by James Keough
Warren Olney was drawn to California by reports of spectacular mountain scenery. Born in Iowa, he had fought in the Civil War and studied law at the University of Michigan before journeying west in 1868, the year John Muir arrived in San Francisco.
Unlike his future friend and colleague (who looked askance at the city and immediately asked a passerby for the quickest route to the mountains), Olney had a wife and child to support. He settled down to practice law. But he was an avid hiker and fisherman, and by the time he met Muir in 1889, he had seen much of the Sierra and the Coast Range.
They met through a mutual friend, William Keith, the well-known landscape and portrait painter who was also an enthusiastic outdoorsman. When Muir visited San Francisco from his fruit ranch at Martinez, Keith was apt to send Olney word, and the three would meet in Keith's studio to talk about "the mountains."
Soon the number of people drawn to these conversations (and, one suspects, to Muir's presence) grew beyond the capacity of Keith's rather cramped and cluttered studio, and the meetings were moved to Olney's more spacious law office in the nearby First National Bank Building at 101 Sansome Street. Among those attending were Joseph LeConte, J. h. Senger, William Dallam Armes, Cornelius Beach Bradley and John C. Branner, all faculty members at Stanford or Berkeley.
On Saturday, May 28, 1892, a formal meeting was held in Olney's office to organize a "Sierra Club." A week later there was another meeting at the same site. Twenty-seven charter members signed the articles of incorporation that Olney had drawn up. Muir was elected president, Olney vice-president.
Olney's office continued to serve as headquarters during the first year of the Club's existence. Its first conservation effort, a successful campaign to remove Yosemite Valley from state control and add it to the newly created national park surrounding the valley, was mounted there.
These were years of intense activism prophetic of the Club's work today. Meetings and conferences were held and attended in San Francisco, Sacramento and Washington.
"I have a letter from Senator Perkins [U.S. Senator George C. Perkins, a charter member of the Club]," Olney wrote Muir, "saying there is no money to make proper surveys of the proposed boundaries [of the Tahoe National Forest]. When President Jordan [David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford, also a charter member] was in Washington he did what he could in the way of establishing boundaries. He found the Secretary of Interior and the Commissioner of the Land Office in hearty accord with our scheme."
Olney and Muir established a close personal relationship on family hiking and camping trips and Club outings.
Olney's tenure with the Sierra Club culminated in one of the most dramatic conservation conflicts in the Club's and in the nation's history: the struggle for Hetch Hetchy Valley. As mayor of Oakland (he had agreed to run only if he received both the Republican and Democratic nominations).
Olney had fought the private interests controlling the Bay Area's water supply. He believed that the best way to remove that supply from private hands and place it in municipal ownership was for the city of San Francisco to acquire rights to the water of the Tuolumne River and to dam it where it passed through Hjetch Hetchy—a miniature Yosemite Valley—in the upper reaches of Yosemite National Park.
Olney admitted the natural beauty of the site, but argued: "Any other source will cost the tax payers of San Francisco, already heavily burdened as a result of the recent earthquake and fire, ten to twenty million dollars more than this one." He pointed out that only the Tuolomne, of all major Sierra streams, had no significant claims on its water, though private interests were moving to make such claims. He noted that those interests were also opposing acquisition of Hetch Hetchy and felt they were "using" Club members who opposed the project.
The Hetch Hetchy Project was approved by a majority of San Francisco voters and by such national figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. But it was strongly opposed by John Muir, Will Colby and others of Olney's friends in the Club. They believed it would not only sacrifice a site of great natural beauty but would establish a precedent for invading the integrity of the national parks in the name of utilitarian necessity. When a poll of the members resulted in a vote of 589 to 161 against his position, Olney resigned after seventeen years of dedicated service.
The ultimate victory of his Hetch Hetchy views hardly compensated for the painful loss of intimacy with Muir, Colby and others of whom he was deeply fond. There was one consolation. He'd helped establish the principle of forthright dissent among Club members—and had been instrumental in creating an organization that was to expand in significance for beyond his most hopeful dreams.
A group of Sierra Club members have establish a fund to commemorate the contribution of Warren Olney to the founding of the organization. Checks should be made to The Sierra Club Foundation. Contributions to this fund are fully deductible. Each gift will be divided. One-third of the proceeds will be used for environmental litigation and two-thirds will be used for charitable environmental programs.
This article appeared in slightly altered form in the 1978 February/March issue of Sierra Magazine.