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On Early Yosemite Artists and Tourism

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 2, No.2, Spring 1992)

Katherine M. Littell of Harvard University has published a short essay about early Yosemite artists entitled, "Chris Jorgensen and the Pioneer Artists of Yosemite." It has appeared in the fall, 1990 issue of the Harvard Graduate Society Newsletter . Littell reports that nineteenth century artists were very much responsible for the political viability of Yosemite. The new Yosemite Grant needed tourism to be financially stable. California had accepted administration of Yosemite in 1866 but was not given any funds by the federal government to handle its responsibility. To pay for the costs of supervising Yosemite, Littell concludes that "Increasingly, the Commissioners looked to artists and photographers to popularize the unique loveliness of the Grant . . . . "

Accordingly, Frederick Lee Olmstead, Chair of the Yosemite Commission, asked Virgil Williams (later Director of California School of Design), artist Thomas Hill and photographer C.E. Watkins, for advice on how to make Yosemite a stronger tourist attraction. Of interest here is the fact that even those who had taken on the responsibility of protecting Yosemite were, even at the outset, interested in altering it. "Are there any conditions affecting the scenery of the Yosemite unfavorably," Olmstead asked the three artists, "which it would prove in the power of the State to remove?" This is, of course, precisely the notion of "improving the Valley" that John Muir argued against in his first writings for the San Francisco Bulletin . Muir argued often and publicly that any effort to "improve" the Valley was silly, and pointedly made fun of the little dam built by hotelier Snow to divert a side stream of the Merced so it would flow over the main Nevada falls.

Littell's article is useful in providing a context in which early Yosemite artists worked. Their paintings were distributed nationwide. Thousands saw them, and as cross-country travel became easier with the completion of the Union Pacific in 1869, other thousands came to visit California, including Yosemite. Evidently, Muir himself was inspired to visit Yosemite when he saw a painting of the Valley, while recovering from his eye accident. Beginning with Ayres and Hill, James Alden, William Smith Jewett, Albert Bierstadt, and finally Chris Jorgensen, the author finds that each "was forced to differentiate their styles to capture its compelling beauty." Unlike the Hudson River School group that preceded them, Littell writes, the Yosemite artists "either enthusiastically or reluctantly, took on a political dimension" since each was responsible in one way or another for popularizing Yosemite. Not all Californians wanted more tourists in their state: Ambrose Bierce rejoiced with "grim satisfaction" in the "destruction by fire of Bierstadt's celebrated picture of Yosemite Valley," which had, he stated, "incited more unpleasant people to visit California than all our conspiring hotelkeepers could compel to return."

Perhaps the most compelling theme of Professor Littell's article is the new window for research which she implicitly opens: What was the full political and environmental impact of tourism on Yosemite and other wildernesses? It has often seemed that Muir was in one respect a tragic figure. Promoting tourism, he several times wrote it was one of the "great, good signs of the times"; yet, it was and remains an element responsible for the very destruction of wilderness.

Muir spoke of this dilemma on several occasions, always opting to defend wilderness visitation. When North Dome became finally accessible to hikers, Muir dismissed notions that any harm might come from the new visitors, writing that he had "always discouraged as much as possible every project for laddering the South Dome, believing it would be a fine thing to keep this garden untrodden. Now the pines will be carved with the initials of Smith and Jones, and the gardens strewn with tin cans and bottles, but the winter gales will blow most of this rubbish away, and avalanches may strip off the ladders." ( San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin , Nov., 18, 1875.) His later articles from Alaska quite clearly call for Americans to come visit their northern acquisition: "Go, go and see," he directed. And, of course, the initial purpose of the Sierra Club was to make the mountains more accessible. Professor Littell's suggestive essay raises the question as to whether Muir or the other artists may have come to harbor self-doubts about the wisdom of the policy.

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