Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome.
Part I: Anderson's Years
Oct 1875: Indomitable Scotchman, George Anderson
For about twenty years, tourists and inhabitants
of the Yosemite Valley looked at Half Dome (or "South Dome")
and dreamed of scaling it. Finally, in October 1875,
somebody had enough courage and determination to reach its top.
The following article from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin
appears to be the earliest newspaper account of Anderson's
Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, October 19, 1875, p. 3
An Unparalleled Feat.—On Tuesday the 12th instant,
the extraordinary feat of ascending the South Dome in the
Yosemite Valley was accomplished by a Scot[c]hman by birth and
a sailor by profession, named George Anderson. He drilled his way
up the south side, about 1,500 feet in two days.
[See Anderson's original bolt and spike
found in Yosemite].
John Muir repeated Anderson's feat several weeks later.
He described Anderson's and his climbs in an article
published in the San Francisco
Bulletin, on November 18, 1875. Here are paragraphs from
that article related to Anderson's first ascent. (Muir's ascent is fully
covered later). Muir also gives credit to John Conway
and his sons for an earlier similar but unsuccessful attempt:
Daily Evening Bulletin, November 18, 1875, p. 1
Its Ascent by George Anderson and John Muir.
(From our special correspondent).
Yosemite Valley, November 10, 1875.
The Yosemite South Dome is the noblest rock in the Sierra, and George
Anderson, an indomitable Scotchman, has made a way to its summit...
With the exception of conoidal summit of Mount Starr King, and a few
minor spires and pinnacles, the South Dome is the only inaccessible
rock of the valley, and its inaccessibility is pronounced in very
severe and simple terms, leaving no trace of hope for the climber
without artificial means. But longing eyes were none the less fixed
on its noble brow, and the Anderson way will be eagerly ascended.
The Dome rises from the level floor of the valley to the height
of very nearly a mile... On the east, where it is united with the dividing
ridge between the great Tenaya and Nevada canyons, the Dome may
be easily approached within six or seven hundred feet of the summit,
where it rises in a smooth, graceful curve just a few degrees too steep
to climb. Nearly all Sierra rocks are accessible on the eastern
or upper side, because the glacial force which eroded them out
of the solid acted from this direction[!]; but special conditions
in the position and structure of the South Dome prevented the formation
of the ordinary low grade, and it is this steep upper portion that
the plucky Anderson has overcome. John Conway, a resident of the valley,
has a flock of small boys who climb smooth rocks like lizards, and
some two years ago he sent them up the dome with a rope, hoping they
might be able to fasten it with spikes driven into fissures, and
thus reach the top. They took the rope in tow and succeeded in making it
fast two or three hundred feet above the point ordinarily reached,
but finding the upper portion of the curve impracticable without
laboriously drilling into the rock, he called down his lizards,
thinking himself fortunate in effecting a safe retreat.
Mr. Anderson began with Conway's old rope, part of which still
remains in place, and resolutely drilled his way to the top, inserting
eyebolts five or six feet apart, and making his rope fast to each
in succession, resting his foot on the last bolt while he drilled
for the next above. Occasionally some irregularity in the curve
or slight foothold would enable him to climb fifteen or twenty
feet independently of the rope, which he would pass and begin
drilling again, the whole being accomplished in a few days.
From this slender beginning he will now proceed to construct a
substantial stairway which he hopes to complete in time for next
year's travel; and as he is a man of rare energy the thing will
surely be done. Then, all may sing "Excelsior" in perfect safety...
Muir later used
this text in at least two of his books,
The Mountains of California, 1894, and
The Yosemite, 1912.
It is interesting to study revisions that he made in the later years.
For example, in The Yosemite,
Anderson, being dead and all but forgotten, didn't fare well
in the edited text. The original sentence (see above),
"...and as he [Anderson]
is a man of rare energy the thing will surely be done",
is now replaced by "...but while busy getting out timber
for his stairway and dreaming of the wealth he hoped to gain from tolls,
he was taken sick and died all alone in his little cabin".
On the other hand, Conway and "his lizards" would get a slightly better
treatment. The original text "John Conway, a resident of the valley
has a flock of small boys..."
is replaced by "John Conway, the master trail-builder of the Valley,
and his little sons..."
Muir also dropped his speculation about "Sierra rocks being
accessible on the eastern or upper side, because of glacial forces",
and made other corrections in the later editions of the text.
(Another description of Conway's attempt
can be found in Josiah Whitney's The Yosemite Guide-book, 1874 edition).
Here are some other early descriptions of Anderson's first climb:
The earliest book
that mentioned (indirectly) Anderson's Half Dome ascent, was
apparently Charles Beebe Turrill's first volume of California Notes,
printed in San Francisco in 1876. The author states (pp. 215-216)
The grand feature of this section [of Yosemite Valley] is
the South, or, as sometimes called, the Half Dome...
The shape of the South Dome is such that but one party has ever
succeeded in reaching the summit,
an undertaking few will care to attempt,
and still smaller number can accomplish.
In the spring of 1878, Lady Constance Frederica
Gordon Cumming, of London, then about 40 years old, visited Yosemite.
She intended to stay for three days, but ended up being there for three months.
A collection of her letters from that trip was published under the title
Granite Crags, by
William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh/London, 1884.
Her letter dated "Saturday, 4th May " talks about Anderson's climb:
Granite Crags, by C. F. Gordon Cumming, Chapter VI
...For many years [Half Dome] was considered altogether inaccessible;
but about eighteen months ago [actually, two and a half years ago] it was
scaled by an energetic, determined Scotchman, George Anderson by name.
He hails from Montrose, but has taken up his abode in this beautiful valley;
and now he looks on the Half-Dome with such mingled pride and veneration,
that I should think he will never leave it.
It was in 1875 that he determined to reach the summit, if mortal man
could accomplish the feat. Climbing goat-like along dizzy ledges, and clinging
like a fly to every crevice that could afford him foothold, he reached
the point where hitherto the boldest cragsman had been foiled. Here he halted
till he had drilled a hole in the rock and securely fixed an iron stanchion
with an eye-bolt, through which he passed a strong rope. Then resting on
this frail support, he was able to reach farther, and to drill a second hole
and fix another eye-bolt. From this point of vantage he could secure a third,
carrying the rope through every bolt, and always securing it at the upper end.
Thus step by step he crept upward, till at last he had drilled holes
and driven in iron stanchions right up the vast granite slab, securing
1100 feet of rope. Then rounding the mighty shoulder, he stood triumphant
on the summit, and there to his amazement he found a level space of about
seven acres, where not only grasses have spread a green carpet, but seven
gnarled and stunted old pines, of three different kinds, have contrived
to take root, and, defying storms and tempests, maintain their existence on
this bleak bare summit...
This same text about Anderson and Half Dome also appeared in
the Cornhill Magazine, vol. 47, April 1883, pp. 410-423, under the
heading of "Early spring in California", but Gordon Cumming's authorship
was not indicated in the magazine.
Another note about Anderson's first ascent is from 1879. Presumably, the
(anonymous) author gathered the information directly from Anderson:
San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 1879, p. 1; reprinted in
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 3, 1879, p. 10
...Anderson tried to climb [Half Dome] in his
stocking feet, then barefooted,
then by wearing bags full of pitch tied around below his knees,
then by moccasins with pine pitch on the soles. The latter was
the most hopeful, but none effected much, and well was it that
he failed, for never could he have retraced his steps, and his life
would have had a fearful end. He finally succeeded by using
baling-rope of eight thicknesses, together with 40 or 50
strong iron pins, seven inches long, with an eye in each one
in which to fasten the rope...
In 1886, James M. Hutchings published his
In the Heart of the Sierras. In Chapter 26,
he describes Anderson's ascent.
Note that this was written about a decade later, and Hutchings wasn't a
direct witness of the ascent. In mid October of 1875, he was still in
the Eastern Sierra, after a successful climb of Mt. Whitney (and an unsuccessful
attempt on Mt. Williamson). However, Hutchings had many opportunities to
talk with Anderson in later years. Here is his dramatized report, based
probably on some of those conversations:
In the Heart of the Sierras, by James M. Hutchings, Chapter 26
Until the fall of 1875 the storm-beaten summit of this magnificent
landmark [Half Dome] was a terra incognita, as it had never been trodden by
human feet... This honor was reserved for a brave young Scotchman, a native
of Montrose, named George G. Anderson, who, by dint of pluck, skill,
unswerving perseverance, and personal daring, climbed to its summit; and was
the first that ever successfully scaled it. This was accomplished at 3 o'clock
P. M. of October 12, 1875.
The knowledge that the feat of climbing this grand mountain had
on several occasions been attempted, but never with success, begat in him
an irrepressible determination to succeed in such an enterprise. Imbued
with this incentive, he made his way to its base; and, looking up its smooth
and steeply inclined surface, at once set about the difficult exploit.
Finding that he could not keep from sliding with his boots on, he tried it
in his stocking feet; but as this did not secure a triumph, he tried it
barefooted, and still was unsuccessful. Then he tied sacking upon his feet
and legs, but as these did not secure the desired object, he covered it with
pitch, obtained from pine trees near; and although this enabled him to adhere
firmly to the smooth granite, and effectually prevented him from slipping,
a new difficulty presented itself in the great effort required to unstick
himself; and which came near proving fatal several times.
Mortified by the failure of all his plans hitherto, yet in no way
discouraged, he procured drills and a hammer, with some iron eye-bolts,
and drilled a hole in the solid rock; into this he drove a wooden pin, and then
an eye-bolt; and after fastening a rope to the bolt, pulled himself up until
he could stand upon it; and thence continued that process until he had
finally gained the top—a distance of nine hundred and seventy-five
feet! All honor, then, to the intrepid and skillful mountaineer,
Geo. G. Anderson, who, defying and overcoming all obstacles, and at the
peril of his life, accomplished that in which all others had signally failed;
and thus became the first to plant his foot upon the exalted crown of
the great Half Dome...
Herbert Wilson, in his 1922 book
The Lore and the Lure of the Yosemite Indians
offers an additional motive that could have been on Anderson's
mind when he made his first ascent. Wilson does not give a source
for his statement, therefore it is hard to tell how much of the following
is based on facts, and how much is fiction.
The Lore and the Lure of the Yosemite Indians
by Herbert Earl Wilson, San Francisco, 1922, pp. 86-88
...Captain Anderson was at that time a resident of the Valley, and
it had been his desire since his arrival to scale the magnificent peak,
not alone because of the distinction of being the first man to reach the
top, but because it was tacitly understood that to the man
attaining this distinction would be granted a concession for building a
hotel at the eastern base of the dome. In his effort Captain Anderson was
opposed by some two or three others who were actuated by the same
desire. One might almost wish that such a creditable ambition had been
inspired by a less mercenary motive. However, be that as it may, one day
Captain Anderson disappeared from the Valley without having told anyone of
his intended departure or destination. This procedure was in those days
unusual, and after some two or three days had elapsed without him having
put in an appearance, grave fears were felt for his safety and a search
party was organized to look for him. This party, composed of several
residents of the Valley, concluded that the most logical place to look for
Captain Anderson was in the vicinity of Half Dome, and accordingly
proceeded in that direction along the old trail past Happy Isles and
Vernal and Nevada Falls. On the trail near Nevada Falls they met Captain
Anderson returning to the Valley, and in answer to a query as to where he
had been, he said, "Gentlemen, I have been to the top of Half Dome".
...Captain Anderson had conceived this idea after days of the most
painstaking exploration had failed to disclose any other way to the
top. Taking no one into his confidence, he had, alone and unaided,
gathered his materials, transported them over the ten miles of rough trail
to the beginning of his ascent, fashioned the pegs, and slowly, step by
step, had drilled the holes and built himself a ladder, nine hundred feet
long, to the coveted summit...
Oct 1875: First tourists on Half Dome
Ascenders: Anderson, William Robinson, James Robinson, Edwin Gamman, S. Robert Groom, Wesley Wood, Moreland
Within days of Anderson's first ascent,
at least two other parties made it to the top.
Here is a description of what probably was the first
"tourist" party atop the Dome:
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, October 24, 1875, p. 2
Climbing the Rocks
The Feat Which a Party of English Tourists Accomplished—A Narrow
Escape From a Fearful Death.
The celebrated South Dome of the Yosemite is well known,
and it has hitherto been asserted that to reach its summit
was an impossibility. On September 15
[actually, on October 12th] both visitors and residents
in the valley were thrown into a state of excitement upon it being
made known that a Scotchman named George Anderson, formerly a sailor,
had actually accomplished this wonderful and daring feat. Very few
believed the tale, and those who had already seen the South Dome
utterly denied that the feat was within the limit of possibility.
A party of the English tourists concluded that they would judge for themselves
by visiting the spot. Those who have been there know the kind of riding
necessary to reach the base of its[!] mountain, which rises some
6,000 feet above the level of the valley.
The news spread like wildfire
that the Britishers would attempt the ascent. At 6 A. M. on Saturday,
the 16th of September [actually, Saturday, 16th of October],
a party of eleven adventurers, headed by George Anderson,
started from Black's hotel upon their seven miles ride up the
precipitous height, past the Vernal and Nevada falls, and struck the little
frequented trail to South Dome. On reaching
the heavy masses of fallen granite
known as the "Camel's Back", they dismounted, and after a brief rest,
a few commenced the dangerous climb to the foot of the dome.
The Scotchman arrived first. As the party assembled at the foot
of an almost perpendicular rock, which is according to Prof. Whitney's
calculation, at least 1,300 feet high, they looked with dismay
at the journey before them.
Watkins stereoview #3051, New series, "The first
who made the ascension of the Half Dome",
According to Hank Johnston, Anderson is
the man on the left.
George Anderson then explained that as he
climbed he had bored holes in the rock, and inserted iron eye-bolts.
To these eye-bolts he had secured a rope, and those who would venture
to climb, holding the rope with their hands and pressing the rock
with their feet, might do so,
providing their strength held out, in perfect
safety. Two of the Englishmen said it might be good fun walking up walls,
but they "didn't feel like trying". Anderson, however, with a cheer
There was a moment's hesitation, then, with a shout of enthusiasm,
some of the crowd rushed forward to the rope. It was first secured by
two young Englishmen named Robinson, who rapidly commenced the
escalade. They were followed by another rejoicing in the name of
Gammon. Then Mr. Moreland, an American, ascended, followed
closely by West, a guide from the valley. These were allowed to work
their way up, lest the rope should break. Mr. Liedig [actually: Leidig], of the valley,
then went up, followed by Mr. Groom, another English tourist.
Anderson now looked like a fly crawling in the distance as he rapidly
distanced his followers, shouting words of encouragement as they
cautiously made their way upward.
Sometimes they stopped, holding on convulsively to the rope
and the eyebolt until they could continue up the dizzy height.
Mr. Liedig turned sick, and with difficulty returned, swearing that
for all the dollars in California he could have not gone further.
The spectators now waited nervously for those who had gained
the summit, and were soon relieved from their anxiety by hearing
the report of West's revolver, which was to be the signal of their safety.
They now commenced to clamber painfully down the "Camel's Back"
to the horses and those who had not cared to make the ascent.
There being no trail, each had to make one for himself. Several
had narrow escapes. Mr. Groom, after an involuntary roll of some
fifteen or twenty feet, suddenly found himself looking over
a precipice between two and three thousand feet deep into the valley
below. He had slidden so far down the rock that without the aid
of ropes, he could not return. To advance was almost certain death
of a most horrible nature. None understood the terrible import of
his cries for help. His sole support was a narrow ledge of granite
to which he held on with the grim tenacity of a man who fights for life.
But his strength could not last, and with a loud cry he rolled headlong
down, down, as he believed, into eternity. But in throwing his arms
forward as he fell they slid into a crevice by which he held on.
Here he was able to take advantage of a slope in the rock, and with
the calves of his legs and his hands he worked himself downward to
a firm footing. He afterward reached the base of the mountain
in safety. We think that one, at least, of these Englishmen will remember
the ascent of the South Dome.
Soon after this incident George Anderson and the adventurers who
had followed him returned safely. Three cheers were given and the party
commenced the descent to the valley. Anderson has performed a feat
which has scarcely a parallel in any country. A subscription has
already been opened for his benefit in the valley in order to enable
him to build a secure staircase for those who will in future
ascend the Dome under his guidance.
This San Francisco Chronicle article was widely reprinted
throughout the U.S. It was,
e.g., copied in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, November 4, 1875, p. 2,
the Chicago Sunday Times, November 7, 1875, p. 10,
the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, November 17, 1875, p. 5,
the Daily State Gazette, Trenton, New Jersey,
November 25, 1875, p. 1, and
The Farmers' Cabinet, Amherst, New Hampshire,
December 29, 1875, p. 1.
The Dundee Courier & Argus
Scotland), copied the Chronicle
article on December 6, 1875, under
the title "Perilous Adventure of a Scotchman", alluding to Anderson's
Watkins' stereoview used in this paragraph may have been taken
on October 16, 1875, or several days later. See also
Watkins' stereoview #3050, with the same capture
("The first tourists who made the ascension of the Half Dome") but with
only five people. I thank Dennis Kruska for bringing those
Watkins' photos to my attention.
A shorter account of the October 16 ascent, based on an article
from the Sonora Union Democrat printed on October 30, 1875,
appeared in the Sacramento Daily Record–Union in November:
Sacramento Daily Record–Union,
November 2, 1875, p. 1
A Perilous Feat.—The Sonora Democrat of
October 30th relates this incident:
The summit of the South
Half Dome in the Yosemite valley has at last been attained, a Scotch
sailor named Anderson having climbed the precipice, a distance of 1,300 feet,
by means of spikes and ropes, accomplishing one of the most perilous
feats on record. The ascent was made on the 15th of September
[actually, on the 12th of October], and on the 16th [October]
half a dozen tourists successfully
reached the dizzy hight. They found an area of about 100 acres on
the summit of the dome and say that a magnificent view can be obtained
from the height. Last season an English tourist attempted to reach the top
of the Dome, and failed. He then offered $500 to any one who would
accomplish the feat and arrange it so that he could follow. There is but
one chance left for an adventurous man to eclipse Anderson's feat, and that
is for some one to reach the "Tree in the Niche", a pine which projects
from a cavern or platform 2,000 feet from the valley on
the sheer face of El Capitan.
The San Francisco Bulletin,
November 11, 1875, p. 1, has an additional
sentence in their version of the article: "A staircase will be erected, so
that all may ascend in safety, and another feature will
thereby be added to the attractions of the valley".
The article was also reprinted in the Friends' Intelligencer,
Philadelphia, on December 25, 1875, p. 704, and probably in
other U. S. newspapers.
For an independent description of the "first tourist ascent" of Half Dome,
see a note in the Snow's Hotel register
from October 16, 1875.
Newspapers articles only gave us the last names of the participants in
this ascent. Additionally, Snow's Register has revealed initials for some
of them, but even that
was not enough to identify any of the climbers with certainty.
We would never know anything about those "tourists" if it weren't
for Mark Ashley of Lemoore, California. In the summer of 2009,
he was gathering information about the once flourishing
"English Colony" in Hanford, Tulare County (now in Kings County).
He was particularly interested in William and James Robinson,
two brothers and active members of the Colony. In the
course of his study Mark came across a booklet written by Lilias Robinson, William's wife,
giving an account of couple's summer excursion to Yosemite in 1882.
This slight (only 37 pages) and very rare book was printed in London
about a year after the trip. According to the book,
Lilias and William had reached the Big Tree Station, today's
Wawona, on August 24, 1882.
Lilias' entry for the next day, August 25, contained the
most valuable clue. She described an encounter of two Half Dome veterans:
Our Trip to the Yo-Semite Valley and Sierra Nevada Range
By L.N.R.R. [Lilias Napier Rose Robinson]
J. Martin & Son, printers, London, 1883, p. 11
I was very glad when the sun rose...
The air in the mountains was most deliciously fresh
and invigorating. The first part of our drive
[from the Big Tree Station to Yosemite Valley]
was very steep, and the
driving rather difficult as the road was very narrow, and overhung a
good deal. Just before we reached the eleven mile station, we met a band
of Kink Indians[!], one of whom carried on his back an immense eagle
all bound and tied up... The man in charge of the
station was an old Yo-Semite guide, and he recognised W[illiam] as
having been one of the party
who made the first ascent of the South Dome;
he has now become a trapper, and he showed me some fine skins of
the brown and cinnamon bears which he had shot. The rest of our drive
was all down hill and we reached Inspiration Point about five p.m....
James S. Robinson
in about 1907 (from a photo in
Kings County Museum)
The above paragraph clearly identified William Rose Robinson,
an Englishman from Hanford, California,
as one of the climbers who had ascended Half Dome on October 16, 1875.
It was then fair for Mark to assume that William's younger brother,
James Shaw Robinson, was William's companion on the mountain. When I later
got access to Snow's Register, Mark's assumption proved correct: the Robinson brothers'
signatures in the Register featured initials W. R. and J. S.!
Indirectly, Lilias' book also helped finding the true identity of
another climber, "Mr. West, a guide from the Valley" (see the Chronicle article).
The man in charge of the Eleven Mile Station on the
road from Wawona to Yosemite at the time of Lilias' trip was
one John Wesley Wood, also known as "Wes" or "West".
Thus, "Mr. West" was actually a familiar Yosemite character, Wes Wood.
William Rose Robinson (~1854-1885) was the eldest
boy in the family of Lady Julia Elizabeth (Thomas) Robinson and
Sir William Rose Robinson, a civil servant in India. At the time of his
Half Dome ascent William was about 21 years old. He got his education in
England (Haileybury College and the Royal Agricultural College at
Cirencester), and probably arrived in the U.S., with his brother James, in 1872.
The brothers spent some time in New York, then in Mendocino and San Francisco,
and finally settled in Mussel Slough country, near what would later become
the town of Hanford (Tulare County), probably in 1875. There, they would
become involved in farming and cattle raising. William made a brief trip
back to England in the summer of 1881, to marry Lilias Napier (1859-1938),
the youngest daughter of Hon. William Napier. William died of peritonitis
in September of 1885, at the age of 31. He is buried at a local cemetery in Hanford.
James Shaw Robinson (1855-1945) was
a year or two younger than William.
From 1869, until his trip to the U.S., he attended Harrow School. He was
20 years old at the time of his Half Dome ascent. In November 1880,
when he was 25, James traveled to England to marry
Julia Elizabeth Barkworth (aka Lily, 1859-1884). They had a daughter born
in Hanford, Ethel Muriel Robinson (1881-1958). Lily died of pneumonia
several years later, and is buried in the Hanford cemetery.
In April of 1888, James remarried. Ethel Elizabeth M'Calmont (1862-1937),
from a wealthy British M'Calmont family (or McCalmont/MacCalmont),
became his second wife at a wedding in the Episcopal Church in Hanford.
They had two children, Margaret Edith Robinson (aka Bimmie, 1889-1980),
and James Leslie Douglas Robinson (1895-1911). In December of 1897,
James Shaw Robinson and his surviving siblings renounced the use of surname of
"Robinson", and adopted the original family surname of "Robertson".
From that point on, our climber James is known as James Shaw Robertson.
In about 1902, James and his family returned to England where both
of his daughters got married. James lived
in The Vache, a historical manor at Chalfont St. Giles in
Buckinghamshire until his death on the Christmas Day of 1940.
Many of James' direct descendants are still living in the U.K., with family
names of Aylmer-Hall, Spandring, Wheeldon, Robotham, and Vivian. One
of James' great-granddaughters, Mrs. Penny Giorgi, lives in California.
Englishman "Gammon", mentioned in the Chronicle article,
may have been Edwin Gamman (~1840-1913), a London tea buyer and
merchant. His signature from the Snow's register is shown below.
Mr. Gamman arrived to San Francisco on Sep 29, 1875, aboard
the British steamer Oceanic from Yokohama. Several other passengers from the same ship,
including Mr. Groom (see below), traveled to Yosemite together, where
they happened to witness Anderson's historic first ascent. Groom and Gamman
then decided to repeat the feat on October 16. Edwin Gamman would have
been about 35 at the time. He was one of many children of
Mary Ann (Matthews) Gamman and Robert Gamman, a wealthy coal merchant from London.
Edwin remained unmarried, and died in London in 1913. In his will, he left almost
£ 20,000 to his unmarried younger sister Lydia Ann Gamman,
with whom he had shared his household.
This man on Watkins photo
#3050 is probably Wesley Wood
who was about 44 years old
at the time of the climb.
Another British climber in the party, Mr. Groom, was probably
Samuel Robert Groom
(~1849-1901), a son of a British merchant in Jamaica, Thomas Groom.
This Mr. Groom, who apparently preferred his middle name Robert, was
about 26 years old at the time of the Half Dome ascent. His law education
culminated at Middle Temple (London) from where he was called to the bar in 1879.
In 1883, he married an American born actress and vocalist,
Mabel Nellie Renard-Moody (or Moodie).
In 1886, the family moved to the Straits Settlements
where Robert was a successful solicitor and
barrister-at-law in Singapore and Malacca. There is some resemblance
between one of the persons on Watkins stereoview #3051 and a
caricature of S. R. Groom sketched
by one of his fellow lawyers in the 1890s. S. Robert Groom died
of consumption in Kuala Lumpur in 1901. He was survived by his wife and
one son. They returned to England. Mabel Groom died in 1919, during the Spanish
flu pandemic. The son, with a long name of Harold Lester Robert Joseph Groom,
studied to become an electrical engineer. For his gallantry during
the First World War, Harold was awarded the Military Cross in 1916,
and the Distinguished Service Order in 1918. In 1925,
Harold married Elsie Muriel Taylor. Harold died in Chelsea, London, in 1967,
at the age of 80, but I don't know if he had any descendants.
John Wesley Wood (~1831-1905), was born in Illinois,
and probably came to California at an early age.
In some sources his last name is listed as "Woods".
He lived most of his life close to Yosemite or in the Valley itself.
At the time of his Half Dome ascent he was about 44 years old,
and was working as a part time guide in Yosemite Valley.
In the 1870 and 1880 Yosemite censuses, his occupation was listed as butcher.
Other sources show him operating a meat market in the Valley for
George Meyer of Big Meadow. In the mid 1880s,
Hutchings described him in the following way:
"An open-faced and kindly-hearted hunter, who makes the
Eleven Mile Station his lonely abiding-place both winter and summer..."
In spite of his kindly-hearted character, Mr. Wood
may have been involved in killing of a native American, known as Lame George,
in a quarrel at his Station in July of 1887. However,
a jury in coroner's inquest acquitted him.
Wes Wood died in the county hospital in Mariposa in February of 1905,
due to heart failure. According to a newspaper article,
he was survived by a nephew and niece in Illinois.
Oct 1875: Sarah Dutcher — First female ascent
Ascenders: Anderson, Sarah Dutcher, Galen Clark
Miss Dutcher of San Francisco was the first
female who ascended Half Dome. It doesn't appear that any
newspaper article from 1875/76 reported that feat. However, at least two
indirect but independent accounts make no doubt that the credit
belongs to her. An early (and first?) mention of her achievement
comes from James M. Hutchings. He has the following brief note
in his book printed in 1886:
In the Heart of the Sierras, by James M. Hutchings, Chapter 26
[Anderson's] next efforts were directed towards placing and securely
fastening a good soft rope to the eye-bolts, so that others could climb up
and enjoy the inimitable view, and one that has not its counterpart on earth.
Four English gentlemen, then sojourning in the Valley,
learning of Mr. Anderson's
feat, were induced to follow his intrepid example. A day or two afterwards,
Miss S. L. Dutcher, of San Francisco, with the courage of a heroine,
accomplished it; and was the first lady that ever stood upon it...
In 1912, Julius Charles Birge published his traveling memoirs under the
title The Awakening of the Desert. He talks about his several trips
to the Sierra, and his friendship with Galen Clark and John Muir.
Unfortunately, he doesn't give a date of his visit described below.
This might have been in October or November of 1875, or more likely
in the spring of 1876. Note that he describes Anderson as a ship-carpenter,
not a sailor.
The Awakening of the Desert, by Julius C. Birge,
The Gorham Press, Boston, 1912, Chapter 29, pp. 406-407
...It was still later when I first visited Muir's haunts
in the Yosemite [in 1876?]; George Anderson, a Scotch ship-carpenter
had spent the summer in drilling holes into the granite face
of the upper cliff of the great South Dome, driving in it iron
pins with ropes attached. Two or three persons were tempted to
scale with the aid of these ropes the heights, which are
nearly a perpendicular mile above the valley. I, too, was
inclined to make the venture. I proceeded in advance,
followed by Anderson, who had in tow a young San Franciscan
with a connecting rope around the young man's waist. It was a
dizzy but inspiring ascent of my pursuers.
While spending an hour upon the summit, I discovered on
its barren surface, a lady's bracelet. On showing it to Anderson,
he said: "You are the third party who has made this ascent.
I pulled up a young woman recently but she never mentioned
any loss except from nausea[!]". Returning to Merced, I observed
a vigorous young woman wearing a bracelet similar to the
one I had found. The lady proved to be Miss Sally Dutcher of
San Francisco, who admitted the loss and thankfully accepted
the missing ornament. A letter to me from Galen Clark states that
he assisted in Miss Dutcher's ascent, Anderson preceding
with a rope around his waist connecting with Miss Dutcher;
also that she was certainly the first and possibly the last woman
who made the ascent. These ascents are now forbidden, but the
natural attractions of the State of California have drawn to it
a vast revenue from transient nature lovers...
Who was Miss Dutcher?
Very little is known of Miss Dutcher's
life and career. This article adds a few details unknown until now,
but most information about her life seems to be lost forever.
Her full name was Sarah Louisa Dutcher, but she preferred Sallie.
She was a daughter of Moses A. Dutcher and Sarah Burchall
(or Burchill), and born in Tasmania,
probably on September 14, 1844. Her mother Sarah,
a weaver from Bethnall Green near London, arrived to Australia
in January 1841, at the age of 18, one of about 190 female convicts
expelled from England. Salie's father,
Moses Dutcher, was banished to Australia in 1839 by a British court,
for his participation in an uprising of Canadians
against British rule of Lower Canada, known as the Patriots' War.
Many U.S. citizens participated in this rebellion, and
court documents from the time of his capture, identify
Moses as being from Brownville, New York. However, it is not excluded
that he was a recent immigrant to the area.
Sarah L. Dutcher
In the 1880 Census, Sarah stated that both of her parents were born in England.
Samuel Snow's narrative, published in Cleveland in 1846, when other
rebels were pardoned and returned to their homes "only one, Moses Dutcher,
who married in VDL [Tasmania], seems to have voluntarily stayed in the colony".
A genealogical source shows Moses and Sarah married at All Saints Church
in Swansea, Glamorgan (Tasmania), in 1844. Little Sarah was probably their
first-born. Another daughter, Jennie E. Dutcher (or Jane) was born
within the next few years. Just before Christmas of 1849, Moses, his wife,
and two daughters boarded the British bark "Eudora" on her way to California.
However, seventy days later, when the ship reached the port of Honolulu,
the Dutchers made a change in their plans: rather than to continue the
journey, they decided to stay at least temporarily
in Hawaii. In about May of 1851, Moses opened a boarding house
at the corner of Hotel and Fort streets in Honolulu. Two sons were possibly born
in the tropical paradise: Moses A. Dutcher (Jr) and Edwin M. Dutcher,
but I only have indirect evidences for that statement. The father of the
family, Moses (Sr), probably died in Hawaii before 1855.
The Friend, published in Hawaii, announced that
"Misses Jane and Sarah Dutcher" had left Honolulu aboard bark Comet
for San Francisco, on May 24, 1862. An article in San Francisco's
Daily Evening Bulletin of June 12, 1862, shows the arrival of
Comet on June 11th, with "Miss S. Dutcher and Miss J. E. Dutcher"
amongst about 20 names in the passenger list.
Sarah was less than eighteen years old when she reached California.
In mid and late 1860's, other members of Sarah's family
found their way to San Francisco, including her widowed mother.
(Her mother would remarry, and then die in 1870, at the age of 44).
Between 1868 and 1871, Sarah is apparently focused on
fighting her way up into the social elite of
San Francisco, and some newspaper reporters are paying attention.
For example, Sarah attends the Carnival Ball at the Pavillion in 1868
("Miss Sallie Dutcher was a very charming peasant girl, in a blue skirt,
white waist, coquettish apron and hair neglige"),
the Merry Mascquerade of the Skating Club in 1871 ("Miss Sarah Dutcher was
a peasant girl, and wore a costume which must have
temporarily ruined her yeoman father"), and the "Reunion" of the Ivy Social
Club in 1871. However, after 1871, her name disappears from social chronicles.
Sarah's sister Jennie got married in January 1871, but she died three years
later in San Francisco. Sarah's other siblings (or relatives?),
Edwin and Moses Dutcher, moved out of town, and by the summer of 1874,
Sarah is alone.
While in early San Francisco directories she was always listed as
"Sarah L. Dutcher", from mid 1870s this description changes to
"Miss Sallie L. Dutcher", or simply, "Miss S. L. Dutcher".
In April 1874 and March 1875,
her occupation is listed as "saleswoman with Carleton E. Watkins",
but she was associated to Watkins from at least 1871.
Her stay in Yosemite during the summer of 1875, when she made her
Half Dome ascent, was probably related to her involvement in the
photography business. Shirley Sargent in her
Pioneers in Petticoats, published in 1966, describes Sarah as
"a San Franciscan who sold Watkins' photographs in the valley". No source for
this statement was given. Her Half Dome climb happened shortly after her
31st birthday. In April 1876, Sarah's job description in the San Francisco
Directory is "photographic retoucher", but in March 1877 and April 1879,
she is again a "saleswoman with Carleton E. Watkins"
(there was no listing for her in the February 1878 Directory).
The following, somewhat unflattering description of Sarah was
printed in the New-York Tribune, in June 1880:
"A brace of female agents of photographic
views infest the hotels [in the Yosemite Valley]. One is well known
to every dweller in the valley by the familiar name
of 'Sally'. She has spent many Summers there,
and great is the power of her tongue. To clinch
a bargain, she will chat, flirt, dance, drive with
you—a most 'amoosin' and versatile girl. The
old resident of the valley remarks to the newcomer,
with a knowing wink, as she passes: There
goes Sally; that gal is the smartest salesman in
Californy. She'll euchre a Jew pawnbroker, and
the way she lays out them English swells is a
caution. She's a credit to the State, and the
valley's proud of her. Sally is a tall, lithe,
remarkably self-possessed young woman, with a
piercing black eye, and a face brim-full of vivacity.
Her rival is a blonde of the 'strawberry'
type, with yellow hair, who wins much custom by
a pertinacity which would put to shame a Niagara
Falls hackman. And how the two rivals do stab
each other's reputations with innuendo and
sarcasm: how they disparage each other's wares
and make bitter gibes on mutual blemishes in
beauty and honesty!" [The use of ethnic stereotyping
in the above segment was by no means an uncommon practice
in newspapers of that time].
In April of 1880, Miss Dutcher runs a gallery connected to Watkins, and
is listed in the San Francisco Directory as
"agent for Watkins' photographic views, 8 Montgomery [Street], room 1".
Sarah's name is also shown in the Pacific Coast Directory for 1880-81.
Containing Names, Business and Address, published by L. M. McKenney & Co.,
in 1880: "Dutcher Mrs S L, photographic views, 8 Montgomery".
Actually, she was not a 'Mrs' yet.
During the spring and summer of 1880, her newspaper ads have appeared daily
in several San Francisco papers, for example, in Chronicle
and in Daily Evening Bulletin. Here is an example of the ad from
the San Francisco Chronicle of May 13, 1880, p. 2:
The ads stopped running in August 1880, probably because—as
it will be seen below—Miss Dutcher has found a new and different
interest in her life.
There are some uncorroborated
suggestions in Carleton Watkins' biographies of an alleged
romantic attraction—if not an outright liaison—between
him and Miss Dutcher, in spite of (or perhaps, because of!)
a denial in a
letter that Watkins wrote to his wife Frances
shortly after their marriage in 1879. However, before Watkins' marriage,
Sarah did accompany him on at least one
of his photographic trips to California mountains.
Two Watkins' photos of Sarah from a trip to Calaveras Big Trees were
probably taken in summer of 1878. One of the photos is deposited in the
California Digital Library, and another one, from the same series, taken inside the Pavillion
built on a stump of a tree, is reproduced in
Carleton Watkins. Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum,
Los Angeles, 1997, p. 79. A frequently used close-up of Sarah
(see the upper right corner of this highlighted box)
is actually a detail of a larger photo, which could be found, e.g., in
The Tourist in Yosemite by Stanford E. Demars, University of Utah
Press, 1991, p. 70. Source or author of the photo are
not indicated in the book.
Shirley Sargent in her Pioneers in Petticoats credits this photo
to Carleton Watkins, but doesn't provide any further detail.
Sarah was not enumerated in the 1870 Census, but in
the Census of 1880, taken in San Francisco in June, Sarah is listed as
"Sarah Dutcher, age 33, single, born in Australia from English
parents, working in a 'photograph gallery', home address 139 Fourth str."
It was by no means unusual for that era
that people would present themselves in census data somewhat younger
than they actually were. Sarah's true age at the time of
the census was probably 35, not 33. She was still single,
but that was going to change soon. On December 18, 1880,
she married Frederick Clark, a recently appointed full time employee
of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, December 20, 1880, p. 3, col. 4
CLARK—DUTCHER—In this city, December 18 , by
Rev. Dr. Scott, Frederick A. Clark, U.S. Geological Survey,
to Sarah L. Dutcher.
Another newspaper note a few days later shows them in Hotel Del Monte,
in Monterey Bay, probably on their honeymoon.
Among things that could have brought Sarah and Frederick together,
it is easy to identify two:
They both knew and esteemed Watkins, and they
both shared love for mountains.
Sarah clearly was an adventurous outdoorswoman,
and Frederick, in his capacity of a topographer,
had made trips and climbs all over California and the South West.
This was the first marriage for Frederick, born in La Porte, Indiana,
forty years earlier. He worked as surveyor and topographer with
Clarence King, George Wheeler, and Ferdinand Hayden since 1864.
Find more about Frederick Augustus Clark
in the Appendix
According to the San Francisco Directory of 1881,
"Clark Frederick A., topographer [with]
U.S. Geological Survey, 320 California, room 13" was residing
at San Francisco's Occidental Hotel. Sarah is not listed, but
it is quite possible that she was also living in "Occidental".
However, in 1882, the Clarks must have left San Francisco,
and Clark dropped from the USGS payrol.
There is a possibility Frederick took a new job
in Oakland in 1881 or 1882.
On Dec 17, 1883, the San Francisco Bulletin identifies
him as "Major F. A. Clark",
an "Assistant Division Superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad
in Oakland". By the second part of 1885, Frederick certainly resides
in Oakland, but his marriage to Sarah is in jeopardy:
San Francisco and Oakland newspapers of December 15, 1885,
had brief reports of an impending divorce suit brought by
Frederick A. Clark against Sarah L. Clark. The Daily Alta California
of Jan 9, 1886 prints the following short news from Oakland:
"Fred A. Clark has been granted a decree of divorce from Sarah L. Clark".
Frederick will stay in the Bay Area until about 1904, and
then move to New York. However, nothing is
known about Sarah Dutcher Clark after January 1886.
Did she move to another region? Did she use her skills
in photographic business to earn for living?
What name did she use? Where and when did she die? We may never know.
Nov 1875: John Muir
John Muir was a regular correspondent for the San Francisco
Bulletin in the mid 1870s. His articles
describe his many trips across the Sierra.
No one was more ready and eager to follow Anderson than Muir.
However, in 1875, tensions in the triangle John Muir —
Elvira Hutchings — James Mason Hutchings were at their height
(Elvira was James' much younger wife). Therefore, Muir
voluntarily stayed out of Yosemite, until a news finally reached him that
the Hutchings had moved permanently from the Valley to San Francisco (on
November 1). Muir then hastened to the Valley, and in the first days of
November made the climb himself. The first part of Muir's article
describing Anderson's conquest of Half Dome was reproduced earlier on this page.
Here is the second part, talking about Muir's own expedition:
Daily Evening Bulletin,
November 18, 1875, p. 1
Its Ascent by George Anderson and John Muir—Hard
Climbing but a Glorious View—Botany of the Dome—Yosemite
in Late Autumn.
(From our special correspondent).
Yosemite Valley, November 10, 1875.
...On my return to the valley the other day I immediately hastened
to the Dome, not only for the pure pleasure climbing in view, but to see what
else I might enjoy and learn. Our first winter storm had bloomed and all
the mountains were mantled in fresh snow. I was therefore little
apprehensive of danger from slipperyness of the rock, Anderson himself
refusing to believe that any one could climb his rope in the condition
it was then in. Moreover, the sky was overcast, and solemn snow-clouds
began to curl and wreath themselves around the summit of the Dome,
and my late experiences on icy Shasta came to mind. But reflecting
that I had matches in my pocket, and that a little firewood might be found,
I concluded that in case of a dark storm the night could be spent on the Dome
without suffering anything worth caring for. I therefore pushed up
alone and gained the top without the slightest difficulty. My first view was
perfectly glorious. A massive cloud of a pure pearl lustre was arched
across the valley, from wall to wall, the one end resting upon El Capitan,
the other on Cathedral Rocks, the brown meadows shadowed beneath, with
short reaches of river shimmering in changeful light. Then, as I stood
on the tremendous verge overlooking Mirror Lake, a flock of smaller
clouds, white as snow, came swiftly from the north, trailing over the dark
forests, and arriving on the brink of the valley descended with
godlike gestures through Indian Canyon and over the Arches and North Dome,
moving rapidly, yet with perfect deliberation...
Notwithstanding the enthusiastic eagerness of tourists to reach
the summit of this Dome the general views of the valley from here
are far less striking than from many other points, chiefly because
of the foreshortening effect produced by looking from so great a height.
North Dome is dwarfed almost beyond recognition. The splendid sculpture
of the arches is scarcely noticed and the walls on both sides seem
comparatively low and sunken. The Dome itself is the most sublime
feature of all Yosemite views, and that is beneath our feet. The view
of Little Yosemite Valley is very fine, though inferior to one
obtained from the base of Starr King; but the summit landscapes
towards Mounts Tyell [Lyell!], Dana and Conness are very effective
and complete. When the sublime ice-floods of the glacial period poured
down the flank of the range over what is now Yosemite Valley, they were
compelled to break through a dam of domes... South Dome was first
to emerge from the icy waste, burnished and glowing like a crystal...
Its entire surface is covered with glacial hieroglyphics whose
interpretation is the great reward of all who devoutly study them.
Before closing this letter I might say a word or two concerning
the botany of the Dome. There are four clumps of pines growing on the
summit representing three species... all three repressed and storm-beaten.
The Alpine spiraea grows here also, and blooms bountely with potentilla,
ivesta[?], erigeron, criogonum, penstemon, solidage, and four or five
species of grasses and sedges, differing in no respect from those on other
summits of the same elevation.
I have 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; and then it is some satisfaction
to feel assured that no lazy person will ever trample these gardens.
When a mountain is climbed it is said to be conquered — as well say
a man is conquered when a fly lights on his head. Blue jays have trodden
the Dome many a day; so have beetles and chipmucks, and Tissiack will
hardly be more conquered, now that man is added to her list of
visitors. His louder scream and heavier scrambling will not stir a
line of her countenance...
Muir's letter was reprinted in other newspapers, e.g., in the
Chicago Daily Tribune, on December 23, 1875, p. 3,
and the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, on December 21, 1875, p. 3.
Muir also used this text in some of his books later, but he made
For example, while the newspaper report above says
"Anderson himself refusing to believe that any one could climb
his rope in the condition it was then in...", a revised version in
The Yosemite reads "Anderson himself tried to
prevent me from making the attempt..."
There are no further references to this 1875 ascent in Muir's
journals or letters gathered in the
John Muir Papers
collection at the University of Pacific.
It should be noted with sadness, that although Muir had
found some pine trees at Half Dome, the top of the Dome is
almost treeless now, probably due to human activities.
However, the top is not totally barren.
Some shrub species and several herbaceous plants are still
Jun 1876: Second female ascent
Ascenders: Anderson, Lizzie Pershing, James Hutchings, Ira Folsom, W. P. Carter
One of Half Dome ascents in 1876, attracted lots of attention.
The San Francisco Bulletin reprints an account
of the ascent from the Stockton Herald.
San Francisco Bulletin,
June 26, 1876, p. 4
South Dome Ascended.—On the 21st instant a party of
tourists made the ascent of South Dome, in Yosemite Valley;
and what makes the feat more famous, one of the party was
a lady, and what makes it still more interesting to
chronicle, she was a newspaper correspondent. There were four
tourists in the party, all of whose names we were unable to
learn, but the lady's name was Miss Lizzie R. Pershing
[should have been: Lizzie K. Pershing], and she
is a correspondent of the Pittsburgh, Pa., Gazette.
Miss Pershing is the second lady that has ever accomplished
this undertaking, and it is but fair to state that but very few
of the sterner sex have considered the glory of having
climbed the dome a recompense for the dangers to be braved.
After making an extraordinary climb on the ragged mountain side,
the dome itself is reached, the ascent of which requires one
to climb, by the aid of ropes, up an almost perpendicular
wall, without steps or foothold other than nature has made,
a distance of 900 feet. These ropes extend from one staple
in the rock to another, and the distance between the staples
is from ten to fifty feet, according to circumstances.
The fatigue of this perilous undertaking did not seem to seriously
affect this brave little lady, for she returned from the valley
to-day, looking as fresh and fair as if she had not
accomplished a feat that makes her famous.—Stockton Herald.
A slightly different account was printed in the Christian Advocate
later in the year:
The Christian Advocate, New York,
September 21, 1876, Vol. 51, No. 38, p. 297
Miss Lizzie K. Pershing, daughter of President Pershing,
of the Pittsburgh Female College, during a visit to California won quite
a reputation as a letter-writer for several leading journals. She has
recently returned home, and it appears that she has attained the title
"Heroine of the South Dome" of the Yosemite Valley, supposed to be six
thousand feet high—a perpendicular wall. For many years persons
have sought unsuccessfully to climb up, until a Scotch sailor succeeded
last October. By drilling holes in the steepest part of the rocks,
and putting iron pegs, and standing on one spike while he drove in
another, he succeeded in getting up the steepest part. He then fastened
a rope around these pegs, and it forms a ladder. By climbing up a long way
on the hands and knees you reach what they call "The Saddle", and from
there go up by a single rope the dizzy height—930 feet; and from
thence the Dome is more easily reached, and you can walk right to its edge,
and look down a straight wall 5,500 feet. This perilous feat was performed
by Miss Pershing.
Lizzie Pershing described her Half Dome climb in a well written
to the Pittsburg Telegraph.
She identifies several people on that trip: James Mason Hutchings,
George Anderson, and an unnamed "guide".
J. M. Hutchings confirms that he was one of the people in
Miss Pershing's party. In his
In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26, he wrote:
"In July, 1876, Miss L. E. Pershing, of Pittsburgh, Pa.
[her initials were actually L. K., and the date was
June 21], the writer [Hutchings],
and three others found their way to the top..."
Who was Miss Pershing?
Lizzie K. Pershing was 24 years old at the time of this ascent.
She was the eldest child of Rev. Israel C. Pershing and Charlotte L. Canan
(Pershing), and was born in Pennsylvania on April 4, 1852. Her father was the
President of the Pittsburgh Female College. The College catalogue lists
Lizzie as a "general assistant" in 1873, and a Vice President in 1884.
It appears that Lizzie had left Pittsburgh in 1874, for a two-year stay
in Santa Barbara, California, for health reasons ("rheumatism").
In a newspaper article published in the Louisville Courier-Journal
in 1876, Lizzie is described as having "brown eyes and brown hair
hanging in two long braids down her back, and the
prettiest hand and foot in California. She is a brilliant writer, fine
elocutionist, and is blessed with a dry, droll manner, and has a
conundrum or story for every occasion. She is a Methodist and a
scholar. She is known by her pet name—Percy".
I couldn't find anything about her association with the Gazette.
Her story "A trip to the Geysers",
was published in the National Repository, Vol. 1, April 1877,
pp. 315-320. It describes her journey, in the spring of 1876, to the Geysers
in Northern California with one Mrs. Pressall [or Pressell?]. This
story does not mention her Yosemite climb later that year.
She married William C. Anderson,
"of the Pittsburgh bar", in 1884, and used the name
Lizzie Pershing Anderson after that. They lived in Wilkinsburg near Pittsburgh.
They didn't have any children. William died on November 25, 1910.
Lizzie was still alive in April 1937, but died shortly after.
Lizzie, and General John J. Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces in
World War I, were distant relatives (third cousins).
1876-77: Anderson builds stairway to the clouds... and more!
Seeing all the enthusiasm that his Half Dome ascent has stirred,
Anderson must have began considering ways of turning that
interest into money early on. He first had to upgrade the ropes, and
make them more secure. Hutchings' daughter, Gertrude, about eight or nine
years old at the time, witnessed an early Anderson's attempt to
replace the old ropes. Seventy years later, in a letter to Elizabeth Godfrey,
a Yosemite Museum secretary, Gertrude Hutchings recalled:
...Along the old plank walk between Hutchings'
old corral to Sentinel Bridge,
Anderson stretched five separate strands of baling rope. With another
strand he went along the 975-foot length knotting the five strands together
with a sixth strand and a good sailor's knot a foot apart—a convenient
space for climber to grasp as they made the ascent.
The knotted rope was coiled, tied together put on a pack mule,
and carried to the shoulder of the Dome. Here Anderson shouldered it himself,
packed it to the top of the Dome, unloosed it, fastened one end to an iron
pin in rock on the summit, slid it down, uncoiling and fastening it to
other iron-pin eyebolts he had placed on his first ascent as he went.
Gertrude doesn't specify the year of the rope upgrade, but she
could have been referring to the year 1876.
Her letter is preserved in the Nature Library, Yosemite Museum, Yosemite.
I used the transcription from
The First Ascents of Half Dome by Hank Johnston,
Yosemite (Magazine), Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter 2003.
Shirley Sargent, in an article in the Modesto Bee
on October 30, 1975, attributes the following description of Anderson to
Gertrude Hutchings: "A brawny, powerful man with tattooed arms, a splendid
specimen of manhood". Shirley ads: Anderson's strength was astounding.
Once he lifted a boulder weighting 234 pounds, and another time
he carried a 525-pound section of iron bridge.
The rope worked for people with athletic abilities, but
Anderson had other ideas too. Several newspaper articles describe him
working on, or thinking about other possibilities. He is incorrectly called
"John Anderson" in some reports:
Mariposa Gazette, June 3, 1876, p. 3
(probably written by J. M. Hutchings)
Yo Semite Correspondence
...The most important enterprise here is that of George Anderson's
trail and stairway from the valley to the top of the south dome.
Mr. Anderson is a man of energy, and is entitled to credit for the
perseverance he is displaying in the construction of this important
project. The stairway will be about 2,000 feet long, fastened by
bolts in the rocks on the side of the dome, in the most secure manner,
and will be arranged with wings or arms extending all the way to each
side, making it convenient and comfortable for visitors to rest
and view the wonderful scenery below. When once at the summit or
top of the dome, the visitor can behold the most magnificent picture
of the valley and surroundings ever yet painted or sketched by the artist...
Cincinnati Commercial, August 24, 1876, p. 4; also
Daily Register, Wheeling, West Virginia, August 26, 1876,
p. 1, and
Daily Alta California, September 9, 1876, p. 1
Anderson's cabin at the foot of the Dome,
near the 'saddle'. (From an article
in The Pacific Rural Press, San Francisco,
June 18, 1881).
A Stairway to the Clouds.
John[!] Anderson, the first man to make the ascent of the great South Dome
in the Yosemite Valley, is a quiet young Scotchman, who lives hermit-like
in a small house near the saddle of the dome. Here he dreams
and experiments, coming occasionally down into the valley, where he is
the object of eager curiosity to travelers, who whisper one to another,
"There's Anderson", "There's the sailor who climbed the Dome".
But few travelers have ever ascended to his workshop in the mountains,
and few people know that he is now busily constructing a staircase
of one thousand steps, which he intends shall form an easy pathway
to the clouds. These steps are of wood, riveted together by iron, and will
be fastened by bolts in the rock. Next year, perhaps, tourists can
walk up a thousand-foot stairway, instead of hanging to a thousand-foot
rope. In time, Mr. Anderson hopes to have an elevator running up and down
the chasm, and his ambitions extend even to a train of cars,
which he is now perfecting—cars which will run up a perpendicular
wall.—[Source:] Letter in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 31, 1876; also
Liberty Tribune, Liberty, Missouri, October 13, 1876, p. 2:
John[!] Anderson, the first man who ascended the great South Dome
in the Yosemite Valley, lives alone in a small house near the saddle
of the dome. He is hard at work constructing a staircase of a thousand
steps on the dome. He hopes to have an elevator running in time,
and is also working on a model of a steam car that shall carry
passengers up the almost perpendicular wall.
Bulletin, San Francisco, September 6, 1876, p. 1
Summering in the Sierra
(From our own correspondent)
Yosemite Valley, August 28, 1876.
This forenoon I had the pleasure of meeting George Anderson,
the indomitable cragsman, the brave climber, of firm nerve and eye,
who was the first to set foot on the great South Dome.
He has been hard at work all summer hewing timber for a stairway up
the hitherto inaccessible curving summit of the dome, which he hopes
to have completed by the first of June next , so as to be available
for the main flood of next year's travel. It will be about 800 feet in
length, with about thousand steps, securely railed in on both sides.
The side timbers will be eight inches wide by four in thickness, and
firmly bolted on the solid rock. And, inasmuch as the general slope
of the rock on which the stairway will be laid is only about equal to
that of ordinary house stairs, there will be nothing dangerous
in the ascent, nor anything of a clinging, clambering character.
When, however, we take into consideration the fact that the few low
little steps leading to the upper stories of hotels are regarded as
so exhausting as to require the modern cage elevator, the grand old
dome will seem about as inaccessible to most people as before...
...I only want to remark here, that standing on their head is not
the best position from which to see anybody, still I would advise
every one to make the ascent of Tissiack, for not to mention the glorious
circumference of landscapes seen from its summit, the joyous leafy
valley outspread a mile below, and far beyond, alp, and forest,
and rolling granite seas. On these vast aerial thrones one always
receives lasting impressions of an utter isolation from all the known
ways of the world, leaving the soul free to expand and blend with
fountain nature, as if one had died and gone to another star...
[In the rest of the article, Muir talks about the first ascent
of Mount Starr King a few days earlier, by by one of his friends.
He only identifies the friend as "Mr. Short",
a San Francisco banker and stockbroker,
but it is clear that he talks about George Bayley (often
spelled 'Bailey'). Muir
concludes: "To Anderson belongs the honor of first standing in the
blue ether above Tissiack; and to the dauntless San Francisco Short
belongs the first footprint on the crown of Starr King". According to
Muir, Bayley was accompanied by a young lawyer allegedly from San Francisco
(E. S. Schuyler). A year later,
on August 23, 1877, unexplainably unaware of the Bayley-Schuyler ascent,
a party consisting of George Anderson, James M. Hutchings, and
John B. Lembert reached the top of Mt. Starr King via Southeast Saddle,
and were dismayed to find a man-made summit cairn there].
Once a Week [Magazine], London, 1877 (unknown volume, p. 96)
A Perilous Ascent.—The most
formidable mountain, perhaps, in the world, the
South Dome of the Yosemite Valley, in California, has not only been climbed by
a Scotchman named Anderson, but it is to be made practicable
for travellers of exceptional nerve by a stair constructed up the back of the
Dome by this enterprising climber. "No description", says a correspondent
at San Francisco, "can convey any adequate idea of this singular
mountain... The walls on either side of the
valley are for five miles a close succession of
bare granite rocks, cut down with smooth face as if by a knife,
and rising sheer from the valley to the average height of 4000 feet.
The fact of a perpendicular wall, three-quarters of a mile high,
of bright grey granite, can scarcely be grasped by the mind, and must be seen
before it can be realized. Imagine the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral
multiplied a hundred times and cloven
in half — the one side a precipice of 6000 feet from top to bottom;
the other side forming a perfect quadrant for 1500 feet from the top,
as smooth and bare and regular as the side of a ball — and some
faint idea can be formed of Anderson's terrible feat".
The Huron Expositor, January 11, 1878
Probably the largest and highest rock in the known world is
the South Dome of Yosemite... No man ever trod the top of this dome
until last year... Last year, however, after thousands of dollars
were spent [in previous attempts?], several persons found their way
to the top of the dome, and this summer two sheep were discovered
browsing on the hitherto inaccessible peak. Mrs. A. J. Murphy,
the widow of a late hotel proprietor in the valley, writes as follows under
date of November 11th [1877?; 1876?]:
"John[!] Anderson is building stairs up the top of the South Dome.
You can go up now by holding on to a rope, but it is quite a tiresome trip.
A few ladies in the valley have made the ascent, and I am sorry I did not
attempt it... Strange to say two sheep found their way to the top
of the South Dome this summer, a dam and her lamb. How they ever got there
is more than any one can tell. They found bunch grass and shoots to eat,
but no water—only the dew that fell on the dome at night. Anderson was
going to carry them up some water
when I left".—[Source: an 1877(?) issue of] Virginia (Nev.)
Similar accounts were printed in
the Daily Democrat, Sedalia, November 28, 1877,
the Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, December 20, 1877, and
the Wheeling Daily Register, January 1, 1878, p. 3.
Instead of "Mrs. A. J. Murphy... writes as follows",
the Daily Star, Marion, Ohio, December 22, 1877,
uses "Mrs. A. J. Murphy... writes to a lady in New York".
The story about a dam and her lamb could have been a practical joke
that Anderson played on unsuspecting valley visitors. However,
James M. Hutchings, in his In the Heart of the Sierras (1886),
gives some credibility to the story: "Two sheep, supposed to have been
frightened by bears, once scrambled up there; to which Mr. Anderson
daily carried water, until they were eventually lost sight of. Their bones
were afterwards discovered side by side, in a sheltered hollow".
Note that some small animals
do live at the top of the Dome: lizards, ground squirrels, wood rats, pikas,
and even yellow-bellied marmots made their homes there.
1877: Photographer on the Dome
Ascenders: Anderson, James Hutchings, S. C. Walker (Summer? 1877)
Ascenders: James and Florence Hutchings, Florantha Sproat, two other ladies, a man (October 1877)
George Anderson on Half Dome, 1877
In the summer of 1877, the first(?) photographer made it to the top of Half Dome.
It wasn't an easy task to bring heavy photo equipment up the steep incline.
Hutchings and Anderson helped Walker, and Anderson posed on two
overhanging rocks at the top, which are still
favorite attractions for amateur photographers
even today. Here is how Hutchings describes the event, in one of his
typical long sentences:
In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26
...In 1877 Mr. Anderson, after assisting Mr. S. C. Walker, the photographer,
and the writer [Hutchings], to pack up all the photographic apparatus necessary
for taking views from its summit, deliberately placed upon a large flat rock,
projectingly, on the margin of the precipice, and stood upright upon it
while the photograph was taken; one of his feet being over, and beyond the edge
eleven inches, as presented in the accompanying view, taken at that time.
Although unsteadied and unsupported, not a nerve or muscle quivered.
Later that year, Hutchings made yet another trip to the Dome,
this time with his daughter Florence Hutchings, then 13. His mother in law,
Florantha Sproat, and his future wife (second), Augusta Sweetland may have been
in the same party.
In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26
...In October following ,
six persons, among them a lady in her sixty-fifth year
[Florantha Sproat], and a young girl,
thirteen years of age (a daughter of the writer)
and two other ladies, climbed it with but little difficulty,
after Anderson had provided the way. Since then very many others have
daringly pulled themselves up; and enjoyed the exceptionally impressive
view obtained thence...
S. C. Walker worked as photographer in Yosemite in the late 1870s.
He took several pictures of Anderson on Half Dome in 1877. Some of those were
later published as stereoviews, under different labels. According to
Paul A. Hickman, from Arkansas State University,
Walker's negatives were probably used to produce stereoview prints
by M. M. Hazeltine (1877), S. C. Walker & Gustavus Fagersteen,
"Successors to M. M. Hazeltine" (1877-81), and Gustavus Fagersteen
(1881-90). Check this stereoview
from Hazeltine's series "Yosemite Valley, California".
Note that makers of negatives were rarely credited by publishers of
stereoview prints, and Walker's name does not show up on this photo.
Selah Clarence Walker (1851-1897),
was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and came to California with
his family as a little boy. He grew up in Campo Seco, Calaveras County,
where his father was a miner.
At eighteen, Selah was in San Francisco, and declaring his profession as
"photographer" in the 1870 Census. He was 26 when he joined
Hutchings' Half Dome party in 1877. In November that
year, he married Lillian E. West of Garotte, Tuolumne County. They settled
in Groveland, but Selah continued working in Yosemite over summers.
By 1880, the couple had two children, Selah Eugene Walker,
and Clarence Reid Walker. Several years later the entire family
moved to San Francisco,
where S. C. Walker began working as a printer and an assistant manager
for the "Elite Photograph Gallery"
on Market Street. After a divorce in 1890,
he progressively became more and more despondent. He committed suicide
by taking a large dose of cyanide on October 27, 1897,
at the age of 45.
Ascenders: Anderson, John Muir, Thomas Magee [Sr.]
Little is known about this ascent that apparently happened
in July 1877. The only sources I have are two short paragraphs in
the Yosemite Tourist and in the San Francisco Chronicle,
published eighteen years later. Both articles are
presented in Part Two.
The Tourist lists three ascenders,
and dates the climb on July 9, 1877:
Yosemite Tourist, Yosemite Valley, July 9, 1895
Eighteen years ago today, John Muir, of glacial fame,
Thos. Magee [Sr.], one of well-known pioneers of San Francisco and the late
Geo. G. Anderson, the latter acting as guide, ascended the Half Dome.
Mr. Thos. Magee, Jr., then a mere boy, was left at the Anderson cabin,
near the dome, for he was too small to attempt so perilous a feat...
The cabin [was] about a half mile from the dome. In the good old days,
when those so inclined could reach the top of the dome, this cabin was the
starting point. Many, too, would come here and remain over night and
then be ready for the climb in the morning...
John Muir Chronology
shows Muir on an "excursion in Utah as Bulletin
correspondent" starting in May 1877.
His brief visit to Yosemite after the Utah trip is mentioned
in a letter to Jeanne Carr, dated July 23rd, 1877. Muir wrote:
"Dear Mrs. Carr: I made
only a short dash into the dear old
Highlands above Yosemite, but all was so full
of everything I love, every day seemed a measureless
period. I never enjoyed the Tuolumne
cataracts so much; coming out of the sun lands,
the gray salt deserts of Utah, these wild ice
waters sang themselves into my soul more enthusiastically
A remark in Muir's handwriting
on the cover of his "May-July 1877" notebook (#20) confirms that
Magee was his partner in Yosemite that summer:
"Excursion into Big Tuol[umne] Can[y]on from head with Magee. 1877".
However, there is no mention of the Half Dome ascent (or the Tuolumne trip)
in the text of Muir's notebook.
Thomas Magee Sr. (1840-1902), was a noted
mountaineer in the 1870s and 1880s. During the 1877 ascent, he was
about 37 years old. He is listed in
Hittell's Hand-book of Pacific Coast Travel,
published in 1885, in a section about mountain climbing:
"California has no club of mountain climbers; and a few of her
citizens have had the opportunity, as well as the inclination, to
spend much time in the study of nature at high elevations...
The most noted mountain climber of the State is John Muir;
and among the men who are known to have spent much time
in the mountains for pleasure or study are J. G. Lemmon, botanist,
George Bailey [Bayley], Thomas Magee,
Sydney Smith, Jr., James M. Hutchings,
Galen Clark, George Davidson, A. F. Rodgers, Ebenezer Knowlton and John Swett".
An article in the Scribner's Monthly, Aug 1873, Vol. 6, pp. 441-445,
written by Magee, describes his climb to the top of Mount Shasta.
Thomas was a friend and a frequent
companion of John Muir since they first met
in Yosemite in the summer of 1871. Influenced by Muir, Magee was an early
conservationist (see his article The Preservation of Our Forests,
in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Vol. 19, June 1892,
Magee came to San Francisco in 1859, from Belfast, Ireland
(after a short stay in New York), and began working as a printer.
In 1866, he became editor of Carter's Real Estate Circular.
Eventually, Magee became a real estate dealer himself, and bought
the Circular. He edited it continuously from 1867 until his
A Washington Post biographical note published on November 5, 1899,
for his sixtieth birthday, calls Magee
"the most athletic millionaire on San Francisco's tax list".
Thomas Magee died in Santa Barbara in 1902, and
his four sons took over his real estate business and the Circular.
Ascenders: Henry Crowell, George Worthington
Henry Crowell struggled with a debilitating and life threatening illness
in his youth, and his wealthy family sent him West to travel and gain
strength. In 1874, on one of his trips, he met another young man,
George Worthington, who was also on a quest for health.
For the next three years the lads were to spend much time together.
On their second trip to California, in 1876/1877, they were ready for
a perilous feat: a climb to the summit of Half Dome. An account of
that event was written more than seventy years later, when Henry
and George were already dead. The author of the book "Breakfast Table Autocrat",
Richard Day, must have heavily relied on family stories about
the ascent, and it is no wonder that after that many years,
details got forgotten, imagination was used to fill the gaps,
and accuracy took back seat. Indeed, George and Henry did not need
to bring their own spikes or "clotheslines", because Anderson's
rope was still in place and well maintained in 1877. However, in spite of
such blunders, I believe George and Henry made it to the top, and deserve
to be mentioned in these chronicles.
Breakfast Table Autocrat: The Life Story of Henry
by Richard Ellsworth Day, Moody press, 1946, pp. 73-74:
...By the middle of May, 1877, [Henry and George] had
equipped for scaling Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.
Stout clotheslines, a bag of rugged spikes,
and a short-hafted sledge apiece, were the chief scaling aids.
It makes one dizzy to think of such simple means for conquering
the cloud-piercing slopes of the great rock. As they rode through
the bee pastures along the Merced River, the
Maricopa Flower Carpet was in full glory. No Persian rug could
vie with it. The boys listened to the muffled roar of the waterfalls,
leaping at a bound for hundreds of feet, fluttering in
the wind like a filmy pennant. They gazed upon the mile-high
eminences along the river, and came to Mirror Lake,
nature's reflecting pool for Half Dome.
On the wind-swept summit of Half Dome, they gazed for a long time at the
vast assembly of granite titans, beginning with Glacier Point on the south
side, hanging dizzily over its three thousand-foot drop. They looked at El
Cajon on the north side with its sheer slope to the valley
floor. In the hotel that night, the mountaineers heard the boys' account
of their venture. They would not believe the tale until the next day they
found the ropes and spikes, like a spider filament soaring
cloudward, just as Crowell and Worthington had left them...
Henry Parsons Crowell (1855-1943), was 22
at the time of his ascent. He would become a successful
businessman (e.g., founder of the Quaker Oats
Company) and a philanthropist. His life is
documented on the Web and in books.
George Worthington (1854-19??), was just few months older
than his Half Dome companion, Crowell. One of several children in the family,
he was named after his father, a merchant and banker in Cleveland, Ohio,
who founded the Geo. Worthington Company. He enrolled in Brown University,
but due to frequent absence did not graduate. He was not
particularly interested in his father business.
In 1896, he moved from Cleveland to Old Bennington, Vermont,
where he still lived during the 1930 Census. Date of his
death is unknown to me. His only son,
George Worthington, Jr (sometimes called George Worthington, 3rd),
born in 1890, got his AB from Yale, and then returned to Cleveland
where he re-engaged in the family company.
Ascenders: Abbie Crippen, Frank Ferree
Abbie Crippen was the eldest of four Crippen sisters.
Her father Joshua Crippen died in 1870 in Merced. In March of 1877
Abbie's mother married John Barnard,
a new owner of the Sentinel Hotel (later Yosemite Falls Hotel) in the Valley.
Yosemite then became a new home for Crippen sisters, and all four enjoyed
hiking and other outdoors activities.
Abbie's Half Dome ascent in 1877, or early in 1878, is indirectly
confirmed by Walter Gore Marshall, who visited the Valley in June 1878.
In his book, Through America, published several years later,
he talks about a "trophy" that his friend has found atop Half Dome,
something that originally had belonged to Abbie. Marshall
identifies Abbie as "Miss Bernard", but neither is the spelling
correct (should have been Barnard),
nor has Abbie ever used anything but her father's last name (Crippen)
until she became Mrs. Childs in 1884.
But back to Marshall's story. Here is how he introduced Abbie to his readers:
"Miss Bernard, hotel owner's daughter, had acquired a reputation as a daring
climber of mountains, for she had been to the top of the South Dome, and
had safely come to the bottom again" (p. 379). Marshall then
described the following funny episode:
Through America; Or Nine Months in the United States,
by W. G. Marshall, London, 1881, Chapter 19, p. 380:
It was getting late, so that I had begun to be
anxious. [My friend] suddenly burst in upon our party assembled outside
the hotel. He looked wild and scared; his skin was peeled—it was
evident he had not been idle since we had lost sight of him in the
morning. He told
us he had been up the South Dome. "What, up to the top?" we all
exclaimed in one breath. "Yes", was the reply.—But no, we could none
of us believe it, not even Miss Bernard herself, who, already the vanquisher
of that bold, inaccessible-looking mountain, would never believe that it
had been scaled in one day, and that, too, by an Englishman, and all by
himself! Without more ado my friend produced indisputable evidence that he
had actually accomplished the ascent, for he took out from his pocket a
certain curious trophy which he had brought away with him from the summit,
and this was nothing less than a piece of one of Miss Bernard's stockings,
the young lady in question having left behind her, when she was last up
the mountain, a sample of this portion of her wearing apparel, which she
had fastened on to a low stunted pine that grew out of the hard rock at
the very top of the precipice. So my friend had cut off part of the
stocking—six square inches of which he found clinging to
the tree—and brought it down to show the young lady herself, as the
best proof he could give, that he was indeed no gay deceiver...
Read more about Marshall's friend (Arthur Clarke) and his day-hike
from the Valley to the top of Half Dome, in a section below.
From Marshall's text we know that Abbie's Half Dome visit
happened before June 1878. The register of
Snow's Hotel, which I checked in the summer of 2012, revealed more.
An entry dated June 3, 1877, reads: "Frank E. Ferree, Miss Abbie Crippen,
10 AM bound for South Dome". Another note was added later:
"Returned 4 PM". Thus, it appears that the "trophy" described in
Marshall's book (one of Abbie's stockings) had stayed attached to that
pine tree atop Half Dome for almost a year, unless Abbie made
yet another ascent later in the season. There is, however,
no mention of her possible second climb in 1877 or 1878 in Snow's Register.
(She apparently made another Half Dome ascent, but that was many years later).
Accompanying Abbie during the June 3rd trip was Frank Ferree,
a newly hired book-keeper at Barnard's Hotel.
Frank did make another Half Dome climb that same summer, in mid-July of 1877,
but that time he went without Abbie.
More about Frank's second ascent will be added shortly.
Abbie Crippen (1860-1889), was still 16 at the time
of her June 1877 ascent. She was the eldest of four children (all girls) of
Joshua D. Crippen, a Sheriff of Mariposa County,
and his wife Adelaide Frances (Weldon) Crippen. Abbie's younger sisters were
Katie Crippen (1863-1896), Fannie Crippen (1864-1925),
and Effie Crippen (1867-1881). Joshua died in 1870, and Adelaide
remarried in the Spring of 1877. Her second husband, John Kirkpatrick Barnard,
has just purchased a hotel in Yosemite Valley.
A newspaper article
described Abbie as a "bright handsome girl, vivacious and warm hearted".
During Abbie's Yosemite years, when not in the mountains, she was selling
Fiske's and Watkins' photos in her step-father's hotel. She also worked
in J. J. Cook's "photographic room" in the Valley. This may
have caused some tensions between her and Sally Dutcher, because they
were competing for the same clientele. Many other Abbie's
trips to Yosemite backcountry were mentioned in Snow's Hotel Register.
On one of those trips, in August 1883, one of participants was
Hiram Little Childs (1847-1917),
then publisher of Bodie's newspaper The Free Press.
In October of 1884, a wedding was celebrated in the Valley, and
Abbie became Mrs. Childs. Four and half years later, a news came
from Tacoma, Washington, where the Childs have relocated,
that Abbie had died, at the age of 28.
Ascender: Henry W. Herbert
The only known account of this ascent is a note in the book
A Souvenir of New Hampshire Legislators, for the year 1897, pp. 72-73.
A biography of one of elected representatives says (emphasis mine):
Henry William Herbert, [representing Rumney],
Democrat, a member of the Committee on Industrial School, was born at
Rumney, October 2, 1842. He was educated in the common schools and at
Boscawen Academy. He enlisted in the 6th N. H. Regiment, but being under
age and unable to obtain his father's consent, he could not enter the
service. He entered a broker's office in Boston and remained there
during the war. He then returned to Rumney and followed the occupation
of farming until 1871, at which time he was appointed station agent on
the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad at that place, which position
he held until January 1, 1887. Mr. Herbert has traveled quite
extensively in Canada and throughout the United States, and is
one of the very few persons who ever stood on the
summit of the South Dome in the Yosemite Valley.
He was a Representative in 1894, and has been
Chairman of the Rumney Board of Selectmen for five years; Tax Collector
five years, and Deputy Sheriff two years.
However, the date of the climb was not given. Snow's Hotel Register to
the rescue! According to the register, Mr. Herbert was
a member of a party that stopped at Snow's on Tuesday, October 30, 1877,
the last group to reach the hotel during that year. The party
came on horses, and was guided by George Carter (Yosemite Valley). It consisted of
"H. W. Herbert of Rumney N. H., Mrs. E. W. Cowles of Coventry, Effie
and Fannie Crippen of Yo Semite, S. G. Clarks of Victoria, Australia,
and Fred. R. Guilliams", the last gentleman probably from Iowa. There is no mention
in the register on what was the goal of their trip. If they indeed were
heading to Half Dome, we don't know if Carter or anybody else from the party
had accompanied Henry to the the summit. Two Crippen sisters,
Fannie (age 12 at that time) and Effie (age 10), were probably too young
for such a climb, but others may have tried.
Henry William Herbert (1842-1947),
was one of seven children in the family of Samuel and Lydia Herbert.
His father was a farmer, than a lawyer and lawmaker in Rumney, New
Hampshire. Rumney was at that time a quiet hamlet
with 1100 inhabitants and two churches. Just east of the town there is
a lofty 3 miles long ridge, some 2800 ft high, called Stinson Mountain.
Perhaps that is where Henry gained his hiking and climbing skills.
Henry spent most of his long life in Rumney. At 19, he married Susan Darling,
and they had six children, three of which survived to adulthood.
It is not known what brought Henry to California in the fall of 1877.
He was 35 years old at the time of his Half Dome climb.
Henry died at the age of 104, and is buried in the family plot
in Rumney Depot Cemetery. He was survived by his son
Frank Allen Herbert (1875-1966). Some of Frank's grandchildren
are still alive. I wonder if they would have any additional information
about Henry's climb.
1878: Englishman, Astronomer, Botanist
Ascender: Arthur Clarke
In May of 1878, Walter G. Marshall left England for a three-months trip
to the United States. One leg of the trip was to be a visit to Yosemite Valley.
Marshall didn't go alone. With him, aboard the Cunard
steamship "Scythia", and throughout the journey,
was one of his college friends. Marshall's 1878 trip, as
well as one of his later visits to the United States, are described
in his book published in London in 1881, under the title
Through America. An account of a trip
from San Francisco to Yosemite, June 20 to June 30, 1878, is given
in Chapters 16-19 of the book.
It contains a segment that is particularly interesting for this work:
Marshall's friend, who is only identified as "C——",
climbed Half Dome on June 29, 1878.
It took some detective work to establish true identity of
Marshall's climbing friend. In the first chapter of the book,
Marshall introduces him as "my college friend C——",
but he carefully avoids revealing anything else about "C——",
as if the friend had insisted to remain anonymous.
Instead, on hundred pages in the book, he
is simply referred to as "my friend" or "my fellow traveller".
However, towards the end of the book, in a single paragraph that
could have been inserted later, Marshall names (by mistake?) his friend
as "A. N. Clarke".
There is another independent evidence to support that disclosure.
Port records from New York confirm that "W. G. Marshall, age 25,
gentleman", and "A. N. Clarke, age 25, student", shared a cabin in
"Scythia". Marshall had studied at Winchester College, and at Oxford.
I didn't find any student with initials "A. N. Clarke" at Winchester,
but it was easy to find Clarke's record in the
book Alumni Oxonienses: A. N. Clarke, from Leeds,
got his MA at Oxford the same year (1875) as Marshall, and his full
name was Arthur Noble Clarke.
Marshall briefly describes circumstances related to Clarke's ascent,
then allows Clarke to give a detailed first-person account of the
climb. Here is what Clarke had written:
Through America; Or Nine Months in the United States,
by W. G. Marshall, London, 1881, Chapter 19, pp. 380-383:
Leaving Bernard's [Barnard's Hotel]
on foot at 10 a.m., I reached Snow's at 12.10 p.m.,
had luncheon there, and remained till 1.30. Then, mounting to the top of
the Nevada Fall, I struck off by a trail to the left, which led me over a
shoulder of the great South Dome till I came to the foot of a
conical-shaped rock, called the Little Dome, which I found I was obliged
to climb... This successfully scaled, I had to
descend again... to a dip between the two Domes, the huge granite mass of
the South Dome now looming majestically
above me. The rope of the Scotchman now appeared to view, running down
straight for 960 feet from the top of the curve, close to the vertical
face of the mountain... The sections of this
rope are not all equal, some being not more than twenty feet in length,
while one or two sections near the top of the curve are nearly 100 feet in
length, and, being quite loose, thus oblige one to describe a considerable
arc. Where the sections are short you go up like a monkey, hand over hand,
close to the rock. The lower portion of the precipice was very steep,
having an angle of 10 degrees from the vertical, and this part had to be
without any rest. From this point the grand curve of the Dome began, the
granite lying here and there in immense overlapping,
concentric slabs—like gigantic armour-plates,
the 'plates' in this case being three to
five feet thick, difficult to climb over, even with the aid of the
rope. Over these I had to scramble as best I could; but there were a few
cracks in the granite which enabled me to obtain an occasional foothold,
and, leaning with my back against the almost vertical wall of rock, rest
awhile and contemplate the view...
The gymnastic performance now began to get easier as to the grade; but
the fatigue caused by the rarity of the air, and the heat of a blazing
Californian sun, glaring as it did directly in my face, caused me to
inwardly rejoice when I reached the summit. That this is a much less
difficult—though not the less dangerous—climb than it looks,
and provided the soundness of the rope be guaranteed, a lady can without
difficulty make the ascent. But her chief embarrassment would be the
'monkey' performance, if she went up in ordinary attire.
Having rested for a few moments on the top of a stony couch...
the next thing to do was to quench
thirst, which had become simply unendurable. To this end I made my way to
a small snow-field lying about 200 yards off. Then I devoted an hour to
the view, sitting down on the edge of the precipice and dangling my legs
over, having first lit my pipe that I might enjoy the view the
The descent I found considerably easier than the ascent, for the rope
had now been fully tested, and all that it was necessary to do was to
cling firmly to it, and let myself down hand over hand...
At Snow's... I was given a tallow candle, to light if it should get too dark
during my descent into the valley. But it was not brought into
requisition, for I reached Bernard's[!] at 8.18 p.m., having been away from
the hotel just ten hours and eighteen minutes.
This was an excellent total time for a day hike on foot from the Valley,
considering many stops that Arthur Clarke made along the way.
Read the complete text of his well written and
Arthur Noble Clarke (1851-19??), the eldest son
of Dr. Thomas Clarke ("physician, surgeon, and apothecary"),
born in December 1851 in Leeds, Yorkshire. He had three younger
siblings: George E. Clarke, Florence L. Clarke, and Bernard L. Clarke.
He enrolled in Wadham College, Oxford University, in November of 1870,
studied natural sciences, got his BA in 1875, and MA in 1877.
During his visit to Yosemite with Marshall, he was 25 years old.
According to British census data,
in 1881, he was in London, studying medicine.
In the late 1880s, he helped putting together two essays
that his father had written
("The Fate of the Dead", and "What is the Soul? and what becomes of it?")
It appears that Arthur was still alive during the 1911 England Census,
probably unmarried, living in Eastbourne district, in Sussex. I don't have any
information about him after that date.
Ascender: William Pickering
A note in the Appalachia,
Boston, Vol. 2, No. 1, June 1879, p. 93, describing previous year's
activity of the Appalachian Mountain Club, says:
"On December 11, 1878, at the Seventh Corporate Meeting,
Mr. W. H. Pickering read a paper describing an ascent of the
Half Dome, in the Yosemite Valley, illustrated by views of the Valley
and its special points of interest".
The note was referring to William Pickering,
one of founders of the Appalachian Mountain Club,
and later a noted astronomer.
The lecture was describing his "recent" trip to Yosemite,
perhaps in 1878, but a precise date of the ascent was not given.
While Pickering's original report is
probably lost, the following autobiographical note in MIT
Technology Review has a few sentences about that climb:
Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. 18,
Cambridge, 1916, p. 307:
...I had always been fond of mountain climbing, and among
other things ascended the Half Dome in Yosemite Valley by means of a rope.
For 900 feet the ascent had to be made hand over hand, supporting a
considerable portion of my weight at the same time on my feet.
The ascent was continuous, as there were no intermediate ledges on which one
could rest. In fact, the only ledges were inverted!
Comparatively few living persons have
been on the summit, since the rope was removed many years ago.
When William Pickering died in 1938, several of his friends
recalled his Half Dome climb. In an obituary, in
the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific,
Vol. 50, No. 294, pp.122-125, 1938, Leon Campbell wrote: "Professor Pickering was a
great traveler and mountaineer... He not only scaled the heights
of Half Dome in the Yosemite, and El Misti in Peru, but also one hundred
other peaks in various parts of the world". E. P. Maartz, Jr., wrote
in another obituary: "In 1928 Professor Pickering made a trip to southern
California and this proved to be his last to that region... One thing he
was most eager to do... was to revisit the Yosemite Park. He had been
there once before, fifty years previously in 1878, as a young man of twenty;
and on that occasion had climbed the Half Dome. He was one of the first
men to do this, and one of the very few who climbed the Half Dome
at all before the iron spikes and chain guards were installed...
He was a great climber in his younger days, and was always a lover of
the mountains and the great outdoors..."
(Popular Astronomy, Vol. 46, No. 6, June-July 1938,
The above text confirms 1878 as the year of the climb.
In late July that year, William traveled to Cherry Creek, near
Denver, Colorado, to observe that year's total eclipse of the sun (July 29).
California newspapers then report his arrival to San Francisco
on the overland train on August 8, 1878. He was accompanied by
his sister-in-law, Lizzie (Mrs. Edward C. Pickering).
They must have stayed at the west coast for about a month,
and then, on their way back to Boston,
made a stop in Cincinnati on September 13.
This further narrows down the dates of William's visit
to Yosemite and Half Dome to the second part of August
or to early September of 1878.
William Henry Pickering (1858-1938),
was 20, and still a student at MIT in the summer of 1878.
Later that year he published a note on his observation of
the eclipse with two polariscopes and a polarimeter in the
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society,
London, Vol. 39, No.2, December 13, 1878, pp. 137-139.
William stayed at MIT as staff after graduation in 1879,
but later worked at Harvard Observatory,
where his older brother Edward was Director. In 1884,
William Pickering married Anne Atwood, and two of their three
children survived him:
William T. Pickering (born 1887, died in Los Angeles, in 1952)
and Esther Pickering, later Mrs. Murton S. Harland (born 1889, died in
1987 in Alberta, Canada).
In August of 1898, W. H. Pickering took a series of photographic images of Saturn at
Harvard's Arequipa Observatory, in Peru, and
discovered Saturn's ninth moon Phoebe (the work was published in March 1899).
He was the author of many articles and books on astronomy.
He died in Mandeville, Jamaica, in January 1938, where
he lived since 1911, and where he had his private
Ascenders: John Lemmon, E. W. Baker
John G. Lemmon was a noted California mountaineer, and a self-taught
botanist. Here is a fragment from a trip report describing his
Half Dome adventure. Full report
is also available.
Lemmon, together with John B. Lembert (Lemmon calls him "Lambert")
had reached the foot of Anderson's Half Dome route. Lemmon was
slightly injured earlier in the day when he fell from his horse,
and he didn't think he would be able to continue up the ropes.
They were ready to return back to the valley, when another man appeared...
Pacific Rural Press, September 14, 1878, pp. 162-163
Scenes in the High Sierra back of Yosemite.—No. 1
(Written for the Press by J. G. Lemmon).
...My regret at being placed hors de combat just
that morning, of all the 10 weeks almost constant riding from Santa
Barbara to and about Yosemite, now became agony. I gathered souvenirs of
flowers and prepared to return, when a voice hailed us from over the east
dome, and a man came stalking down the slope with a sure and easy tread
that told the strength of his limbs and the resolution of his heart. He
proved to be Mr. E. W. Baker, a cool headed carpenter from Alameda,
accustomed to walking on dizzy heights. Hastily inquiring he learned my
state, but declared I must go up with him if he had to carry me on his
back. Taking from a bush near by the rope that Anderson used for the
purpose, about 15 feet long, he tied one end about his waist and I placed
the other about mine.
Promising to let me down from any point if my strength failed me, he
grasped the rope and ran up nimbly as a cat, hand over hand, and I slowly
followed. Raising the rope out from the rock causes your pressure against
it with nailed boots to be increased in the ratio of your lifting
power. So firmly your feet cling to the glassy rock, and clink, clink, the
iron nails ring out upon the air, keeping time with the regular reaching
of the hands up, up, up!
Occasionally, clefts, in the rock afforded foothold enough for a moment's
rest and a survey of the glorious
scenery unveiling below... [From the top of the
attendant dome] the voice of Lambert came
cheerily: "You are doing well!" "About half-way up!" Later came the
shout, "Three-fourths of the way!" My back seems to be separating in the region
of the lumbar vertebra and pains shoot through the part keen as
knife-thrusts, but I keep on grasping the rope with trembling,
weakened fingers. "Only three pins more!" I gasp and feel an inclination
to halt, and turn around giddily. "Depend more upon the little rope,"
Baker calls down, in a firm voice, "I can pull you up bodily." "Almost
up!" shouts Lambert from the far depths. "One more pin!" Baker creeps up to it,
sits down above it, and pulls me up over the cape stone. The perilous
climb is done; the crown of "Tis-sa-ack," is reached, over 10,000 feet,
nearly two miles above the level world! Rest followed, while the hearts
throbbed and the eye wandered. 0, what a glorious vision lies out-spread,
of gorge and dome, turret and pinnacle!
Exploring the top of the half dome, we found it a convex,
elliptical table of rock, depressed several feet near its center by a
cross valley, and extending about 100 rods in a direction nearly northeast
and southwest. The north wall, seemingly so smooth and clean cut from
below, is really notched and much diversified. On its outer point, the
visor of "Tis-sa-ack's" crown, stands a flagpole of fir about 15 feet
long, and eight inches in diameter at its base, upheld by piled
rocks. Though seldom registering myself in the usual places, I thought it
proper to pencil my name here with the thirty or forty only others that
have ventured up this fearful steep... Only one tree has taken
root on the summit. This stands near the edge at the western side of the
ellipse and is about two feet thick at base and 25 feet high, with the
peculiar, many-branched, depressed limbs of the Pinos monticola
found on such highths...
The descent of "Tis-sa-ack," by the small rope
swinging almost vertically over the side, was scarcely less fearful though
taking less time, and was performed by backing down. Often the foot failed
to find a resting place and you dangled in air until reaching over and
beneath the concentric layers your iron boot-naila caught upon the inner
(Read the complete article from the
Pacific Rural Press).
Lemmon's trip to the top of Half Dome is mentioned directly or indirectly
in several other sources.
Report of the Botanist, J. G. Lemmon, in
Second Biennial Report of the California State Board of Forestry for the Years 1887-1888, Sacramento 1888.
...But few have enjoyed what it was the writer's privilege
to experience while exploring the upper heights of Yosemite.
I climbed Anderson's rope
(now both the rope and its intrepid maker in dust)
to the top of South-Half Dome. Exploring its crown we found
an ellipse of table rock about one hundred rods long,
with but one tree maintaining its hold, as by an eagle's
talons, to the wind-swept rock, two miles in vertical
above the sea. Of course, it was the Limber-twig Pine [Pinus flexilis],
over two feet thick at base, but only a few in height,
with willowy branches that receded and swayed, self-protectingly,
with every breeze...
After Lemmon's death in 1908, his collection of California plants and
specimens, known as "Lemmon Herbarium", was transferred from Oakland to
Berkeley, and many items were examined and listed in Prof. Smiley's
book about the boreal flora of the Sierra. In the section about
Rosaceae, subsection Holodiscus dumosus (p. 231),
the author talks about various samples of spiraea shrub that he had examined
while preparing the book, among them one specimen
that was collected on the "summit of Half-dome,
Yosemite, by Lemmon, on August 19, 1878".
(See, A report upon the boreal flora of the Sierra Nevada of California,
by Frank Jason Smiley, U. C. Publications in Botany,
Vol. 9, University of California Press, September 1921).
More about the events that had brought
the botanist to Yosemite in 1878, can be found in
California's Frontier Naturalists, by
Richard G. Beidleman, University of California Press, 2006.
One section of the book is devoted to
"J. G. Lemmon and Wife" (pp. 415-429). Beidleman's research reveals
that in June 1878, Lemmon had arrived to Santa Barbara to
"join a lengthy excursion to Yosemite". The party was to include several
locals including Sarah Plummer, Lemmon's future wife. However,
in the end, "six campers went, but Sarah was too weak to join them".
We don't know who else, besides Lemmon, was in that group of "campers",
but we know that Lemmon was the only one from that group that
had reached the top of the Dome.
John Gill Lemmon, (1832-1908), was born in Michigan,
and arrived to California in 1865, to recover from injuries sustained
during the Civil War. He became interested in botany, and because of his
mountaineering skills, was able to discover many new species of plants
in remote parts of the Sierra. He was 46 years old when he climbed Half Dome.
Two years later, in 1880, he married Sarah Allen Plummer,
who would accompany him on many trips along the Pacific Coast, in the Sierra,
and in the Rockies. From 1888 to 1892 the couple worked for the
State Board of Forestry, John serving as botanist, and his wife as artist.
In the 1890s, Sarah promoted the bill that eventually made the golden poppy
California's state flower. Mt. Lemmon in Arizona is named after her.
John died of pneumonia in Oakland, in 1908, and Sarah died in Stockton in 1923.
They are buried in Mountain View Cemetery,
I could not positively identify E. W. Baker. A
photographer, Ellis W. Baker, worked in the Alameda county in the late
1870s, but according to Lemmon, his companion was a "carpenter
from Alameda", not a photographer.
Lady Gordon Cumming, quoted already above, describes technique used
in early Half Dome ascents in a letter
reprinted later in Granite Crags (1884). On Saturday,
May 4, 1878 (Chapter VI, in her book), she wrote [emphasis mine]:
Having thus made the ascent a possibility, Anderson's delight
now is to induce enterprising climbers to draw themselves up by his
rope ferry, the manner of proceeding being to keep one foot on
either side of the rope, and, retaining a good grip of the rope
itself, gradually to haul one's self up to the summit, there remain
for a while lost in wonder at the grand bird's-eye view, and then
climb down backwards.
It is all right
so long as most of the stanchions stand firm and the rope
does not break; but should this simple accident occur, there would not be
the faintest possibility of rescue; indeed, it would be no easy task
to recover the battered and mutilated remains of any poor
wretch who might fall from that
majestic dome. A leap from the summit of St. Paul's would be child's
play in comparison. A man troubled with suicidal mania would find it hard
to look down from a precipice a sheer fall of 5000 feet, and resist
the temptation to cast himself down...
Two months later, on July 12th
(Chapter XIII), she adds:
George Anderson, [who is] regarding
the giant [Half Dome] with all the pride of a conqueror, frequently
invites me to ascend [it] under his able guidance, but which
I consider as a feat too dangerous to compensate for the risk...
And indeed, she left the Valley without ever climbing the Dome.
1879: Brave clergymen
Ascenders: Asa Fiske, John Allis, many others
Congressional tourism is not invention of our days. From June 7
to June 15, 1879, a Yosemite Sabbath-School Assembly was organized,
and newspapers reported huge interest among clergymen for the meeting.
Delegates from 23 states attended.
Just in one train coming from the East, there were "one hundred
and sixty-five of the party who intended visiting the great valley"
(Daily Evening Bulletin, July 4, 1879, p. 4).
The "Union Chapel" in the Valley was dedicated on this occasion.
Galen Clark and John Muir made presentations to the assembly.
Muir's speech about glaciers "inspired the crowded house with
such enthusiasm that more than a hundred climbed the trail to
Upper Yosemite Falls with the lecturer" (Daily Evening Bulletin,
July 12, 1879, p. 2). Some of attendees were even more adventurous:
Daily Evening Bulletin, June 14, 1879, p. 3
Yosemite, June 14th.
...Excursions, semi-scientific and pleasure, are the order of the day.
Rev. A. S. Fiske has led two parties of climbers to the summit of
South Dome. Rev. J. M. Allis of the Occident has also made this ascent...
Fiske and Allis were Presbyterian ministers in San Francisco
at the time of the Assembly. Asa Severance Fiske (1833-1925),
was about 46 years old when he made those two ascents in 1879.
He was born in Ohio, graduated in class of 1855 at Amherst College,
and served as chaplain for the Fourth Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War.
After the War, he held pastorates successively
in Rockville (Connecticut), Rochester (New York), San Francisco, and
Ithaca (New York), until he was eighty-four. He died in New Orleans.
John Mather Allis (1839-1899), was 39 in the summer of 1879.
Born in Quebec, Canada, he left for Troy, N.Y., at the age of 14.
He graduated from Princeton in 1866, and from Union Theological
Seminary in 1869, then served in Albany (New York), Lansing (Mich), and Anaheim (California).
Between 1877 and 1881 he served
at the Larkin Street Church in San Francisco.
After a brief stay in Lafayette (Indiana), he got appointed a foreign
missionary and assigned to Chile, where he died.
1879: New York Tribune correspondent
Ascenders: George H. Fitch, W. Henry Grant, Henry D. Robinson
In July 1879, an unnamed San Francisco correspondent of
a New York paper made a trip to Yosemite Valley.
There, he encountered two Eastern men, who—like him—had
a prejudice against riding over the trails. They "struck
hands, and formed a compact to do the place on foot".
Their adventure in Yosemite was described a year later in the
New-York Tribune, June 27, 1880, p. 5
Ten Days in Yosemite
(From an occasional correspondent of the Tribune)
A Perilous Climb On South Dome.
We essayed first the easier trails—those to
Glacier Point and the Vernal and Nevada Falls—and
by the third day felt equal to more ambitious
efforts. So we laid siege to South Dome—a peak
which has a bad reputation, and which was wholly
inaccessible until a few years ago. It is shaped
like a sugar-loaf, sliced in half, the smooth flat side
being toward the valley. The trail winds about
the base, makes an immense detour, and emerges at
the rear of the mountain. It is thickly wooded
until it approaches the summit. Then trees and
vegetation suddenly disappear; nothing is left but
barren rock, looking like great masses of iron
welded together, and seamed by overlapping folds,
which give the mountain crown a close resemblance
to the flank of a mammoth rhinoceros.
The summit rises directly from a narrow plateau,
on which a place is soon reached where the trip
ends for the lazy or timid. The path slopes away
on either side, in long roof-tree style, for
a thousand feet, then falls in a sheer precipice
of three thousand feet to the valley below.
Up the steep crown of the mountain, 900 feet in
perpendicular height, which makes a spherical
angle of about sixty degrees, is stretched a rope,
formed of seven strong hemp ropes of the size of an
ordinary clothes-line, knotted together at intervals
of eighteen inches. It is fixed to the rock by iron
staples every fifteen or twenty feet. The only
danger lies in the giving way of a staple or the
breaking of the rope, two casualties that could not
readily occur, as the rope is frequently inspected by
guides, and the staples seem to be clenched on the
nether side of the mountain. To an active man or
woman, not given to dizziness, the ascent is without
much danger. Carefully working one's way
hand over hand, the slack of the rope allowing a
nearly upright position, one finally nears the summit
and skips over the last one hundred feet by the
aid of a single line.
A barren plateau of several acres is the foreground.
The entire length of valley and can[y]on
stretches away in front, so near that it seems you
may call to the pigmy figures moving about a mile
below you, and two miles away as the bee flies.
Directly below, as you lie prone on the rocky ledge
and peer over, is Mirror Lake looking like an
artificial fish pond. On the left is the Little Yosemite
Valley, with a spray-like fall in the dim distance,
and at the back the shaggy-headed monster whose
fastnesses are seldom disturbed is Cloud's Rest.
Mountain peaks can't be enjoyed long, more's the
pity. Ten minutes on a mountain top for a five
hours' tramp is usually the rule. But in those
minutes one may get a view of the valley which is
unsurpassed from any other point...
At first it looked as if the anonymous autor of
the article and names of his climbing companions would forever remain
unknown. But a further research, and lots of luck, helped
determining that the author of the article in the
Tribune was George Hamlin Fitch of San Francisco. His two companions were
Henry de Groot Robinson (New York), and William Henry Grant
(Philadelphia). More information will be added shortly.
1879: Sea of livid flames: Storm atop the Dome
Ascenders: Mary and James Lawrence, James Hutchings, five other ladies and gentlemen
Sound of approaching thunders brings fears into hearts of climbers
atop Half Dome even today. The following is an early
description of a storm that caught a group of people still at the top
of the Dome:
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, July 27, 1879, p. 1
Perilous Climb of the South Dome of the Yosemite
Terrors of a Summit Storm—A Lake of Fire—Olympian Thunderings...
[A group of climbers find a charming camp-ground
by the side of the Merced, in the Little Yosemite Valley,
two miles up from the Nevada Fall. They climb to
the top of the Cap of Liberty on the first day. Back in camp,
they "rest and skirmish hereabouts for a few days,
every hour's exercise strengthening us for the glorious
At 8 a.m. on one of these days we leave camp, pass portions of
the walls of the Little Yosemite that have been polished by glaciers...
We go over these moraines, and en route to the South Dome or
Tissack call at George Anderson's cabin... We ride away up to the base
of the great mountain. Then comes a long, hard hand-and-foot
climb up into the saddle on the eastern wall... There yet remains
nearly 1,000 feet of wall to scale. The only way to accomplish
it is by a rope which is swinging down from out the heavens...
For us to make this ascent is a perilous undertaking, or rather
overtaking. Away we go, not daring to gaze downwards, lest we
lose our senses and be dashed into fragments. Finally we hear
the avant-courier shouting, "Up in a balloon, boys", as he reaches
and drags us up and over the edge, when, blinding our eyes with
our hands, we rush back from the dizzy spot.
All are safely landed before any one turns attention to the
surroundings, for there has been much anxiety. We find eight trees,
four different kinds of pines, on the summit. There are numerous
shrubs and flowers growing in the crevices, while lizards, grasshoppers
and chipmunk tenant this isolated mountain... We count nineteen
immense forest fires away below us... The sheep-herders are thus doing
disastrous work, destroying timber and the beauty of landscape,
and thinning the dense groves that shelter ice fields, making
them become devastating floods upon being exposed to the full glare
of the sun[!]
But what is this? Clouds are gathering about us.
Heaven have mercy on us, for how will we ever descend if a storm
head us off?... Belts of red and golden and dark purple clouds,
indicative of the coming anger of the elements, gather around
the setting sun. But he persistently forces his rays through
them all till every bank of cloud and mountain chain, dome, pinacle,
spire and crest is lighted up with brilliant glare.
All around our very feet, and far about us
as the eye can reach, is a shining sea of livid flames.
Even the deepest black canyons are filled full of a lurid
purplish red... We stand in ineffable terror gazing upon the
fascinating panorama... The thunder renews its crashes from summit to
summit, and re-echoes again and again adown the canyon's depths.
The lightning flashes in livid lines about the cliff-sides through
the flaming atmosphere... Renewing our courage, [we] hurry to the
edge of the precipice, down which we are to swoop through the storm
and perhaps in utter darkness...
The lightning darts its fiery shafts all through the air about
our feet as one after another swings into the perilous hand-clinging
journey on the rope of the 1,000-foot precipice. We literally
ride upon the storm [which has now broken below us], almost
treading upon the lightning and grasping it in our hands...
The rains falls fast, the wall is dripping with trickling water,
the rope-knots are soaking, our naked hands are blistered (for our
gloves were too slippery in the wet), and we only make the landing
in time to save our lives. But what a grand and glorious experience,
and, full of thanksgiving, little reck we the storm as we jog
on our way to the river side [and our camp]...
Also reprinted in St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 3, 1879, p. 10
Mrs. Mary Viola Lawrence.
Drawn in 1896 "from an old
This was the last of seven articles about Yosemite
published in the Chronicle on Sundays between June 15 and July 27, 1879.
The correspondent, signed only as "Ridinghood", gives her description
of current events in the Valley, including the Sabbath-School Assembly,
as well as her reminiscence of earlier visits. Therefore, it is not
completely excluded that the Half Dome ascent described above,
had happened in an earlier year. The author discloses that
the party consisted of eight people, including several ladies,
led by James Hutchings. We also learn that "Mr. and Mrs. Snow
[of the Snow's House, near the foot of Nevada Fall] were locked
in their chalet all last winter". Based on that information,
perhaps somebody with good knowledge
of the history of the Snow's Hotel could help narrow down the
exact year of the Half Dome excursion described by "Ridinghood".
The author hiding behind this nom de plume was
Mary Viola Lawrence (nee Tingley), wife of
lawyer-politician-editor James Henry Lawrence.
She was columnist and correspondent for several California newspapers,
and an established literary figure. James Mason Hutchings praises her
in his In the Heart of the Sierras as one
"who has done so much by her rich and varied description to bespeak wrapt
attention to the Valley", but he does not mention this trip in his books.
Mary Viola Tingley (cca 1839 - 1931), was a
native of Rushville, Indiana, and came to California in the early fifties.
She began her newspaper career
by commenting San Francisco social matters for the readers
of the Sacramento Union in her popular weekly "Ridinghood Letters".
In 1865, the first anthology of California poetry, Outcroppings,
was published under Bret Harte's name, although those verses
were collected mostly by Mary Tingley. In June 1870, she married
James H. Lawrence (1827-1901),
a California Senator representing Mariposa, Stanislaus
and Merced from 1867 to 1871, and former editor and proprietor of the
Mariposa Free Press. She called him "Ingomar" in her "High Sierra" serial.
They had one daughter, Constance Violet Lawrence, born in 1879.
Eventually, James deserted his wife and daughter,
and their divorce followed, but Mary forgave her husband
and remarried him a week before his death.
Mary continued working for San Francisco
newspapers and the Overland Monthly.
She was a member of the Woman's Press Association,
and a historian of a San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of the
American Revolution. Her book "A Diplomat's Helpmate" (about Rose F. Foote
and her experiences in Korea) was published in 1918.
She died in her daughter's home in San Francisco on April 23, 1931.
1881: Old rope disintegrated
According to the following account,
Anderson's rope became so frayed and unsafe
by the summer of 1880, that its lower part got cut to prevent any further
climbing attempts and possible accidents. However, some adventurers
were still not discouraged.
Ascenders: Anderson, George Strong, possibly another person
This is an abbreviated version of George Strong's description of
his ascent of Half Dome in the spring of 1881. Check also the
complete article, with illustrations
on a separate page.
Pacific Rural Press, San Francisco, Saturday, June 18, 1881, p. 431
In October 1875, Mr. Geo. G. Anderson succeeded, after two days and a
half, in accomplishing the first Half Dome ascent. Mr. Anderson is a
Scotchman, who has resided in the valley for 15 years. He is a ship
carpenter by trade, and had followed the sea in that business for many
years before settling on shore. Before his residence in the valley, he was
engaged in putting up one or two suspension bridges over the Tuolumne and
other rivers, and acquired considerable local fame for fearlessness and
steadiness of nerve. After determining to try the ascent of the dome, he
prepared eye-bolts, drills, chisels, and the necessary ropes, and packed
them to a convenient place, and after much hard work he reached the top,
and planted a flagstaff there.
Last year the rope became unsafe, and was cut to prevent any further
attempts and possible accidents. When Anderson offered to accompany me to
the Saddle, which he said was as far as we could go, I eagerly accepted
the invitation. We followed a comparatively easy path toward Cloud's Rest,
until we reached a point where we turned off and commenced the ascent
toward the Dome. We passed the cabin where Anderson lived and
prepared the iron work and bolts for his attempts, emerged from the timber
and caught the first glimpse of the Dome and the Saddle. We climbed the
projecting spur of the Saddle, with considerable difficulty, and took a
long rest upon the comparatively flat surface at the top of this
elevation. Two hundred and fifty feet or more above us dangled the frayed
and ragged end of the rope which had been broken at that point, and after
extending, with one or two breaks, some 400 or 500 ft upward, it again
terminated, and apparently where it would be most needed.
I had made up my mind before starting that, if possible, I would attempt
the ascent, but dared not speak of it to Anderson, fearing that he would
not allow it. But Anderson now seemed to divine my intention. He gathered
a few of the bolts which had been pulled out and were lying at the foot
upon the Saddle, and selected some of the best of the pieces of rope
which were still lying there, to repair with. We started up, putting in a
bolt here and there, and making the rope fast, for it was almost entirely
loose from the point where it commenced, to its upper end. We added some
rope at the lower end, and worked slowly up, not trusting the rope, as it
was very weak in many places. Before we had accomplished half the ascent,
the clouds began to close in around us, and we abandoned the rope and went
up the remainder of the distance as fast as we could. We found the
flagstaff fallen down, and set it up, and then the clouds broke away a
little and gave us a magnificent view of the valley.
G. H. Strong in the mid 1870s.
As new ropes have been sent to the valley by the commissioners, the South
Dome will soon be again accessible to anyone who has nerve and does not
mind a little hard work, and it is probable that by another season a
flight of steps will be put up, as Mr. Anderson has all the necessary
lumber just at the foot of the Saddle, and well protected.
I couldn't find any confirmation that a new rope had been delivered and
mounted in 1881. The next party, Osborne-Gassaway (below), still found
the rope quite weather-worn, with many staples loose and detached
from the rock.
George Henry Strong (1839-1925),
was about 42 when he climbed Half Dome with Anderson. He was
born in Massachusetts, but moved to San Francisco
after graduation. He was a patent attorney (solicitor) in the City,
and an avid sportsman: a member of the oldest boat club in the Bay Area
(Pioneer Rowing Club), and one of founders of the
San Francisco Bicycle Club in 1879. He was a co-author of a biking book,
The Cyclists' Road-book of California: Containing Maps of the Principal
Riding Districts North, East and South from San Francisco,
1893. He was also connected with Dewey & Co.'s Mining and Scientific Press
Patent Agency, and a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
His younger daughter, Lilian, became the wife
of Edward Hale Campbell, a Vice Admiral of the U. S. Navy, in 1899.
In his later years, George lived in Oakland, with the family of his
older daughter Georgie Strong Hubbard. He died on June 1, 1925.
Ascenders: Anderson(?), Henry Osborne, Frank Gassaway
Henry Z. Osborne described his 1881 ascent in a letter to the editor of the
Los Angeles Times, thirty-four years after the actual climb:
Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1915, p. II5
Climbing the Half Dome
Los Angeles, Aug. 16 — To the Editor of the Times: The feat of
seventeen college students, several from this city, accompanied by
the photographer A. C. Pillsbury, of climbing the Half Dome in
the Yosemite Valley [in August 1915]...,
is a very notable achievement in mountain climbing.
But it is not quite accurate to say that "this is the first time on record
that the top of the Dome has been reached by human beings", although it is
probably true it has not been done during the last thirty years.
In the year 1881, when I had less sense and less avoirdupois
than now, accompanied by Frank Gassoway [actually: Gassaway],
a San Francisco newspaper man,
who wrote under the nom de plume "Derick Dodd", I made the ascent of the
I came into the valley horseback from Mono Lake, crossing by the way of
Mill Creek Canyon, Mt. Dana, Tioga, the Tuolumne meadows and Lake Tenaya,
and meeting Mr. Gassoway in the valley, we agreed together to climb the
Half Dome, or the South Dome, as it is sometimes called.
We rode horseback from the valley to the Saddle, which is 960 feet below
the summit of the Dome, and from that point we climbed the rock by aid of
a rope about a half inch in diameter, which had been placed there by a sailor
named Anderson in the early seventies. He had set iron staples with rings
in the rock about seventy-five feet apart, and the rope was attached
to each of those staples. Many venturesome people climbed the Dome while
this rope was in place. At that time the rope was quite weather-worn
and many of the staples had become loose and detached from the rock.
These rattling on the surface of the granite were very disconcerting
during the climb...
From a distance the Half Dome
looks perfectly smooth and shines like glass in the sun, but in reality
it is of granite of rather coarse texture, and the grain of the rock,
with occasional cracks, give a slight foothold.
This rope, which was regarded as dangerous, was taken down that year,
and no one has ever ascended the Half Dome in the thirty-odd years since,
until the feat of Pillsbury and the students, which was really a very
On the top of the rock, 9500 feet above the sea level, there is an
acre or so comparatively level, and on this were many bones of sheep,
which had climbed the steep dome, but could not raise sufficient courage
to descend, and died at the top rather than make the attempt.
H. Z. Osborne
Well, Osborne was certainly wrong in one thing: Ascents continued
even after the summer of 1881. It is interesting that Osborne's
climbing partner, Frank Gassaway, made a note about Half Dome in
his book Summer saunterings (1882), but he didn't say explicitely
that he had made the ascent. What looked like a second hand knowledge,
could now be read in a new light in view of that newly found Osborne's letter.
It appears that Osborne and Gassaway were accompanied by Anderson on their
trip. Here is what Gassaway had said about Yosemite:
Summer saunterings, by Frank Harrison Gassaway, San Francisco, 1882, p. 122:
As a standpoint for the landscape viewer, the polished summit of
[Half Dome] is incomparably the finest in the whole range, towering as it does
five thousand feet above the Valley floor and commanding its entire scope,
from east to west. The drawback to its general enjoyment by the tourist is the
undeniably hazardous nature of the present means of ascent, which from
the top of the horse-trail to the apex of the eminence is by means of a rope
nine hundred feet long. This cord lies upon the slippery surface of the granite slope,
the angle never being less than forty degrees. The marvel of the matter is
how this cord was first placed on that air-line trail by the spider-footed
Geo. Anderson, a guide of the greatest strength and most iron nerve.
A man ascending this dizzy slant presents about the relative appearance of
a fly walking up the side of an inverted goblet. Very few visitors care
to attempt it, unless under the supervision of this guide, Anderson, whose
wonderful coolness was acquired as a sailor. The cord itself is hardly
calculated to inspire the fullest confidence, being composed of
seven thicknesses of common, hay-bale-rope. This, however, is knotted every
few inches to assist the hands, besides which the climber can rest at certain
intervals and anoint the soles of his feet with fresh mucilage, a bottle of
which he carries in his vest pocket for the purpose...
Henry Zenas Osborne (1848-1923), was 32 when he made this Half Dome ascent.
He was born in New Lebanon, New York, and came to Bodie, California in 1878,
where he edited and managed the Daily Standard and
founded the Bodie Daily Free Press. He made the trip to Yosemite
during his Bodie years. In 1884, he moved to Los Angeles, and acquired the
Evening Republican and the Evening Express, which he
directed until 1897. A biographical note from 1889 states that
"Mr. Osborne has a family of wife and five children, — four sons and one
daughter, — and a pleasant home in Los Angeles". After 1897,
Osborne pursued a political career, which culminated
in his election as a Republican to Congress in 1916, the post he held
until his death in 1923.
Frank Harrison Gassaway (1848-1923), was only nine months older than Osborne,
and had the same life span as his Yosemite partner. They both died early
in 1923. Frank was 33, and an accomplished
poet and reporter in San Francisco, when he climbed the Dome.
He was born in Maryland or Washington, D.C., and came to
California in or before 1880. By that time, two of
his most popular patriotic poems were already published:
The Pride of Battery B (4th U.S. Light Artillery),
and The Dandy Fifth. In California, he was a regular
correspondent for the San Francisco Evening Post.
He wrote for the Post
a series of semi-humorous, semi-descriptive
letters (a la Mark Twain) about popular California tourist attractions
under pseudonym of "Derrick Dodd". These writings were
collected in the book Summer saunterings in 1882. Later in his life,
Gassaway worked for Hearst's San Francisco Examiner.
With Hearst's support, a collection of his early works
Poems: By Frank Harrison Gassaway were published in New York in 1920.
By that time, patriotic poetry of the Civil War era was quickly
getting out of style. Gassaway died in 1923 (see
his obituary in
the New York Times). [Note: Finding Gassaway's biographical data
was not an easy task, because he was born Francis, then used the name Frank
through most of his life, and was called Franklin at the time of
1883: More climbs
Ascender: Newton Chittenden
N. H. Chittenden in about 1890.
A lawyer, turned traveler, Newton H. Chittenden, published a book
with a long title in 1884, in which he described Pacific Coast's
health and pleasure resorts. On the page 135, in the chapter
about Yosemite, he talks about Snow's Hotel near the foot of
Nevada Fall, and says: "When Mrs. Snow, the excellent hostess and
housekeeper, came to take possession of her mountain home,
thirteen years ago, no bridges had been built..."
Since Snow's chalet was opened in April of 1870, it appears that
Chittenden's visit took place in 1883. Being that close to
Half Dome, and not visiting it, was not an option for Chittenden. He continued:
"Six miles more, and then a climb by rope and hand over hand, of 900
feet, at an angle of 45 degrees, and I stood upon the summit of South
Dome, one of the grandest pinnacles on earth. Its first ascent was made
by Geo. Anderson, Oct. 12th, 1875. It should only be undertaken by
those strong of limb and nerve, until rests have been provided for
protection, in case of accident".
While it was likely that Chittenden had made his climb in the summer
of 1883, I couldn't find any other book or newspaper article that would provide
a confirmation or more details. However, in the summer of 2012,
I had a chance to check the register of Snow's Hotel in the Yosemite
Museum. An undated entry in the 1883 register, written some time between
July 27 and August 5 of that year reads:
Newton H. Chittenden, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Pacific Coast
address: A. L. Bancroft Publishers 721 Market Str., S. F'o.)
Therefore, we can now fix Chittenden's Half Dome climb to a narrow window
around August 1, 1883.
Newton Henry Chittenden (1840-1925), was
a native of Connecticut, but moved with his family to Wisconsin in 1855.
He served through the Civil War in the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry,
and was honorably discharged in May of 1866. He then resumed his studies,
graduated from the Law School at Columbia College in 1868,
and worked as attorney in Litchfield, Minnesota in the early 1870s. After
to Amelie Freidrick and the birth of his first child,
they moved to Brooklyn, N. Y. In the 1880 Census, five children
were listed in Newton and Amelia's household. However, by that time
Newton has lost interest in his profession and his family,
and began a career of lonely traveler, explorer, adventurer and writer.
He was 42 when he made his Half Dome climb in August of 1883.
Chittenden became the first white man to explore the interior of the
Queen Charlotte Islands, and wrote extensively about that.
He was versed in several Indian languages, and
his donations to museums in this country, Canada and England have included
many valuable relics and much data pertaining to the Indian tribes and
prehistoric Americans. In the last years of his life he may have
renewed connections to his wife and children. Amelie died in
San Diego in 1924, and Newton died in Long Beach a year later,
at the age of 84, and is buried in the Sunnyside Cemetery.
Ascenders: Henry Hamilton, Christopher Magee(?), Gerald Strickland(?)
I didn't find any direct newspaper report about this ascent,
but an account, written many years later, would suggest that at least
Hamilton, and perhaps Magee and Strickland, climbed Half Dome
in the summer of 1883.
Foot Prints, by Henry Raymond Hamilton,
Lakeside Press, Chicago, 1927, pp. 121-122
[Describing events in 1883, upon his arrival to San Francisco:]
[...In the City, I met a man who]
had been to the Orient and the Hawaiian Islands
and had landed at San Francisco to begin his invasion of America.
His name was Count Bologna Strickland; his father was an Englishman and
he had been educated in England. His mother was a
Maltese and his estates were on the island of Malta, from
whence he took his title. We arranged to make a trip together
to the Yosemite Valley, and left San Francisco by
rail for the nearest point to the Valley, which I think was Merced,
from which we staged into the valley, stopping overnight at
the Mariposa Big tree grove.
Our companions on this stage trip were Chris Magee of Pittsburgh,
and his wife and sister. Chris afterwards became the Republican boss of
Western Pennsylvania and had the
free and easy manners of the American politician and also the American
to titles. The count was very dignified and took himself quite seriously.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside cabin, and after the rest of the party had
embarked, the count was discovered making notes in his memorandum book,
probably for the book he intended writing. Magee electrified him
by calling out,
"Hurry up there Bologna Sausage, old boy,
we can't hold this bus all day for you." I suppose that he put this in his
notes, too. We were in the valley only one day,
but we saw as much as the ordinary tourist sees in three days,
because we galloped our horses all day long,
from one point to another. We even
climbed to the top of the South Dome, a feat which, according to the guide
book, had never been accomplished. However, a sailor
had managed to scale the height a year or two before, and had left
a rope anchored at various points in the rock.
By putting one's feet against the rock, and going up about 800 feet of rope,
hand over hand, the feat was not so difficult, although it required some
agility. When we got to the top, we climbed down to a ledge on
the vertical wall of the cliff and dropped stones to the floor
of the valley, a straight drop of a mile...
It is not completely clear how many people from Hamilton's party made
it to the Dome ("we[?!] even climbed to the top...").
Date of the visit is not given in the book, but it could be narrowed down
from passenger and hotel guests lists published in California papers.
The Sacramento Daily Union of September 5, shows
"Mr. and Mrs. C. L. Magee, and Miss Magee, Pittsburg, Pa." in a train
passing Wells, Nevada, on September 4, and arriving to
Sacramento/San Francisco on September 5.
The Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, September 8, 1883, p. 4,
lists Count Strickland coming back from a trip to Honolulu, and arriving
to San Francisco on the "City of New York" on September 7.
One "H. R. Hamilton of Chicago" was registered in the
"Golden Eagle Hotel" in Sacramento on September 14, 1883.
The Yosemite trip perhaps took place between September 8 and 13.
Henry Raymond Hamilton (1861-1940), was 22 at the time of this ascent.
He was born in Chicago, and in addition to Foot Prints, he also
published a book about Chicago history: The Epic of Chicago,
in about 1932. Count Gerald Bologna-Strickland (1861-1940), later Lord Strickland,
was also 22 at the time of that trip. He was educated at St. Mary's College,
Oscott, and Trinity College, Cambridge. In later years,
he would serve as Governor of Tasmania, Governor
of Western Australia, Governor of New South Wales,
and as Prime Minister of Malta. I don't know if
he had ever published his notes from the trip to Yosemite.
Christopher Lyman Magee (1848-1901) was the
oldest of the three Yosemite visitors: his age was 35 in 1883.
He would become a noted political figure in Pittsburgh and
Pennsylvania. He unexpectedly died while serving as a state senator, in 1901.
Ascenders: Gleadell, Burns
British The Gentleman's Magazine, published
the story "Yosemite Memories" by W. H. Gleadell in September 1896.
The author remembers his trip from San Francisco to Yosemite
a couple of years earlier, and adds the following description
of his Half Dome ascent:
The Gentleman's Magazine, London, Volume CCLXXXI ,
September 1896, pp. 245-258
Yosemite Memories, by W. H. Gleadell
...The day was still very young as we galloped down the valley to the Half
Dome trail... Near the foot of Nevada Fall stands
Snow's Hotel and here we dismounted...
At Snow's we stayed long enough to
rest and refresh our horses, then
continued up the trail to the top of the Nevada Fall, and round the base
of a stupendous and isolated mass of rock, nearly perpendicular on all
sides, known as the Cap of Liberty. Here we turned out of the Merced
Gorge into the Little Yosemite Valley, and by the side of a small brook,
the last water we were to see till the same spot was reached on our
return, partook alfresco of the luncheon we had brought with us in our
Our Mexican ponies took us to within 1,000 feet
of the summit, the point
at which most of the amateur climbers of the ancient abode of Tesaiyac
finally stop. Comparatively few, we were assured, ever reach the
flag-staff. We had been duly warned before starting of the dangers
attendant on the ascent of the rounded dome itself, and we had to
as we looked up at the almost perpendicular (about 80 degrees) smooth
granite surface and the solitary rope to which we were to trust our
lives, that it did look somewhat fearful.
The rope, of fifteen strands of a very strong fibre, was securely
fastened at the top of the peak,
and then fixed by iron cleats driven into the face
of the rock at intervals of 100 feet. The ascent is effected by pulling
oneself up this rope hand over hand, at the same time firmly gripping the
granite face of the mountain with one's feet. Despite the assertion of
guide books that the ascent is "hazardous in the extreme", it is not a
difficult feat provided one has a good head and can
rely on one's fingers—for a moment's loss of power or
self-control must mean inevitable destruction. Only two of us,
however, essayed this final portion of the ascent—a
Scotchman, bearing the truly Scottish name of Burns, and the
writer—but I do not think either of us were sorry
when we at last stood on the plateau beside the
flagstaff. This plateau was some ten acres in extent, and surrounded on
all sides, except that by which we had come, by apparently bottomless
abysses, out of which the roaring of distant waters was the only sound
that issued. No sign of life or vegetation was visible anywhere save away
down in the Yosemite Valley, 5,000 feet below, but the panorama was
nevertheless superb. Over intervening canons and gorges the pale majestic
Sierra peaks rose grandly desolate against the cloudless sky, and the
bald granite rocks around us showed almost as white as the
distant snow-capped heights beyond...
For some twenty minutes we stood on this awe-inspiring spot, and then
commenced the return journey. This had to be performed backwards, so that
fully an hour and a half had elapsed before we again rejoined our friends
The sun was getting very low when we once more reached Snow's,
and by the time we entered
the wood again we found it necessary to dismount and lead
our ponies as best we could through the darkness, and many tumbles and
bruises were ours before we emerged from the forest on to the floor of
the valley... A smart gallop to finish, and we were again
at the door of our hotel,
having been some twelve hours in the saddle, pleased with ourselves
and grateful for all the beauty and majestic grandeur we had seen.
The text was also reprinted in the Eclectic Magazine,
Vol. 64, December 1896, pp. 837-846.
The author does not identify a date of the trip directly,
other than saying that it started "on a lovely September afternoon"
(no year!), but he left several clues in the text that
can unmistakenly determine the year. He lists other West Coast
visitors at the time of his trip,
among them a group "entertained by the American Bar
Association", and another one organized by "Mr. Villard of the Northern
Pacific Railroad", consisting of "the present
Lord Chief Justice of England, and a number of other leading
lights of the British Bar and Parliament". He also talks about
a recent Yosemite stage robbery. All those events happened
in the late August or early September of 1883.
William Henry Gleadell (1864-1941),
was about 19 at the time of his ascent. From an interesting
written by his son, we learn that William came to California (and
back to Brittain) aboard the White Star Line clipper, Hoghton Tower
(sometimes called "Houghton Tower").
This information can furhter narrow down the date of his Yosemite visit.
San Francisco newspapers
show Hoghton Tower arriving
to San Francisco on August 31, 1883 ("from Liverpool, via Bahia [Brazil],
175 days on sea"). Gleadell was author of several other essays
in British journals (one, for example, about San Francisco
Chinatown), and several letters to The Times editor.
He fought and was seriously injured in WWI,
survived the most intensive period of daylight bombing of London
in 1940/1941, and died "very peacefully, at a London nursing home,
after a long illness" (The Times) on May 27, 1941.
A good example of how a family tradition could take a life
of its own, while not always being easily reconcilable with facts,
is a comment in Gleadell's biography quoted above:
"He shipped [in Hoghton Tower]
as one of five apprentices, including one called Shackleton;
all five swore they would never go to sea again. Many years later my
father took me, while passing through New York, to hear a lecture by Sir
Ernest Shackleton on his polar explorations and it was a thrill for me
to go back stage and meet the great man". In fact, while
Gleadell's journey in Hoghton Tower happened in 1883/1884,
Shackleton, who was ten years younger than Gleadell, first went to
sea much later, and spent four years aboard Hoghton Tower
from 1890 to 1894. They simply could not have been apprentices on the ship
at the same time.
1884: Anderson dies
Anderson never succeeded in building a wooden stairway, let alone an "elevator"
to the top of Half Dome. Whatever progress he made in summers, heavy winter
snows and avalanches would sweep away. Eventually, he gave up, and focused
on building a better access trail to the "saddle", just below the ropes
section. The Yosemite Commission, on behalf of the California Legislature,
also hired him to work on a new trail to Snow's Hotel, but apparently,
he never got paid a cent for that work. The trail remained unfinished,
but some of its sections between Happy Isles and Vernal Fall bridge
are still in use today.
And then everything came to an abrupt stop.
Steve Harrison, in his George Anderson, First Up the Dome, in
Yosemite Nature Notes, Vol 46, No. 2, 1977, writes: "In the spring of 1884,
while painting Adolph Sinning's cottage in Yosemite Valley, Anderson contracted
pneumonia and died May 8 at George Fiske's house". The Stockton Independent
printed a note about Anderson's death, but stated that he had died on May 10.
The account from the Independent was copied by other newspapers:
Mariposa Gazette, May 24, 1884
Death of a celebrity.
The Stockton Independent says: "George Anderson, a native of Melrose,
Scotland, aged 47, and for a long time a resident in Yo Semite Valley,
died there on the 10th inst., of acute pneumonia. He was a man of
pluck and daring, being the first to climb South Dome, and it was to his skill
and perseverance that it's ascent was made possible to others.
He was latterly engaged in building a wide passageway from the floor
of the Valley up to the Vernal and Nevada Falls, which, being cut in the side
of the granite walls, required blasting most of the way".
A more dramatic description of Anderson's death was presented at
a California Senate hearing in February 1889, by Charles D. Robinson,
who had spent many years in the Valley. Robinson indirectly blamed the
Yosemite Commission, and particularly Commissioner Briggs, for Anderson's
death. Here is how Chas described, in his own words, the events of the Spring of 1884:
[George Anderson] died from want and exposure, really brought on
by want of wages that were justly due him for work on that trail. He died
of pneumonia. George Anderson went to Mr. Sinning in the spring (...);
he says: "Mr. Sinning,
I need money to buy food, and you will have to give me a job. "Well",
Sinning told him: "I will give you a job. I want the front of my house
washed off and cleaned off" (...) And he went to work on the house, and
this storm came up, and George kept to work during the rain, and sleet,
and snow falling, and he was under the weather at that time, and Sinning
begged him, he says: "George, don't work any more; I will pay you just the
same if you don't work". George said he had always earned his living, and
he didn't want charity from anybody; he would work for it. He was finally
obliged to give up, and went in and sat down in Sinning's house, and was
taken with chills; and the building that I occupied for a studio he was
using to do some wood work in the winter. He had permission from me. He
went in that building and laid in his bunk, and they carried him away
almost by force. Nobody in the valley except the Leidigs seemed to care
anything about the man. He laid there, and would have died without any
care or any attention at all in the valley. When it was too late they took
him down to Mr. Fiske's house, I believe; took him down there, but it was
too late, and he died from pneumonia, simply from want and exposure. He
had nothing on earth wherewith to provide himself with the necessaries of
life (...) [His death] was one of the greatest losses that Yosemite
Valley ever sustained in the shape of a laborer or handy man...
George's brother, Charlie Anderson, testified in the same hearing that
George only had $2.50 left in cash at the time of his death.
The Commission allegedly had owned him about $1,500.
You can find
Anderson's simple grave
in the Yosemite Cemetery, in the Valley.
Other early ascents, for which dates could not be established
Many other tourists made it to Half Dome in the summer
seasons of 1876-1883, either directly guided by
Anderson, or by using his system of ropes and pins.
We can only guess
the number of successful ascents during the years in which
Anderson has kept his route in working order (apparently,
up to 1882 or 1883). Hutchings estimates that
almost 18,000 people had visited the Valley from 1876 to 1883,
or—on average—some 2000 visitors per year
(deduced from his In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 10).
Hittel, in his Hand-book of Pacific Coast Travel, published
in 1885, states that (p. 158) "Out of 100 tourists who visit the Yosemite,
80 go to Glacier Point, as many to the Nevada Fall, 20 to Eagle Point,
10 to Cloud's Rest, and 3 to the top of the Half Dome".
This estimate, combined with Hutchings' numbers, would suggest some
sixty Half Dome ascents per year during
Anderson's era (compare this to
as many as 1,000 hikers per day atop the Dome
on a typical summer weekend in 2008).
There are other, more conservative estimates. For example,
in an article about Half Dome from 1901, we find the sentence:
"Some years ago an old sailor was engaged for several summmers
drilling rings into the rock... and by means
of the rope venturesome stocking-footed climbers,
to the number of about fifty,
including several women, made their way over the shelf of rock..."
(The Atlanta Constitution, March 24, 1901, p. A5)
Unfortunately, names of climbers or dates of those ascents
were not recorder in newspapers that I can reach.
In a few cases, we know names
of early ascenders, but dates of their trips could not be established
Ascenders: Anderson, Julius Birge, a young San Franciscan (between 1875 and 1877)
Birge's book The Awakening of the Desert was already
Birge must have made it to the top shortly after Sarah Dutcher's ascent,
because he had found her bracelet on the summit plateau. However, it is not
clear if this was in 1875 or in later years.
Ascender: Fannie Crippen
After their father's death, four Crippen sisters were
adopted and raised by their step-father, a hotelkeeper in the Valley,
John Barnard. We already met the eldest sister
Abbie Crippen and talked about her
Half Dome ascent in 1877.
Shirley Sargent in her Pioneers in Petticoats
adds that Abbie's sister Fannie Crippen, born in 1864,
made it to the top with another party, but no date is given: "When
Fannie climbed Half Dome with three other daredevil souls, they scorned
the usual route and started at Mirror Lake, scrambling up to the
dome's face, then skirting easterly around the back, and up the cable.
Their shoes wore out before they reached home". No source for
this (quite confusing) description was given in Sargent's book.
Mary Adair, Yosemite teacher,
1881/82 and 1882/83.
Ascender: Mary Adair (1883?)
An interesting Web article,
Adair Family of Mariposa",
gives the following brief biography of Mary E. Adair: "She
became a teacher and taught school in Yosemite. She was also an artist
and painted many pictures of Yosemite. She was the first woman
to climb Half Dome..." We know that Mary was not
the first woman to climb Half Dome, but we don't know the date
of her possible ascent. Mary taught in Yosemite in the 1881/82
and 1882/83 seasons, then she was assigned to a school in Indian Gulch
later in 1883. Shirley Sargent, in her Petticoats (p. 43),
has a full-page photo with the description: "Yosemite schoolhouse
and pupils with schoolmarm Mary Adair about 1881",
but she doesn't mention Mary's Half Dome climb. Later in her life,
after her marriaga to Lewis (or Louis) E. Aubury,
Mary became an active member of the Native Daughters of the Golden West
(NDGW) in Southern California. In the March 1917 issue of the
Grizzly Bear, the official organ of NDGW, a brief note about recent
activities in Los Angeles says (page 14): "Tells of perilous trip:
February 19 , Mrs. Mary Aubury
entertained with an account of her ascent of South Dome, Yosemite,
in 1883; she was the first woman to make this then-perilous trip".
If we are to believe this note, Mary's ascent took place probably in
the summer of 1883.
Ascender: William Stegman (1876?)
On January 21, 1938, the Oakland Tribune printed
William G. Stegman's obituary. It reads:
"Veteran miner Stegman dies in Berkeley.
A man who boasted he was the second man
ever to climb Half Dome in Yosemite died in
a nursing home here yesterday after a short illness. Stegman died after
a rigorous career of mining and exploring
over the North American continent, in which he touched Alaska,
Washington, Oregon and most of the California
mining country. His father was the first intendent of
Yosemite after it became a National Park, he often told his nephews and nieces.
It was while the elder Stegman was in that capacity that the son followed
a guide's trail made up the granite side of
the famous Sierra cliff the previous day. He came to live in Oakland
in 1928, and was never married. A number of nieces and nephews survive".
I didn't find any other independent confirmation of William Stegman's ascent.
William George Stegman (1849-1938) was born
in Arkansas in about 1849. In 1875, the year of his alleged
Half Dome ascent, he was about twenty-six years old.
His father and mother, Henry and Margaret Stegman,
were immigrants from Prussia. In the 1850s
his family moved to Cornitos, Mariposa County, California.
In the 1870s his father Henry kept a livery stable in Yosemite,
and later became the first recorded Wells Fargo's agent in the Valley.
Henry also served as a postmaster in the Valley around 1882, but
certainly was at no time "intendent of Yosemite".
Young William at first worked for his father, then moved
to Pima County, Arizona (1880 Census),
and later to New Mexico, involved mostly in mining-related activities.
In Alameda County voter registers from 1928 to 1938,
his occupation is indicated as 'mining engineer'.
He had several brothers and sister. His brothers were
Charles Henry Stegman and E. Stegman. His sisters
Margaret, Lizzie (Lizza), and Martha A. Stegman (Mattie) were married to
Samuel A. Youse, Samuel Miller, and Josiah Parker Ames respectively.
Another sister, Frances A. Stegman (Fannie), stayed unmarried.
Several of George's siblings lived in Oakland in the early
Adventurous ascents continued between 1884 and 1919
The second part of this article covers
years between 1884 and 1919.
In 1919, Hall McAllister, under the auspices of the Sierra Club,
installed two steel cables
attached to support pipes, which are basically still in use
(though upgraded several times since).
Other online resources about early Half Dome ascents:
James Mason Hutchings, In the Heart of the Sierras,
Steve Harrison, George Anderson, First Up the Dome,
Yosemite Nature Notes, Volume 46, No. 2, 1977
© 2008 by H. Galic
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