"Whoever wishes, for health's sake or for any other reason, to change the sceneries or the objects and associations of his life, should set off, not for Europe, but for California. And this the more certainly, if he is a loving and sharp observer of nature; for nature meets us here in moods entirely new; so that we have even to make her acquaintance over again; going back to be started in a fresh childhood." --Horace Bushnell, The New Englander, 1868(Anderson)

America was introduced to the Yosemite Valley in 1851, when a small unit from the Mariposa Battalion stumbled into the valley while on a mission to remove indigenous inhabitants to a nearby reservation. After completing their task, the troop named the valley the "Yo-Sem-I-ty" in honor of the native tribe they had just forcibly removed. The inadvertent discovery of the valley and the significance then assigned to it by the Battalion established a pattern of accidental discoveries and invented significance which replayed throughout Yosemite's development into a premiere tourist destination and primary selling point for the Union and Southern Pacific railroads. Activity at Yosemite during the 1860's set precedents for many "inventions" to come. Images of Yosemite helped transmit carefully designed views of the Western landscape to the East, the land of Yosemite itself was pitched as new source of cultural pride in America's beautiful and variegated landscape, and the importance of this 1000 square mile territory was significant enough to justify its removal from the public domain as America's first nature preserve. But behind the cultural invention, a steamship company and the Union Pacific Railroad were looking for ways to bring people West to newly settled territories, and their own discovery and invention in Yosemite made its protection possible.

Tales of the valley's magnificence spread throughout California, and in 1855, a group of luckless forty- niners led by James Mason Hutchings entered the region and discovered a different kind of gold than the one they originally sought in the West. Rumors of a 1000-foot waterfall and sheer mountain walls soaring thousands of feet above the valley floor were circulating throughout California, most likely by men from the Mariposa Battalion, and Hutchings set out to find it. If the valley was as impressive as the stories about it suggested, Hutchings believed he could open it to tourism full-time. No one in Hutchings's party knew the location of the rumored "Yo-Sem-I-ty" or "Yo-Hamite," valley, but based on the area's advance publicity, they recognized it when they saw it. When the group entered the valley in June of 1855 and stood below the 1,430-foot Yosemite Fall, Hutchings wrote that it was "beyond the power of language to describe the awe-inspiring majesty of the darkly frowning and overhanging mountain walls of solid granite that here hem you in on every side, as though they would threaten you with instantaneous destruction if not total annihilation, did you attempt for a moment to deny their power" (Anderson).

Hutchings immediately grasped the tourist potential in this landscape and set out to promote it as proof that America could compete with Europe for the traveler seeking scenic beauty . During the 1850's, the wealthy tourist who sought sublime scenery and mountain vistas headed for Switzerland, believing in the Romantic view that historical significance or evidence of a centuries-old civilization enhanced the beauty of a landscape. Yosemite lacked that kind of historical appeal, but the sharp rises of the mountains and the waterfall believed to be the highest in the world suggested that this landscape had more natural beauty to offer than the resort at the famed Swiss valley, the Lauterbrunnen. Hutchings began surveying the area for the construction of a hotel on the order of ones in Eastern resorts such as Niagara or the White Mountains in New Hampshire with the belief that if Americans were willing to pay for the falls at Niagara or the rolling mountains of New Hampshire, they would be eager to see American scenery on the order of Switzerland with a waterfall as high as nine Niagaras.

In order to promote this valley, Hutchings included the young artist Thomas Ayres in his party, and he became the first known person to sketch the features of the Yosemite Valley. Hutchings invited Ayres because if Yosemite could be made into a resort, Hutchings knew that Ayres' drawings would be instrumental in future advertising. During the summer of 1855, Ayres sketched while Hutchings surveyed, and by October of that year, Hutchings copyrighted the sketches and announced his plans to begin publication of California, a promotional magazine aimed at attracting tourists to Yosemite. In 1857, Ayres's sketches reached New York, and although his art was somewhat pedestrian and lacked the degree of technical development often associated with the work shown in galleries or museums at the time, Harper Brothers saw that interest in Yosemite might sell magazines and announced their intention to hire Ayres to complete more portfolios of the valley for a series of articles on California. During the return trip West by steamer, however, Ayres died in a shipwreck.


Thomas Ayers, The Yo-Hamite Valley, 1855. Ayres's image was one of the first scenes of Yosemite to reach the East coast. The view left the Eastern audiences eager for more visuals to accompany the tales and news stories circulating from Boston to Philadelphia.
Between 1855 and 1860, Hutchings advertised Yosemite in the San Francisco area and in publications circulated on the East coast. As more travelers, explorers, and ex-forty-niners entered Yosemite and offered moving testimonials to its grandeur which were published in Eastern periodicals, public interest in Yosemite rose. Written reactions to Yosemite often read like this opinion, published in the Eastern periodical, The Country Gentleman:
I never before felt so anxious to write, and so utterly incompetent to do justice to my subject. Of all the scenery I have ever witnessed, I never saw anything so magnificent. Often, while gazing with amazement on the huge mountains and the stupendous falls, I repeated the passage of Scripture: "Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Amighty." Never before was I so deeply impressed with the omnipotence and wisdom of Deity. (Anderson)

Glowing exhortations like this one prompted adventurous Easterners to make the arduous overland journey to California to see Yosemite but also to see California itself, a territory which was often described in similarly rapturous prose. Eastern men of power and position, such as New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, New Englander writer Horace Bushnell, and former Boston author and minister Thomas Starr King each made the journey and seconded the praises already published. Greeley and King were important visitors because both were well-known and respected figures in Eastern society, and each had the position to provide publicity for Yosemite and generate interest in travel to the valley among the Eastern public. Greeley's travel journal An Overland Journey was published in 1860, and King's reactions appeared in letters to the Boston Evening Transcript that same year. Both accounts were widely read, and Yosemite became a subject of discussion in the East. Each author praised the scenery of Yosemite and the West, and King promised that "the blended majesty and beauty of it apart from the general sublimities of the Yo-Semite gorge would repay a journey of a thousand miles," a distance perhaps poorly chosen since Boston travelers would have had to endure three thousand miles by stagecoach and pack horse in order to see it.


"Dead as they fell at Antietam, Maryland, 17 September 1862" is one of the Brady studio photographs of the Civil War. Carleton Watkins's photos from Yosemite could hardly have contrasted more with the jarring images of the war.

People were eager to see Yosemite, however, and in 1862, photographer Carleton Watkins provided visual proof that Yosemite's landscape was real in an exhibit at Goupil's Art Gallery in New York. The apparently real but still very dramatic mountain scenes contrasted sharply with the Civil War photographs from Matthew Brady's studio exhibited at the same gallery a few months before the Watkins exhibit (see Anderson). The views of the Eastern landscape from the cameras of Brady and Timothy O'Sullivan showed scenes of battle and fields littered with the casualties of war, but the views of Yosemite were peaceful, majestic, and above all, empty. According to the photographic choices of Watkins, scenes of Yosemite showed expansive valleys, rugged mountains, and the total absence of human habitation. This was, in Bushnell's words, a mood of nature "entirely new" to an American public that valued landscapes marked by some evidence of civilization. Juxtaposed with the alternatives of Brady's photographers, images of the West depicted a place so remote and empty that it was free of the political and social turmoil of the war-torn East and held only the promise of the chance to begin again, on political and economic levels. Of course, the history of this seemingly Edenic and empty valley was rooted in violence, in the forced evacuation of the Native American tribes who lived there. The significance of the Western landscape in the national imagination is much more complex than this episode may suggest, but the impact of the contrasting images of East and West, along with the verbal descriptions of Yosemite that compared it to Switzerland and then claimed it was more impressive than the Alps, stimulated the imaginations of Eastern residents and piqued their interest in seeing it for themselves.

This growing interest in vacationing in California instead of Europe represented a demand for transportation that was not easy to meet in 1862, but the newly organized Union and Central Pacific Railroads would soon provide the means to see the country without having to undergo the strenuous ordeal of the overland journey by stagecoach. During the 1860's, Union and Central Pacific railroads were building the nation's first transcontinental railroad. The 97 million dollar cost of this undertaking warranted the sale of 100 million dollars in stock, and both railroads were in search of suitable investors. Central Pacific was building east from Sacramento, a city within reasonable proximity of the Yosemite Valley. When discussion about Yosemite began to emerge in New York's upper echelon society and articles about it appeared in Harper's, Scribner's, and Eastern newspapers, the railroad executives made another discovery and invention in the valley as they exploited it to entice the wealthy of New York to experience the railroads and hopefully invest in their construction.

The railroads were after men who had made their fortunes in businesses like shipping, mining, foundries, and dry goods-all industries which could benefit from the railroad's ability to bring in raw materials from the nation's interior and haul finished products back to the frontier communities. The central plains were sold as prime farmland, and the mineral-rich lands of Nevada and Utah were sold for silver and copper mining. The railroad had every reason to be confident about the economic potential of development in the West, but the interest in Yosemite and the popularity of scenic tourism in the 1860's opened another possibility for future profit through passenger service. Yosemite could serve as a relaxing destination for speculation trips with investors curious to see the economic resources the railroads claimed elsewhere. Once potential investors had seen the value of the railroad in business terms, they could also see the beauty of a place like Yosemite, where they could rest and vacation after only a week on the train.

Although it is not documented, it is possible that a Union Pacific investor or executive could have been present at the Watkins exhibit at Goupil's in December 1862, since gallery showings attracted the wealthy clientele the railroads courted and the Yosemite photographs in particular would have been of interest to railroad investors who knew of its proximity to the California segment of Central Pacific's connecting railroad. One man who was most likely in attendance was the painter Albert Bierstadt, who was already a highly regarded landscape painter of the Alps and Rocky Mountain scenery at the time of the Watkins exhibit. Whether Bierstadt was at Goupil's that evening or not, he had the opportunity to see the photographs and expressed his interest in painting the Sierras himself. Linda Ferber describes the artist as "an adept lobbyist" when it came to seeking opportunities or winning favors that would help to advance his career, and he had a reputation for both being well-connected socially and skillfully using those connections when necessary (Anderson and Ferber 43). It is not clear how Bierstadt planned his trip to California, but when he announced his interest in travel to the West, Union Pacific was eager to sponsor his passage, and Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington of Central Pacific became his two most valuable patrons.

In 1863, Bierstadt and popular writer Fitzhugh Ludlow, author of the bestseller The Hasheesh Eater, traveled to the West as guests of Union Pacific. Bierstadt sketched scenes of the West and Ludlow provided the narrative to accompany them. The resulting portfolio would be featured in magazine articles in the East and became the basis for Ludlow's book Heart of the Continent. The two traveled by Union Pacific to its 1863 terminus at Atchison, Kansas, and from there the railroad arranged for a stagecoach to follow the proposed rail line to San Francisco. Union Pacific counted on Bierstadt's talent to render the Western landscape in vivid color on his canvases and they banked on his popularity to draw the wealthy audiences to future gallery showings in New York to see the California country.

Both the railroads and Bierstadt were pleased with the trip. The Sierras proved profoundly inspirational to Bierstadt's inventive artistic eye, and the exaggerated scenes that resulted from the trip allowed the railroads to capitalize on public interest generated by Bierstadt's dramatic and fanciful style. Bierstadt's largest and most popular canvas from the Yosemite is The Domes of the Yosemite,(detail, left) painted in 1867. Although Mark Twain criticized the nine-by-fifteen foot canvas for being "altogether too gorgeous" and "considerably more beautiful than the original," the overall Eastern response was favorable (Prown 14). Bierstadt brought out the possibility of this landscape only hinted at in Watkins' photographs by relying on familiar conventions of landscape painting in America to allow viewers to interpret the importance of the scene he painted. Audiences familiar with conventions in American art during the Nineteenth century could recognize the significance of Bierstadt's compositional choices. To understand Bierstadt's message about Yosemite, the viewer first had to recall works like The Oxbow(detail, below), an 1836 painting by Thomas Cole. Cole's painting, when compared with Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite showcases a similar use of light and shadow to demonstrate the tension between civilization and the wilderness. The wilderness, shadowed and clouded over to the left, is on its way to becoming civilized by the approaching pastoral scene of agricultural progress and human design, shown bathed in glowing light on the right.

In Domes, however, the tension between wilderness and civilization is much more subtle. Bierstadt also employs the use of suffisive light in his scene, but it illuminates the wilderness of the Yosemite Valley instead of a "civilized" pastoral valley. Through this play on light and atmosphere, Bierstadt suggests that civilization springs from the wilderness rather than contends with it. Domes suggests the possibility of Yosemite and landscapes like it to become civilized and familiar, and Bierstadt was inventing a visual myth of creation-or perhaps re-creation-for America by portraying the Western landscape as an empty vessel waiting for American ingenuity and productivity to civilize it, fill it, and make it bloom with economic prosperity. Union Pacific enjoyed ample publicity for California through Bierstadt's popularity, and the reactions sparked by the Yosemite canvases showcased by the artist brought the valley into the discussions in the East again.

While Union Pacific courted investors and continued construction during the summer of 1863, Israel Ward Raymond, a representative for the Central American Steamship Line, visited Yosemite and announced his plans to lobby for its protection from unchecked exploitation, even though he had the more subtle exploitation of selling scenery in mind. Ward's company ferried passengers to the California coast, and he realized the opportunity to feature Yosemite in travel advertisements. Central American Steamship was already in business and could take advantage of the emerging interest in travel to Yosemite because the railroads were still years away from completion. Raymond sensed the profitability of Yosemite as a tourist destination, but he knew that continued interest relied on Yosemite's protection from the rampant consumerism which had blemished Niagara Falls. The falls were recognized as a supreme natural wonder around the world, but commercial opportunists were free to take advantage of its popularity. The resulting influx of profiteers during the 1830's and 1840's became known as "the shame of Niagara" around the country, and the brink of the falls was crowded with the architectural pollution of hotels, shops, and industries. Tourists who came to Niagara criticized the commercialization, and British travel writer Sir Richard Bonnycastle said that "it requires very little to show that patriotism, taste, and self-esteem are not the leading features in the character of the inhabitants in this part of the world" (Runte, NP 8). Yosemite, which was often described in terms of Niagara for the ease of comparison, was still too remote to succumb to the same degree of profiteering, and Raymond wanted to ensure that the valley would always be protected, and thus always be desirable as a tourist destination.

Raymond managed to rally a group of concerned Californians to lobby for Yosemite's protection. The group sought protection based on the argument that if Americans hoped to substitute their magnificent wilderness for an ancient cultural civilization, they "would have to do better than allow the redwoods, Niagara Falls, or any other landmark to be auctioned off to the highest bidder" (Runte, NP 28). Parks historian Alfred Runte points out that Raymond used a curious phrasing in his proposal for protection which later emerged in the Congressional statement. Raymond wrote "let the wonders of Yosemite be inalienable forever," a word choice which suggests that Raymond sensed the importance of establishing cultural credibility for this new idea of protecting and preserving American land. The phrase evokes the patriotism behind the "inalienable rights" from the Declaration of Independence and reflects Raymond's insistence on constructing a cultural heritage through landscape. Of course, Raymond had a great interest in turning Yosemite in to a new source of national pride because his company would benefit from throngs of curious tourists eager to see what made Yosemite special enough to become the first national monument. Congress was convinced of Yosemite's importance and the act, signed in the midst of the Civil War on June 30, 1864 by President Lincoln, declares that Yosemite Valley would "be held for public use, resort, and recreation.inalienable for all time" (USDI:1991 10).

Yosemite was most importantly a precedent for future railroad enterprise in the West. Discoveries in Yosemite in terms of railroad profits were largely speculative ones. Union Pacific needed to make its connection with Central Pacific before it could actually measure the success of having a place like Yosemite to attract investors and tourists, and since the rail lines were still separated by the Rockies in 1864, they could not call the park their own. The railroads sensed the importance of Bierstadt's visit to convey the atmosphere of Yosemite to the wealthy Eastern audience who might be persuaded to investigate the territory soon to be traversed by the railroad and invest in the venture. Raymond's efforts, motivated by the possibility of a new marketing strategy, allowed for the precedented removal of land from the public domain for the purpose of protecting scenery. Although motivated by profit, he persuaded Congress that the land was majestic enough to serve as a monument to the American character, and his appeal was successful. Yosemite's protection was less a strategy than an experiment, but it was intriguing enough to prompt the Northern Pacific Railroad into refining the idea into a strategy when Yellowstone was surveyed in 1871.


The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone