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History: LeConte Memorial Lodge

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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 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 LeConte Memorial Lodge have a spectacular view of Half Dome, as well as Yosemite Falls, from the porch.

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 locate

d in the long-gone Old Yosemite Village, located along Southside drive between Sentinel Bridge and the Yosemite Chapel.

In 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 National Park.

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 Valley walls.

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 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.

In 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 a National 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:

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.

The LeConte Memorial Lodge is a Sierra Club education program, a cultural resource, a place that has inspired generations of visitors to a deeper abiding conservation ethic and a love for wilderness adventure and the preservation of wild places everywhere. The LeConte Memorial Lodge celebrates the National Park idea and serves as a beacon of national pride with global significance.

The Sierra Club's work encompasses many national and international environmental issues, but it continues to honor its commitment to preserve the natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada, John Muir's "Range of Light." You may contact the Sierra Club Yosemite Committee for information on the Club's current involvement in protecting Yosemite National Park. The Club has also formed a Hetch Hetchy Task Force to pursue the future restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural splendor.


Information and Donations

For more information, during the summer contact Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge Curator, P.O. Box 755, Yosemite, CA 95389, 1-209-372-4542; e-mail leconte.curator@sierraclub.org.

During the winter, contact LeConte Lodge Committee Chair, Harold Wood, P.O. Box 3543, Visalia, CA 93278; phone: (559) 739-8527; e-mail: harold.wood@sierraclub.org

Tax deductible donations to support the programs, exhibits and renovation efforts of the LeConte Memorial can be made to "Sierra Club Foundation," marked for the LeConte Lodge Fund, and mailed to either address above.


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