Yosemite Summer: First Impressions

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

June 11-13, 2015

The view up Tioga Pass the day before I start my volunteer duties.

The view up Tioga Pass the day before I start my volunteer duties.

Thursday, June 11

I left Murphey’s Motel in Lee Vining just after 10:30 am. I stopped at the Mobil for a block of ice for my cooler. My reporting instructions said I would be able to trade out water containers in a freezer, but I was not about to risk loss of food on that representation. I soon learned that the system works very well, and at five dollars for a block of ice, it proved well worth my time to schedule my showers around the same time I switched out bottles of water for bottles of ice.

I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows campground just before noon. I proceeded to Loop D, most of which was reserved for Yosemite Conservancy (YC) volunteers. The campground road is full of potholes, many posing a threat to vehicle integrity. Due to recent heavy rains, the sojourn on the one-way road is a maze of solid ground interspersed with ponds and puddles. I saw a Volkswagen van at site D4 and decided to encamp on the neighboring waterfront property, site D3. I opened the bear box, a large rectangular steel box, intended to keep the local black bears from probing the campgrounds. I lined the box with a tarp and filled it with my recent food purchases from Costco and Walmart. With that task complete, I headed to the Visitors Center.

A month earlier, I had shipped my tent and other camp gear to the YC office in El Portal. I had also purchased a cot and topper from REI, which shipped the items directly to the El Portal office. The YC office in turn delivered all the gear to the Visitors Center (VC). Upon my arrival at the VC, the Rangers told me I needed to take the gear immediately, as the gear impeded their movements in their small office. I readily obliged.

Upon my return to my camp site, once again risking my rental car on the third world country road, I launched into setting up my 4-person tent. I had watched a YouTube video a month earlier and felt certain I had the IQ to handle the minor task. The tent parts are encased in a backpack, which unfortunately is devoid of meaningful instructions. But I remembered the body of the tent came out first and then all I had to do was attach the metal supporting structure, which consists of two separate sets of metal tubes which readily lock into each other.

I turned around and saw Woodlee, our team lead. (Volunteers will be identified only by their first names, except for Woodlee, who goes by his last name.) He asked if I needed help. Despite my gender, I am never one to decline assistance from someone who has experience in a task with which I have none. My role quickly evolved to that of veteran’s helper as Woodlee readily diagnosed the proper procedure. Within 30 minutes I had a solid looking REI Kingdom 4 tent in place. With a drizzle already underway, I would spend the night in a dry tent.

The rest I could manage. I had actually practiced assembling the cot at the Greensboro REI store. No problem there. But something was missing. I had my topper and my sleeping bag. But, wait, I had failed to buy a pillow (Well, you actually have to buy a pair.) at Costco. What the heck, I thought, I’ll just use a towel. That should do the trick. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Friday, June 12

My tent in Yosemite

My tent in Yosemite

I awoke very cold. Mountain morning temperatures hovered around 40 degrees. I had used the sleeping bag like a blanket rather than squeezing my six-foot large-size frame in the small to mid-size mummy bag. And without a pillow, a crick in my neck added to my misery. To top it off, I had a great urge to march 90 yards to our loop’s restroom. For a male over 60, that’s a long 90 yards.

The restroom visit resolved one discomfort, but I rotated my neck as far as I dare while I added a second fleece jacket and my Columbia parka. Rubbing my hands to get warm, I put together my breakfast of cold oatmeal, cashews, and almonds, soon to be followed with my meal-time ration of two Pepperidge Farm cookies. Not a coffee drinker, my beverages of choice were Diet Coke and bottled water.

I was too focused on preparing myself for the day to notice the comings and goings of my fellow volunteers, but I later learned they had come equipped with the gear they needed for hot meals.

That afternoon, I met my colleagues at Adrienne’s campsite. Adrienne had driven a well-equipped RV. I found it hard to conceal my envy. The YC had put a canopy with netting over the site’s picnic table and there we made our introductions. Suzy and Taryn, the volunteer coordinators, handed out binders, shirts, ID tags, and ball caps with the YC logo. Suzy went over regulations and expectations. We all made our introductions: Adrienne, with a background in advertising; Cassie, a university student; Cyndi, a school teacher; Dee, a divorce mediator; Susan, a former teacher and currently a counselor to students with learning difficulties; and Woodlee, a professional photographer and artist. I soon learned these volunteers know the park better than I do, so I would need to study to get up to speed. Dee lightened the moment by sharing a birthday cake her daughter had given her.

That evening, I struggled through another night without a proper pillow. This could not continue.

Saturday, June 13

Tioga Pass t-shirt

Tioga Pass t-shirt

Late Saturday morning, we headed to Parsons Lodge for further training. We had a lot of material to take to the structure, so Woodlee suggested that I drive. Five of us got in my car while two others walked. We drove a mile to Lembert Dome, then headed down the back road to Parsons. Woodlee unlocked the road gate where regular traffic is prohibited. I carefully headed down the road, but at one point we got stuck on a large granite rock. We had to “portage” (i.e., everyone but the driver had to exit the car so the car could proceed). Anyway, we ultimately reached our destination.

There, we met Ranger Margaret, who had spent childhood summers at the site when her parents ran a campsite that was disbanded in the 1960s. She feels a special relationship to the meadow, which has a short growing season. She emphasized the need for hikers to remain on the trails rather than trampling on the meadow.

Woodlee reviewed the protocol for opening and closing Parsons each day. Duties include properly disposing of any mouse droppings before visitors are allowed to enter the 100-year-old structure. The “lodge” was built by the Sierra Club as a gathering place for its members. The club later deeded Parsons and surrounding acreage to the National Park Service.

Later that afternoon, I revealed my pillow dilemma to several volunteers. Several wanted to go to Lee Vining due to its superior cell phone and internet access, so we headed down thrilling Tioga Pass Road. To my delight, we found a camping pillow at an outdoor gear store. The night promised to be much more restful. And none too soon. I would start my volunteer duties at the Visitors Center the next day.

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The Central Pacific Railroad

Kyle Wyatt, Kathryn Santos, Cara Randall

California State Railroad Museum employees: Kyle Wyatt, Kathryn Santos and Cara Randall

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

June 9, 2015 – Sierra Nevada – J. Edward Gray

This past week, I stayed in Reno, Nevada, and visited Sacramento prior to going to Yosemite where I am serving as a volunteer in Tuolomne Meadows. While in Sacramento, I renewed acquaintances with the good folks at the California State Railroad Museum Library – Curator Kyle Wyatt and Librarian Cara Randall. I also met for the first time Archivist Kathryn Santos. As I noted in the Acknowledgments to my book Trouble at Mono Pass, Kyle and Cara provided highly valuable information about the operations of the Central Pacific Railroad during its construction of the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

Traveling on Interstate 80 between Reno and Sacramento, I passed many of the places mentioned in Mono Pass – Dutch Flat, Cisco, and Donner Lake, to mention a few. I-80 largely parallels the original Central Pacific line between Reno and Sacramento. Along the way, I stopped at Donner Lake Park’s new visitor center, which includes many exhibits about the Central Pacific as well as exhibits about the tragic Donner Party.

When I visited with Kyle Wyatt, he suggested that I take the Soda Springs exit off I-80 and drive on historic Route 40 to get an even better idea of the obstacles faced by the Central Pacific. I followed his advice and am glad I did! It certainly gave me much greater perspective about the Sierra Nevada in this part of California. I received a double bonus when I stopped for a view of beautiful Donner Lake.

Donner Lake

Donner Lake

On Wednesday, June 10, I left Reno for Lee Vining. Along the way I stopped in the town of Bridgeport, also referenced in Mono Pass as a layover spot for some of outlaw Joe Crawford’s men and where Judge Crawford and his army of 50 men stayed while Jack Grier and his men completed their efforts to rescue Jack’s niece and Crawford’s daughter.

On June 11, I entered Yosemite National Park to begin a month of volunteer service. While here, I will write almost exclusively about my experiences in one of my favorite national parks.

Bridgeport Courthouse

Bridgeport Courthouse

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Temporary Blog Hiatus But I’m Back!

For those who follow the blog, you noticed that I haven’t been posting recently. I had the opportunity to volunteer in Yosemite National Park for over a month–which was a great experience–but as those of you who have been to national parks know, technology doesn’t always cooperate. However, I’m back and wrote blog entries while I was out in California that I think you’ll enjoy. They’re relevant to my trip and historical of course.

During my time in Yosemite, I provided trail guidance and suggestions to hikers and answered visitor questions about the park. It was a great experience but I’m glad to be back in my own bed after living in a tent for over a month.

Here are a few teaser photos from my trip and I’ll share more in the coming weeks.

My little abode for the past month.

My little abode for the past month.

Lake Tenaya, Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park

Lemberg Dome sunset, Yosemite National Park

Lembert Dome sunset, Yosemite National Park

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Father’s Day

Wishing all the dads out there a Happy Father’s Day week. There’s an interesting history behind the holiday if you’re interested in finding out more: www.history.com/topics/holidays/fathers-day.

I cannot believe that my now 28-year-old daughter used to be this little. Time sure flies by.

Me and my girl circa 1988.

Me and my little girl circa 1988.

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Railroad Innovations That Have Stood the Test of Time

As I researched railroad history while writing Trouble at Mono Pass, I was amazed to learn how many ways railroads continue to impact our lives and how many innovations have stood the test of time. This morning I made another discovery when I opened the local newspaper, which included an article about a 100th anniversary being celebrated by Corning. The railroad connection? The Corning Museum of Glass website explains:

The production of Pyrex began at Corning Glass Works with the development of temperature-resistant borosilicate glass for railroad lanterns. The new glass was marketed in 1909 as Nonex or CNX (Corning Non-Expansion). A few years later, Corning began to look for other uses for this glass. Bessie Littleton, wife of Jesse T. Littleton, a Corning scientist, baked a sponge cake in a sawed off Nonex battery jar. Her experiment revealed that cooking times were short, baking was uniform, the glass was easy to clean, and since the glass was clear, the cake in the oven could be monitored – all advantages over bakeware. Initially, Corning produced twelve ovenware dishes under the brand named Pyrex, and kicked off a new Corning Glass Works division focused on consumer products.

The Corning Museum of Glass is commemorating the 100th anniversary of production of the kitchenware for American consumers with America’s Favorite Dish: Celebrating a Century of Pyrex, on view June 6, 2015, through March 17, 2016.

Several much earlier railroad innovations remain in use today. In 1830, American inventor Robert Livingston Stevens developed a flat-bottomed T-shaped iron rail and a flanged wheel that ultimately became the industry standards and remain in use to this day. He also found that rails laid on perpendicular wooden ties, laid on a bed of crushed stone, provided a better and more economical surface than earlier methods. Other types of rail (pear-shaped, bullnose) were used by some railroad companies for several decades, but by the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the T-rail dominated. Stevens went on to develop the standard rail spike and the “cowcatcher,” the triangular frame at the front of a locomotive designed to clear the track of obstructions.

Standard gauge. Photo I took at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

Standard gauge. Photo I took at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

In the early railroad days, track gauge also varied among railroad companies. In the South, one could find three different gauges, some five feet in width. One can imagine the difficulty of unloading passengers or cargo at one railroad station in order to accommodate a different gauge track for the next segment of travel. In the North, the predominant (but not exclusive) gauge was four feet, eight and one-half inches, consistent with locomotives manufactured in Great Britain. Railroad men understood the need for a standardized gauge when the nation was about to undergo construction of the transcontinental railroad. Congress gave President Lincoln the responsibility for determining the gauge. A railroad lawyer during much of his career, Lincoln chose the predominant gauge, four feet eight and one-half inches, the gauge used in most countries today.

Out of curiosity, and being a bit anal, I decided to check a railroad track in Greensboro. Sure enough, the distance between the rails met the standard set by President Lincoln. So, while we celebrate the 100th anniversary of kitchenware based on a railroad lantern, we should also celebrate Robert Livingston Stevens’ innovations 85 years earlier. Pay attention the next time you visit a railroad museum or see a train heading down the track in your hometown.

Sources:

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America’s Transcontinental Railroad: The Pacific Railroad Act

Last week, I explored Abraham Lincoln’s background as a railroad lawyer and the Republican Party’s zeal for a transcontinental railroad. This week, I will highlight the most important provisions of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and subsequent amendments. And, lest we forget, the legislation passed in the midst of a very inconvenient civil war.

1862 Legislation

Right of way: Each railroad company received a 400-foot right of way for the railroad track.

Land Grants: 10 square miles (6400 acres) for each mile of track laid, provided in ten sections of 10-mile strips, in a checkerboard pattern with five alternate sections on each side of the railroad. The federal government retained the other strips of land for sale to the public.

Material Rights: Each railroad had the right to timber and stone on public lands, to be used for construction of the railroad.

Government Financing: The federal government would issue 30-year, 6% interest, first-mortgage bonds, in amounts determined by the terrain – $16,000 per mile for the “easy” work between Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada, and between Omaha and the Rocky Mountains; $48,000 per mile for the mountains; and $32,000 per mile between the two mountain ranges. The government would withhold 15% of the mountain funds and 25% of the other funds until completion of the entire railroad. The government would release no funds until each railroad company completed 40 miles of track and met certain capital requirements. Each company had to complete at least 50 miles of track within two years.

Construction Rights: If the Union Pacific reached the California-Nevada border before the Central Pacific, it could continue into California. If the Central Pacific reached the line first, it could continue construction beyond that point.

Forfeiture Provision: If the railroad was not completed by January 1, 1874, both companies forfeited to the federal government the entire railroad, “together with all their furniture, fixtures, rolling stock, machine shops, lands, tenements, hereditaments, and property of every kind and character.”

1863 Legislation The gauge of the track was set at 4 feet 8 ½ inches.

1864 Amendments

Land Grants: 20 square miles per mile of track, in 20-mile strips.

Funding: Funds were released after completion of 20 miles of track.

Company Bonds: The railroad companies were allowed to issue first-mortgage 30-year, 6% bonds, with the first 20 years of interest guaranteed by the federal government. The bonds could be issued 100 miles in advance of “continuous, completed track,” in increments of $24,000, $48,000, and $96,000, depending on the terrain.

Construction Limits: The Central Pacific was limited to building 150 miles across the Nevada line. Two years later, Collis Huntington successfully lobbied to remove that limitation. (14 Stat. 241, July 25, 1866)

Forfeiture: The 1862 forfeiture provision was removed.

Commentary:

In hindsight, many of the legislative provisions appear very generous, especially the land grants. But much of the land between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada had limited value in the absence of a railroad. The checkerboard pattern of land grants allowed the government to raise the funds needed to finance the government bonds. The private bonds had to have priority over the government bonds to make them marketable. Investors had too many other options for easier money. The railroads needed both public and private funds to succeed.

In the end, i.e., at the golden spike ceremony, Americans could look with pride at a monumental accomplishment. They no longer had to risk the deadly diseases of Panama or the perils of the trail across the continent to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. During the California Gold Rush, East Coast prospectors endured a six-month ordeal to reach the Sierra Nevada diggings. That journey now took two weeks by rail. Commerce would soon follow.

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was every bit as important as the internet and related developments of today. The nation’s newspapers followed the progress of the competing railroads every step of the way.

In the East, we’ve spent four years re-living the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I look forward to sharing a happier 150th anniversary, the golden spike ceremony at Promontory Point. After all, who doesn’t love trains, whether it’s Thomas & Friends, The Little Engine That Could, or Hell on Wheels?

Sources:

  • Pacific Railway Acts, 12 Stat. 489 (July 1, 1862), 12 Stat. 807 (Mar. 3, 1863), 13 Stat. 356 (July 2, 1864), 14 Stat. 241 (July 25, 1866).
  • Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, cprr.org/Museum/Tunnels.html.
  • For a more detailed discussion of the railroad companies’ “greasing the skids” for favorable legislation, see David Bain’s Empire Express (Penguin Group 1999).

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My Author Facebook Page is Up

For those of you who have been following my blog long enough, you’ll know that I’ve written two historical fiction books titled New Garden and Trouble at Mono Pass. For more information on my most recent book, read about it in this recent blog post. To get updates on me and my two books, please “Like” my author Facebook page: www.facebook.com/writer.jedward.gray.

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