Galen Clark – Guardian of Yosemite (1814-1910)

Galen Clark in 1865 (Photo by C.E. Watkins)

Galen Clark in 1865
(Photo by C.E. Watkins)

Galen Clark was enraptured by Yosemite from the moment he first laid eyes on it in the summer of 1855. He spent the next 55 years learning about and sharing the features of Yosemite. This is more time than John Muir spent at Yosemite (5 years as a resident, though many short visits afterwards). This is more time than James Mason Hutchings who spent 10 years as an innkeeper and resident, a few years as Superintendent and, sporadically, as a tour guide. It is true that Muir and Hutchings served Yosemite famously with their publications. Few could argue that anyone did more than Muir to bring attention to the park and its conservation needs. But the time spent by both these men in and for Yosemite is barely 25 years with the most generous estimate; less than half the time spent by Galen Clark. It was Clark that instigated and helped get Yosemite set aside as a park in the first place. It was Clark that discovered and named the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. And it was Clark who for 22 of those 55 years was also Yosemite’s Superintendent; defining what a “Park Ranger” would become. Yet much of his contributions have been overlooked or attributed to others. However, I can’t help but believe that is just the way he would have wanted it. He was a very unassuming man and only wanted to help.

He was born on March 28, 1814 in Shipton, Quebec Canada. Galen Clark was one of 14 children, four of whom died at a young age, probably of malnutrition. By the age of five, the Clark family relocated back to a former home in Dublin, New Hampshire where Galen was placed in the home of family friend. He grew up quiet, sickly and devout. He learned chair making and other home maintenance from a cousin which he used as an avocation when he became an adult. His formal education was limited (grammar school) but was augmented by reading periodicals and books.

By the age of 23 he was well on his way to financial ruin which continued throughout his life. He failed at a 160 acre homestead in Missouri. He failed at furniture making as pay was slow in coming if it came at all. He was personable and in spite of his legacy of financial failure he was befriended by Joseph McCoy with whom he stayed much of the time. Galen even married his daughter, Rebecca. But their marriage was plagued by misfortune. Even with financial help from his father-in-law, he lost a farm and with his last $200 (which he had borrowed) he bought a grocery store and it failed.

The problems were not just financial. His wife died of consumption (Tuberculosis) shortly after the birth of their fifth child. His financial woes, which were always present, became unsupportable. Complicated by his own chronic illnesses, he had to send his children to his parents for their care. He moved to Texas to seek health and fortune both of which eluded him. From there he went to California to seek riches in the gold fields, but as it was now 1853, the “rush” was over and, once again he missed out. He got a job with the Mariposa Ditch Company.

He had heard of a mysterious valley of gigantic waterfalls and cliffs and many trees found deep in the mountains. Then he read an account of the visit by James Mason Hutchings in July of 1855 which was accompanied by drawings from Thomas Ayers. In August he organized his own trip to Yosemite. He absolutely fell in love with the place and, while there, wandered into, discovered and named the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees.

In the following year, he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and was given about 6 months to live. The doctor suggested mountain air might make the discomfort a bit easier to take. So, at the age of 42, he came to Yosemite to die. He had expected to die at “any hour”. He was already in the process of homesteading 160 acres when diagnosed. Figuring his chances of living or dieing “…were about even…” and in the event he lived, he wanted a place to stay. Not only did his health improve but he lived well into his ninties! He had built himself a small log cabin in 1857 and soon took in travelers during the summer months. It became known as “Clark’s Station” and he was known as a charming and gracious host, always willing to share his findings and feelings about the area. During the winter months, he would explore the grounds, collecting information and stories for the next season of guests. He, as expected, ran himself into dept and finally had to sell the place in 1876. It was purchased by the Washburn brothers.

Clark's Station (Wawona)

Clark’s Station (Wawona)

Galen Clark was quite well received, almost from the start. His gracious hospitality, wit and informative stories were not lost on his guests. During the winter months, during the early years, he spent in Mariposa with occasional trips to the groves and valley to collect data and stories for the following summer. During the summer months, in addition to services at Clark’s Station, he would act as guide to the groves and the valley. Many of these people, seeing an opportunity, claimed their own homestead and with livestock and axe began, quite literally, carving out their own piece of heaven. The havoc wreaked upon the valley became increasingly worrisome to Clark.

Most of these visitors to Yosemite were well connected, influential and well-to-do people. Of them, one was Senator John Conness (from California). It was his ear that Galen caught that first alerted him to the necessity of safeguards to preserve the valley. With the help of others, undoubtedly included, the Reverend Thomas Starr King, Horace Greeley, Josiah Dwight Whitney, Jessie Fremont[i] and California’s other Senator, Isreal Ward Raymond, some of whom, along with Clark, helped write legislation that would create the “Yosemite Grant” in 1864. According to Clark, Jessie Fremont and the two senators worked the hardest to get it through congress. In June of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed what’s become known as the Yosemite Grant which set aside the Valley and Mariposa Grove as a park for all and left it under the stewardship of California.

Once passed, California assigned a board of Commissioners to see that “…all persons to desist from trespassing or settling upon said territory, and from cutting timber or from doing any unlawful acts within the limits of such grant.” The next time the legislature would meet was to be April 1866, but in the mean time the commissioners were to enforce the above. The eight man board consisted of Frederick Law Olmsted[ii], I.W. Raymond, Josiah Dwight Whitney, William Ashburner[iii], Alex Deering, George Coulter, E.S. Holden, and Galen Clark. Olmsted was elected the chairman of the board and acted as the superintendent. With Galen Clark at his side, Olmsted spent the next couple years surveying Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove to get a sense of what it would take to preserve the grant.

In 1866, California accepted the grant and assigned a commission to oversee the requirements of the Grant. These commissioners elected Galen Clark to become the first Superintendent[iv] of the Park. As other commissioners came and went, Galen Clark remained as Superintendent for over twenty years, although, not continuously. In 1880, a new board of commissioners was appointed and replaced Clark with James Hutchings as superintendent, but after 9 years and two superintendents later, the commission reappointed Galen Clark in 1889.

At the age of 52, the majority of those years were tainted with entrepreneurial failure[v], Galen Clark found his niche. According to historian, Shirley Sargent, among his qualifications were “…his thorough knowledge of the area, his familiarity with residents and problems, and his love for its unsurpassed natural features. His grasp of a guardianship can only have been enhanced by his association with Olmsted…”[vi]

His first duties were daunting. The first of which was to tell the settlers that they could no long own property in the confines of the Grant. Since the Grant was passed in 1864, efforts to prevent further settlements in the valley and the Mariposa Grove were taken up by Olmsted and Clark. But now Clark had to confront the settlers that were in place at the time the Grant was signed. This was a most difficult discussion with any of the settlers, but it was brutal with one of them. At the time the grant was passed, there were four settlers in the Valley. They were James Mason Hutchings, Alexander G Black, James C. Lamon and Ira Folsom who ran a Ferry across the Merced. They all, in one way or another, had land they dedicated to the tourist trade.

Clark’s instructions were, at best, impossible. No trees could be cut down. Even the Native Americans were prohibited from breaking off branches that they would do to harvest acorns. No campfires in dry grass (which was everywhere during the summer). Trails and bridges were to be kept up and more built.

His biggest issue was that he was tasked with telling the settlers that their 160 acre homesteaded property now belonged to the state and they would be asked either to pay a nominal price for a 10 year lease or vacate the property. It is possible; maybe even likely; the settlers would have grudgingly agreed and signed the lease. But because of one big dissenter, they all dug in their heels.

James Mason Hutchings was livid. Interestingly, of all the settlers, Hutchings had to be the most painfully aware of the pending legislation and the consequences to land owners. Though he had been working on ways to get into the valley since 1855, he didn’t actually do it until April of 1864, about six weeks before the Grant was signed. Maybe he thought he would be “grandfathered” in (if there was such a concept back then) or that it wouldn’t apply to him. More to the case at hand was that a proper homestead required the land be surveyed, which it wasn’t. Nevertheless, he was not going to give up easily. Once being served with an eviction notice, Hutchings filed an opposition to the order. It took nearly ten years to fight and culminated at the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with California. As a testimony to Clark’s aplomb, Hutchings didn’t seem to hold a grudge against Clark, which he was very capable of holding[vii]. They remained friends and he even spoke warmly of Clark in his book, In the Heart of the Sierras.

Galen Clark with His Friend George Fiske

Galen Clark with His Friend George Fiske

Though Clark’s biggest tasked was not solved by servicing notice to Hutchings and the others, it was rendered. He turned his attention to the other tasks and began building and repairing bridges across the Merced at various places and the many other duties of the Superintendent. In March of 1867 a rain created havoc around Yosemite. At Clark’s station a tree was uprooted and fell across Clark’s cabin. The roads to and in the valley were washed out. A massive flood ran through valley. All the bridges in the valley, including the new one, were washed out.

The following year, Galen Clark and John Muir met for the first time and became fast and life long friends. Muir said of him, “Galen Clark was the best mountaineer I ever met….” Whenever his duties as Superintendent allowed, he and Muir took off to the wilderness. They traveled light; Muir carrying only tea and bread crumbs and Clark not much more. Muir had it a bit more robust in his choice of gear, but he said that Clark would “…lie down anywhere on any ground, rough or smooth, without taking pains even to remove cobbles or sharp-angled rocks…”.

His indebtedness, which was always horrendous, once again became unsupportable. He had no alternative but to sell Clark’s Station in 1876. It was purchased by the Washburn Brothers. Because of their admiration for the man, Clark was given free residency for LIFE at would they would now call the Wawona Hotel. To this day, one of the wings of the hotel is called “Clark’s Cottage.”

By this time, Clark had moved into the Valley and built himself a cabin near what is now the Swinging Bridge (across the footpath from the restrooms). Just a short distance down river, George Fiske’s studios stood (just across Sentinel Creek from what is now the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area).

Clark was well liked and well respected by everyone who met him and this is certainly true of the other residents in the valley. In late December 1881, he was asked to give the eulogy for a valley resident, Thomas Glynn (See Pioneer Cemetery Post #2). This was not because he was the park superintendent, because at this time, he wasn’t. He was just another resident like them. Thomas’ passing especially sorrowful as it marked the 6th Valley resident to pass in as many months. This is the eulogy he gave:

Friends: We have again assembled at another house of mourning, in the solemn presence of death, to perform the last sad duties, which we can render unto the mortal remains of our deceased friend. This makes the sixth one of our little community, which, within the past six months, have passed from our midst over to the silent land. After long months of sickness and fearful suffering, the Angel of Death has pleased to release his immortal spirit and it has taken its flight to the celestial spheres. After having periled his life on many hard-fought battlefield, serving his country with distinction and honor through the late war, he has, while fighting the more peaceful battles of life been vanquished, and had to surrender to the invincible enemy of all life, which found him brave to the last. Why a fellow-mortal  should be doomed to such long and terrible suffering and tribulation, struggling in the cold grasp of  Death, absolutely without hope and trust that it has been for preparing his immortal soul for higher and  nobler spheres of action in the spirit realm. GOD UNDERSTANDS! May the bereaved and forlorn widow, whose  home, and whose heart, have now been made desolate by the loss of her kind and affectionate husband and  helpmate, try and seek consolation in the knowledge, that throughout all these long and terrible trials,  she has most faithfully, patiently, and nobly done her whole duty. When her weary, failing, mortal body  has seemed about to succumb, and sunk under its great load of anxiety and care, her internal, immortal,  and indomitable spirit has rushed to the rescue with Herculean power, and rallied the muscular forces  again to action, and to duty. She has the sincere sympathy of all her friends in her lonely course to the sunset of life. There are many and widely different ideas with regard to a future spiritual state of existence after death; almost all people, both civilized and savage, firmly believe in it, under some condition or form. It seems a very happy and consoling hope or faith, to believe that all our various earthly trials and tribulations are for a wise and good purpose, if patiently endured, and our duties well and faithfully performed. Every trial may be likened unto the work of the graving chisel of the Great Sculptor of Creation, on the embryo soul. If they are firmly borne without faltering or flinching, perfectly engraven lines will be the result. Thus line upon line of harmonious beauty will be engraven  and developed upon the form of the unborn spirit, which, when freed from its mortal veil of flesh, will  stand forth in a form of inexpressible, angelic beauty, clothed in robes of celestial splendor, the  texture of which, mortals themselves make during life, as they go to and fro, faithfully performing  their duties, they fill the wool into the warp of life, until life and fabric are complete: every noble  deed well done forming in it a figure of marvelous and unique design, and crowned with a crown of glory,  whose encircling diadem is a transcendent light, too bright for mortal vision, before which inferior  spirits bow their heads and veil their faces with their long and shining tresses, feeling their unworthiness. 

Those other residences that passed that year were[viii]:

June 21, 1881. John Hamilton was a rancher and a former Yosemite guide. He at one time resided in room at Folsom’s Hall located near Galen Clark’s cabin. See Pioneer Cemetery Post #3

August 31, 1881. Effie Crippen. She was 14 when she died (and 7 months and 22 days). She died from complications with a foot injury acquired at Mirror Lake. She was the step-daughter of J.K. Barnard who ran Barndard House (later called Sentinel Hotel). She was a close friend of the Hutchings and Florence Hutchings sang at her funeral. See Pioneer Cemetery Post #1

September 26, 1881. Florence Hutchings. She was 17 at the time and died from injuries suffered from rockfall while climbing Ledge Trail. She was the eldest daughter of James Hutchings and was the first white child born in the valley. See Pioneer Cemetery Post #1

October 23, 1881. Albert May. Was a carpenter who worked for Alexander Black. Black built and ran Black’s Hotel. See Pioneer Cemetery Post #2

November 6, 1881. Augusta Hutchings. James Mason Hutching’s second wife died of a lung hemorrhage (probably Tuberculosis as her first husband died from the disease).  See Pioneer Cemetery Post #1

Graveside Funeral for Galen Clark 1910

Graveside Funeral for Galen Clark 1910

In 1897, at the age of 83, he retired saying that the job was for a younger man. During his tenure as the “Guardian of Yosemite”, he enforced residency rules, built roads and trails, was, quite literally, the first Park Ranger and worked with John Muir and others to help establish Yosemite as a National Park in 1890 and get the Yosemite Grant included into that park in 1906.

His knowledge of the park, flora, fauna, and geology won him the unofficial title of “Mr. Yosemite.” He had no interest in self promotion. He rejected the suggestion that the Mariposa Grove be named “Clark’s Grove”. He wished to be buried in the park, near Yosemite Falls and even picked out and dug is own grave twenty years ahead of time. He marked the spot with four saplings, which obviously remain in what is now the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery.

He finally passed away just a few days before his 96th birthday at his daughter’s home in Oakland California. The Washburn brothers, who purchased “Clark’s Station” from him and built up what is now Wawona, insisted on covering all burial costs.

One of Galen’s closest friends was George Fiske, a noted photographer with studios in Yosemite not far from Galen Clark’s cabin. Fiske was devastated by Clark’s passing. He had his own Grave placed next to Galen in the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery.

The image showing Galen Clark’s head stone (the feature image, above) in the midst of the four remaining Sequoias he had planted also show much those samplings have grown in the 100 or so years since his death (see the black and white photo taken at his funeral where those sequoias are little more than Christmas tree-size). It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what time will do to those “saplings” as they, eventually, merge as one. I just hope some well-meaning soul doesn’t instigate relocating the grave site because of that. I can’t help but believe that Galen Clark was well aware of what he had done by planting those trees. As much as he loved those trees, I’m sure he had hoped to be eternalized with them. I can see moving the head stone, so that is not obliterated, but I would hope we could leave him at rest ( See Pioneer Cemetery Post #2).

For over fifty years, Galen Clark was the common thread in all of Yosemite’s founding years. He oversaw it from a mountain oddity to a National Park. He is the instigation behind it becoming a park at all. So why isn’t his a household name? John Muir and, maybe, Ansel Adams are the only historical figures that seem to be synonymous with Yosemite. Muir only lived in the valley for 5 years, though he visited often. Clark, on the other hand, lived and worked there from 1856 to 1910 and only occasionally left the park. Even James Mason Hutchings worked in and around the park for only 40 years and live in it but 12, yet his name will usually break the surface before Clark’s.

I think it is an issue of publicity. Clark went out of his way to glorify the park and diminish his own significance in its events. From within 3 years of Muir’s arrival in Yosemite, he was being published in nation wide publications. Hutchings had his own publication, the California Magazine, published much about the park and his role in it but all that ended in 1861 when he quit publishing it. All three wrote books, but only Muir’s remain prominently available. It is too bad, I think, that he isn’t better known. Great men who have accomplished less have stood the test of time while Galen Clark seems to have withered in the past. But I can’t help believe that is the way he would have wanted it.

[i] Writer and political activist and the wife of John C. Fremont.

[ii] Known as the designer of New York City’s Central Park

[iii] Mining Engineer and a member of Whitney’s Geological Survey

[iv] Actually, Olmsted was the first Superintendent, but since the grant hadn’t yet been accepted, the “Official” first Superintendent was Clark.

[v] His financial failures would continue for another 10 years untill he lost “Clark’s Station.” After that, he really didn’t own or venture into anything which could fail.

[vi] Galen Clark: Yosemite Guardian, by Shirley Sargent, Flying Spur Press, Revised Fifth Edition, 2008, Chapter II, page 20.

[vii] Hutchings held a grudge against John Muir for the rest of his life for not much more than jealousy of his “stardom”. So much so, he didn’t even refer to Muir in his book other than “a sawyer”.

[viii] For additional details see the posts referenced in the text.