Yosemite National Park, California
Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite
Original Yosemite Fire Falls
Every summer or sometimes twice, my Dad would pack us into the old Buick just after dinner and we would drive up to Yosemite National Park to see the Fire Fall. We lived in the Central Valley of California and it was just under an hour drive to get there. It was the late 60's and before they began charging an entrance fee into the park. We got there just as the sun was setting and Dad would park by the side of the road and wait. It was many years later when I found out there was a whole performance ritual involved over at the Camp Curry that my Dad was a little too cheap to pay for. So we never heard the booming voice call up to the mountain cliff, 3000 feet above, "Hello, Glacier Point." Nor did we hear the return call, "Hello, Camp Curry." But Dad was keeping an eye on his watch and informed the four of us in the back seat that it was about to begin.
At 9 p.m. the fire fell. It looked spectacular. Red and gold sparks turned hot white as they caught the air and sprayed just as water would behave coming down the cliff side. It looked for all the world like a waterfall on fire. The line of cars along with us watched and gasped... and then turned around and drove home. I was mystified as to how they did that. I asked and my Dad (who loved to pull my leg and perform practical jokes) told me that they set the water on fire. I pondered that for some time until I realized that water isn't flammable enough to be "set on fire." It was something to behold. The glow of it against that tall dark cliff was radiant. On some nights it appeared to come out of nowhere, a glowing heavenly beam from above. It came down in waves and sprays, floating on the slight breeze, descending to a spot obscured from our vision by the trees.
In February just at dusk, the sunlight hits the Horsehair falls in Yosemite just right so that the water glows like it is on fire. Photographers from all around practically camp out to be there for this once a year event. Only at this time is there anything close to the look of the classic old Yosemite Fire Falls. This photo is of just that event. It is very hard to get a photo from the 1960s in color of that original fire fall event.
Have you seen the Fire Fall in the movie Caine Mutiny?
Shut Down In 1968
I'm really quite grateful to my Dad for participating in this ritual that many valley families did, driving up to the Yosemite Valley floor to watch the fire fall and then turn around and go home. I got to experience it before they shut in down in 1968 because, according to the National Park Service, it was an "unnatural event" in an area where the visitors should be enjoying the wonders of nature. But really. Isn't fire natural? The irony is that the Glacier Point Hotel burned down that winter and was never rebuilt. Instead, they built a snake shake for the hikers who came up there to see the view. Now that's unnatural.
I understand that the increased traffic was also a factor in shutting down the Fire Fall. I was there. I saw the traffic it caused. We were one of the hundreds of cars that made the trek up the mountain, not to stay in the park, but just to view the fire fall and go home. It must have been a loud, disruption for the hour or so, in that beautiful peaceful place, that clogged the roads until all the looky-lous went home. The only way you can see this event today is to watch the Caine Mutiny.
Indian Love Call
As the story goes, James McCauley built Glacier Point Hotel in 1879 at the top the Glacier Point and would entertain his guests by building a large campfire at the valley side of the point and tell stories. Later when the fire burned out and the guests went back inside he kicked the embers over the edge and someone in the valley below saw it. Asking that he do it again, his sons saw a way to make a little money and they began getting a paid audience to see the embers fall over the edge. The fire got bigger and bigger until later they discovered that red fir bark created a better glow as they fell than wood. As the audiences grew, it became a paid show with stories and performances ending with the call up the mountain and the subsequent falls. During the fall, someone would sing "Indian Love Call" at Camp Curry. Sometimes "America the Beautiful" would be played and show participants would sing along. That seems appropriate. My mother would often sing the Indian Love Call and it wasn't till much later that I heard it was a song sung for the fire fall events.
Photos of Yosemite Back ThenClick thumbnail to view full-size
World War II and several other disputes interrupted the Fire Fall. In the ’50s and '60s, it again was a nightly summertime ritual. President John F. Kennedy came to see the Fire Fall show in 1962 and an especially large fire was prepared, but because he was on the phone at 9 p.m. the fall was delayed until 9:30 that night. The Fire Fall can be seen in the 1954 movie The Caine Mutiny. One of the officers goes to Yosemite on shore leave and sees it then. Unnatural or not, I think that the Fire Fall was a national treasure that is lost but is still in the memory of those who got to witness it.
The photo was taken by a family member in 1940 from Glacier Point. Virtually the same view as today.Information on dates retrieved from Wikipedia, Yosemite Firefall.
California Gold Classic
Huell Howser and Yosemite Firefall - California Gold Public Television Show
Huell Howser interviews actual people who were there and shows some footage from the archives before the Fire fall was stopped. Very interesting and informative. Nostalgic for those of us who actually got to see it.
Wawona Tunnel Tree
Horsehair falls glowing
Wawona Tunnel Tree
My family also got to see and drive through the famous Wawona Tunnel Tree in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park. I remember being so grieved when I heard that a terrible snowstorm in the winter of 1969 had caused the tree to fall over. Sad. We had to have been among the last people to drive through the famous tree in the summer of 1968. I was 13 armed with my first Brownie camera and black and white film. My pictures are not so great but I captured a little of the memory of that last summer for the old tree. They guess the tree was 2,100 years old when it fell. These Giant Sequoia are the largest and oldest trees in the world. Closely related to the Giant Redwoods, these Giant Sequoia live mostly in the John Muir National Forest just north of Yosemite National Park. When going to Yosemite, we always seemed to drive through to see the Giant Sequoias too before returning home. Photo taken by a family member in 1940.
Home Movies From The '60s
Tunnel Tree Fell
The tree had the tunnel cut into it in 1881 as a tourist attraction. Seems a bit harsh, but the tree was huge and as I recall it had scorch marks inside and up one side as if it had been struck by lightning sometime in its extensive past. Because of this, it probably already had an "opening" of sorts that must have helped the engineers decide to make the tunnel there. The famous tunnel was 7 feet wide, 9 feet high and 26 feet long at the base. People ask, "Why not cut a new tunnel tree since the old one fell down?" I'm sure I know the answer to that. What was okay for one generation may not work for the next. Although I had no trouble driving through an existing Tunnel Tree, I wouldn't like to see them do that to another tree just for a tourist attraction. We will probably never see another such living tree again. You have to admit that along with the severity of the storm in the winter of 1969 and the wet soil, the weakening of the tree because of the tunnel had to be part of the reason for its demise. Information on the Wawona Tunnel Tree can be found at the Yosemite official web site.
Photo taken by my friend Merrily McCarthy who lives and works in the Yosemite Valley.