June 20, 2012





Yosemite is the penultimate stop in our Great Circle of National Parks grand tour that we began on August 4, 2010.  It is fitting that our closing fireworks takes place where the National Park story begins.  And for that story we can thank Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, for their book has been our sourcebook.


Yosemite’s story really begins with Dr. Lafayette Bunnell in one of the earliest expeditions (1851) into this then all but unknown valley.  He was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he named the valley.  Wrongly, it turns out.  In his ignorance of the Native American Indians who lived here, he mistakenly named it Yosemite Valley.  Turns out that Yosemite translates as “Killers” . . . “People who should be feared.”  It should have been called “Ahwahnee Valley,” so named by the  Ahwahnee Indians who referred to themselves as the “Ahwahneechies.”  Translated, “Ahwahnee” means “The Place of the Gaping Mouth” (Duncan and Burns, p. 2).


Word spread, and photographers (the profession then in its infancy) and artists such as that great romantic landscapist, Albert Bierstadt (who came here and painted such magnificent canvasses in 1862 that he was paid a then unheard of $25,000 for one of his Yosemite paintings) packed into the valley to see if it was all legend attributed to it.


In 1864, John Conners (junior senator from the very young state of California) did an almost unbelievable thing: In the midst of the bloodiest war in American history (with more casualties than in all the rest of America’s wars combined) Conners stood up on May 17, 1864 in the Senate Chamber and introduced a bill to preserve this little-known valley.  A proposal that was unprecedented in human history: to “set aside a large tract (some 60 square miles) of natural scenery for the future enjoyment of everyone.”  The bill included both Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees (Sequoia).  The concept for the bill had originated with Captain Israel Ward Raymond.  Such a proposal seemingly made little sense in light of Americans’ well-known propensity to trash all itsnatural wonders.  They’d already all but ruined Niagara Falls with cheap commercialism.  Almost unbelievably—no small thanks to Conners’ assurance that the land was completely worthless and wouldn’t cost the country a dime—, the bill sailed through; and 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.” (This section, Duncan and Burns, 8-13).


Unwisely, it turns out, the bill mandated turning the park over to the State of California to administer, which resulted in half a century of fierce and unrelenting warfare between the forces of those who sought to preserve the park in its pristine state and those who sought to commercialize it, log it, mine it, and do all they could to destroy it.  It proved to be one of the bitterest wars the West has ever known (matched only by the battle to preserve the Grand Canyon of the Colorado).


The unenviable job of actually protecting the park fell on the shoulders of 52-year-old Galen Clark, who’d proved himself to be a failure at most everything else he’d ever tried to do.  California appointed him the first guardian of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove for the munificent figure of $500 a year.   Out of that, he was to pay all his living expenses, maintain all roads and bridges, supervise all those who set up businesses, hotels, etc., and, not incidentally, prevent the tourists from destroying the park!  An almost impossible challenge.  Even at that, the State of California withheld his wages for four years!  Just as bad, there was the self-appointed ruler of the park, James Mason Hutchins (a man who’d done much to publicize the park).  Hutchins had no intention of surrendering authority over the park to Clark or the State.  In fact, Hutchins decided to construct a sawmill in the park and wasn’t about to be stopped by anyone!  But he needed a reliable man to construct the sawmill and run it.


Enter a wandering sheepherder from Scotland.  Born in Dunbar, Scotland, and growing up in Wisconsin, he was raised by a harsh tyrannical father, an itinerant Presbyterian minister, who forced his son to memorize the Bible—and beat him repeatedly to keep him at it.  After escaping from his father, uncertain as to his future, he walked a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico, then came west. Seeking the wildest place he could find, he was steered into sheepherding in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  And so it came to pass that, in the fall of 1869, this 31-year-old walked into the Yosemite Valley to apply for the job of sawmill builder and manager.


His name was John Muir (Duncan and Burns, 15-17).




Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).


Early the next morning ,we sat out on the deck, enjoying the music of the river—across the river a doe and her fawn daintily stepped down the embankment to the river. Bob and I locked up the hot tub we’d used the night before. It hadn’t done its job: the bugs were still with us. We ate a forgettable breakfast in one of the only cafes open early in the morning, packed the car, and drove south out of Winthrop on hwy 20.


Metal statue of Chief Joseph

Passing through miles of fruit-laden trees in the famous Okanogan Valley, we just had to stop for a large bag of just-picked cherries. Since Connie’s folks once had a huge cherry tree in their yard, every cherry season she yearns for a cherry fix. At Omak, we turned east on hwy 155. As we approached Nespelem, Bob (who was navigating at the time) suggested we stop there in order to learn more about the legendary Nez Percé Indian Chief Joseph (1840-1904). Undoubtedly, his is one of the saddest and darkest stories in American history. His only sin was that he did his best to get Washington to honor its treaties with his people. His was the genius in the Nez Percé War, as he fought and retreated with his 250 warriors over 1,600 miles of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. After a two-day battle at Kamiah, Idaho, he and his people were caught by Gen. Nelson Miles, only 40 miles from the Canadian border. It was then that the broken-hearted chief uttered those famous words, “Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” In spite of promises made by U.S. authorities, Joseph and his band, in 1878, were sent to a barren reservation in Oklahoma, where many sickened and died. Not until 1885 were he and the remnants of his band permitted to go back to Washington state—but not to the Wallowa Valley. Twice he journeyed to Washington to plead for the return of his people to their beloved valley, once with President Teddy Roosevelt personally. It was in vain.

Chief Joseph Memorial Stone

By asking some of the Native Americans in Nespelem where his grave might be, we learned it was on top of a nearby hill in an old cemetery—under a tree. There we finally found it, graced only by a modest marble statue, with the words etched on it slowly fading out of existence. If there was ever a figure in American history who deserves better historical treatment than this, it has to be Chief Joseph. Even to this day, his people have not been permitted to go home. Their lives are still controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the nearby town of Colville. The Grand Coulee Dam flooded their best land and destroyed their salmon-based way of life.


We next moved on to Grand Coulee Dam—long on Bob’s bucket list. I’d known about it all my life but knew little about it. Gradually our road dropped down, following a canyon off to the side. Suddenly, around the corner, there it was, so huge it was difficult to gain perspective—even more difficult to get a photo of. First of all, we drove up to the headquarters so Connie could get her U.S. Parks Passport stamped. Then we stopped at the large visitor center adjacent to the dam. We learned much studying the exhibits and watching the short film—but I’ve learned even more since.

Overcoming daunting odds, the polio-crippled patrician, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected President in 1932, in the deepest depths of the Great Depression. He promised a New Deal for the average beaten-down American: to revive farm prosperity (America was still predominantly rural then), to rehabilitate the railroads, to regulate banks and security exchanges, to increase the development of electric power, to embark on a broad program of public works, to tackle unemployment, build roads, and solemnly promised, “No American shall starve.”

Unlike many politicians, Roosevelt determined to deliver on each promise. My maternal grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger, of Arcata, California, with seven children and a wife to support, had lost his business. In desperation, he wrote FDR a letter, asking—not for dole, for Grandpa was a proud man—but for a job! Within minutes of the letter getting to the White House, it always seemed to Grandpa, a telephone call was made from the White House to the person in charge of federal hiring in Humboldt County, with the directive, Get Herbert Leininger a job! And he got it. Grandpa never forgot!

Before this trip, I had no idea the Columbia River was so significant. It is born high in the Canadian Rockies. Of its 1,214-mile length, 460 miles (or 38% of it) is in Canada; perhaps the most spectacular portion of it in the Columbia Mountains (Cariboo, Monashee, Selkirk, and Purcell Mountain ranges, each range towering over 10,000 feet high). Also in British Columbia the great North and South Arrow Lake the Columbia flows through before it reaches Grand Coulee Dam, where it backs up 151 miles to the Canadian Border in Lake Roosevelt. For 300 miles it separates the states of Oregon and Washington. Its drainage basin is vast (258,000 square miles). It is the largest river in North America in terms of the sheer volume of water flowing into the Pacific. It produces 30% of all the hydroelectric power in the nation. And had it not been for the vision of FDR, it is doubtful the dam would ever have been constructed.

North side of Grand Coulee Dam

For a long time prior to FDR’s presidency, debate—more often than not heated—had been going on in the Northwest about how it might be possible to harness the tremendous power of the Columbia River for both hydroelectric and irrigation purposes. But there was no consensus: one side (the so-called “pumpers”) wanted to pump water from behind a dam. The pumpers were generally in favor of hydroelectric power. The ditchers, on the other hand, wanted to irrigate the Columbia basin with water from the Pend Oreille River.

Grand Coulee Dam came about because of a promise FDR made to Washington Senator Clarence Dill: that if he was elected president, he’d build a big dam on the Columbia. Initially, Roosevelt balked at the projected price tag: $450,000,000—more than the Panama Canal. Roosevelt said he could, however, support the building of a lower dam: 150 feet high rather than the proposed 550. It was a pragmatic victory as it quieted the critics. Later on, since a high dam would generate eight times the income of the low one, it was decided to go ahead with the original plan.

South side of Grand Coulee Dam

Construction began in 1933 and was completed on March 12, 1938. It certainly accomplished another Roosevelt objective, as it gave thousands of men jobs, but 77 men died during its construction. The completed dam exhausts superlatives: it is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. It is 550 feet high, 480 feet wide at the base, and (with the third powerhouse), almost a mile long (5,223 feet). All the pyramids at Giza could fit within the total area of its base. There are over eight and a half miles of corridors inside it. At the time it was constructed, it was the largest masonry structure ever erected by man; other than the Great Wall of China, the only man-made structure in history larger in mass than the Great Pyramid of Khufu. There is enough concrete in it to build a four-inch thick four-lane-highway 60 feet wide, 3,000 miles long, from California to Florida. Even today, with all the other mega dams that have been constructed around the world, it is still the largest all-concrete dam ever built. Its Frank D. Roosevelt Lake is 151 miles long with 600 miles of shoreline.

And the “serendipitous Coincidence?” It is this. As I pointed out in Blog #46 on September 29, we had inadvertently retraced Roosevelt’s steps: Timberline Lodge on September 28, 1937; Crescent Lake Lodge on September 30, and Lake Quinault Lodge on October 1. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered that the very next day after Roosevelt left Lake Quinault Lodge: on October 2, the President visited Grand Coulee Dam!

SPECIAL NOTE: Next week we visit Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.


Bottenberg, Ray, Grand Coulee Dam (Charleston, SC: Arcadia publishing, 2008).

Encyclopedia Britannica. 1946 and 1964 editions.

“Grand Coulee Dam Statistics and Facts,” U.S. Department of the Interior document.

“Grand Coulee Dam,” Wikipedia reprint.

“Grand Coulee Dam: History and purpose,” Alpha Index document.

Oregon and Washington Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010).