El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point. We’ve all heard of the wonders of Yosemite National Park in California, but how many knew that the park was started by Abraham Lincoln? June 30th, 2014 marks the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Grant, the law that created what we now affectionately know as Yosemite.
“Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra.” Leave it to the National Park Service to so succinctly capture the beauty of Yosemite. For this privilege we owe our gratitude to the unfortunately forgotten Galen Clark and John Conness, to John Muir, and to Abraham Lincoln for having the foresight to protect natural lands even as the Civil War interminably dragged on for its third year.
Canadian-born Galen Clark had moved to California for the Gold Rush. Unsuccessful in that endeavor and fighting for his life against tuberculosis, Clark spent much of his time roaming in the mountain air. Inspired by, and concerned for, the beauty of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees, he wrote to friends and Congress pleading for their protection. Getting the support of Irish-born Senator John Conness, Clark managed to motivate a Congress interested in strengthening Union connections with the relatively new state of California. President Lincoln, who had by this time already signed laws allowing land grants, homesteads, and the transcontinental railroad, was eager to support westward expansion. On June 30,1864 he signed the Yosemite Grant providing federal protection for Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove, which was quickly ceded over to California and became the first California State Park. Galen Clark became the first “Guardian of the Grant.”
The importance of this act cannot be overstated. For it to have happened at all while the country was in the midst of tearing itself apart is a testament to Lincoln’s and Congress’s foresight. Lincoln’s signature set precedent for establishing Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872, to be followed by protection for other pristine – and irreplaceable – vistas.
And then there is John Muir. Muir is probably best known for his advocacy of Yosemite and the nearby Hetch Hetchy Valley. Muir’s efforts to save Hetch Hetchy were ultimately unsuccessful, but Muir teamed up with influential Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson to recapture Yosemite from state park status to federal. On October 1, 1890 Yosemite National Park was created. Johnson also urged Muir to set up a new conservation group to advocate for the preservation of all of the Sierra Nevada mountain region, and in 1892 the Sierra Club was born. [More below the video]
Those who have read my book on Nikola Tesla may recognize the names of Robert Underwood Johnson and John Muir for another reason. Johnson was a big publisher of Tesla’s articles in Century Magazine. Coincidentally, he also published the serialization of John Nicolay and John Hay’s Abraham Lincoln: A History prior to its release in book form. Muir was one of many famous guests that attended Johnson’s gala parties in his New York mansion, and became friends with another frequent guest – Nikola Tesla.
Small world, isn’t it?
Other articles connecting Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla:
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity. You can order a signed copy directly from me, download the ebook at barnesandnoble.com, and find hard copies at Barnes and Noble bookstores, as well as online at B&N.com and Amazon.com.