Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel: “A Good Place to Stop”

Daniella Thompson

The main building of the Wawona Hotel opened in April 1879. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

15 August 2009

Legend has it that in the 1920s, a small plane crashed outside the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Taken to Moore Cottage, on the slope behind the main hotel building, the injured pilot is said to have expired before the doctor’s arrival. Hotel employees and guests have reported seeing a ghost descending the stairs in Moore Cottage, dressed in a leather jacket, pilot’s cap, goggles, and a white silk scarf.

Built in 1894, “Little Brown” was renamed Moore Cottage for Galen Clark’s partner, Edwin Moore. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

On a recent visit to Wawona, we stayed at Moore Cottage, a gingerbread charmer built in 1894 and originally called “Little Brown.” No ghost livened up our stay, but we found it a good place to stop nonetheless. We weren’t the first to find it so. Native Americans who camped at the Wawona meadows on their peregrinations between the Sierra foothills and Yosemite Valley called the area Pallachun, or “a good place to stop.”

Apt as it is, the name Pallachun did not survive into the era of Gringo settlement. The first non-native resident in what is now known as Wawona was Galen Clark (1814–1910), widely hailed as the “discoverer of the Mariposa Grove of giant trees.” A New Hampshire native, Clark left for the Golden State in 1853, lured by newly mined California gold dust he had seen on exhibit at the Crystal Palace in New York. Arriving in Mariposa County, he engaged in mining and surveying Government land.

In 1855, Clark made his first visit to Yosemite Valley. Two years later, suffering severe pulmonary hemorrhages that threatened his life, he moved to the south fork of the Merced River, staking a claim and building a log cabin on the spot where the Wawona Hotel now stands. A bridge over the river and trails followed, and soon travelers on the way from Mariposa to Yosemite Valley were stopping for food and shelter at Clark’s Station.  
Galen Clark at the Mariposa Grove (Yosemite Online)

It was here, in 1868, that John Muir, on his first visit to Yosemite, met Clark. In his book The Yosemite (1912), Muir devoted a chapter to Clark, reminiscing:

Galen Clark was the best mountaineer I ever met, and one of the kindest and most amiable of all my mountain friends. I first met him at his Wawona ranch forty-three years ago on my first visit to Yosemite. [...] Botanizing by the way, we made slow, plodding progress, and were again about out of provisions when we reached Clark’s hospitable cabin at Wawona. He kindly furnished us with flour and a little sugar and tea, and my companion, who complained of the benumbing poverty of a strictly vegetarian diet, gladly accepted Mr. Clark’s offer of a piece of a bear that had just been killed.

Muir also set the record straight about the discovery of the Mariposa Grove:

Though not the first to see the Mariposa Big Tree grove, he was the first to explore it, after he had heard from a prospector, who had passed through the grove and who gave him the indefinite information, that there were some wonderful big trees up there on the top of the Wawona hill and that he believed they must be of the same kind that had become so famous and well-known in the Calaveras grove farther north. On this information, Galen Clark told me, he went up and thoroughly explored the grove, counting the trees and measuring the largest, and becoming familiar with it. He stated also that he had explored the forest to the southward and had discovered the much larger Fresno grove of about two square miles, six or seven miles distant from the Mariposa grove. Unfortunately most of the Fresno grove has been cut and flumed down to the railroad near Madera.

Galen Clark built a cabin at the Mariposa Grove in 1861. The Mariposa Grove Museum now stands on the site. (Yosemite Online)

Clark, who recovered his health and lived to the age of 96, was among the key preservation advocates whose opinion led to President Lincoln’s signing, in 1864, an Act of Congress transferring Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the State of California as a grant reserved from settlement. The grant was locally administered by a guardian representing a board of commissioners. The first man picked for the position was Galen Clark, who fulfilled the role for 24 years.

The added duties made the task of running an inn too onerous. Expenses always exceeded income, and in 1869, Clark brought in Edwin Moore as a partner (Moore Cottage at the Wawona Hotel is named after him). The debts, however, continued to mount, and in December 1874, Clark’s Station was sold to one of its creditors, the stagecoach and livery firm of Washburn, Coffman & Chapman.

It was Vermont-born Albert Henry Washburn (1836–1902) and his brothers, Edward and John, who built the Wawona into what it is today. The inn, which they renamed Big Tree Station, was for a while no more than a sideline for the Washburns’ Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Company. The main business was in building roads from Merced, Madera, and Raymond into Yosemite, connecting Wawona with Yosemite Valley, and providing transportation to Yosemite-bound tourists.  
Albert Henry Washburn (Mariposa County Library)

Still, as the number of tourists increased, more accommodations were needed. In 1876, the Washburns constructed a new guest-room building called Long White. Renamed Clark Cottage, it is now the oldest structure remaining on the hotel grounds.

Constructed in 1876, “Long White” is the Wawona Hotel’s oldest extant building. It is now named after Galen Clark. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

In November 1878, a fire decimated all the buildings at Big Tree Station, sparing only Long White and the stables. Within a week, the Washburns hired Joseph Shelly, builder of Long White, to construct the two-story main hotel building familiar to present-day visitors. It opened on 1 April 1879, and the Mariposa Gazette declared it to be “the grandest hotel in the mountains of California.” Five additional buildings were constructed between 1884 and 1918, making Wawona the largest existing Victorian hotel complex within the boundaries of a national park.

The Wawona Hotel’s dining room (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Jean Bruce Washburn, Henry’s wife, was an observer of Indian lore, and in 1882, she suggested that Big Tree Station be given the more mellifluous Indian name Wawona. There appears to be a disagreement as to the true meaning of the word. Shirley Sargent, author of Wawona’s Yesterdays (1961) and Yosemite’s Historic Wawona (1979, 2008), claims it means “Big Tree,” while Samuel A. Barrett and Edward W. Gifford, authors of Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933), maintained that it stands for the Dense-flowered Evening Primrose (Epilobium densiflorum), whose seeds the Indians gathered, parched, pulverized, and ate dry.

Like his wife, Henry Washburn paid attention to Native American customs. Toward the end of his life, he decried the misguided forest management practices in Yosemite, calling for a return to the Native American methods. “The first time I went to the Yosemite, which was forty-one years ago, I particularly noticed how few fallen trees there were and how clean and green the forest looked,” he told the San Francisco Call in June 1901. “In those days all kinds of trees flourished and all looked healthy. Then the trees were taken care of by the native sons—the Indians—who burned the forest over every three or four years, thus keeping down the undergrowth,” said Washburn, adding, “Those that keep the fires out should be fined instead of those that make the fire.”

When Washburn died, his obituary in the San Francisco Call hailed him as “without doubt the greatest of all developers of Yosemite Valley.”

The Wawona Hotel in a painting by Thomas Hill

Wawona and the Washburns had an illustrious connection in the person of landscape painter Thomas Hill (1828–1908), best known for his painting “The Driving of the Last Spike,” which depicts the joining of the rails between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads. The English-born Hill made his first trip to Yosemite Valley in 1865, and it transformed his career. In 1883, he had a studio built in Yosemite Valley, but after a gale blew it off its foundations, Hill moved to the Wawona. His daughter, Estella, married John Washburn, and the artist gained a new studio on the hotel grounds. This studio was advertised in Galen Clark’s book Indians of the Yosemite Valley and Vicinity (1904) and offered a “free exhibition of Mr. Hill’s celebrated paintings of the Yosemite Valley and Big Trees.” It now serves as a visitor center, and it was recently renovated to recreate the character of the interior in Hill’s time.

Another artist closely associated with Yosemite was Norwegian-born Chris Jorgensen (1860–1935), who contributed five illustrations to Galen Clark’s Indians of the Yosemite. In 1900, Jorgensen built a studio-home on the north bank of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. Three years later, he added a log home, “the bungalow,” near Sentinel Bridge. It may have been this cabin that the San Francisco Call reported had been made available for the accommodation of President Theodore Roosevelt when he visited Yosemite in May, 1903.

Artist Chris Jorgensen’s cabin at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

The Jorgensen cabin and other historic Yosemite structures may be seen at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center next to the Wawona Hotel. From the hotel grounds, a covered bridge constructed by the Washburns leads across the south fork of the Merced River to this open-air museum of vernacular mountain architecture. Here you can see rustic buildings constructed at various locations in Yosemite and moved to Wawona in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Also on display is a sizeable collection of authentic wagons and stagecoaches.

This stage office was erected by the Yosemite Valley Railroad Company in 1910 for its agent, the Wells Fargo Company. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 20 August 2009.

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