In late 2011, I made a commitment towrite a weekly blog with subject matter directly related to the heavier horsedrawn vehicles that helped build America. In addition to the dozens of feature length articles I’ve been fortunateto share, this week’s blog marks my 150th post. As a way of highlighting that personal milestone, there is anotherreason the ‘150’ number is special this year. 2014 marks the 150th Anniversary of the creation of YosemitePark by Abraham Lincoln.
|The Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Company offered breathtaking tours of some of America’s most beautiful scenery during California’s early coaching days.
|Doug Hansen and his team of professionals at Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop completed this restoration of a vintage Yosemite coach several years ago.
The Park and the giant sequoia trees inMariposa Grove have a long and storied history connected to coaching in theWest. In 1877, thirteen years afterPresident Abraham Lincoln ceded Yosemite to the state of California, theYosemite Stage and Turnpike Company began offering stagecoach tours to MariposaGrove, the largest stand of giant sequoias in what became Yosemite NationalPark in 1890. The sequoias are much the same today, but many of the open-sidedtouring coaches are gone. To get to theBig Trees by stage in the early days, drivers had to negotiate steep, narrowmountain roads with sheer drops and difficult switchbacks. On a few occasions,masked highwaymen disrupted these outings. In fact, during the first recorded robbery in 1883, passengers forkedover an amazing $2,000 worth of cash and jewelry. Even without thisextracurricular excitement, the tours often took all day.
With a continuing interest in thesespecially designed vehicles as well as other stage and mountain wagons used inthe late 1800’s and early 1900’s (and the fact that I’ve always wanted to seethe giant redwoods up close), my wife and I made another trek out West a fewmonths ago. As part of the venture, wemade sure to include Mariposa Grove in our trip. From the legendary Half Dome granite rock togiant waterfalls, scenic roads, wildlife, and the big trees themselves, thearea is incredibly beautiful and rich in American history.
Reaching the parking lot of the Grovewell in advance of the tour buses, we were among the first to arrive. Themorning air was cool but extremely comfortable for our 4 mile round trip hikeinto the impressive trees. Within sightof our parking spot we encountered one of the legendary trees often shown inthe early coaching photos. It was the‘Fallen Monarch’ which is believed to have met its demise more than 300 yearsago. Climbing on this still-imposingpiece is prohibited today but there are a number of photos from 19th centuryexcursions showing horses, riders, coaches, and sight seers all atop thismonstrous tree. The acids in the woodhelp prevent decay, so a number of the oldest toppled giants are still here toview.
|The photos above show the legendary ‘Fallen Monarch’ tree as it appeared in the late 1800’s as well as today.
Moving up the well-marked trail, we beganto hear the first rumblings of the tour vehicles. In some cases, these open air buses aretraveling the same paths as the early horse drawn coaching parties did. Just over 2 miles up a zig-zagging mountaintrail was a tree I’ve wanted to see for decades. It is the giant Tunnel Tree that has been thesubject of so many photos over the years. Period images often show early coaches, mountain wagons, and automobilesbeing driven through it. As a bit ofbackground to the Tunnel Tree’s history, the Yosemite Stage and TurnpikeCompany hired two brothers in 1881 to cut an eight foot wide tunnel through theheart of the redwood, also known as the “Wawona” Tree. The brothers werepaid $75 to create a passage more than 26 feet long and 10 feet tall. Themajestic tree stood over 230 feet in height until it fell in 1969 under anespecially heavy crown of snow.
|Perhaps the most famous tree in Mariposa Grove is the “Wawona” or Tunnel tree. It was a favorite place for ‘drive-thru’ photos for almost a century.
|The two photos above show the legendary Wawona as it appears today. It lays where it fell in 1969. A close look reveals the old road beneath the giant.
While it’s sad to see the fallen hulk onthe ground, there is something especially grand about this tree that puts lifein greater perspective. Prior to itsfall, it was sometimes promoted as the “Oldest Living Thing.” Believed to be as much as 2,300 years oldwhen it fell, it stretched more than 230 feet into the air, was standing duringthe birth of Jesus Christ, and dwarfing the forest floor when Columbus stumbledupon the Americas. Billions of peoplelived their lives from start to end during the lifespan of this behemoth. It was a privilege to see while walking someof the same trails taken by early horse drawn coaching parties.
Just a few miles from Mariposa Grove isthe Pioneer Yosemite History Center. Thefacility contains a number of historic structures related to Yosemite as wellas a significant collection of early western vehicles. We’ll cover some of those special sets ofwheels in an upcoming blog. In the meantime,if you haven’t yet signed up to receive this weekly blog via e-mail, just type your address in the "Follow By E-mail" section above. You'll receive a confirmation e-mail that you'll need to verify before you're officially on board. Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance. We're looking forward to your visits each week.