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History of Tuolumne Meadows | High Sierra Backpacker

History of Tuolumne Meadows

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 16 September 2018

History of Tuolumne Meadows
From Green, The Park and its Resources.




Trail Guide
Backpacking Resources

Tuloumne Meadows: Backpacker Resupply & Resources

Tuolumne Meadows-Yosemite Permits


Tuolumne Meadows Backpacking Map

Tuolumne Meadows & Central Yosemite Map

Tuolumne Meadows, North Yosemite, & Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne Map


Glen Aulin to Tuolumne Meadows trail guide

Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake trail guide

Tuolumne Meadows to  Donohue Pass guide


More History
John Muir, the establishment of Yosemite Nation Park, and construction of the John Muir Trail.


All of the following text is from Green's fine work, The Park and its Resources.

History of Tuolumne Meadows 
Soda Springs and Tuolumne Meadows
Green, Page 199.

The Tuolumne Meadows area is one of the most beautiful in the park and has been frequented from the earliest days. As mentioned earlier in this report, the ancient Mono Trail traversed the High Sierra from west to east, through Tuolumne Meadows, over Mono Pass, and down Bloody Canyon to the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Mono Lake Paiutes traded pinon nuts, dried fly pupae, pandora moth larvae, baskets, rabbit and buffalo robes, salt, tobacco, and obsidian for acorns, berries, beads, paint pigments, arrows, baskets, and abalone shell ornaments from the Miwoks who traded with peoples along the West Coast. That trade continued into the 1880s, and was carried on during summer rendezvous when the Yosemite and Mono Indians encamped in Tuolumne Meadows.

Several parties of whites penetrated the area in the early days, in search of either Indians, wealth, or scientific knowledge. Lieutenant Tredwell Moore passed through with a small command of troops in pursuit of Chief Tenaya in 1852, pausing only long enough to explore briefly for rich mineral ore in the vicinity of Bloody Canyon. By the 1850s a few miners from the western foothills struggled over the slightly improved Mono Trail to the mining settlements near Mono Lake. In 1863 an expedition of the California Geological Survey reached Tuolumne Meadows while studying the watershed between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers and their headwaters and named the Soda Springs.

Sheepherders with immense flocks had been annual visitors to the Yosemite high country meadows since the 1860s. Sheep husbandry in California had boomed since the gold rush days, and the introduction of hardier breeds, such as the Merino, had resulted in excellent wool as well as good meat. Increased agricultural use of the Central Valley, however, began to crowd the flocks, and the extreme heat and dryness of the summer season inflicted great hardship and casualties upon them. During the summers, Basque, Portuguese, Scottish, and French sheepherders escorted the animals through the hills, into the high mountain meadows of the Sierra Nevada, and back again. Along the way the animals feasted on the lush grasses and green plants of meadows such as Tuolumne, uprooting flowers, destroying the soil cover, and fouling water sources as they passed.

In 1869 a California sheep rancher hired a young drifter named John Muir to take charge of a flock of several thousand sheep headed for grazing grounds in the High Sierra. The party reached Soda Springs in late summer and the sheep were deposited in a high pasture north of Tuolumne Meadows. While the sheep fattened, Muir spent much of his time exploring the surrounding high country.

Meanwhile, prospectors remained active in the mountains east of Tuolumne Meadows, and miners and packers frequently plodded along the trail from Big Oak Flat to Bloody Canyon. When the Tioga Mining District blossomed about 1878, a flurry of tunneling and building ensued, culminating in construction of the Great Sierra Wagon Road through Tuolumne Meadows in 1883.

During all those years Tuolumne Meadows was government land, open to homesteading as well as grazing. The army took advantage of its central location in the eastern portion of the park as a starting point for patrols in that area. Its beautiful scenery and convenience as a starting point for hikes into the backcountry also attracted the attention of the Outing Committee of the Sierra Club. Its first annual Outing in 1901 visited Soda Springs, which served as a base of operations during subsequent annual excursions.

(1) Lembert Cabin

The only resident of Tuolumne Meadows who left much of a mark, however, was a New Yorker by birth, John (Jean) Baptiste Lembert. He had worked in and around Yosemite Valley for several years, and, regarded somewhat as a recluse, had built a winter cabin among the Indians on the north side of the Merced River canyon below present El Portal. Lembert established a homestead claim at Tuolumne Meadows that included the Soda Springs in 1885, to which he acquired title 28 June 1895. A few feet in front of, and a little toward Soda Springs from the present Parsons Memorial Lodge, Lembert built a crude, one-room cabin of large, round timbers laid on a granite stone foundation. The shake-chinked and shake-roofed structure had a crude fireplace and a chimney of granite rocks and was adequate for summer occupancy only. On the east side, Lembert added a shed for his donkey.

Around 1889 Lembert erected a small log enclosure over three of the larger soda springs to protect them from contamination by flocks of roving sheep and cattle. The structure measured nine by eleven feet and had no windows. Its peeled logs interlocked at the corners with V-notch joints. Lembert also fenced in his land, making it available for grazing for a fee to parties passing through with stock. Although a loner by desire, he welcomed passersby and was especially friendly with many of the sheepherders frequenting the area. He also had friends among the Indians who came to the meadows to trade in late summer.

Lembert brought in a flock of angora goats that he later lost during a blinding snowstorm in the winter of 1889-90. He also pursued mining in a desultory fashion, sinking a small shaft a short distance into his property, and bottled and sold the water from the soda springs to people in Yosemite Valley. An avid student of nature, with special interests in entomology and botany, Lembert assisted a government scientific expedition that came through the meadows in the 1890s in collecting Sierran plant and insect specimens. Afterwards, he continued sending specimens for payment to museums and scientific societies. In 1895 he received a U. S. patent on his claim. He returned to his Merced River canyon cabin every fall, where he was eventually murdered in the late 1890s.112

Tuolumne Meadows Historical Chronology

Green, Page LXV

Tuolumne Meadows

3,500 B. P. -

Evidence in excavations in El Portal reveal that trans-Sierran trade may have occurred as early as 3500 to 4000 years before present. 

Joseph R. Walker crosses Sierra, through present Yosemite National Park. Party follows divide between the drainages of the Tuolumne and Merced rivers but does not cross through Tuolumne Meadows.

James Savage and Mariposa Battalion enter Yosemite Valley in pursuit of Indians.

Capt. John Boling’s company enters Yosemite for the second time, 9 May, and captures Yosemite Indians at Tenaya Lake 22 May. Indians escorted to Fresno Reservation but later to return to Yosemite. Lafayette Bunnell christens Tenaya Lake.

A party of eight prospectors enters Yosemite Valley and Indians kill two. Lt. Tredwell Moore and unit of troops dispatched in June to punish the Indians and return them to the reservation. Five Indians are killed in Yosemite Valley and the remaining band flees over the Mono Trail, through Tuolumne Meadows and Mono Pass, down Bloody Canyon to the Mono Lake country, to take refuge with the Paiutes. While Moore’s infantrymen are exploring the east side of the Sierra, they discover some promising mineral deposits and return to Mariposa without the Indians but with ore samples.

Leroy Vining leads group of prospectors through Tuolumne Meadows and down Bloody Canyon to explore the country that Lieutenant Moore described. 16 August James D. Savage murdered by Walter H. Harvey at King’s River Reservation.

A skirmish between the Mono Lake Paiutes and the Yosemite Indians results in the death of six of the Yosemites, including Chief Tenaya. Later remnants of Tenaya’s band return to Yosemite Valley.

Tom McGee clears and blazes the western part of the Mono Trail, following very closely the original Indian route. Miners flock to the east side of the Sierra near Mono Lake.

California State Geological Survey established, headed by Josiah Whitney. “The Sheepherder” Mine located.

California State Geological Survey begins work in Yosemite area and continues through 1867.

J. D. Whitney publishes description of the headwaters of the Tuolumne River and describes Tioga Pass (he referred to it as “MacLane’s”) as a better route of trans-Sierran travel than Mono Pass, at that time the route of travel and 600 feet higher in elevation.

John Muir’s first summer in the Sierra and in Tuolumne Meadows with a band of sheep.

William Brusky discovers the Sheepherder claim staked in 1860 by George W. “Doc” Chase (later Tioga Mine).

Nine claims established and Tioga Mining District organized.

1 August John L. Murphy homesteads the meadows on the south end of Tenaya Lake, plants trout, and establishes a hospice for visitors to the high country as well as construction workers on the Great Sierra Wagon Road.

Golden Crown Mine site established by Orlando Fuller.

Dana City granted a post office.

Mining operations begin at Great Sierra Mine.

Silver discovered on Mt. Hoffmann and Mt. Hoffmann Mining District established. No further activity mentioned.

Sierra Telegraph Company builds line from Lundy to Yosemite Valley via Bennettville.

Great Sierra Consolidated Silver Mining Company incorporated.

Construction on Tioga Road begins.

13 March, post office established at Bennettville. 16,000 tons of mining equipment sledded from Lundy to Great Sierra Mine, a distance of nine miles.

Tioga Road completed at cost of $62,000.

Tioga Mine closes and Great Sierra Consolidated Silver Mining Company folds, after an expenditure of $300,000 and no production.

John B. Lembert homesteads Soda Springs area of Tuolumne Meadows where he raises Angora goats.

John L. Murphy preempts 160 acres at Tenaya Lake.

Professor George Davidson of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey occupies summit of Mt. Conness and erects small (8'x8') wooden observatory on concrete piers for completing survey work.

1 October, Yosemite National Park created.

Lembert loses his Angora goats in snowstorm; begins collecting natural history specimens for scientific collections.

Sierra Club formed.

John Lembert murdered in his cabin below El Portal.

McCauley brothers buy Lembert’s Soda Springs property.

First of Sierra Club’s Annual Outings based in Tuolumne Meadows.

McCauleys construct cabin on their Soda Springs property.

Tenaya Lake Trail from Yosemite Valley completed.

Sierra Club purchases Soda Springs property.

January, Stephen T. Mather accepts post of assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. Mather enlists assistance of friends and, using his own money along with their donations, purchases the Tioga Road for $15,500 and donates it to the federal government. First appropriation for construction of the John Muir Trail approved by California Governor Hiram Johnson.

Sierra Cub constructs Parsons Memorial Lodge on their property at Soda Springs in Tuolumne Meadows.

Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and Tenaya Lake and Merced Lake camps opened by Desmond Park Service Company.

National Park Service Organic Act passed 25 August, and Mather becomes first director.

World War I and bankruptcy of the Desmond Company force closure of High Sierra camps opened in 1916.

Entrance stations established on Tioga Road at Aspen Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.

Merced Lake camp opens as sports-oriented boys’ camp.

Through encouragement of the NPS, the Hikers’ Camps reopen (Tuolumne Meadows, Tenaya Lake), and in September Naturalist Carl P. Russell chooses five additional sites for camps, of which three are chosen by the Yosemite National Park Company in 1924 for operation as High Sierra camps.

Glen Aulin and Boothe Lake (later known as Vogelsang) High Sierra camps established.

Building constructed as a ranger station, visitor contact station, and entrance station for the east entrance over Tioga Pass via the Tioga Road through Tuolumne Meadows. Its use later superceded by construction of Tioga Pass ranger station in 1931 and realignment of road through the meadows in the early 1930s, but the building continues to serve as a ranger residence and office.

Yosemite Park and Curry Company formed.

California Cooperative Snow Survey Program begins in Yosemite.

Work begins on Tioga Pass ranger station.

Early 1930s:
With realignment and improvement of Tioga Road from Tioga Pass to Tuolumne Meadows area, several rustic buildings removed and new structures built to replace them along the realigned route of the road.

Preliminary field survey made of proposed rerouting of Tioga Road.

Contracts awarded for new Tioga Road section from Cathedral Creek to Tioga Pass.

Tioga Pass ranger station completed. First stone building of rustic architectural style built by NPS in Tuolumne Meadows/Tioga Pass area.

NPS restricts camping in Tuolumne Meadows region in order to protect the water quality within watershed of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, whose waters due to arrive in San Francisco in 1934.

Mess hall and kitchen, bunk houses, toilet and shower room constructed at Tuolumne Meadows by Civilian Conservation Corps.

Three comfort stations constructed in Tuolumne Meadows campground area.

Comfort station and entrance gates constructed at Tioga Pass.

Visitor contact station erected at entrance of Tuolumne Meadows campground.

Tuolumne Meadows campground of 300 sites opens.

Section of road realignment from Cathedral Creek to Tioga Pass completed.

Section of old Tioga Road from McSwain Meadows to Cathedral Creek oiled for first time in its history. This twenty-one-mile section would later be bypassed.

Tenaya Lake High Sierra camp removed and replaced by one at May Lake.

Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center built by CCC.

23 June, dedication of new section of Tioga Road from Crane Flat to McSwain Meadows and of new Big Oak Flat Road from Highway 140 to Crane Flat. The old section of the Tioga Road from the west park line to White Wolf through Aspen Valley was closed.

Entrance station kiosk erected at Tioga Pass.

Vogelsang High Sierra camp moves from its second location to its present location on Fletcher Creek.

CCC is discontinued.

Infestation of lodgepole needleminer moth approaches epidemic stage in Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows region.

Yosemite Park and Curry Company acquires concession rights to White Wolf Lodge and opens it as unit of High Sierra camps in 1953.

First large-scale control effort against lodgepole pine needleminer epidemic involves airplane spraying of 11,000 acres of the 45,000 acres of infested area with DDT.

Construction begins on final twenty-one-mile section of Tioga Road, from McSwain Meadows to Cathedral Creek, including controversial section around Olmsted Point.

Ansel Adams brings road realignment to a temporary halt to investigate the threat to the domes at Tenaya Lake and Olmsted Point. Work resumes.

24 June, the last twenty-one-mile section of Tioga Road officially dedicated and opened to public. High Sierra camp established at Sunrise Lake.

Caltrans begins work on Tioga Road from Tioga Pass to Lee Vining.

Tioga Pass Road from Tioga Pass to Lee Vining opens.

National Park Service purchases Sierra Club property at Soda Springs.

NPS closes Sierra Club walk-in campground at Soda Springs.

Old visitor center at Tuolumne Meadows closes and new one established in CCC mess hall.


More History
John Muir, the establishment of Yosemite Nation Park, and construction of the John Muir Trail.


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Originally Published
2018-03-14 13:08:56

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