Here, traveler, pause upon thine upward way,
Enter and rest, and search thy soul to-day.
High are the mountains where thy feet would fare
Let wisdom lead, that peace may bless thee there.
- Harriet Monroe
Inscription for the LeConte Memorial, 1904
The Sierra Club has had a long and intimate history with Yosemite National Park,
of which the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center (formerly LeConte Memorial Lodge) is one important part. Even the logo of
the Sierra Club, first designed by architect Willis Polk in 1894, depicts a
Giant Sequoia and Yosemite's Half Dome. Today, visitors to Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center have a spectacular view of Half Dome, as well as Yosemite Falls, from
In 1898, Yosemite Valley, not yet included in the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, was operated by the State of California, through the State Board of Yosemite Commissioners. That spring, the Commissioners asked the Sierra Club, founded in 1892, to provide a public reading room and information center for Yosemite visitors. Sinning's Cottage, a small building located on the southside of the Valley on what is now Southside Drive, near Sentinel Bridge, in what is known as the old Yosemite Village, insured high visibility to visitors and proved to be an excellent location. The cottage was originally built for Adolph Sinning, a wood carver known for his "beautiful and dainty souvenirs in California woods." The Sierra Club furnished the cottage with a small library, an herbarium, photographs, and maps, and hired an attendant for the summer season. William E. Colby, a young law school graduate, who would go on to serve for 60 years as a Sierra Club leader, was selected as the first attendant. The Sierra Club and the State Board of Yosemite Commissioners dutifully shared the responsibility of paying Colby's salary. In addition to acting as caretaker for the newly established "reading room," Colby assisted the Guardian of the Valley - a paid official appointed by the Commissioners - "by directing campers to their grounds, and giving general information concerning the Valley to visitors." Although he retired after the 1896 season, the original Guardian was Galen Clark, a charter member of the Sierra Club. A few years after William Colby, Galen Clark himself served as the custodian at Sinning's Cottage.
The Sierra Club operated the public reading room and information center out of Sinning's Cottage until the LeConte Memorial Lodge was built. Chairman of the Yosemite Commissioners, Abbott Kinney, commented, "The Sierra Club Building is a complete success, and should bring the Commission into sympathetic touch with the lovers of nature in California... The Sierra Club will be a center of information for travel into the wonders of these peaks, volcanoes of the past, glaciers, rivers, and lakes."
Yosemite visitors can still easily identify the site of Sinning's Cottage, recognized by three iron bolts placed in the granite boulder where people used to tie their horses. It is located in the long-gone Old Yosemite Village, located along Southside drive between Sentinel Bridge and the Yosemite Chapel.
1901, the Sierra Club started the first of its national Outings, which
are still an important offering of the Sierra Club today. The Club's first
President, John Muir reasoned, "if people in general could be got into the
woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties
in the way of forest preservation would vanish." When he became Secretary
of the Club, William Colby convinced the Sierra Club Board of directors to
launch an annual outings program. "An excursion of this sort," Colby said, "if
properly conducted, will do an infinite amount of good toward awakening the
proper kind of interest in the forests and other natural features of our mountains,
and will also tend to create a spirit of good fellowship among our members." Colby
chose Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows for the first Sierra Club outing, camping
at Soda Springs, where John Muir and Century magazine editor
Robert Underwood Johnson had laid plans for the campaign to establish Yosemite
Like many of the outings to follow, these annual outings were more than just
hiking trips. Before the first outing, the 96 adventurers were advised to read
John Muir's The
Mountains of California and Joseph LeConte's Journal
of Ramblings Through the High Sierra, the latter of which was considered
an inspiration for the trip. Once the trip was underway, professor William
Dudley lectured on forestry, C. Hart Merriam, director of the U.S. Biological
Survey, taught biology, Theodore Hittell, a noted historian, discussed the
history of Yosemite, and Muir spoke on geomorphology. The Club outings program
attracted people from all walks of life, including a large number of women.
The first outing included Muir's daughters, Wanda, 20, and Helen, 15, along
with other Berkeley and Stanford college women. Another such woman was Marion
Randall, a close friend of Muir's daughter Wanda, who joined the club's
1904 outing as her first venture into the wilderness. She later married Edward
T. Parsons, one of the organizers of the 1901 trip, and followed her husband's
footsteps to became chair of the Club's LeConte Lodge Committee, and a Club
Director from 1914 to 1938. She wrote that "The Sierra Club has great and noble
purposes, for which we honor it, but besides these its name has come to mean
an ideal for us. It means comradeship and chivalry, simplicity and joyousness,
and the carefree life of the open." Many of the participants of the early
Sierra Club High Trips were either current leaders of the Club, or got involved
in the Club as a result of these outings, including such Club notables as William
Frederic Badè Edward
Taylor Parsons, Joseph
N. LeConte, Duncan McDuffie, Francis Farquhar, Walter Starr, and Walter
Huber, who were, or later became, Directors and officers of the Club.
The first outing was to trek from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. On the eve of the gathering in Curry Village, Joseph LeConte, a charter member of the Sierra Club, died of a heart attack at the age of 76. A much loved Professor of Geology at the University of California, LeConte was a highly respected scientist, and one of the first scientists to support John Muir's theory of the glacial origin of Yosemite Valley. LeConte first visited Yosemite in 1870 with 10 of his students. In Yosemite Valley he met John Muir, who traveled with the party for 10 days. The journals LeConte wrote during this excursion were published in his book, A Journal of Ramblings in the High Sierras. LeConte, whose friendship with Muir endured thirty years, joined Muir and others as a charter member and early director of the Sierra Club, founded in 1892. LeConte, and his son, Joseph N. LeConte ("Little Joe"), was a leader among early members of the Club in exploring, climbing, mapping, and protecting Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.
LeConte was much loved by his students, as shown so well in an 1896
Blue and Gold University of California Yearbook.
As a memorial to Joseph LeConte, the Sierra Club arranged, in cooperation with
the State Board of Yosemite Commissioners, to erect a permanent stone building
to replace Sinning's Cottage, as a reading room and information center.
In 1902, Sierra Club members were taxed $1.00 for the building fund. Additional funding for LeConte Memorial Lodge was contributed by prominent San Francisco merchants; students, alumni, and faculty from the University of California; faculty from Stanford University, mining engineers; geologists, LeConte's relatives and personal friends; and members of the Sierra Club. Caroline Elizabeth LeConte, LeConte's widow, contributed twenty-eight gold nuggets given to her husband on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary from several former students in South Africa. Mrs. LeConte believed that there was no better use then to contribute to the "Yosemite Sierra Club building," being built to honor her husband.
The Memorial was built in Yosemite's Camp Curry, but was moved in 1919 to its
present location across from the Housekeeping Cabins. The LeConte Memorial
Lodge was built by the Sierra Club over the fall and spring of 1903-1904.
John White, a Berkeley architect, designed the LeConte Memorial Lodge. Following
the First Bay Tradition of architecture. White subscribed to the theory that
the design should be derived from native building materials and exposed structure
rather than decorative detail. The design for the LeConte Memorial reflected
these principles in the rough-hewn granite masonry and steep-pitched roof of
LeConte Lodge, which capture the color, texture, and verticality of the Yosemite
Dedicated on July 3, 1904, "there was a large attendance of Sierra Club members, owing to the fact that Yosemite Valley had been selected as the gathering-place for the 1904 Outing." The dedication exercises were simple and impressive. William E. Colby, the Secretary of the Club, presided, in the absence of the President John Muir, who was traveling around the world at the time.
An American flag was hung over the doorway, and the celebration was conducted in front of the building. Rev. C.T. Brown, of San Diego, gave the invocation. Addresses were delivered by Professor A.C. Lawson, who succeeded Professor LeConte as head of the Geological Department of the University of California, Mr. Alexander G. Eells, President of the Alumni Association, and Dr. G. K. Gilbert, of the U.S. Geological Survey. Mr. Willoughby Rodman read a poem written for the occasion, and Miss Caroline Little sang Tennyson's 'Splendor Falls on Castle Walls.' Poet Harriet Monroe, of Chicago, and later the founder of Poetry magazine, read an original quatrain. Rev. Joseph Clemens pronounced the benediction. The exercises closed with the singing of 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' A bronze tablet inscribed to Joseph LeConte was inserted into the interior wall of the LeConte Memorial Lodge. Lemonade and popcorn was served.
Through the decades, LeConte Memorial Lodge has been cared for by Sierra Club members. As we have seen, the first caretaker at Sinning's Cottage, in 1898, was William E. Colby, the Club's long-time Secretary and President from 1901-1961. The first caretaker of LeConte Memorial Lodge itself was Robert L. McWilliams, and the first chair of the Sierra Club's LeConte Lodge Committee was Edward T. Parsons. Perhaps the most recognized caretaker was Ansel Adams, who served from 1920 until 1923. Other notable early caretakers and committee leaders included Joseph N. LeConte ("Little Joe"), and Marion Randall Parsons. The current curator, John Muir historian and author Bonnie J. Gisel, and more historical caretakers are identified on our LeConte Memorial Lodge Curator page.
Since the dedication of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in 1904, the building has served as a focal point for Sierra Club members and all visitors to Yosemite National Park who advocate conservation and the National Park idea. The Sierra Club was organized by many of the same persons who had originally lobbied for the establishment of Yosemite National Park, including Joseph LeConte, John Muir, Robert Underwood Johnson, and others. In October of 1892, in its first conservation campaign, the Club argued against, and ultimately defeated, a proposal to reduce the size of the newly established Yosemite National Park. In 1906, after a 14-year campaign, the Club influenced the California legislature and the U.S. Congress to combine Yosemite Valley, still in state ownership, with the surrounding high country into the present National Park. When the original park had been established in 1890, it did not include Yosemite Valley or the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. It was largely through the efforts of John Muir and the Sierra Club that these two areas were finally restored to the National Park.
In 1913, the Sierra Club lost its campaign to prevent the flooding of nearby Hetch
Hetchy Valley for a reservoir for the San Francisco water supply. The loss
of that Valley -- Yosemite's Twin -- and much beloved by John Muir - ultimately
benefited the cause of conservation and protection of our national parks. The
grassroots nature of the anti-dam protest widened preservationist support tremendously.
A vague general approval of wilderness hardened into a movement capable of sustained
political action. Muir noted, "The conscience of the whole country was aroused
from sleep." When dams were later proposed in Dinosaur National Monument and
Grand Canyon National Park, the Sierra Club's successful campaigns kept them
out of the parks.
The Sierra Club welcomed the National Park Service when it was established in 1916, with Sierra Club member Stephen Mather as its first director and another Club member, Horace Albright, as assistant director and later a long-time director. In the decades that followed, LeConte Memorial Lodge has continued to play an important part of National Park history. The Sierra Club, together with the University of California, sponsored the "LeConte Memorial Lectures" in Yosemite Valley that ultimately become the basis for the National Park Service interpretive programs presented at National Parks across the United States.
1955, Ansel Adams returned to LeConte Memorial Lodge with Nancy Newhall to
mount an exhibit "This is
the American Earth," that represented the work of
thirty-two photographers. The subsequent exhibition book designed and written
by Newhall and David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, was
published in 1960. This book was the first of the Sierra Club's award-winning "Exhibit
Format" book series, and is a testimonial to the need for conservation
and protection of the environment. "This is the American
Earth is one
of the great statements in the history of conservation," proclaimed Supreme
Court Justice William O. Douglas. It has been reprinted several times in the
subsequent decades, and remains an inspirational combination of text and photography.
You may read
an excerpt from the foreword by David Brower (off-site link).
Unique in the National Park System, the LeConte Memorial Lodge was designated
Historic Landmark in 1987. This honor was awarded explicitly for the Memorial's
design, which complemented the natural surroundings, and the history of the
Sierra Club and its role in Yosemite Valley and the national park system. A
dedication ceremony for the installation of the plaque confirming this honor
was held in June, 1990. Sierra Club President Sue Merrow and Yosemite National
Park Superintendent Michael Finley presided over this dedication ceremony,
attended by the entire Sierra Club Board of Directors.
In 1998, the Sierra Club completed renovations of the interior lighting system at LeConte Memorial. Antiquated (and ugly!) lighting installed in the 1930's was replaced with Craftsman - style chandeliers and box lighting in keeping with the original architectural style. This project was made possible only by the generous donations of donors and the dedicated volunteer efforts of Sierra Club LeConte Lodge Committee member George Pettit.
With the review of the National Park Service, the Sierra Club has recently
installed several new displays in the Memorial,
also designed by George Pettit. In 2002 and 2003, the Sierra Club dramatically
expanded the book collection in the LeConte Lodge Library with
generous donations from Sierra Club Books, members of the LeConte Memorial
Lodge Committee, the Wiebe Foundation, and members, volunteers, and friends
of the Sierra Club. LeConte Lodge continues to offer to the public an ongoing
series of free public programs
LeConte Memorial Lodge celebrated our Centennial in
2004. Some of our Centennial Celebration activities included:
The unique structure was originally named for the scientist and university professor geologist Joseph LeConte, a charter member and early director of the Sierra Club, who died in the Valley in 1901. Unfortunately, Joseph LeConte's legacy has since been marred by the rediscovery of his late 19th-century writings on segregation and racial superiority. Those views are unacceptable to the Sierra Club, which is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion within its membership, in our national parks, and in society at large. Therefore, in 2015, the Sierra Club asked that the LeConte Memorial Lodge be renamed.
Although motivated by a rejection of Joseph LeConte's writings, the name change -- to Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center -- also more accurately represents the educational mission of the Center. The Center tells the stories of many Sierra Club leaders who have promoted protection for Yosemite and other national parks. Current exhibits cover John Muir, LeConte's son Joseph N. LeConte ("Little Joe"), Robert Underwood Johnson, William Colby, Edward Parsons, Marion Randall Parsons, Aurelia Harwood, Ansel Adams, David Brower, Dr. Edgar Wayburn, and other important Sierra Club leaders. The Center also highlights the Club's current endeavors to combat global climate change and support environmental justice.
Through interpretive environmental education programs and projects, the legacy of stewardship continues. Through the service of many Sierra Club volunteers and one staff curator, the Center opens each season to invite visitors to enjoy a conservation and natural history library, exhibits about the history of the Sierra Club and its current endeavors, and a children's library corner. The center continues to inspire current and future generations to enjoy, explore, and protect the natural world.
For more about our history, read LeConte
Memorial Lodge: One Hundred Years of Public Service In Yosemite National Park -
Presentation to California State Historic Resources Commission by Bonnie Johanna
Gisel, Ph.D., Curator, LeConte Memorial Lodge, Sierra Club.
Information and Donations
For more information, during the summer contact Sierra Club LeConte Memorial
Curator, P.O. Box 755, Yosemite, CA 95389, 1-209-372-4542; e-mail email@example.com.
During the winter, contact LeConte Lodge Committee Chair, Harold Wood, P.O. Box 3543,
Visalia, CA 93278; phone: (559) 697-3525; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Help us keep the Sierra Club's oldest public outreach and education program in Yosemite National Park. We need to continue the Sierra Club's legacy at the Heritage Center and the time has come to raise funds for the program and ensure its existence for future generations. To start, we need to raise $90,000 by October 1, 2016 to fully fund operations for fiscal year 2017. (See Fundraising Fact Sheet) (PDF)
Please make a tax deductible donation to preserve the Sierra Club home in Yosemite National Park!
- Make an
online donation using our secure web form; or
- Write a check payable to "Sierra
Club Foundation," marked "restricted for the LeConte Memorial Fund." Please
send to: Sierra Club Foundation, 2101 Webster St., Suite 1250, Oakland, CA 94612.
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