Beginners
                           welcome-caller teaches the dances as you go with the help of volunteers. 

STAGECOACH RIDES  -Experience horse drawn travel with a 10 minute stage ride driven by a two horse team and "Buckshot". Tickets can be purchased in the Wells Fargo Stage office in the PYHC , $4 adults, $3 for children 3-12 ongoing Th,F,Sat, and Sundays 10-12:00  and 2-4:00 p.m.. All summer long.

Have I convinced you to stop by the Pioneer Yosemite History Center on your next visit to the park?  I hope so..... see you next Fourth!!!


1 comment:

  1. Cheryl, you've done a great job of explaining what the Pioneer History Center is all about. And the photos show how much fun the Old Fashioned Fourth always is. Looking forward to seeing you there next year!