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Episode One: 1851–1890The Scripture of Nature

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The Idea Becomes Law

Abraham Lincoln Add to Scrapbook

Abraham Lincoln

On May 17, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, John Conness, the junior senator from California, introduced a bill to Congress which proposed something unprecedented in human history: setting aside a large tract of natural scenery for the future enjoyment of everyone.

More than 60 square miles of federal land, encompassing the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of big trees, were to be transferred to the care of the State of California, on the condition that the land be preserved for "public use, resort, and recreation."

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law to preserve forever a beautiful valley and a grove of trees that he had never seen, thousands of miles away in California. (See sidebar video.)

The Law Defied

Frederick Law Olmsted (bottom row, second from left), with Colfax party, Yosemite National Park, 1865 Add to Scrapbook

Frederick Law Olmsted (bottom row, second from left), with Colfax party, Yosemite National Park, 1865

Sawmill belonging to James Mason Hutchings, Yosemite National Park Add to Scrapbook

Sawmill belonging to James Mason Hutchings, Yosemite National Park

As a member of the board of commissioners appointed to oversee Yosemite, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote a detailed report about the future of the park. In August 1865, a group of people gathered in the park to hear Olmsted read from this report. In a place as special as Yosemite, Olmsted said, "the rights of posterity" were more important than the desires of the present. He called for strict regulations to protect the landscape from anything that would harm it and stressed the importance of making Yosemite accessible to everyone. To ensure that the park did not become the playground of an exclusive few, he proposed building an improved road to the valley. But his recommendations were deemed too controversial to bring to the state legislature, and his report was quietly suppressed. (See sidebar video.)

Not everyone shared Olmsted's vision for the valley. James Mason Hutchings certainly loved Yosemite, but now that the nation had moved to protect it in perpetuity by declaring it public, no one fought that decision with greater vehemence or moved more quickly to exploit the valley. Hutchings had already bought one of the valley's two hotels and soon began charging people for the privilege of seeing Yosemite.

In brazen defiance of the law, Hutchings went about expanding his private commercial operations. He decided he needed a sawmill and someone to run it. In the fall of 1869, a 31-year-old Scottish-born wanderer who called himself "an unknown nobody" showed up and was hired for the job.

John Muir, circa 1860 Add to Scrapbook

John Muir, circa 1860

Merced River and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, circa 1865, Carleton Watkins photograph Add to Scrapbook

Merced River and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, circa 1865, Carleton Watkins photograph

The Arrival of John Muir – Protector of the Land

Born in Dunbar, Scotland and raised in Wisconsin, John Muir was a natural-born scientist who studied geology and botany at the University of Wisconsin and also showed great promise as an inventor. In 1867, after recovering from a factory accident which had temporarily blinded him, he decided to set out on a 1,000-mile walk to Florida. A bout of malaria ultimately dissuaded him from going on to South America. Instead, he headed west, and after arriving in San Francisco, set off on foot to Yosemite. (See sidebar video.)

John Muir would ultimately do far more than Hutchings to extol the beauty of Yosemite, more than Frederick Law Olmsted to protect it. With his lyrical voice, he infused the national park idea with the passion of religious fervor.

Muir wrote of Yosemite that it was "by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter...the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra."

When he was not running the sawmill, Muir devoted all his free time to exploring the valley. He felt a deep, spiritual connection to the land and animals and decided to devote himself to understanding the wilderness and teaching others the lessons he had learned.

The man who seemed to talk to flowers and rocks was considered an eccentric by many people. Josiah Whitney, California's state geologist, derided Muir as "an ignoramus" when he heard of Muir's theory that glaciers were responsible for creating Yosemite. But in 1871, when Muir discovered a "living glacier" in the recesses of the Sierra, other leading geologists concluded that Muir was right and Whitney was wrong.

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A proud tourist points at her National Parks windshield stickers, 1922; David Brower in Glen Canyon, 1966; Dayton Duncan's son, Will, standing at edge of canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park, 1998

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