Thanks to an unlikely visionary’s humble efforts to preserve California’s Yosemite Valley and nearby giant redwoods, new generations of adventurers continue to enjoy them as places of untouched beauty.
Galen Clark, the improbable hero of this tale, was born March 28, 1814, the seventh of 11 children. In the 1830s, he left his New England home for Missouri, married and had five children. After the family moved to Philadelphia, his wife died. Clark placed his children with relatives and headed to New York City, where he viewed a California Gold Rush exhibition. The gold dust display lured him to “visit the new Eldorado,” he later wrote.
Clark arrived in California in 1854, but his health was failing. Diagnosed with tuberculosis and given a year to live at 39 years old, he walked into the Sierras to rest and recover. “I went to the mountains to take my chances of dying or growing better, which I thought were about even,” Clark wrote.
One day while hunting, Clark encountered a group of Miwok Indians in the valley they traditionally called Ah-wah’-nee. He listened with curiosity to their tale of a hidden forest of gigantic trees. In 1857, he and associate Milton Mann became the first non-natives to view the surreal sight of California’s towering sequoias. Clark stayed, living among the trees, regaining his health—and finding his life’s purpose.
He opened a small hotel on the South Fork of the Merced River, adjacent to horseback and stagecoach trails built to take visitors to Yosemite. Determined to save the giant trees and the beautiful valley he called home, Clark repeatedly solicited Congress to officially preserve Yosemite Valley.
Remarkably, in response to Clark’s letters, Congress took time from the Civil War to protect Yosemite. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act transferring the preserve to California as a state park Clark was named the park’s first ranger and held the post for 24 years, and then again in 1889 at age 75, until he “retired” in 1897.
On March 24, 1910, shortly before his 96th birthday, Clark, who wasn’t supposed to see his 40th birthday, died. Earlier in life, he had planted seedling sequoias at his future gravesite near Yosemite Falls. More than a century old today, these trees planted by Clark’s own hand, now shelter their guardian in return.