In the late 1800s and early 1900s, activity flourished around the old Hutchings House, Then called “The Yosemite Falls Hotel (and finally, The Sentinel Hotel and sometimes, Barnard House). The Cosmopolitan, stores, photo studios, Degnan’s Bakery, wood shops all grew up in close quarters to the new “town center.” Even the Yosemite Chapel, originally erected near the foot of the 4-Mile Trail in the lower valley was moved to the Upper Village in 1901.
The Sentinel Hotel 1877 (#37 on the Old Yosemite Village map)
Construction of what became the Sentinel Hotel was started in 1876 by Coulter and Murphy, the lessees of Hutchings House but was completed in 1877 by J.K. Barnard who took over interests. He began calling the complex The Yosemite Falls Hotel because of the unobstructed view it had of the falls. It wasn’t until later that it was called the Sentinel Hotel (about 1894). The large building sat on what was then the bank of the Merced River, but the river has since changed course and if the hotel still stood there, it would extend to the middle of the river. Indeed, this is one reason it was taken down.
The Hotel is on the left portion of the picture (the building on the right is Cedar Cottage or “Hutchings House”). In fact, strictly speaking, Sentinel Hotel is really part of “Upper House”, Hutchings House, etc. conglomerate of rooms. But since the whole set of buildings was called “The Sentinel” hotel for over 40 years, I thought it would be good to give it its own place in this narrative.
After the turn of the century (to the 20th Century), Sentinel Hotel was the only operating hotel in the valley. However, it was not winterized and remained closed during the winter season. Up until this time, that wasn’t a big deal since attendance was less than 2600 in all 1885 and was still under 5500 in 1906. However, it grew significantly after that. From 1908 to 1909 attendance grew to over 13,000, a leap of 5,000 from the year before. It doubled in attendance in 1915 to over 33,000 (this is probably related to allowing automobiles in the park beginning in 1913). It stagnated there through 1918 and then nearly doubled again in 1919 (probably due to the end of The Great War – WWI) where 58,362 visitors were counted.[iii]
By 1920, park officials were beginning to consider improving accommodations for guests during the winter. Furthermore, the Merced would, from time to time flood and/or change course, which, more than once wreaked havoc on visitors. So consideration was given to relocating all accommodations. With the advent of The Ahwahnee (now the Majestic Yosemite Hotel) in 1927 and the evolution of the Yosemite Lodge (at the falls) from the old Fort Yosemite in 1916 (now called Yosemite Valley Lodge), both of which could handle winter guests, the Sentinel had outlived its usefulness. Between 1938 and 1941 the entire Sentinel Hotel complex had been dismantled.
Since the Hutchings House was torn down in 1941, the chapel is now the oldest building still in use in the Valley[iv]. It, of course, can’t be considered a hotel[v] but, let’s give it note for its longevity. The chapel was first erected near the beginning of the 4-Mile Trail where Black’s Hotel and Leidig’s Hotel were located along with a school, stables and other forms of “city life.” However, as park visitors and concessionaires began to coalesce about the Sentinel Hotel, the chapel was moved to its current location in 1901 facing in the same direction (about a mile upstream). The picture shows it in its original location.
The chapel was funded, in part by the California Sunday School Association and partly by subscriptions from the children, themselves. However, most of it was funded by voluntary contributions from prominent members of the Association. It was designed by Charles Geddes, an architect of note from San Francisco and built by a Mr E. Thomson (also of San Francisco). The cost was between three and four thousand dollars. The bell was donated by Mr. H.D. Bacon of Oakland, California. It was dedicated June 7, 1879. The first service was held the next day. John Muir gave presentations on the origin of the valley (his glaciation theory) a few days later on June 12. The first wedding was held October 24, 1884.
The Stoneman House 1887 (#10 on the Lower Yosemite Village map)
The Stoneman House (named in honor of the California State Governor and chairman of the Yosemite Commissioners) was erected at a cost of about $40,000 to improve the level of accommodations in the valley. It was a 4 story building capable of housing approximately 150 guests; far more than any other accommodation in the valley.
A number of bids were entertained by the commissioners to manage the new “Government” hotel for the next 10 years. The accepted bid came from John Jay Cook, who at the time was managing Black’s Hotel. Part of the condition of the bid was that only one other hotel would be allowed in the valley during the first 10 years. This, more than any other reason is why the Black and Leidig hotels were disenfranchised and torn down.
As became apparent within the first couple of years, the design of the hotel was not very good. Within a matter of months, there was a near disastrous fire in one of the upper floors of the hotel. It was controlled and extinguished by the proprietor, J.J. Cook. Also within the first year of operation, the heating system had to be replaced. John Jay Cook managed the hotel for almost 10 years. He would graze cattle near the property, which is why it’s called Cook’s Meadow. In 1896 it was destroyed by fire. The state had paid over $46,000 for the hotel and got less than $17,000 back in leases.
Camp Curry 1899 (Not mapped)
Then called Curry Village (and now, Half Dome Village), it was established in 1899 by retired school teachers David and Jenny Curry. They spawned the idea from their own experience when visiting the park, but couldn’t afford the $4/night room rates. They began with 9 tents at a rate of $2/night and a common dining facility (also a tent). Entertainment was high on the must have list of the Currys, who eventually added a dance pavilion, pool hall, ice skating rink and a swimming pool. The Currys remained in control of the property until, about 1925 when they put in a proposal to run their own concessions at Camp Curry. They were constantly going head-to-head with the park concessionaires, The Yosemite National Park Service. The actual park thought it best to limit the number of concessionaires, so told both concessionaires to either merge or the Park would get someone else to run both concessions. So, The Yosemite National Park Services Company merged and became Yosemite National Park and Curry Company and continued to control the site until 1993 when Delaware North took over concessions (they were replaced by Yosemite Hospitality in March, 2016).
One of the many entertainments was what became a nightly ritual; The Firefall. This was begun well before Camp Curry in 1872 when James McCauley pushed his campfire over the cliff at Glacier Point. It became a sporadic, though frequent treat for more than twenty years. When McCauley was evicted from Glacier Point in 1897, the event stopped. When David Curry heard some guests reminiscing about the firefalls, he reinstated it. This went on for a number of years when in 1913 it was halted by the park service (apparently, due to a personal dispute between David Curry and the Park Superintendent). The dispute was eventually resolved and the falls were to be reinstated for the 1917 season, but, David Curry didn’t get to enjoy being part of it because he passed away earlier that year. The falls were also interrupted during World War II[vi].
By this time the park service was very much against the nightly event, primarily, on philosophical grounds. After all, the purpose is to admire the Natural Beauty of the park and the fire falls was far from natural. But, in addition, it was becoming problematical. Part of the “grandeur” of the falls was the use of red fir bark. Park rules required that camp fires can only be done with dead wood or fallen trees and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find the red fir bark they need to really light up the falls. When the falls were discontinued prior to the war, rangers had been driving as far as Tioga Road to find fuel for the fire. It was hoped that the falls would be discontinued after the war, but the public out cry forced it to be reinstated.
Finally, early in 1968, George Hertzog, Director of the National Park Service, had the fire falls discontinued for the reasons mentioned above. As it happens, it might have been discontinued shortly anyway. It was an extremely heavy winter during the 1968-69 season[vii]. Both the Glacier Point Hotel and the Mountain House sustained significant damage and were closed. During the following Summer (July, 1969), while still under repairs, both the hotels were destroyed in a fire.
[i] Map from Yosemite brouchure 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] Statistics come from Hutchings’ In the Heart of the Sierras chapter 10, “Early-Day Reviewals” for years 1855 to 1885 and the NPS Stats on Visitor Use Statistics at https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/Reports/Park/YOSE
[iv] Wawona Hotel, of course, is older, whether you use 1857 as the date the property was first inhabited by Galen Clark or 1875 when the Washburn Brothers took over and renamed it, but it is not “in the valley”.
[v] Unless, of course, you consider that someone (or two), must have, at one time or another fallen asleep during a sermon and, therefore, made it a domicile for some amount of time.
[vi] The is a number of anachronisms in the movie “The Cain Mutiny” that shows the Fire Falls in the background during the stay on one of the officers from the ship which was, supposed to be during WWII. Also, he was depicted at staying at the Ahwahnee which was actually used as a hospital and now opened as a hotel during that time.
[vii] That was a really rough winter. During that season, the Wawona Tunnel tree at the Mariposa Grove fell over in a storm early in 1969. It wasn’t just in Yosemite; this winter wreaked havoc throughout the state. A four mile stretch of California Highway 33 near Ojai was cutoff by mudslides. Heavy rains from Monterey and south killed over 90 people.
At the time, I was working for Southern Pacific as a telegrapher at the Surf Deport (outside of Lompoc, Ca., about 65 miles north of Santa Barbara) on the Pacific Coast. The depot was near the Santa Ynez river. Due to heavy rains, the flood gates of the dam east of Lompoc were opened and the entire Lompoc Valley was flooded with such a fury that it pushed the tracks and the trestle supporting them four feet out of alignment. It shut down the rail road’s main line between San Francisco and Los Angeles for weeks until the tracks could be re-laid over the trestle. My wife and I were trapped there for nearly a week. I had been drafted but couldn’t report (darn!) because of the storm and flooding.