JSNH&B home • Spring 2012 • vol. 4 no. 2

From A Journey to, on and from the ‘Golden Shore’

Sue Sanders

Delavan, Illinois, Times Printing Office, 1887

Sue A. Pike Sanders (1842-1931) traveled by railroad from Delavan, Illinois, as part of the state's delegation, to the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) encampment at San Francisco in 1886. A Journey to, on and from the ‘Golden Shore’ (1887) describes her trip west and the stops in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento. Once in San Francisco, Sanders provides details of the program for the G.A.R. convention and associated parades and receptions, Bay excursion cruise, and tours of Chinatown. She makes side trips to Oakland, San José, Napa Valley and its geysers, and Yosemite. In Southern California, Sanders and her party visit Los Angeles to embark on their return journey, which takes them to Flagstaff and Albuquerque, and finally back to Illinois.

In this passage, Sue Sanders describes her memorable August 1886 visit to Yosemite Valley. An interesting sentence concerns the theory of Josiah Whitney, the California State Geologist, who posed the idea that Yosemite Valley was formed in one cataclysmic moment when the valley suddenly dropped.

Sunday, August 15, 1886

Map showing location of Yosemite ValleyThe miles grow longer and longer, the precipices deeper and grander, until at 3 o'clock p.m. we halt at Inspiration Point, 6,000 feet above the sea and look for the first time on the rocky columns that enclose Yosemite Valley, which lies imbedded between towering heights beyond and below. For a moment all is silence, then comes a sigh of relief and exclamations of wonder and amazement. At once our companion thinks she is paid for her long and dusty journey, but we await furthur developements to calm our ruffled thoughts and restore our amiable disposition(!). A lasting impression, however, of the rapid survey is imprinted upon our mind, while involuntarily the eye rests upon the huge form of El Capitan at our left, an immense block of white granite projecting squarely into the valley and towering heavenward 3,300 feet. For the most part this rock is bare, yet half way up its side we see evergreens that look as if they were attached lengthwise to the perpendicular rock with no horizontal foothold whatever, yet we are told that these same seeming shrubs are 300 feet in height with unseen groves of timber growing at their base. This immense form of granite stands boldly out as if chiseled from the mountains behind, a specimen of earth's massiveness, and while we look upon it with feelings of awe and reverence it is impossible to fully realize its extravagant dimensions, for our guide informs us that it is often seen in the great San Joaquin valley sixty miles away.

It has been styled by tourists the “Monarch of Rocks” and most matchless piece of masonry on earth. Although this rock seems smooth and square from base to summit it is possessed of many horizontal surfaces too high to be discernable. Near one corner of this towering mass we see what are known as Ribbon Falls, but at this season water flows down at intervals, yet we see the worn rock, the discolored pathway of the mountain stream that is sometimes called the “Virgin's Tears.”

Bridal Veil Falls

At our right we behold in genuine reality a picture seen from childhood. On the west side of Cathedral Rock there flows a stream of water nine hundred feet to the valley. Three hundred feet from the bottom it falls on a mass of slanting debris that sends it rushing over continuous cascades through rock and forests on the mountain side until it reaches the peaceful valley. And now as we ride along we come in full sight of this misty waterfall known at Bridal Veil Falls, whose waters, from the valley, resemble a dense and falling mist which sways to and fro in the wind like the flowing drapery of a summer bride, a companion picture of which is not found in any mountain scenery on earth. And now we pause at the foot of these lovely falls and listen to the continuous roar in upper air, occasionally broken by the sway of the waters. We drink from the ice cold stream, gather a fern from the rocky base and onward still to Cathedral Rock, 2,600 feet in height, with spires towering 500 feet beyond, forming thus on the valley side a solid cathedral of masonry, around which the winds and forests sigh like the tones of a mighty organ, we might imagine within the sculptured mass, whose massiveness and majesty alone can be wrought by the hand of God.

Sentinal Rock in YosemiteWe have now wound down and around the mountain sides until we have reached the level valley which, but for the prison walls might seem a prairie grove, and now we ride between the heights known as the “three graces” at our right and the “three brothers” at our left, rising respectively from three to four thousand feet in upper air, covered at their base with forest evergreens, through which, over a mossy carpeting, flow many little rock bottomed brooks, each adding its little part to swell the valley stream. We now look up at the watch tower of the valley, known as sentinel rock, whose granite spire towers 1,000 feet above the valley wall and whose height alone exceeds by far all the master works of man.


It is 4 o'clock when we arrive at Leidigs and find accommodations for only two of the thirty-three Our California friends accept the vacancy, and we bid them good-bye to see them no more, but for Augusta cherish the kindest remembrance for her genial manner and homeopathy prescriptions which healed the sick and cheered the weary.

Next we stop at Cook's but find everything full to the utmost; our last resort is Barnard's, where we soon stand and are swept off by the Chinamen. We are assigned rooms on the second floor in the northeast corner of the hotel proper, where from a spacious porch that surrounds the building, we look down upon the ice cold Merced river, and are in constant view of Yosemite Falls, only half a mile away, and feel to rejoice that here alone we find accommodations.

We at once commence a program for our stay in the valley. First we take our usual bath, so necessary on all occasions in California summer climate, but now more necessary than ever before in all our lives, for dirt is no name for the condition we now present as we pound the mountain dust from our clothing. Our heads resemble a pig's back in harvest, and frizzes are unknown--in fact the only clean feature is our eyes, kept open by continual winking. At 5 o'clock we meet our party at dinner, when introductions become necessary for recognition. We partake of a very excellent dinner which we very much enjoy, after which we form a party and set out on foot for Yosemite Falls. We cross the Merced on a rustic bridge, climb a fence to a green, grassy cow pasture, crawl through a hedge and are in the woods that are between us and the Falls. First dust, then rocks which grow larger and more massive until we sit in the mist of the mountain waters falling 2,600 feet over the stupendous heights above us.

Barefoot in the Sparkling Waters

quoteAs the sun has set and evening shadows begin to fall, we sit in silence and drink in the beauties we shall never again see, perhaps, save in the realms of thought and remembrance. unquote

We are joined by little Miss Alice Natile, our New Orleans friend, whom we have all learned to love for her rare intelligence and cultivated refinement scarcely found in a miss of sixteen summers. She enters with the party into the joys of the rare occasion. We take off our shoes and stockings and bathe our feet in the sparkling waters, and then with less fear of slipping, we climb still higher the pile of massive rocks on which the waters fall. As the sun has set and evening shadows begin to fall, we sit in silence and drink in the beauties we shall never again see, perhaps, save in the realms of thought and remembrance.

We miss our companion and for fear some unseen danger may have befallen her, we raise our voices for her response and elicit distant echoes; we climb a little higher up the rock, and think we are near the valley wall, but when we our companion in child-like dimensions, whose attention we fail to attract with our combined voices, gathering flowers in a recess of solid rock, a little back and at one side of the Falls, we come to the conclusion that she is farther off than we anticipated and that distance here is even more deceiving than in Colorado. Our companion sees us and joins us on the dark, gray granite rocks that lie at the foot of the Yosemite Falls.

Valley Residents

The sun has long since given way to evening shadows, when, reluctantly, we leave this majestic place and turn our steps hotel-ward. We return alone over the elevated walk of the lowlands along the Merced and, while downward looking, easily imagine ourselves visiting some country friend, for up the road a small boy drives the cows, and the valley farmer gaily whistles as he stables his weary team. As we cross the bridge we meet a resident of the valley who points us to the seemingly impassible trail east of the falls, over which the Indians climbed when driven from the valley. We reach the hotel just in time to retaliate the hilarious receptions we have received while journeying to the valley, for the Cleverdale stages have just arrived with another dusty party not unlike all others. Among the many dirty faces we discern the eyes of our friend, Rev. Mary Girard, of Clinton, Iowa, National Chaplain of W.R.C. We join the sisterly shake of hands, then leave her to her toilet, while we join the evening songs of mirth unceremoniously taking place on the wide veranda.

quote…unfettered by worldly pride and feelings of caste and rank… unquote

The evening is warm and pleasant, we sit on the porch in front of our room and listen to the constant, lonely roar of the highest waterfall in the world, and try to realize in full the favored opportunity of sitting so near the world renowned Yosemite. Our stage party join us in general admiration and pleasant hours too quickly pass when filled with associations of culture and intellect, unfettered by worldly pride and feelings of caste and rank, alone made excellent by morality, virtue and natural genuineness.

While we enjoy the very thought of being here, happily we wander homeward and join in the song and sentiment of the sweetest and truest words that were ever penned--“Home, Sweet Home.” So at 12 o'clock we close our doors and sleep 'mid the gentle murmur of the Merced, the distant roar of Yosemite and echoed tones of “Home, Sweet Sweet Home” now sung by the tourists of the cottage that joins us on the west.

Monday, August 16, 1886

We are awakened by the rattle of stoves and clatter of Chinese dialect, for the kitchen is not far from the rooms we occupy; and as time is so precious now and opportunities so grand, we stand on the porch at 5 o'clock, spellbound with reverential silence. Hundreds of snow-white ducks are already afloat on the peaceful Merced, and the milkmaid closes the bars as she leaves the cows in pasture. The mountain guides are stirring up the hostlers to make ready for the day. The “lone Indian” crosses the bridge with a string of trout which he leaves at the kitchen door. Our friend makes a hasty toilet for once while our companion with unencumbered care and innocence of last transportation, looks heavenward at the mountain walls and wonders what agency placed them there.

quote…the face of a mirror could be no more calm than the surface of this little lake. unquote

We are joined at breakfast by our party, some of whom have just returned from a morning walk to the falls, and we all join in thankful expressions that patience and endurance landed us safely here. Breakfast over we await conveyances for a ten mile ride through the valley. So at 7 o'clock our party of eight are on their way to see the sun rise on Mirror Lake. Up the valley the happy party enjoy the morning air. We walk carefully down the rocky debris and stand at the waters edge, and while we gaze upon the placid face upon which the towering heights of either side are so beautifully reflected, we at once recognize the appropriateness of the lakelet's name, for the face of a mirror could be no more calm than the surface of this little lake. We are now in the narrowest part of the valley with North Dome at our left, rising some four thousand feet above us, beyond the line of vegetation, monumental to past ages that left or sent it there. At our right is South Dome, higher by one thousand feet, over half of which seems to have been riven from and carried away; where to none may tell, for in or near the valley it is not found, though the popular opinion of scientists is that it sunk in the granite ooze.

Singing Lakeside

quoteI love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills. unquote

Party after party arrive at the lake until fifty or more await the rising sun. A little boat is tied motionless on the shore, while near the bugler stands and invites our attention to the wonderful echoes that respond to his musical endeavors. Save the notes of the bugle and the voice of our continual explorer, who has crossed the lake by going around it, reverential silence prevails among all; and now, while we look at the granite walls we join our voices in song as never before, and sing the words that echo Columbia's fondest tie, “I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills.” It is almost 8 o'clock and a hundred eyes are upward turned to the peaks of North Dome over which the “King of Day” is just making his appearance. We change our position and three times hail with song the rising sun over the peaks of the eternal hills, and now we look upon the lake's face where a perfect picture of the valley, heights, evergreen bases and rising sun seems extended as far below as above the level on which we stand and as the sun rises higher and shines upon the lake the reflection becomes more grand, thought more sublime and reverence is melted into tears, found in the eyes of many. We again raise our voices in song, “Nearer my God to Thee,” every word spoken and echoed as if in unison with heavenly love. Rev. Mary Girard stands on the shore between reflected and genuine sublimity and offers a prayer every word of which is significant of the scenes around us and the cause that has brought us hither. She thanks God for the blessing of the morning and asks that we may all live with grateful hearts towards America's soldiers, who made our country free that we to-day may in safety see and enjoy this beautiful scenery wrought out by power divine.

We sit upon the rugged shore of this peaceful lake and note in our journal our present surroundings. On either side are North and South Domes, whose wonderful heights and close proximity enclose the lake that lies between and send their forms reflected, down, down to the bottom of a seemingly very deep lake. We look beyond the mighty Domes and our searching eyes reach “Cloud's Rest,” over which a little cloud has just passed as if to verify the significance of the name given this last mountain in the valley which slants away to the canon beyond after rising to the height of six thousand feet above the clouds. Our companion makes a few sketches of the wonderful scenery, while our Fall River friend adds to the pages of our journal a sketch of “Profile Rock,” which has the appearance of the face of a huge man lying with upturned face to a clear blue sky, which now seems very near to the earth.

From One Scenic Spot to Another

Our driver is becoming impatient, for time is very precious, so while we enjoy the loveliest and grandest scenery of earth, we natururally turn back to domestic life and friends who may never these scenes behold, and once more to the accompaniment of the bugle echo the tones and words of “Home, Sweet Home,” then reluctantly leave the sainted place for other scenes in a ten mile's drive.

We retrace our steps and pass near the Royal Arches, imbedded in the solid sides of Yosemite's vertical walls, while opposite are seen projections that might once have filled the arch. We pass the rural spot where the park commissioners are erecting a fine hotel, which we are told, by another year will be open for the accommodation of tourists. We ride the length of the valley through groves of spruce fir, pine and manzinita along the meandering course of the Merced River, whose source is the high Sierras and which by innumerable cascades and waterfalls reaches the valley where kindred ice cold streams help form its crystal waters. We pass the “Hermit's rocky home,” and though we are told that through the occupant's vein's courses the blood of noble birth which might welcome him to social life, yet when we study his rocky home whose maker and builder was nature alone, we can but think of a pure life within the granite glen, a life conversant with nature alone, unfettered by worldly care or pride or gossiping surroundings. The little dog that barks at his rock-hewn door guards well his master's numerous pets of beasts and birds that roam in peace within.

Indians Still Reside Here

Though thirty-five years have passed since the Indians were driven from the valley, we still meet an occasional relic of the tribe, with his gun and fishing tackle, and pass his rustic store house, built of sticks and leaves, where are stored his winter acorns.

quote…there are a hundred rare points of interest, any one of which would guarantee satisfaction… unquote

Having taken the circuit of the valley we alight at Barnard's, where, in front of the hotel, are thirty-three horses already waiting to carry the party to Glacier Point. From a little store near by the party avail themselves of large straw hats, which they tie in a double scoop under their chins. Three hardy guides assist them to their saddles, and the party is ready for a start. Unluckily for ourself and friend we are unable to secure horses for the trail, the party is so large, so we are obliged to remain while our friends enjoy the mountain horse-back ride to the point that overlooks the valley. So while they are on the tiresome trail we study up our surroundings. We find our landlady well informed and ready to impart instructions; so we note in our journal the many things we have learned to-day. First, we ask, how came the valley here? Scientists have attributed this wonderful place to different causes, the fact of which has never been fully decided. Glacial disturbances, erosion, earthquake fissures, and subsidence, the last of which is the theory of Prof. Whitney, for many years State Geologist of California, and we might as well believe this as any other theory in regard to the unique forms that here exist to form the grandest and most sublime scenery of earth. The theory of subsidence then, accounts for the lack of debris in the valley and vertical walls which surround it, in fact there is no other way to dispose of the masses of rock that must have fallen from the walls and filled the lake that lies between. The three leading features then, of Yosemite Valley, are the verticality and height of its walls and lack of debris at their base. Then to sum up the valley we might say, there are a hundred rare points of interest, any one of which would guarantee satisfaction in making the mountain pilgrimage.