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Harv Galic:

Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome.
Part I: Anderson's Years

This story begins on October 12, 1875, the date of the first ascent of Half Dome completed by George Anderson. At the time, George was a 39-year-old laborer from Yosemite Valley. The first ascent of Half Dome by a woman, Sally Dutcher, happened a few weeks later. She was a 31-year-old Yosemite Valley sales agent for photographer Carleton Watkins. In the eight years following the first ascents, dozens of people made it to the summit of Half Dome (or, "South Dome", as it was called in those early years), either with Anderson's direct help and guidance or bravely using Anderson's Rope Route without a guide. The climbers were people of the most diverse profiles, from adventurers, noted mountaineers, artists, scientists and clergy, to ordinary people, including even a 13-year-old girl and her 64-year-old grandmother. The life stories of those early climbres were often even more fascinating than their exploits on Half Dome. In the text below, I tried to give at least some short biographical sketches and portraits of the first climbers, and—when it was justified—to take an even deeper look at their lives. After Anderson's death in 1884, his Rope Route across the back side of Half Dome (east slope of the mountain) was no longer maintained and the number of ascents plummeted to just a few for the rest of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, Anderson's route was refitted with a new set of bolts and ropes, which once again allowed for more frequent visits to Half Dome, though mostly by younger thrill-seekers. 1919 is the last year covered by these chronicles of early Half Dome ascents. In the summer of that year, a new "Cables Route" was completed under auspices of the Sierra Club. With double steel cables and steel posts in place, many more people could now summit that iconic Yosemite dome in relative safety. If you are one of those who have succeeded in this feat, you may enjoy reading the following stories about how it was done in the old days.

Anno Domini 1875.
Oct 1875: Indomitable Scotchman, George Anderson

Ascender: George Anderson (October 12, 1875)

For about twenty years, tourists and inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley looked at Half Dome (or "South Dome", or "Split Dome") and dreamed of scaling it. Finally, in October 1875, somebody had enough courage and determination to reach its top. The following article from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin appears to be the earliest newspaper account of Anderson's legendary ascent.

Newspaper article that describes Andersons first ascent of Half Dome.

Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, October 19, 1875, p. 3

An Unparalleled Feat.On Tuesday the 12th instant, the extraordinary feat of ascending the South Dome in the Yosemite Valley was accomplished by a Scot[c]hman by birth and a sailor by profession, named George Anderson. He drilled his way up the south side, about 1,500 feet in two days.

[Note: Actually, Anderson's approach was from the east side, not 'south side'].

There are claims that some of Anderson's original bolts and spikes could still be found at the eastern base of the dome.

John Muir repeated Anderson's feat in November 1875, and wrote about it in an article published in a San Francisco newspaper. In this article, Muir described some additional details about Anderson's first ascent. Here are the paragraphs related to the "indomitable Scotchman" (Muir's frequent attribute for George Anderson). Note that Muir also credits John Conway and his sons for an earlier similar but unsuccessful attempt:

Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, November 18, 1875, p. 1

South Dome
(From our special correspondent).

Yosemite Valley, November 10, 1875.
The Yosemite South Dome is the noblest rock in the Sierra, and George Anderson, an indomitable Scotchman, has made a way to its summit... With the exception of conoidal summit of Mount Starr King, and a few minor spires and pinnacles, the South Dome is the only inaccessible rock of the valley, and its inaccessibility is pronounced in very severe and simple terms, leaving no trace of hope for the climber without artificial means. But longing eyes were none the less fixed on its noble brow, and the Anderson way will be eagerly ascended.

The Dome rises from the level floor of the valley to the height of very nearly a mile... On the east, where it is united with the dividing ridge between the great Tenaya and Nevada canyons, the Dome may be easily approached within six or seven hundred feet of the summit, where it rises in a smooth, graceful curve just a few degrees too steep to climb. Nearly all Sierra rocks are accessible on the eastern or upper side, because the glacial force which eroded them out of the solid acted from this direction[!]; but special conditions in the position and structure of the South Dome prevented the formation of the ordinary low grade, and it is this steep upper portion that the plucky Anderson has overcome. John Conway, a resident of the valley, has a flock of small boys who climb smooth rocks like lizards, and some two years ago he sent them up the dome with a rope, hoping they might be able to fasten it with spikes driven into fissures, and thus reach the top. They took the rope in tow and succeeded in making it fast two or three hundred feet above the point ordinarily reached, but finding the upper portion of the curve impracticable without laboriously drilling into the rock, he called down his lizards, thinking himself fortunate in effecting a safe retreat.

Mr. Anderson began with Conway's old rope, part of which still remains in place, and resolutely drilled his way to the top, inserting eyebolts five or six feet apart, and making his rope fast to each in succession, resting his foot on the last bolt while he drilled for the next above. Occasionally some irregularity in the curve or slight foothold would enable him to climb fifteen or twenty feet independently of the rope, which he would pass and begin drilling again, the whole being accomplished in a few days. From this slender beginning he will now proceed to construct a substantial stairway which he hopes to complete in time for next year's travel; and as he is a man of rare energy the thing will surely be done. Then, all may sing "Excelsior" in perfect safety...

John Muir later used this text in at least two of his books, The Mountains of California, 1894, and The Yosemite, 1912. It is interesting to study revisions that he made in the later years. For example, in The Yosemite, Anderson, being dead and all but forgotten, didn't fare well in the edited text. The original sentence (see above), "...and as he [Anderson] is a man of rare energy the thing will surely be done", is now replaced by "...but while busy getting out timber for his stairway and dreaming of the wealth he hoped to gain from tolls, he was taken sick and died all alone in his little cabin". On the other hand, Conway and "his lizards" would get a slightly better treatment. The original text "John Conway, a resident of the valley has a flock of small boys..." is replaced by "John Conway, the master trail-builder of the Valley, and his little sons..." Muir also dropped his speculation about "Sierra rocks being accessible on the eastern or upper side, because of glacial forces", and made other corrections in the later editions of the text.

(Another description of Conway's attempt can be found in Josiah Whitney's The Yosemite Guide-book, 1874 edition).

Here are some other early descriptions of Anderson's first climb:

The earliest book that mentioned (indirectly) Anderson's Half Dome ascent, was apparently Charles Beebe Turrill's first volume of California Notes, printed in San Francisco in 1876. The author states (pp. 215-216) [emphasis mine]:

The grand feature of this section [of Yosemite Valley] is the South, or, as sometimes called, the Half Dome... The shape of the South Dome is such that but one party has ever succeeded in reaching the summit, an undertaking few will care to attempt, and still smaller number can accomplish.

In the spring of 1878, Lady Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming, of London, then about 40 years old, visited Yosemite. She intended to stay in the Valley for three days, but ended up living there for three months. A collection of her letters from that California trip was printed in 1884 by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh/London, under the title Granite Crags. Her letter dated "Saturday, 4th May [1878]" talks about Anderson's climb:

Granite Crags, by C. F. Gordon Cumming, Chapter VI

...For many years [Half Dome] was considered altogether inaccessible; but about eighteen months ago [actually, two and a half years ago] it was scaled by an energetic, determined Scotchman, George Anderson by name. He hails from Montrose, but has taken up his abode in this beautiful valley; and now he looks on the Half-Dome with such mingled pride and veneration, that I should think he will never leave it.

It was in 1875 that he determined to reach the summit, if mortal man could accomplish the feat. Climbing goat-like along dizzy ledges, and clinging like a fly to every crevice that could afford him foothold, he reached the point where hitherto the boldest cragsman had been foiled. Here he halted till he had drilled a hole in the rock and securely fixed an iron stanchion with an eye-bolt, through which he passed a strong rope. Then resting on this frail support, he was able to reach farther, and to drill a second hole and fix another eye-bolt. From this point of vantage he could secure a third, carrying the rope through every bolt, and always securing it at the upper end.

Thus step by step he crept upward, till at last he had drilled holes and driven in iron stanchions right up the vast granite slab, securing 1100 feet of rope. Then rounding the mighty shoulder, he stood triumphant on the summit, and there to his amazement he found a level space of about seven acres, where not only grasses have spread a green carpet, but seven gnarled and stunted old pines, of three different kinds, have contrived to take root, and, defying storms and tempests, maintain their existence on this bleak bare summit...

A year before the Granite Crags was first published, two chapters of this book, including the segment about Anderson and his Half Dome adventure, appeared as an unsigned stand-alone in The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 47, April 1883, pp. 410-423, under the heading of "Early spring in California". The text in the Magazine concludes with a sentence that the authoress later scrapped from her book. It reads:

For my own part I concluded that there were views well-nigh as grand [as those from Half Dome] to be obtained at far less risk, and so I resisted all [Anderson's] persuasions to attempt this difficult and dangerous feat.

Several other British publications quoted the segment on Anderson from the Cornhill Magazine during the spring and summer of 1883, but made no effort to discover anything more about Anderson or to contact any of his relatives in Scotland. The concept of investigative journalism would develop only decades later.

Another note about Anderson's first ascent is from 1879. The anonymous author presumably gathered the information directly from Anderson:

San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 1879, p. 1; reprinted in St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 3, 1879, p. 10

...Anderson tried to climb [Half Dome] in his stocking feet, then barefooted, then by wearing bags full of pitch tied around below his knees, then by moccasins with pine pitch on the soles. The latter was the most hopeful, but none effected much, and well was it that he failed, for never could he have retraced his steps, and his life would have had a fearful end. He finally succeeded by using baling-rope of eight thicknesses, together with 40 or 50 strong iron pins, seven inches long, with an eye in each one in which to fasten the rope...

In 1886, James M. Hutchings published his In the Heart of the Sierras. In Chapter 26, he describes Anderson's ascent. Note that this was written about a decade later, and Hutchings wasn't a direct witness of the ascent. In mid October of 1875, he was still in the Eastern Sierra, after a successful climb of Mt. Whitney (and an unsuccessful attempt on Mt. Williamson). However, Hutchings had many opportunities to talk with Anderson in later years. Here is his dramatized report, based probably on some of those conversations:

In the Heart of the Sierras, by James M. Hutchings, Chapter 26

Until the fall of 1875 the storm-beaten summit of this magnificent landmark [Half Dome] was a terra incognita, as it had never been trodden by human feet... This honor was reserved for a brave young Scotchman, a native of Montrose, named George G. Anderson, who, by dint of pluck, skill, unswerving perseverance, and personal daring, climbed to its summit; and was the first that ever successfully scaled it. This was accomplished at 3 o'clock P. M. of October 12, 1875.

The knowledge that the feat of climbing this grand mountain had on several occasions been attempted, but never with success, begat in him an irrepressible determination to succeed in such an enterprise. Imbued with this incentive, he made his way to its base; and, looking up its smooth and steeply inclined surface, at once set about the difficult exploit. Finding that he could not keep from sliding with his boots on, he tried it in his stocking feet; but as this did not secure a triumph, he tried it barefooted, and still was unsuccessful. Then he tied sacking upon his feet and legs, but as these did not secure the desired object, he covered it with pitch, obtained from pine trees near; and although this enabled him to adhere firmly to the smooth granite, and effectually prevented him from slipping, a new difficulty presented itself in the great effort required to unstick himself; and which came near proving fatal several times.

Mortified by the failure of all his plans hitherto, yet in no way discouraged, he procured drills and a hammer, with some iron eye-bolts, and drilled a hole in the solid rock; into this he drove a wooden pin, and then an eye-bolt; and after fastening a rope to the bolt, pulled himself up until he could stand upon it; and thence continued that process until he had finally gained the top—a distance of nine hundred and seventy-five feet! All honor, then, to the intrepid and skillful mountaineer, Geo. G. Anderson, who, defying and overcoming all obstacles, and at the peril of his life, accomplished that in which all others had signally failed; and thus became the first to plant his foot upon the exalted crown of the great Half Dome.

His next efforts were directed towards placing and securely fastening a good soft rope to the eye-bolts, so that others could climb up and enjoy the inimitable view, and one that has not its counterpart on earth...

Herbert Wilson, in his 1922 book The Lore and the Lure of the Yosemite Indians offers an additional motive that could have been on Anderson's mind when he made his first ascent. Wilson does not give a source for his statement, therefore it is hard to tell how much of the following is based on facts, and how much is fiction.

The Lore and the Lure of the Yosemite Indians
by Herbert Earl Wilson, San Francisco, 1922, pp. 86-88

...Captain Anderson was at that time a resident of the Valley, and it had been his desire since his arrival to scale the magnificent peak, not alone because of the distinction of being the first man to reach the top, but because it was tacitly understood that to the man attaining this distinction would be granted a concession for building a hotel at the eastern base of the dome. In his effort Captain Anderson was opposed by some two or three others who were actuated by the same desire. One might almost wish that such a creditable ambition had been inspired by a less mercenary motive. However, be that as it may, one day Captain Anderson disappeared from the Valley without having told anyone of his intended departure or destination. This procedure was in those days unusual, and after some two or three days had elapsed without him having put in an appearance, grave fears were felt for his safety and a search party was organized to look for him. This party, composed of several residents of the Valley, concluded that the most logical place to look for Captain Anderson was in the vicinity of Half Dome, and accordingly proceeded in that direction along the old trail past Happy Isles and Vernal and Nevada Falls. On the trail near Nevada Falls they met Captain Anderson returning to the Valley, and in answer to a query as to where he had been, he said, "Gentlemen, I have been to the top of Half Dome".

...Captain Anderson had conceived this idea after days of the most painstaking exploration had failed to disclose any other way to the top. Taking no one into his confidence, he had, alone and unaided, gathered his materials, transported them over the ten miles of rough trail to the beginning of his ascent, fashioned the pegs, and slowly, step by step, had drilled the holes and built himself a ladder, nine hundred feet long, to the coveted summit...

Who was George Anderson?

This blurb reveals previously unknown details about George Anderson's youth, and for the first time identifies his family in Scotland. George was born on April 13, 1836 in a small hamlet called Milton of Mathers, in St. Cyrus Parish, just south of the coastal fishing village of Johnshaven. At the time of George's birth, this area on the eastern seaboard of Scotland was a part of the County of Kincardineshire. The largest nearby town was Montrose, but this urban center was in another region (Angus County), and was separated from Milton and Johnshaven by the North Esk River. Although George Anderson was often said to be 'a native of Montrose' or 'hailing from Montrose', it is unlikely that he ever actually lived in Montrose. A better description would be "George Anderson of Johnshaven (Kincardineshire)".

George was one of nine children born to Margaret and David Anderson. His father David's occupation was listed as 'white fisher', and later as 'weaver' in Scottish censuses. His mother's maiden name was McBey or some similar spelling variant. Three boys and two girls were older than George, and another brother and two twin sisters were younger. In 1851, at the age of 14, George had already left the family home and was working as a cattleman on the farm of a wealthy landowner in nearby Fettercairn. I don't know for how long he stayed at the farm or what was his occupation during mid to late 1850s. Many years later, when he became famous for his Half Dome feat, people would describe him as a 'former sailor', or a '(ship) carpenter', or even a 'captain'. He may indeed have been briefly involved in some kind of maritime activity, but so far I have not found any evidence of this. By the early 1860s, or even earlier, George and his eleven year older brother Charles were already in California, working in gold mines. At the time of George's first ascent of Half Dome, in the late 1875, his father was already dead, but his mother Margaret was still alive and perhaps may have even learned of his accomplishment from Scottish newspapers. According to some sources, she died around 1886.

British tourist John Wallace, who visited California about three weeks after the first Half Dome ascent, left us several additional details about Anderson and his life. Wallace was an iron merchant from Dundee, a town that is some 30 miles south of George's birthplace. He met George Anderson on a Yosemite trail, and in a letter sent home he recalled the meeting as follows:

George Anderson in 1875.

Geo. Anderson
in 1875.

San Francisco, 8th November 1875.

I enclose cutting from a San Francisco newspaper describing the recent ascent of the South Dome mountain of the Yosemite Valley. It may interest you (...) to know that the hero of the adventure, George Anderson, is native of Johnshaven, near Montrose. I met him last week half way up the mountain, and being a countryman, I of course had some conversation with him. He is at present constructing a stair or ladder up the back of the Dome, which will enable visitors to ascend to the top with comparative safety. He gets a charter from the U.S. Government entitling him to charge a toll for the use of the stair, and hopes to be reimbursed for his outlay, labour and risk by the tourists who visit this region in yearly-increesing numbers. Anderson is (...) fair, blue eyed, bearded, young looking man of about thirty-eight, thorough sailor in appearance, frank and pleasant. He has been seventeen years in California, chiefly mining, but with no great success (...) He thinks his mother is alive at Johnshaven, but is not sure...

While there is a reference to George's mother in Wallace's letter, surprisingly, there is no mention of George's siblings, and specifically nothing about his eldest brother Charles Anderson, who also lived near Yosemite at the time of Wallace's visit. The rest of the letter is an interesting description of Yosemite Valley. I don't know if Wallace copied it from a guide book, or if it was based on his personal observations.

A newspaper article from 1875 provides another evidence of George's direct connection to County of Kincardineshire rather than to Montrose, which is in Angus County. It describes an annual festival of natives of Kincardineshire that was held in Glasgow on the night of December 3, 1875. Lord Inverurie was presiding at the gathering. Apparently, his Lordship had just heard of Anderson's climb. Here is how a newspaper reporter presented Lord Inverurie's talk at the meeting:

In the course of his address, [the Lord] said... that he had repeatedly seen instances of success of Kincardineshire men, from America to Japan, in Arabia, and in other places. All this showed that Kincardineshire natives would get on. (Applause.) And just a day before, he [the Lord] read of an extraordinary feat done in the valley of California, where were two great mountains called the North and South Dome. The former was pretty easy of access, but the latter was perpendicular, and it was physically impossible for any living being to ascend it. A man determined to get to the top for the purpose of an ordnance survey. He tried for years, by driving iron pins into the perpendicular face of this mountain, two thousand feet high. He attached ropes to these pins, and [finally] accomplished the ascent... The noble Lord thought that none but a Kincardineshire man could have attempted such a thing, and very few but Kicardineshire people would have succeeded in doing it. (Applause.)...

If the information in Wallace's letter is correct, George Anderson arrived to California around 1858, probably lured by tales of easy gold and quick riches. It is quite possible that George and his brother Charles made the trip across Atlantic together. In 1858 George would have been age 22 and Charles about 33. In September 1860, the U.S. Census takers found them both in Toulumne County, Township 6, Post Office Don Pedro's Bar. They are described as miners without any property, either personal or real. On July 30, 1866, George was granted American citizenship in nearby Mariposa County, but he continued to live in Tuolumne County for several more years. In the Great Tuolumne Voter Register of 1868, he is listed as a miner who worked at Indian Bar on the Tuolumne River. We also know from Tuolumne County property tax records that at one time he owned a mining claim, a water ditch, as well as a house and a piece of land at Indian Bar. By the late 1860s, the gold and copper deposits on that stretch of the Tuolumne River were nearly exhausted, and the Anderson brothers decided it was time to move. When the 1870 Census was taken, George and Charles were living quite close to Yosemite. They were registered in Tuolumne's Township 4, Post Office Big Oak Flat. Both were still involved in mining. Shortly after that census, George moved again, now to Mariposa County. All voting lists (aka Great Registers) of that county from 1872 to 1882 list him as "miner, residing at Hite's Cove". However, we know that he ceased his mining activities shortly after arrival at Hite's Cove, and instead worked as laborer in much more profitable construction projects in Yosemite Valley. Hite's Cove may have been his winter home when Yosemite was inaccessible. His Half Dome adventure in 1875 suddenly brought him recognition and admiration, at least among Yosemite tourists and residents, and his prospects for the future were promising.

It is not known how and where George's brother Charles was living in the decade after the 1870 census. Unlike George, he was not yet naturalized, and the old voter rolls are of no use. Although he may have stayed near Big Oak Flat, his name is not found in the 1880 U.S. census. We don't hear again of Charles until 1884, the year of George's death (see below).

Do we know anything about George's other siblings and their descendants back in Scotland? In spite of my considerable effort, there is not much to report. George's family name is one of the most popular last names in Scotland, which makes it almost impossible to reliably trace any of the living Andersons back to George and his parents.

(Note: Indian Bar, on the Tuolumne River, where the Andersons once had a home, was completely submerged by Don Pedro Reservoir's water in the 1970s).

Oct 1875: First tourists on Half Dome

Ascenders: Anderson, William Robinson, James Robinson, Edwin Gamman, S. Robert Groom, Wesley Wood, Moreland (October 16, 1875)

Within days of Anderson's first ascent, at least two other parties made it to the top. Here is a description of what probably was the first "tourist" party atop the Dome:

San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, October 24, 1875, p. 2

Climbing the Rocks
The Feat Which a Party of English Tourists Accomplished—A Narrow Escape From a Fearful Death.

The celebrated South Dome of the Yosemite is well known, and it has hitherto been asserted that to reach its summit was an impossibility. On September 15 [actually, on October 12th] both visitors and residents in the valley were thrown into a state of excitement upon it being made known that a Scotchman named George Anderson, formerly a sailor, had actually accomplished this wonderful and daring feat. Very few believed the tale, and those who had already seen the South Dome utterly denied that the feat was within the limit of possibility. A party of the English tourists concluded that they would judge for themselves by visiting the spot. Those who have been there know the kind of riding necessary to reach the base of its[!] mountain, which rises some 6,000 feet above the level of the valley.

The news spread like wildfire that the Britishers would attempt the ascent. At 6 A. M. on Saturday, the 16th of September [actually, Saturday, 16th of October], a party of eleven adventurers, headed by George Anderson, started from Black's hotel upon their seven miles ride up the precipitous height, past the Vernal and Nevada falls, and struck the little frequented trail to South Dome. On reaching the heavy masses of fallen granite known as the "Camel's Back", they dismounted, and after a brief rest, a few commenced the dangerous climb to the foot of the dome. The Scotchman arrived first. As the party assembled at the foot of an almost perpendicular rock, which is according to Prof. Whitney's calculation, at least 1,300 feet high, they looked with dismay at the journey before them.

Watkins stereoview #3051, The first tourists who made the ascension of the Half Dome.

Watkins stereoview #3051, New series, "The first
tourists who made the ascension of the Half Dome",
no date. According to Hank Johnston, Anderson is
the man on the left.

George Anderson then explained that as he climbed he had bored holes in the rock, and inserted iron eye-bolts. To these eye-bolts he had secured a rope, and those who would venture to climb, holding the rope with their hands and pressing the rock with their feet, might do so, providing their strength held out, in perfect safety. Two of the Englishmen said it might be good fun walking up walls, but they "didn't feel like trying". Anderson, however, with a cheer went ahead. There was a moment's hesitation, then, with a shout of enthusiasm, some of the crowd rushed forward to the rope. It was first secured by two young Englishmen named Robinson, who rapidly commenced the escalade. They were followed by another rejoicing in the name of Gammon. Then Mr. Moreland, an American, ascended, followed closely by West, a guide from the valley. These were allowed to work their way up, lest the rope should break. Mr. Liedig [actually: Leidig], of the valley, then went up, followed by Mr. Groom, another English tourist.

Anderson now looked like a fly crawling in the distance as he rapidly distanced his followers, shouting words of encouragement as they cautiously made their way upward. Sometimes they stopped, holding on convulsively to the rope and the eyebolt until they could continue up the dizzy height. Mr. Liedig turned sick, and with difficulty returned, swearing that for all the dollars in California he could have not gone further.

The spectators now waited nervously for those who had gained the summit, and were soon relieved from their anxiety by hearing the report of West's revolver, which was to be the signal of their safety. They now commenced to clamber painfully down the "Camel's Back" to the horses and those who had not cared to make the ascent. There being no trail, each had to make one for himself. Several had narrow escapes. Mr. Groom, after an involuntary roll of some fifteen or twenty feet, suddenly found himself looking over a precipice between two and three thousand feet deep into the valley below. He had slidden so far down the rock that without the aid of ropes, he could not return. To advance was almost certain death of a most horrible nature. None understood the terrible import of his cries for help. His sole support was a narrow ledge of granite to which he held on with the grim tenacity of a man who fights for life. But his strength could not last, and with a loud cry he rolled headlong down, down, as he believed, into eternity. But in throwing his arms forward as he fell they slid into a crevice by which he held on. Here he was able to take advantage of a slope in the rock, and with the calves of his legs and his hands he worked himself downward to a firm footing. He afterward reached the base of the mountain in safety. We think that one, at least, of these Englishmen will remember the ascent of the South Dome.

Soon after this incident George Anderson and the adventurers who had followed him returned safely. Three cheers were given and the party commenced the descent to the valley. Anderson has performed a feat which has scarcely a parallel in any country. A subscription has already been opened for his benefit in the valley in order to enable him to build a secure staircase for those who will in future ascend the Dome under his guidance.

This San Francisco Chronicle article was widely reprinted throughout the U.S. It was, e.g., copied in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, November 4, 1875, p. 2, the Chicago Sunday Times, November 7, 1875, p. 10, the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, November 17, 1875, p. 5, the Daily State Gazette, Trenton, New Jersey, November 25, 1875, p. 1, and the Farmers' Cabinet, Amherst, New Hampshire, December 29, 1875, p. 1.

Watkins' stereoview used in this paragraph may have been taken on October 16, 1875 or several days later. See also Watkins' stereoview #3050, with the same capture ("The first tourists who made the ascension of the Half Dome") but with only five people. I thank Dennis Kruska for bringing those Watkins' photos to my attention.

A shorter account of the October 16 ascent appeared in a Sonora weekly paper:

The Union Democrat, Sonora, October 30, 1875, p. 3

A Perilous Feat.—The summit of the South Half Dome in the Yo-Semite Valley has at last been attained, a Scotch sailor named Anderson having climbed the precipice, a distance of 1,300 feet, by means of spikes and ropes, accomplishing one of the most perilous feats on record. The ascent was made on the 15th of September [actually, on the 12th of October], and on the 16th [October] half a dozen tourists successfully reached the dizzy hight. They found an area of about 100 acres on the summit of the dome and say that a magnificent view can be obtained from the height. A staircase will be erected so that all may ascend in safety, and another feature will thereby be added to the attractions of the valley. Last season an English tourist attempted to reach the top of the Dome, and failed. He then offered $500 to any one who would accomplish the feat and arrange it so that he could follow. There is but one chance left for an adventurous man to eclipse Anderson's feat, and that is for some one to reach the "Tree in the Niche", a pine which projects from a cavern or platform 2,000 feet from the valley on the sheer face of El Capitan.

This shorter version was also reprinted in the Sacramento Daily Record–Union, November 2, 1875, in the San Francisco Bulletin, November 11, 1875, in the Friends' Intelligencer, Philadelphia, on December 25, 1875, and probably in other U.S. newspapers.

Several copies of the Chronicle with the story of Anderson, English tourists and the Half Dome ascent reached the British Isles five weeks later, in early December. It caused quite a sensation, particularly in Anderson's native Scotland. The entire text from the Chronicle was reprinted in dozen of Scotish newspapers, often with the headline "Perilous Adventure of a Scotchman". The first to report the story seems to have been the North British Daily Mail (Glasgow), of December 3, 1875, on page 2. Although one would expect that the popularity of this story would prompt local newspaper editors to find out more details about Anderson or to interview some of the English tourists who had conquered the previously inaccessible Yosemite signature peak, that did not happen. A week later a shorter account of Anderson's feat, from an unknown source, appeared in several newspapers from Central England. It was clearly tailored for British public (note the reference to St. Paul's Cathedral), but I don't know who was the author. The title used for this shorter version was often "An Enterprising Climber", although several newspapers preferred calling it "A Perilous Ascent" instead, for example:

Cambridge Independent Press, Saturday, 11 December 1875, p. 2

A Perilous Ascent

Many of the most disagreeable peaks in the world have, no doubt, been climbed by this time; tourists have grown so bold that they positively despise those which are at all accessible, and the most formidable mountain, perhaps, in the world, the South Dome of the Yosemite Valley, in California, has not only been climbed by a Scotchman named Anderson, but it is to be made practicable for travellers of exceptional nerve by a stair constructed up the back of the Dome by this enterprising climber. "No description", says a correspondent at San Francisco, "can convey any adequate idea of this singular mountain. (. . .) The walls on either side of the valley are for five miles a close succession of perpendicular bare granite rocks, cut down with smooth face as if by a knife, and rising sheer from the valley to the average height of four thousand feet. The fact of a perpendicular wall, three-quarters of a mile high, of bright grey granite, can scarcely be grasped by the mind, and must be seen before it can be realised. Imagine the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral multiplied a hundred times and cloven in half — the one side a precipice of 6,000 feet from top to bottom; the other side forming a perfect quadrant for 1,500 feet from the top, as smooth and bare and regular as the side of a ball — and some faint idea can be formed of Anderson's terrible feat". The idea of a man 'swarming' up such a surface at such a height boring holes in the rock and inserting iron eyebolts to which to secure a rope, as Anderson did during his first ascent, is indeed one belonging to the realms of nightmare.

Notes added:

Note 1: For another independent description of the "first tourist ascent" of Half Dome, see a note in the Snow's Hotel register from October 16, 1875.

Note 2: Newspapers articles only gave us the last names of the participants in this ascent. Snow's Register has additionally revealed initials for some of them, but even that was not enough to identify any of the climbers with certainty. We now know more about a few of those "tourists" thanks to Mark Ashley of Lemoore, California. In the summer of 2009, he was gathering information on the once flourishing "English Colony" in Hanford (in Tulare County till 1893, then a county seat of the newly formed Kings County ever since). Mark was particularly interested in William and James Robinson, two brothers and active members of the Colony. In the course of his study Mark came across a booklet written by Lilias Robinson, William's wife, giving an account of couple's summer excursion to Yosemite in 1882. This slight (only 37 pages) and very rare book was printed in London about a year after the trip. According to the book, Lilias and William had reached the Big Tree Station, today's Wawona, on August 24, 1882. Lilias' entry for the next day, August 25, contained the most valuable clue. In the following paragraph she describs an encounter of two Half Dome veterans:

Our Trip to the Yo-Semite Valley and Sierra Nevada Range
By L.N.R.R. [Lilias Napier Rose Robinson]
J. Martin & Son, printers, London, 1883, p. 11

I was very glad when the sun rose... The air in the mountains was most deliciously fresh and invigorating. The first part of our drive [from the Big Tree Station to Yosemite Valley] was very steep, and the driving rather difficult as the road was very narrow, and overhung a good deal. Just before we reached the eleven mile station, we met a band of Kink Indians[!], one of whom carried on his back an immense eagle all bound and tied up... The man in charge of the station was an old Yo-Semite guide, and he recognised W[illiam] as having been one of the party who made the first ascent of the South Dome; he has now become a trapper, and he showed me some fine skins of the brown and cinnamon bears which he had shot. The rest of our drive was all down hill and we reached Inspiration Point about five p.m....

James Shaw Robertson in about 1907.
James S. Robinson
in about 1907 (from a photo in
Kings County Museum)
The above paragraph clearly identified William Rose Robinson, an Englishman from Hanford, California, as one of the climbers who had ascended Half Dome on October 16, 1875. It was then fair for Mark to assume that William's younger brother, James Shaw Robinson, was William's companion on the mountain. When I later got access to Snow's Register, Mark's assumption proved correct: the Robinson brothers' signatures in the Register featured initials W. R. and J. S.!

Indirectly, Lilias' book also helped finding the true identity of another climber, "Mr. West, a guide from the Valley" (see the Chronicle article). The man in charge of the Eleven Mile Station on the road from Wawona to Yosemite at the time of Lilias' trip was one John Wesley Wood, also known as "Wes" or "West". Thus, "Mr. West" was actually a familiar Yosemite character, Wes Wood.

William Rose Robinson (~1854-1885) was the eldest boy in the family of Lady Julia Elizabeth (Thomas) Robinson and Sir William Rose Robinson, a civil servant in India. At the time of his Half Dome ascent William was about 21 years old. He got his education in England (Haileybury College and the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester), and probably arrived in the U.S., with his brother James, in 1872. The brothers spent some time in New York, then in Mendocino and San Francisco, and finally—probably in 1875—settled in Mussel Slough country, near what would later become the town of Hanford. There, they would become involved in farming and cattle raising. William made a brief trip back to England in the summer of 1881, to marry Lilias Napier (1859-1938), the youngest daughter of Hon. William Napier. William Robinson died of peritonitis in September of 1885, at the age of 31. He is buried at a local cemetery in Hanford.

James Shaw Robinson (1855-1945) was a year or two younger than William. From 1869, until his trip to the U.S., he attended Harrow School. He was 20 years old at the time of his Half Dome ascent. In November 1880, when he was 25, James traveled to England to marry Julia Elizabeth Barkworth (aka Lily, 1859-1884). They had a daughter born in Hanford, Ethel Muriel Robinson (1881-1958). Lily died of pneumonia several years later, and is buried in the Hanford cemetery. In April of 1888, James remarried. Ethel Elizabeth M'Calmont (1862-1937), from a wealthy British M'Calmont family (or McCalmont/MacCalmont), became his second wife at a wedding in the Episcopal Church in Hanford. They had two children, Margaret Edith Robinson (aka Bimmie, 1889-1980), and James Leslie Douglas Robinson (1895-1911). In December of 1897, James Shaw Robinson and his surviving siblings renounced the use of surname of "Robinson", and adopted the original family surname of "Robertson". From that point on, our climber James is known as James Shaw Robertson. In about 1902, James and his family returned to England where both of his daughters got married. James lived in The Vache, a historical manor at Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire until his death on the Christmas Day of 1940. Many of James' direct descendants are still living in the U.K., with family names of Aylmer-Hall, Spandring, Wheeldon, Robotham, and Vivian. One of James' great-granddaughters, Mrs. Penny Giorgi, lives in California.

Englishman "Gammon", mentioned in the Chronicle article, may have been Edwin Gamman (~1840-1913), a London tea buyer and merchant. His signature from the Snow's register is shown below. Mr. Gamman arrived to San Francisco on Sep 29, 1875, aboard the British steamer Oceanic from Yokohama. Several other passengers from the same ship, including Mr. Groom (see below), traveled to Yosemite together, where they happened to witness Anderson's historic first ascent. Groom and Gamman then decided to repeat the feat on October 16. Edwin Gamman would have been about 35 at the time. He was one of many children of Mary Ann (Matthews) Gamman and Robert Gamman, a wealthy coal merchant from London. Edwin remained unmarried, and died in London in 1913. In his will, he left almost £ 20,000 to his unmarried younger sister Lydia Ann Gamman, with whom he had shared his household.

Edwin Gammans signature.

Yosemite guide Wes Wood.
This man on Watkins photo
#3050 is probably J. Wesley Wood
who was about 44 years old
at the time of the climb.

Another British climber in the party, Mr. Groom, was probably Samuel Robert Groom (~1849-1901), a son of a British merchant in Jamaica, Thomas Groom. This Mr. Groom, who apparently preferred his middle name Robert, was about 26 years old at the time of the Half Dome ascent. His law education culminated at Middle Temple (London) from where he was called to the bar in 1879. In 1883, he married an American born actress and vocalist, Mabel Nellie Renard-Moody (stage name "Madge Myrtle"). In 1886, the family moved to the Straits Settlements where Robert was a successful solicitor and barrister-at-law in Singapore and Malacca. There is some resemblance between one of the persons on Watkins stereoview #3051 and a caricature of S. R. Groom sketched by one of his fellow lawyers in the 1890s. S. Robert Groom died of consumption in Kuala Lumpur in 1901. He was survived by his wife and one son. They returned to England. Mabel Groom died in 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic. The son, with a long name of Harold Lester Robert Joseph Groom, studied to become an electrical engineer. For his gallantry during the First World War, Harold was awarded the Military Cross in 1916, and the Distinguished Service Order in 1918. In 1925, Harold married Elsie Muriel Taylor. Harold died in Chelsea, London, in 1967, at the age of 80, but I don't know if he had any descendants.

John Wesley Wood (~1831-1905), was born in Illinois, and probably came to California at an early age. In some sources his last name is listed as "Woods". He lived most of his life close to Yosemite or in the Valley itself. At the time of his Half Dome ascent he was about 44 years old, and was working as a part time guide in Yosemite Valley. In the 1870 and 1880 Yosemite censuses, his occupation was listed as butcher. Other sources show him operating a meat market in the Valley for George Meyer of Big Meadow. In the mid 1880s, Hutchings described him in the following way: "An open-faced and kindly-hearted hunter, who makes the Eleven Mile Station his lonely abiding-place both winter and summer..." In spite of his kindly-hearted character, Mr. Wood may have been involved in killing of a native American known as Lame George in a quarrel at his Station in July of 1887. However, a jury in coroner's inquest acquitted him. Wes Wood died in the county hospital in Mariposa in February of 1905, due to heart failure. According to a newspaper article, he was survived by a nephew and niece in Illinois. His grave is in the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery, next to George Anderson's grave.

Oct 1875: Sarah Dutcher — First female ascent

Ascenders: Anderson, Sarah Dutcher, Galen Clark (late October, 1875)

Miss Dutcher of San Francisco was the first female who ascended Half Dome. It doesn't appear that any newspaper article from 1875/76 reported that feat directly. However, at least two indirect and independent accounts make no doubt that the credit indeed belongs to her. An early mention of her achievement comes from James M. Hutchings. He has the following brief note in his book printed in 1886:

In the Heart of the Sierras, by James M. Hutchings, Chapter 26

[Anderson's] next efforts were directed towards placing and securely fastening a good soft rope to the eye-bolts, so that others could climb up and enjoy the inimitable view, and one that has not its counterpart on earth. Four English gentlemen, then sojourning in the Valley, learning of Mr. Anderson's feat, were induced to follow his intrepid example. A day or two afterwards, Miss S. L. Dutcher, of San Francisco, with the courage of a heroine, accomplished it; and was the first lady that ever stood upon it...

Sarah (Sally) Dutcher, from a Watkins' photo.
Sarah L. Dutcher, unknown
date (from a Watkins' photo).
In 1912, Julius Birge published his traveling memoirs under the title The Awakening of the Desert. The book is mostly about the Great Planes, but in the penultimate chapter he briefly mentions his Half Dome ascent that took place a year and a half after Sally Dutcher's climb. It appears that Sally had lost an item on Half Dome, and Birge was the one who found and retrieved it. Here is the relevant paragaph from his book:

The Awakening of the Desert, by Julius C. Birge, Chapter 29

[Climbing up the Half Dome] was a dizzy but inspiring ascent... While spending an hour upon the summit, I discovered on its barren surface, a lady's bracelet. On showing it to [George] Anderson, he said: "You are the third party who has made this ascent. I pulled up a young woman recently but she never mentioned any loss except from nausea[!]". Returning to Merced, I observed a vigorous young woman wearing a bracelet similar to the one I had found. The lady proved to be Miss Sally Dutcher of San Francisco, who admitted the loss and thankfully accepted the missing ornament. A letter to me from Galen Clark states that he assisted in Miss Dutcher's ascent, Anderson preceding with a rope around his waist connecting with Miss Dutcher; the letter also states that she was certainly the first and possibly the last woman who made the ascent...

Read more about Birge's 1877 ascent below.

Who was Miss Dutcher?

Very little is known of Miss Dutcher's life and career. This article adds a few details unknown until now, but most information about her life seems to be lost forever. Her full name was Sarah Louisa Dutcher, but she preferred Sally/Sallie. She was a daughter of Moses A. Dutcher and Sarah Burchall (or Burchill), and born in Tasmania, probably on September 14, 1844. Her mother Sarah, a weaver from Bethnall Green near London, arrived to Australia in January 1841, one of 190 female convicts expelled from England. She was said to be 18. Sallie's father, Moses Dutcher, was banished to Australia in 1839 by a British court, for his participation in an uprising of Canadians against British rule of Lower Canada, known as the Patriots' War. Many U.S. citizens participated in this rebellion, and court documents at the time of his capture identify Moses as being from Brownville, New York. He may have been a recent British immigrant to the area. Miss S. L. Dutcher, detail of a larger photo.
Sarah (Sally) Dutcher, from
Watkins' photo, now in the
Yosemite Museum.
In the 1880 Census, Sarah stated that both of her parents were born in England. According to Samuel Snow's narrative, published in Cleveland in 1846, when other rebels were pardoned and returned to their homes "only one, Moses Dutcher, who married in VDL [Tasmania], seems to have voluntarily stayed in the colony". A genealogical source shows Moses and Sarah married at All Saints Church in Swansea, Glamorgan (Tasmania), in 1844. Little Sally was probably their first-born. Another daughter, Jennie E. Dutcher (or Jane) was born within the next few years. Just before Christmas of 1849, Moses, his wife, and two daughters boarded the British bark "Eudora" on her way to California. However, seventy days later, when the ship finally reached the port of Honolulu, the Dutchers made a change in their plans: rather than to continue the journey, they decided to stay at least temporarily in Hawaii. A son, Moses A. Dutcher (Jr), was born to the Dutchers in the tropical paradise probably in March of 1851. In about May of 1851, Sally's father opened a boarding house at the corner of Hotel and Fort streets in Honolulu. He died in Hawaii probably before 1855, when Sally was about ten or eleven years old. In the late 1856, her mother married William Pearson, the owner of the White Horse Hotel in Honolulu. Mr. Pearson's life ended under strange circumstances in July 1860. His body was found in a well behind their house in Honolulu. Eventually, cause of death was ruled a suicide.

The Friend, published in Hawaii, announced that "Misses Jane and Sarah Dutcher" had left Honolulu aboard bark Comet for San Francisco on May 24, 1862. An article in San Francisco's Daily Evening Bulletin of June 12, 1862, shows the arrival of Comet on the previous day, with "Miss S. Dutcher and Miss J. E. Dutcher" amongst 20 other names in the passenger list. Sarah was about eighteen years old when she reached California. Her brother Moses Jr and her twice-widowed mother also found their way to San Francisco in mid or late 1860s. In California, her mother would marry for the third time, to one Mr. Clark about whom nothing is known. She died in June of 1870, still in her fourties. Interestingly enough, another Dutcher, a young man named Edwin M. Dutcher, will be one of Sally's companions in San Francisco, but he was most likely a relative on her father's side rather than her brother.

Between 1868 and 1871, Sarah is apparently focused on fighting her way up into the social elite of San Francisco, and some newspaper reporters are paying attention. For example, Sarah attends the Carnival Ball at the Pavillion in 1868 ("Miss Sallie Dutcher was a very charming peasant girl, in a blue skirt, white waist, coquettish apron and hair neglige"). In 1871, the reporters spotted her twice: at the Merry Mascquerade of the Skating Club ("Miss Sarah Dutcher was a peasant girl, and wore a costume which must have temporarily ruined her yeoman father"), and at the Reunion of the Ivy Social Club. Then, after 1871, her name disappears from social chronicles.

Sarah's sister Jennie got married in January 1871, but she died three years later in San Francisco. In the coming years, Sarah's brother Moses and cousin(?) Edwin, who both were in some ways involved in a photographic business, moved out of town, and by the summer of 1874 Sarah is all alone. In San Francisco directories from mid 1870s she is listed as "Miss Sallie L. Dutcher", or simply, "Miss S. L. Dutcher". In April 1874 and March 1875 directories, Sallie's occupation is "saleswoman with Carleton E. Watkins", but her association with Watkins must have began much earlier, probably back in 1871. Her stay in the Yosemite Valley during the summer of 1875, when she made her Half Dome ascent, was also in some way related to her interest in photography (and in Watkins?). Shirley Sargent in her Pioneers in Petticoats, published in 1966, describes Sarah as "a San Franciscan who sold Watkins' photographs in the valley". The Half Dome ascent happened shortly after Sally's 31st birthday. Next year, in April 1876, her job description in the San Francisco Directory is "photographic retoucher", but in March 1877 and April 1879, she is again "saleswoman with Carleton E. Watkins".

The following, somewhat unflattering description of Sarah was printed in the New York Tribune in June 1880: "A brace of female agents of photographic views infest the hotels [in the Yosemite Valley]. One is well known to every dweller in the valley by the familiar name of 'Sally'. She has spent many Summers there, and great is the power of her tongue. To clinch a bargain, she will chat, flirt, dance, drive with you—a most 'amoosin' and versatile girl. The old resident of the valley remarks to the newcomer, with a knowing wink, as she passes: There goes Sally; that gal is the smartest salesman in Californy. She'll euchre a Jew pawnbroker, and the way she lays out them English swells is a caution. She's a credit to the State, and the valley's proud of her". The reporter also adds: "Sally is a tall, lithe, remarkably self-possessed young woman, with a piercing black eye, and a face brim-full of vivacity. Her rival is a blonde of the 'strawberry' type, with yellow hair, who wins much custom by a pertinacity which would put to shame a Niagara Falls hackman. And how the two rivals do stab each other's reputations with innuendo and sarcasm: how they disparage each other's wares and make bitter gibes on mutual blemishes in beauty and honesty!" [The use of ethnic stereotyping in the above segment was by no means an uncommon practice in newspapers of that time].

In April of 1880, Miss Dutcher runs a gallery connected to Watkins, and is listed in the San Francisco Directory as "agent for Watkins' photographic views, 8 Montgomery [street], room 1". Sarah's name is also shown in the Pacific Coast Directory for 1880-81; Containing Names, Business and Address, published by L. M. McKenney & Co., in 1880: "Dutcher Mrs S L, photographic views, 8 Montgomery". Actually, she was not a 'Mrs' yet. During the spring and summer of 1880, her newspaper ads have been appearing in several San Francisco papers daily, for example, in Chronicle and in Daily Evening Bulletin. Here is an example of her ad from the San Francisco Chronicle of May 13, 1880, p. 2:

Newspaper ad for Miss S. L. Dutchers photographic gallery.

She also paid for a full page ad in the Hawaiian Kingdom (...) Directory and Tourists' Guide, George Browser & Co., Honolulu, 1880. Her newspaper ads stopped running in August 1880, probably because—as it will be seen below—Miss Dutcher has found a new and different interest in her life.

There are some uncorroborated suggestions in Carleton Watkins' biographies of an alleged romantic attraction—if not an outright liaison—between him and Miss Dutcher, in spite of (or perhaps, because of!) a denial by Watkins in a 1879 letter which he wrote to his wife Frances shortly after their marriage. What is known is that Sarah did accompany Watkins on at least one of his photographic trips to California mountains as late as in 1878. Watkins took several photos of her during that trip to Calaveras Big Trees. One of those photos is deposited in the California Digital Library (check the base of the right giant tree!), and another one from the same series, taken inside the Pavillion built on a stump of a tree, is reproduced in Carleton Watkins; Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 1997, p. 79. Miss Dutcher may also be the person on another Watkins' photo at Getty Museum; (download the large size, and check the female figure at the left base of the 'Mother of the Forest' tree). The most frequently used picture of Sarah (see, e.g., the upper right corner of this highlighted box) is actually a detail of a larger photo produced by Watkins' Yosemite Art Gallery, deposited now in the Yosemite Museum.

Sarah was not enumerated in the 1870 Census, but in the Census of 1880, taken in San Francisco in June, Sarah is listed as "Sarah Dutcher, age 33, single, born in Australia from English parents, working in a 'photograph gallery', home address 139 Fourth str." It was not unusual for that era that people would present themselves in census data somewhat younger than they actually were. Sarah's true age at the time of the census was probably 35 or 36, not 33. She was still single, but that was going to change soon. On December 18, 1880, she married Frederick Clark, a recently appointed full time employee of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, December 20, 1880, p. 3, col. 4

Marriages. In this city, December 18, 1880, by Rev. Dr. Scott, Frederick A. Clark, U.S. Geological Survey, to Sarah L. Dutcher.


CLARK—DUTCHER—In this city, December 18 [1880], by Rev. Dr. Scott, Frederick A. Clark, U.S. Geological Survey, to Sarah L. Dutcher.

Another newspaper note a few days later shows them in Hotel Del Monte, in Monterey Bay, probably on their honeymoon.

Among things that could have brought Sarah and Frederick together, it is easy to identify two: They both knew and esteemed Watkins, and they both shared love for mountains. Sarah clearly was an adventurous outdoorswoman, and Frederick, in his capacity of a topographer, had made trips and climbs all over California and the South West. This was the first marriage for both. Frederick was born in La Porte, Indiana, forty years earlier. He had worked as surveyor and topographer with Clarence King, George Wheeler, and Ferdinand Hayden since 1864. Find more about Frederick Augustus Clark in the Appendix.

According to the San Francisco Directory of 1881, "Clark Frederick A., topographer [with] U.S. Geological Survey, 320 California, room 13" was residing at San Francisco's Occidental Hotel. Sarah is not listed, but it is quite possible that she was also living in "Occidental". A year later, in 1882, Fred Clark has dropped from the USGS payrol, and the Clarks must have left San Francisco. It appears that Frederick took a more lucrative job in Oakland in 1881 or 1882. On Dec 17, 1883, the San Francisco Bulletin identifies him as "Major F. A. Clark", an "Assistant Division Superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad in Oakland". An entry in the 1884-85 Husted's Oakland Directory describes Frederick A. Clark as a 'C P R R train master', residing at 909 Peralta street. The same directory may also have signalled that their marriage was in jeopardy: Mrs. Sarah Clark lived alone in a different part of Oakland, at 318 Fourteenth street. Then, in a personal ad that ran in the Oakland Tribune in September 1885, Fred was announcing: "From and after this date I will not be responsible for any debts unless made by myself personally. F. A. Clark". On December 15, 1885, newspapers in San Francisco and Oakland reported of an impending divorce suit brought by Frederick A. Clark against Sarah L. Clark. Three weeks later, the Daily Alta California of January 9, 1886 prints the following short news from Oakland: "Fred A. Clark has been granted a decree of divorce from Sarah L. Clark". After five years of marriage, at the age of about 41, Sarah is a divorcee (or a 'widow', which was another term used to describe a divorced woman at that time). Her brother Moses suddenly died a month later. In 1887 and 1888, San Francisco directories show one "Mrs. Sarah L. Clark, widow" (no occupation listed), residing at 222 ½ Fourth street in the City. This may or not have been the former Sarah Dutcher. In any case, that listing disappears in 1889. Did Sarah remarry? Did she move to another region? Did she continue using her skills in photographic business to earn for living? What name did she use? Where and when did she die? We may never know. Her former husband, Frederick Clark, will stay in the Bay Area until about 1904, and then he will move to New York.

Nov 1875: John Muir

Ascender: John Muir (early November 1875)

John Muir was a regular correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin in the mid 1870s. His articles describe his many trips across the Sierra. Upon hearing of Anderson's success, Muir was ready and eager to reach the summit of Half Dome himself. However, in the second part of 1875, tensions in the triangle John Muir — Elvira Hutchings — James Mason Hutchings were at their height (Elvira was James' much younger wife). Therefore, Muir voluntarily stayed out of Yosemite until a news finally reached him that the Hutchings family had moved permanently from the Valley to San Francisco (on November 1). Muir then hastened to the Valley, and in the first days of November made the climb alone, without Anderson's guidance. The first part of Muir's article describing Anderson's conquest of Half Dome was reproduced earlier. Here is the second part, talking about Muir's own expedition:

Daily Evening Bulletin, November 18, 1875, p. 1

South Dome
Its Ascent by George Anderson and John Muir—Hard Climbing but a Glorious View—Botany of the Dome—Yosemite in Late Autumn.
(From our special correspondent).

Yosemite Valley, November 10, 1875.

...On my return to the valley the other day I immediately hastened to the Dome, not only for the pure pleasure climbing in view, but to see what else I might enjoy and learn. Our first winter storm had bloomed and all the mountains were mantled in fresh snow. I was therefore little apprehensive of danger from slipperyness of the rock, Anderson himself refusing to believe that any one could climb his rope in the condition it was then in. Moreover, the sky was overcast, and solemn snow-clouds began to curl and wreath themselves around the summit of the Dome, and my late experiences on icy Shasta came to mind. But reflecting that I had matches in my pocket, and that a little firewood might be found, I concluded that in case of a dark storm the night could be spent on the Dome without suffering anything worth caring for. I therefore pushed up alone and gained the top without the slightest difficulty. My first view was perfectly glorious. A massive cloud of a pure pearl lustre was arched across the valley, from wall to wall, the one end resting upon El Capitan, the other on Cathedral Rocks, the brown meadows shadowed beneath, with short reaches of river shimmering in changeful light. Then, as I stood on the tremendous verge overlooking Mirror Lake, a flock of smaller clouds, white as snow, came swiftly from the north, trailing over the dark forests, and arriving on the brink of the valley descended with godlike gestures through Indian Canyon and over the Arches and North Dome, moving rapidly, yet with perfect deliberation...

Notwithstanding the enthusiastic eagerness of tourists to reach the summit of this Dome the general views of the valley from here are far less striking than from many other points, chiefly because of the foreshortening effect produced by looking from so great a height. North Dome is dwarfed almost beyond recognition. The splendid sculpture of the arches is scarcely noticed and the walls on both sides seem comparatively low and sunken. The Dome itself is the most sublime feature of all Yosemite views, and that is beneath our feet. The view of Little Yosemite Valley is very fine, though inferior to one obtained from the base of Starr King; but the summit landscapes towards Mounts Tyell [Lyell!], Dana and Conness are very effective and complete. When the sublime ice-floods of the glacial period poured down the flank of the range over what is now Yosemite Valley, they were compelled to break through a dam of domes... South Dome was first to emerge from the icy waste, burnished and glowing like a crystal... Its entire surface is covered with glacial hieroglyphics whose interpretation is the great reward of all who devoutly study them.

Before closing this letter I might say a word or two concerning the botany of the Dome. There are four clumps of pines growing on the summit representing three species... all three repressed and storm-beaten. The Alpine spiraea grows here also, and blooms bountely with potentilla, ivesta[?], erigeron, criogonum, penstemon, solidage, and four or five species of grasses and sedges, differing in no respect from those on other summits of the same elevation.

I have always discouraged as much as possible every project for laddering the South Dome, believing it would be a fine thing to keep this garden untrodden. Now the pines will be carved with the initials of Smith and Jones, and the gardens strewn with tin cans and bottles, but the winter gales will blow most of this rubbish away, and avalanches may strip off the ladders; and then it is some satisfaction to feel assured that no lazy person will ever trample these gardens. When a mountain is climbed it is said to be conquered — as well say a man is conquered when a fly lights on his head. Blue jays have trodden the Dome many a day; so have beetles and chipmucks, and Tissiack will hardly be more conquered, now that man is added to her list of visitors. His louder scream and heavier scrambling will not stir a line of her countenance...

J. Muir

Muir's letter was reprinted in other newspapers, e.g., in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat on December 21, 1875, p. 3, and the Chicago Daily Tribune on December 23, 1875, p. 3. Muir also used this text in some of his books later, but he made slight changes. For example, while the newspaper report above says "Anderson himself refusing to believe that any one could climb his rope in [these conditions]...", a revised version in The Yosemite reads "Anderson himself tried to prevent me from making the attempt..." There are no further references to this 1875 ascent in Muir's journals or letters gathered in the John Muir Papers collection at the University of Pacific.

It should be noted with sadness, that although Muir had found some pine trees at Half Dome, the top of the Dome is almost treeless now, probably due to human activities. However, the top is not totally barren. Some shrub species and several herbaceous plants are still present.

Anno Domini 1876.
Jun 1876: Second female ascent

Ascenders: Anderson, Lizzie Pershing, James Hutchings, Ira Folsom, W. P. Carter (June 21, 1876)

One of Half Dome ascents in 1876, attracted lots of attention. The San Francisco Bulletin copied an account of the ascent originally published in the Stockton Herald:

San Francisco Bulletin, June 26, 1876, p. 4

South Dome Ascended.—On the 21st instant a party of tourists made the ascent of South Dome, in Yosemite Valley; and what makes the feat more famous, one of the party was a lady, and what makes it still more interesting to chronicle, she was a newspaper correspondent. There were four tourists in the party, all of whose names we were unable to learn, but the lady's name was Miss Lizzie R. Pershing [should have been: Lizzie K. Pershing], and she is a correspondent of the Pittsburgh, Pa., Gazette. Miss Pershing is the second lady that has ever accomplished this undertaking, and it is but fair to state that but very few of the sterner sex have considered the glory of having climbed the dome a recompense for the dangers to be braved. After making an extraordinary climb on the ragged mountain side, the dome itself is reached, the ascent of which requires one to climb, by the aid of ropes, up an almost perpendicular wall, without steps or foothold other than nature has made, a distance of 900 feet. These ropes extend from one staple in the rock to another, and the distance between the staples is from ten to fifty feet, according to circumstances. The fatigue of this perilous undertaking did not seem to seriously affect this brave little lady, for she returned from the valley to-day, looking as fresh and fair as if she had not accomplished a feat that makes her famous.—Stockton Herald.

For at least a year prior to her Half Dome adventure, Lizzie was teaching in a recently established Santa Barbara College. A local paper brought this short note from Yosemite:

Santa Barbara Daily Press, Thursday, 6 July 1876, p. 4

News has been received in Santa Barbara from the traveling companion of Miss Lizzie K. Pershing, late teacher in the College, that she accomplished the daring feat of ascending the perpendicular wall of South Dome, in the Yosemite Valley, by means of the rope ladder recently constructed by an English[!] sailor. The entire[!] population of the valley assembled to witness the perilous ascent. The resident photographer made a view of South Dome when the young lady has ascendid half way.

Interestingly, the photo mentioned in the article has never been found:

Another account was printed in the Christian Advocate later in 1876:

The Christian Advocate, New York, September 21, 1876, Vol. 51, No. 38, p. 297

Miss Lizzie K. Pershing, daughter of President Pershing, of the Pittsburgh Female College, during a visit to California won quite a reputation as a letter-writer for several leading journals. She has recently returned home, and it appears that she has attained the title "Heroine of the South Dome" of the Yosemite Valley, supposed to be six thousand feet high—a perpendicular wall. For many years persons have sought unsuccessfully to climb up, until a Scotch sailor succeeded last October. By drilling holes in the steepest part of the rocks, and putting iron pegs, and standing on one spike while he drove in another, he succeeded in getting up the steepest part. He then fastened a rope around these pegs, and it forms a ladder. By climbing up a long way on the hands and knees you reach what they call "The Saddle", and from there go up by a single rope the dizzy height—930 feet; and from thence the Dome is more easily reached, and you can walk right to its edge, and look down a straight wall 5,500 feet. This perilous feat was performed by Miss Pershing.

Lizzie Pershing described her Half Dome climb in a well written letter to the Pittsburg Telegraph. She identifies several people on that trip: James Mason Hutchings, George Anderson, and an unnamed "guide".

J. M. Hutchings confirms that he was one of the people in Miss Pershing's party. In his In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26, he wrote: "In July, 1876, Miss L. E. Pershing, of Pittsburgh, Pa. [her initials were actually L. K., and the date was June 21], the writer [Hutchings], and three others found their way to the top..."

Who was Miss Pershing?

Miss Lizzie Pershing in 1876, detail of a larger photo.
Lizzie K. Pershing in 1876,
detail of a larger photo.
From the collection of
Philip D. Nathanson.

Lizzie K. Pershing was 24 years old at the time of this ascent. She was the eldest child of Rev. Israel C. Pershing and Charlotte L. Canan (Pershing), and was born in Pennsylvania on April 4, 1852. Her father was the President of the Pittsburgh Female College. The College catalogue lists Lizzie as a "general assistant" in 1873, and a Vice President in 1884.

Lizzie had left Pittsburgh in 1874, for a two-year stay in Santa Barbara, California, for health reasons ("rheumatism"). At the Christmas time of 1874, she visited the Chinatown in San Francisco with friends, and described her trip in a newspaper article for the Pittsburg Evening Chronicle. The article was reprinted in other U.S. papers, e.g., in the New Orleans Bulletin, on January 28, 1875. Some sources at that time also list her as a correspondent of the Pittsburgh Gazette, and the Pittsburgh Telegraph. Her story "A trip to the Geysers", was published in the National Repository, Vol. 1, April 1877, pp. 315-320. It describes her journey, in the spring of 1876, to the Geysers in Northern California with one Mrs. Pressall [or Pressell?].

Even before her Half Dome climb, her name became known to American public, thanks to a camping trip to the backcountry of Santa Barbara that she and several other young women made in the early April of 1876. This trip is recounted in a newspaper article by Emma Hardacre, published originally in the Louisville Courier-Journal, and then widely reprinted in other U.S. newspapers. In the article, Lizzie is described as having "brown eyes and brown hair... hanging in two long braids down her back... and the prettiest hand and foot in California. She is a brilliant writer, fine elocutionist, and is blessed with a dry, droll manner, and has a conundrum or story for every occasion. She is a Methodist and a scholar. She is known by her pet name Percy..." In 2015, Phil Nathanson found a stereoview depicting the members of the camping party. Thus, we have Lizzie's photo taken shortly before her trip to Yosemite and Half Dome. Find more about this "camp of women" in the appendix.

Lizzie married William C. Anderson, "of the Pittsburgh bar", in 1884, and used the name Lizzie Pershing Anderson after that. They lived in Wilkinsburg near Pittsburgh. They didn't have any children. William died on November 25, 1910. Lizzie died in 1938. William's and Lizzie's graves are in Homewood Cemetery, in Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh.

Lizzie Pershing and General John J. Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, were distant relatives (third cousins).

The names of the other members of the party are found in the Snow's Hotel Register. Ira B. Folsom (1833-1904), age 42 at the time of the climb, "from Yo Semite", was the owner of a Merced River ferry and the ladders to Vernal Fall. W. P. Carter was "from England". I couldn't identify Mr. Carter more precisely. Miss Perhsing , [from] Pittsburg, Pa., and J. M. Hutchings , Yo Semite, also signed the Register. A note on the margins says: "This party ascended the South Dome [on] June 21st 1876".

1876-77: Anderson builds stairway to the clouds... and more!

Seeing all the enthusiasm that his Half Dome ascent has stirred, Anderson must have began considering ways of turning that interest into money early on. He first had to upgrade the ropes, and make them more secure. Hutchings' daughter, Gertrude, about eight or nine years old at the time, witnessed an early Anderson's attempt to replace the old ropes. Seventy years later, in a letter to Elizabeth Godfrey, a Yosemite Museum secretary, Gertrude Hutchings recalled:

...Along the old plank walk between Hutchings' old corral to Sentinel Bridge, Anderson stretched five separate strands of baling rope. With another strand he went along the 975-foot length knotting the five strands together with a sixth strand and a good sailor's knot a foot apart—a convenient space for climber to grasp as they made the ascent. The knotted rope was coiled, tied together put on a pack mule, and carried to the shoulder of the Dome. Here Anderson shouldered it himself, packed it to the top of the Dome, unloosed it, fastened one end to an iron pin in rock on the summit, slid it down, uncoiling and fastening it to other iron-pin eyebolts he had placed on his first ascent as he went.

Gertrude doesn't specify the year of the rope upgrade, but she could have been referring to the year 1876. Her letter is preserved in the Nature Library, Yosemite Museum, Yosemite. I used the transcription from The First Ascents of Half Dome by Hank Johnston, Yosemite (Magazine), Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter 2003.

Shirley Sargent, in an article in the Modesto Bee on October 30, 1975, attributes the following description of Anderson to Gertrude Hutchings: "A brawny, powerful man with tattooed arms, a splendid specimen of manhood". Shirley ads: Anderson's strength was astounding. Once he lifted a boulder weighting 234 pounds, and another time he carried a 525-pound section of iron bridge.

The rope worked for people with athletic abilities, but Anderson had other ideas too. Several newspaper articles describe him working on, or thinking about other possibilities. He is incorrectly called "John Anderson" in some reports:

Mariposa Gazette, June 3, 1876, p. 3

Yo Semite Correspondence

...The most important enterprise here is that of George Anderson's trail and stairway from the valley to the top of the south dome. Mr. Anderson is a man of energy, and is entitled to credit for the perseverance he is displaying in the construction of this important project. The stairway will be about 2,000 feet long, fastened by bolts in the rocks on the side of the dome, in the most secure manner, and will be arranged with wings or arms extending all the way to each side, making it convenient and comfortable for visitors to rest and view the wonderful scenery below. When once at the summit or top of the dome, the visitor can behold the most magnificent picture of the valley and surroundings ever yet painted or sketched by the artist...

Cincinnati Commercial, August 24, 1876, p. 4; also
Daily Register, Wheeling, West Virginia, August 26, 1876, p. 1, and
Daily Alta California, September 9, 1876, p. 1

Anderson's cabin near the saddle of Half Dome
Anderson's cabin at the foot of the Dome, near the 'saddle'. (From an article in the
Pacific Rural Press, San Francisco, June 18, 1881).

A Stairway to the Clouds.
John[!] Anderson, the first man to make the ascent of the great South Dome in the Yosemite Valley, is a quiet young Scotchman, who lives hermit-like in a small house near the saddle of the dome. Here he dreams and experiments, coming occasionally down into the valley, where he is the object of eager curiosity to travelers, who whisper one to another, "There's Anderson", "There's the sailor who climbed the Dome". But few travelers have ever ascended to his workshop in the mountains, and few people know that he is now busily constructing a staircase of one thousand steps, which he intends shall form an easy pathway to the clouds. These steps are of wood, riveted together by iron, and will be fastened by bolts in the rock. Next year, perhaps, tourists can walk up a thousand-foot stairway, instead of hanging to a thousand-foot rope. In time, Mr. Anderson hopes to have an elevator running up and down the chasm, and his ambitions extend even to a train of cars, which he is now perfecting—cars which will run up a perpendicular wall.—[Source:] Letter in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 31, 1876; also
Liberty Tribune, Liberty, Missouri, October 13, 1876, p. 2:

John[!] Anderson, the first man who ascended the great South Dome in the Yosemite Valley, lives alone in a small house near the saddle of the dome. He is hard at work constructing a staircase of a thousand steps on the dome. He hopes to have an elevator running in time, and is also working on a model of a steam car that shall carry passengers up the almost perpendicular wall.

Bulletin, San Francisco, September 6, 1876, p. 1; also in
The Weekly Bulletin, San Francisco, September 14, 1876:

Summering in the Sierra
(From our own correspondent)

Yosemite Valley, August 28, 1876.

This forenoon I had the pleasure of meeting George Anderson, the indomitable cragsman, the brave climber, of firm nerve and eye, who was the first to set foot on the great South Dome. He has been hard at work all summer hewing timber for a stairway up the hitherto inaccessible curving summit of the dome, which he hopes to have completed by the first of June next [1877], so as to be available for the main flood of next year's travel. It will be about 800 feet in length, with about thousand steps, securely railed in on both sides. The side timbers will be eight inches wide by four in thickness, and firmly bolted on the solid rock. And, inasmuch as the general slope of the rock on which the stairway will be laid is only about equal to that of ordinary house stairs, there will be nothing dangerous in the ascent, nor anything of a clinging, clambering character. When, however, we take into consideration the fact that the few low little steps leading to the upper stories of hotels are regarded as so exhausting as to require the modern cage elevator, the grand old dome will seem about as inaccessible to most people as before...

...I only want to remark here, that standing on their head is not the best position from which to see anybody, still I would advise every one to make the ascent of Tissiack, for not to mention the glorious circumference of landscapes seen from its summit, the joyous leafy valley outspread a mile below, and far beyond, alp, and forest, and rolling granite seas. On these vast aerial thrones one always receives lasting impressions of an utter isolation from all the known ways of the world, leaving the soul free to expand and blend with fountain nature, as if one had died and gone to another star...

John Muir

[In the rest of the article, Muir talks about the first ascent of Mount Starr King by one of his friends a few days earlier. He only identifies the friend as "Mr. Short", a San Francisco banker and stockbroker, but it is clear that he talks about George Bayley (sometimes incorrectly spelled 'Bailey'). Muir concludes: "To Anderson belongs the honor of first standing in the blue ether above Tissiack; and to the dauntless San Francisco Short belongs the first footprint on the crown of Starr King". According to Muir, Bayley was in the company of a young lawyer from San Francisco. The lawyer turned out to be Sidney Smith. Another person, Manuel Flores, was also in that first group that topped Mount Starr King in 1876. A year later, in June 1877, Bayley made another ascent of that mountain, this time accompanied by James Schuyler. Inexplicably unaware of Bayley's previous two climbs, a party led by George Anderson reached the summit plateau of Starr King in August 1877, convinced that their was the first ascent. They were astonished to find two man-made cairns there, clear evidence that someone had ascended this peak before].

The Huron Expositor, January 11, 1878

Probably the largest and highest rock in the known world is the South Dome of Yosemite... No man ever trod the top of this dome until last year... Last year, however, after thousands of dollars were spent [in previous attempts?], several persons found their way to the top of the dome, and this summer two sheep were discovered browsing on the hitherto inaccessible peak. Mrs. A. J. Murphy, the widow of a late hotel proprietor in the valley, writes as follows under date of November 11th [1876]:

"John[!] Anderson is building stairs up the top of the South Dome. You can go up now by holding on to a rope, but it is quite a tiresome trip. A few ladies in the valley have made the ascent, and I am sorry I did not attempt it... Strange to say two sheep found their way to the top of the South Dome this summer, a dam and her lamb. How they ever got there is more than any one can tell. They found bunch grass and shoots to eat, but no water—only the dew that fell on the dome at night. Anderson was going to carry them up some water when I left".—[Source: an 1876 issue of] Virginia (Nev.) Enterprise

Similar accounts were printed in the Daily Democrat, Sedalia, November 28, 1877, the Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, December 20, 1877, and the Wheeling Daily Register, January 1, 1878, p. 3. Instead of "Mrs. A. J. Murphy... writes as follows", the Daily Star, Marion, Ohio, December 22, 1877, uses "Mrs. A. J. Murphy... writes to a lady in New York".

The story about a dam and her lamb could have been a practical joke that Anderson played on unsuspecting valley visitors. However, James M. Hutchings, in his In the Heart of the Sierras (1886), gives some credibility to the story: "Two sheep, supposed to have been frightened by bears, once scrambled up there; to which Mr. Anderson daily carried water, until they were eventually lost sight of. Their bones were afterwards discovered side by side, in a sheltered hollow".

Note that some small animals do live at the top of the Dome: lizards, ground squirrels, wood rats, pikas, and even yellow-bellied marmots made their homes there.

Anno Domini 1877.
1877: Mr Smith goes to... Half Dome

Ascenders: Joe W. Smith, Delaware Clark (May 2, 1877)

Nineteen years old Delaware Clark and his older sister Maria came to Santa Barbara from Delaware State in the mid-1870s, for health reasons. We do not know what kind of illness(es) they had suffered from. While the mild climate of Southern California significantly improved Delaware's condition, his sister was getting worse, and she died in Santa Barbara in August 1875. Another young man, Joe Smith of Pennsylvania, came to California in 1876 for a two-years stay in Santa Barbara, also with the hope that the change of venue would help improve his health. Joe and Delaware became friends. By the spring of 1877, both were healthy enough not only to make a trip from Santa Barbara to Yosemite, but also—as we will see—to climb to the top of Half Dome and to Clouds Rest in a single day. Note that a similar goal, namely improvement of health, had brought Lizzie Pershing, another Half Dome ascender, to Santa Barbara several years earlier (see above). In Yosemite, Delaware and Joe visited Snow's Casa Nevada in a day-trip from the Valley on April 23, 1877. They returned to Snow's on May 1 and this time stayed in the Hotel overnight. In the hotel register they described themselves as "Joe W. Smith, Pittsburgh, Penna and Delaware Clark, Wilmington". Next day, on May 2, one of them added the following note to the Register:

Joe W. Smith and Delaware Clark: The first party to ascend South Dome this year, and the first party that ever ascended without a guide. [Somebody added later: 'Not so', probably referring to the statement 'first ever without guide']. [We] left Casa Nevada at 7 o'clock A.M. Spent 2 1/2 hours on the Dome, an hour at lunch, on to Cloud's Rest with an hour on its summit, returning to this Hotel [Snow's] by 6 o'clock. The trip was made on foot.

When I first saw this entry in the Register, this was just one of many similar claims that couldn't have been confirmed independently, and the earliest version of these Chronicles therefore didn't have the Smith-Clark ascent included. Shortly after their Yosemite trip, Joe and Delaware returned back East to their native places. While Delaware would eventually take over his father's large farm near Wilmington, and never travel to the West again, Joseph couldn't forget California. He married in 1880. Shortly after his first child's birth he relocated his family from Pittsburg to Santa Barbara. His intention was to take up ranching in the county. However, in January 1885, the growing family moved to nearby San Luis Obispo where Mr. Smith got involved in a more profitable banking business.

In the Spring of 1891 a group of San Louis Obispo exursionists made a trip to Yosemite Valley. While they did visit Nevada and Vernal Falls and made excursions to Glacier Point and Clouds Rest, they were unable to reach the top of Half Dome because the ropes had been removed. Thus, they all were "prevented from obtaining the most sublime view which the Yosemite affords". The entire trip was described in a local newspaper by one of participants, identified only as "J. W. S." It was then easy to confirm that the the anonimous "J. W. S." and our 1877 climber Joseph W. Smith were the same person. Here is the relevant part of Mr. Smith's newspaper report, in which, among other things, he also talks about his successful Half Dome climb many years earler:

San Luis Obispo Daily Tribune, June 14, 1891, p. 3

Yosemite — The Story of a Daring Climber in the Great Valley

... [Sadly], we were obliged to forego a view from the top of South or Half Dome, which [this] writer enjoyed on a former visit, fifteen years ago. Since the death some six years ago of the brave young Scotchman, Anderson, who first made the ascent, the ropes are down and no one has climbed [the Dome]. A word as to how [Anderson] accomplished it, and of [my] own view therefrom may be of interest, since it is the loftiest and most imposing of the Yosemite peaks, dividing the honors with the more massive El Capitan.

From the first discovery of the valley its ascent had been repeatedly attempted, all ending in failure until the fall of 1875. At that date appeared the above mentioned adventurous ship carpenter who came with the intention to climb it if it were possible for mortal man, and climb it he did. He was three weeks trying different ways, receiving many serious falls, one nearly fatal. At last he hit upon the successful method, that of drilling holes in the granite. He drove a wooden peg into the holes, then an iron eye into the peg, fastened a rope into the eye, drew himself up, stood on the iron pin or eye, drilled another hole, and so on until he stood upon the summit at 3 p. m. Oct. 12, 1875, two days and a half after the first pin was driven. I hope another daring spirit will soon appear on the scene and erect an "electric elevated railway" to its summit so that none may leave the valley without obtaining the broadest and most sublime view which the Yosemite affords, including one general view of the wonderful Valley, the Sierra Nevada mountains, seventy-five miles across the San Joaquin valley, with its rivers, and the long stretch of the Coast Range mountains beyond, fully one hundred and fifty miles. On the summit are thirteen acres area; full height above the Valley [is] 5010 feet.

[During my first visit] we made the ascent from the shoulder, by means of Anderson's ropes 960 feet [long], the perpendicular height being 700 feet, affording a slant, making it easy enough to climb, resting at intervals against the rock. But most people will prefer the easier way when the electric road is built...

Some dates in the above article are not completely accurate (e.g., his first visit to Yosemite was fourteen years ago, not fifteen, and Anderson died eight years ago, not six), but that's understandable. With this newspaper article from 1891, I now had enough confidence that the ascent mentioned in the Snow's Register had really happened and that it can safely be added to these Chronicles.


Joseph Weaver Smith (1852-1926) was a son of Asbury P. Smith and Anna Smith nee Weaver. He was born and received his early education in Washington County, Pennsylvania, where four generations of his predecesors in the maternal line had worked and lived. Joe's father was also born in Washington County, but father's family, which was of German extraction, came to Pennsylvania from Delaware. He first came out to California in March 1876, spending a couple of years in Santa Barbara for his health. Joe was 24, and clearly back in good health at the time of his 1877 Half Dome climb. Mr. Smith returned to Pennsylvania in 1878, where shortly afterward he married Mary F. Wilson (1852-1937) of Washington County. He then worked for a while in a pharmacy near Pittsburg as 'retail druggist'. In about 1881 their first child, daughter Avis K. Smith (1881?-1964?) was born. A year later, the entire family left Pennsylvania for good and relocated to California where Joseph took up ranching and farm real estate business in Santa Barbara County. Two more children were born in California: son Donald J. Smith (1883-1967) and daughter Vesta M. F. Smith (1886-1970). In January 1885, the Smiths moved to a nearby San Luis Obispo County where Joseph Smith got involved in banking business. Towards the end of his successful banking career, he established the People's Pharmacy and that was the enterprise most familiarly associated with his name in San Luis Obispo. He was also an important suporter and benefactor in creation of the California Polytechnic School at San Luis Obispo (now San Luis Obispo University). Upon Joe's retirement in 1915, Mr. and Mrs. Smith moved south to San Gabriel, where he died on Mar 8, 1926, age 73.

Delaware Clark (1855-1911) was a son of Cantwell Clark and his wife Elizabeth (nee Bootes). Cantwell was one of the largest land owners in the State of Delaware, and young Delaware grew up on his father's farm in Pencader, in a rural part of the New Castle county. He was the youngest of at least nine children in the family. His mother died when he was only 2, and his father died when he was 14. In 1874 his sister Maria was sent to Santa Barbara, apparently for health reasons, and Delaware followed her in April of 1875, also trying to regain his health. Sadly, Maria died four months later. However, Delaware was slowly getting better. He was 21 at the time of his Half Dome climb. He then returned to his home state and resumed farming activities. During the 1880 Census, only three of his siblings were still alive, and Delaware was the only one who remained on the family farm. On February 3, 1881, at the age of 25, he married Harriette H. Curtis (1856-1953), also from Delaware. The couple had at least 9 children. In March 1906, te old homestead of the Clark family called Clarksdale, was burned to the ground, and the family moved to Newark, Delaware. He was appointed postmaster of Newark in about 1908. On the morning of June 16, 1911, he was on his way to the post office. He was seen to stagger and fall, and although a physician rushed to his assistance, Delaware never regained consciousness. He was survived by Harriette and 8 of his children. I am listing children's names and their approximate birth years in the hope that somebody from that large family would perhaps have more information about Delaware's unusual adventure in California: Elizabeth (1882), Frederick (1884), Cantwell (1889), Julian (1895), Kathryn or Catherine (1897), Frances (1899), Devana (1902), and Winslow (1903). [Julian later changed his name to Robert].


More climbs in 1877

Ascenders: Henry Crowell, George Worthington (May 12, 1877)

Henry Crowell struggled with a debilitating and life threatening illness in his youth, and his wealthy family sent him West to travel and gain strength. In 1874, on one of his trips, he met another young man, George Worthington, who was also on a quest for health. For the next three years the lads were to spend much time together. On their second trip to California, in 1876/1877, they were ready for a perilous feat: a climb to the summit of Half Dome. An account of that event was written more than seventy years later, when Henry and George were already dead. The author of the book "Breakfast Table Autocrat", Richard Day, must have heavily relied on family stories about the ascent, and it is no wonder that after that many years, details got forgotten, imagination was used to fill the gaps, and accuracy took back seat. Indeed, George and Henry did not need to bring their own spikes or "clotheslines", because Anderson's rope was still in place and well maintained in 1877. However, in spite of such blunders, I believe George and Henry made it to the top, and deserve to be mentioned in these Chronicles.

Breakfast Table Autocrat: The Life Story of Henry Parsons Crowell,
by Richard Ellsworth Day, Moody press, 1946, pp. 73-74:

...By the middle of May, 1877, [Henry and George] had equipped for scaling Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Stout clotheslines, a bag of rugged spikes, and a short-hafted sledge apiece, were the chief scaling aids. It makes one dizzy to think of such simple means for conquering the cloud-piercing slopes of the great rock. As they rode through the bee pastures along the Merced River, the Maricopa Flower Carpet was in full glory. No Persian rug could vie with it. The boys listened to the muffled roar of the waterfalls, leaping at a bound for hundreds of feet, fluttering in the wind like a filmy pennant. They gazed upon the mile-high eminences along the river, and came to Mirror Lake, nature's reflecting pool for Half Dome.

On the wind-swept summit of Half Dome, they gazed for a long time at the vast assembly of granite titans, beginning with Glacier Point on the south side, hanging dizzily over its three thousand-foot drop. They looked at El Cajon [El Capitan?] on the north side with its sheer slope to the valley floor. In the hotel that night, the mountaineers heard the boys' account of their venture. They would not believe the tale until the next day they found the ropes and spikes, like a spider filament soaring cloudward, just as Crowell and Worthington had left them...

Henry Parsons Crowell (1855-1943), was 22 at the time of his ascent. He would become a successful businessman (e.g., he founded the Quaker Oats Company) and a philanthropist. His life is well documented on the Web and in books.

George Worthington (1854-1939), also 22, but a few months older than his Half Dome companion, Crowell. One of several children in the family, he was named after his father, a merchant and banker in Cleveland, Ohio, who founded the Geo. Worthington Company. He enrolled in Brown University, but due to frequent absence did not graduate. He was not particularly interested in his father's business. In 1896, he moved from Cleveland to Old Bennington, Vermont, where he died in the late 1930s. His only son, George Worthington, Jr (or "3rd"), 1890-1988, got his AB from Yale, and then returned to Cleveland where he re-engaged in the family company.

Ascenders: Anderson, Julius Birge, a young San Franciscan (probably May 22, 1877)

Birge's book The Awakening of the Desert was already quoted above. He was the one who had found Sarah Dutcher's bracelet on the summit plateau. The book does not provide any clues on when exactly Julius Birge visited Yosemite, but he signed Snow's Register on May 22, 1877. Here are a few more details about that climb:

Julius Birge
Julius Birge

The Awakening of the Desert, by Julius C. Birge, The Gorham Press, Boston, 1912, Chapter 29, pp. 406-407

...George Anderson, a Scotch ship-carpenter, had spent the summer in drilling holes into the granite face of the upper cliff of the great South Dome, driving in it iron pins with ropes attached. Two or three persons were tempted to scale with the aid of these ropes the heights, which are nearly a perpendicular mile above the valley. I, too, was inclined to make the venture. I proceeded in advance, followed by Anderson, who had in tow a young San Franciscan with a connecting rope around the young man's waist. It was a dizzy but inspiring ascent and I was pleased to reach the top twenty minutes in advance of my pursuers. While spending an hour upon the summit, I discovered on its barren surface, a lady's bracelet. On showing it to Anderson, he said: "You are the third party who has made this ascent. I pulled up a young woman recently but she never mentioned any loss except from nausea[!]". Returning to Merced, I observed a vigorous young woman wearing a bracelet similar to the one I had found. The lady proved to be Miss Sally Dutcher of San Francisco, who admitted the loss and thankfully accepted the missing ornament... These ascents are now forbidden, but the natural attractions of the State of California have drawn to it a vast revenue from transient nature lovers...

Julius C. Birge (1839-1923), was 37 at the time of his ascent...

Ascenders: Abbie Crippen, Frank Ferree (June 3, 1877)

Abbie Crippen was the eldest daughter of Sheriff Crippen in Merced. She had three younger sisters. Her father died when she was about 10 years old. When she was 15, Abbie's mother married John Barnard, a new owner of the Sentinel Hotel (later Yosemite Falls Hotel) in the Valley. Yosemite then became a new home for the Crippen sisters, and all four enjoyed hiking and other outdoors activities.

Abbie's Half Dome ascent is indirectly confirmed by Walter Gore Marshall, who visited the Valley with a friend in June 1878. In his book, Through America, published several years later, he talks about a "trophy" that his British fellow traveller has found atop Half Dome, something that originally had belonged to Abbie. Marshall identifies Abbie as "Miss Bernard", but neither is the spelling correct (should have been Barnard), nor has Abbie ever used anything but her father's last name (Crippen) until she became Mrs. Childs in 1884. But back to Marshall's story. Here is how he introduces Abbie to his readers: "Miss Bernard, hotel owner's daughter, had acquired a reputation as a daring climber of mountains, for she had been to the top of the South Dome, and had safely come to the bottom again" (p. 379). Marshall then describes an amazing discovery that his friend made at the top of the Dome:

Through America; Or Nine Months in the United States, by W. G. Marshall, London, 1881, Chapter 19, p. 380:

Abbie Crippen
Abbie Crippen

It was getting late, so that I had begun to be anxious. [My friend] suddenly burst in upon our party assembled outside the hotel. He looked wild and scared; his skin was peeled—it was evident he had not been idle since we had lost sight of him in the morning. He told us he had been up the South Dome. "What, up to the top?" we all exclaimed in one breath. "Yes", was the reply.—But no, we could none of us believe it, not even Miss Bernard herself, who, already the vanquisher of that bold, inaccessible-looking mountain, would never believe that it had been scaled in one day, and that, too, by an Englishman, and all by himself! Without more ado my friend produced indisputable evidence that he had actually accomplished the ascent, for he took out from his pocket a certain curious trophy which he had brought away with him from the summit, and this was nothing less than a piece of one of Miss Bernard's stockings, the young lady in question having left behind her, when she was last up the mountain, a sample of this portion of her wearing apparel, which she had fastened on to a low stunted pine that grew out of the hard rock at the very top of the precipice. So my friend had cut off part of the stocking—six square inches of which he found clinging to the tree—and brought it down to show the young lady herself, as the best proof he could give, that he was indeed no gay deceiver...

Read more about Marshall's friend (Arthur Clarke) and his day-hike from the Valley to the top of Half Dome in a section below.

From Marshall's text we know that Abbie's Half Dome visit happened before June 1878. The register of Snow's Hotel, which I checked in the summer of 2012, revealed more. An entry dated June 3, 1877, reads: "Frank E. Ferree, Miss Abbie Crippen, 10 AM bound for South Dome". Another note was added later: "Returned 4 PM". Thus, it appears that the "trophy" described in Marshall's book (one of Abbie's stockings) had stayed attached to a pine tree atop Half Dome for almost a year, unless Abbie made yet another ascent later in the season. There is, however, no mention of her possible second climb in 1877 or 1878 in Snow's Register. She did climb Half Dome at least once more, in August of 1883. A group of hikers who called themselves "South Dome Party" stopped at Snow's on their way back from the summit and added a note to the Register: "Find our names at the top [of the Dome]". Did they perhaps pencil their names on the pile of rocks supporting the flagpole there? Abbie Crippen was in the group, as well as Mr. H. L. Childs from Bodie. Was Cupid also following the climbers that day? We only know that Abbie would become Mrs. Childs one year later!

And who was Frank Ferree who accompanied Abbie during her first ascent on June 3, 1877? Frank was a newly hired book-keeper at Abbie's step-father's hotel in the Valley. A month later, he tried, and perhaps succeeded in conquering Half Dome again. This is suggested by another entry in Snow's Register: On July 15, 1877, a large group of excursionists "bound for South Dome" made a brief stop at Snow's. Among them was Frank E. Ferree (Yosemite Falls Hotel) as well as a young lady from San Franciscan, Miss Fannie T. English. The Register doesn't reveal if anybody made it to the top of the Dome, but that day may have marked the beginning of 'a beautiful friendship' (as the saying goes) for Fannie and Frank: A year later they would celebrate their wedding.

Abbie Crippen (1860-1889), was still 16 at the time of her June 1877 ascent. She was the eldest of four children (all girls) of Joshua D. Crippen, a Sheriff of Mariposa County, and his wife Adelaide Frances (Weldon) Crippen. Abbie's younger sisters were Katie Crippen (1863-1896), Fannie Crippen (1864-1925), and Effie Crippen (1867-1881). Joshua died in 1870 in Merced, and Adelaide remarried in the March of 1877. Her second husband, John Kirkpatrick Barnard, has just purchased a hotel in Yosemite Valley. A newspaper article described Abbie as a "bright handsome girl, vivacious and warm hearted". During Abbie's Yosemite years, when not in the mountains, she was selling Fiske's and Watkins' photos in her step-father's hotel. She also worked in J. J. Cook's "photographic room" in the Valley. This may have caused some tensions between her and Sally Dutcher, because they were competing for the same clientele. Many other Abbie's trips to Yosemite backcountry were listed in Snow's Hotel Register. On one of those trips, in August 1883, one of participants was Hiram Little Childs (1847-1917), a publisher of a local newspaper in Bodie, The Free Press. In October of 1884, a wedding was celebrated in the Valley, and Abbie became Mrs. Childs. Four and half years later, a news came from Tacoma, Washington, where the Childs have relocated, that Abbie had died at the age of 28.

Ascenders: Anderson, John Muir, Thomas Magee Sr. (July 9, 1877)

Little is known about this ascent that apparently happened in July 1877. The only sources I have are two short paragraphs in the Yosemite Tourist and in the San Francisco Chronicle, published eighteen years later. Both articles are presented in Part Two. The Tourist lists three ascenders, and dates the climb on July 9, 1877:

Yosemite Tourist, Yosemite Valley, July 9, 1895

Eighteen years ago today, John Muir, of glacial fame, Thos. Magee [Sr.], one of well-known pioneers of San Francisco and the late Geo. G. Anderson, the latter acting as guide, ascended the Half Dome. Mr. Thos. Magee, Jr., then a mere boy, was left at the Anderson cabin, near the dome, for he was too small to attempt so perilous a feat... The cabin [was] about a half mile from the dome. In the good old days, when those so inclined could reach the top of the dome, this cabin was the starting point. Many, too, would come here and remain over night and then be ready for the climb in the morning...

John Muir Chronology shows Muir "guiding U.S. Geodetic Survey in Utah mountains" in May 1877. His brief visit to Yosemite after the Utah trip is mentioned in a letter to Jeanne Carr, dated July 23rd, 1877. Muir wrote: "Dear Mrs. Carr: I made only a short dash into the dear old Highlands above Yosemite, but all was so full of everything I love, every day seemed a measureless period. I never enjoyed the Tuolumne cataracts so much; coming out of the sun lands, the gray salt deserts of Utah, these wild ice waters sang themselves into my soul more enthusiastically than ever..." A remark in Muir's handwriting on the cover of his "May-July 1877" notebook (#20) confirms that Magee was his partner in Yosemite that summer: "Excursion into Big Tuol[umne] Can[y]on from head with Magee. 1877". However, there is no mention of the Half Dome ascent or any details of the Tuolumne trip in the text of Muir's notebook.

[Note added: Tho[ma]s Magee, Tommy Magee and John Muir (all from San Francisco), and Calvin Ursery (from Mono [County? Lake?]) signed the Snow's Register on June 11, 1877, probably on their way back from Little Yosemite to the main Valley. Another man has registered at the same time, Calvin Ursery[?] (from Mono County), but he may have been unrelated to the Magee-Muir party.]

Thomas Magee, around 1900
Thomas Magee,
around 1900

Thomas Magee Sr. (1840-1902), was a noted mountaineer in the 1870s and 1880s. During the 1877 ascent, he was about 37 years old. He is listed in Hittell's Hand-book of Pacific Coast Travel, published in 1885, in a section about mountain climbing: "California has no club of mountain climbers; and a few of her citizens have had the opportunity, as well as the inclination, to spend much time in the study of nature at high elevations... The most noted mountain climber of the State is John Muir; and among the men who are known to have spent much time in the mountains for pleasure or study are J. G. Lemmon, botanist, George Bailey [Bayley], Thomas Magee, Sydney Smith, Jr., James M. Hutchings, Galen Clark, George Davidson, A. F. Rodgers, Ebenezer Knowlton and John Swett". An article in the Scribner's Monthly, Aug 1873, Vol. 6, pp. 441-445, written by Magee, describes his climb to the top of Mount Shasta. Thomas was a friend and a frequent companion of John Muir since they first met in Yosemite in the summer of 1871. Influenced by Muir, Magee was an early conservationist (see his article The Preservation of Our Forests, in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Vol. 19, June 1892, pp. 658-661).

Magee came to San Francisco in 1859, from Belfast, Ireland (after a short stay in New York), and began working as a printer. In 1866, he became editor of Carter's Real Estate Circular. Eventually, Magee became a real estate dealer himself, and bought the Circular. He edited it continuously from 1867 until his death. A Washington Post biographical note published on November 5, 1899, for Magee's sixtieth birthday, calls him "the most athletic millionaire on San Francisco's tax list". Thomas Magee died in Santa Barbara in 1902, and his four sons took over his real estate business and the Circular.

1877: Photographer on the Dome

Ascenders: Anderson, James Hutchings, S. C. Walker (Summer? 1877)
Ascenders: James and Florence Hutchings, Florantha Sproat, two other ladies, a man (October 1877)

George Anderson on Half Dome in 1877
George Anderson on Half Dome, 1877

In the summer of 1877, the first(?) photographer made it to the top of Half Dome. It wasn't an easy task to bring heavy photo equipment up the steep incline. Hutchings and Anderson helped Walker, and Anderson posed on two overhanging rocks at the top, which are still favorite attractions for amateur photographers even today. Here is how Hutchings describes the event, in one of his typical long sentences:

In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26

...In 1877 Mr. Anderson, after assisting Mr. S. C. Walker, the photographer, and the writer [Hutchings], to pack up all the photographic apparatus necessary for taking views from its summit, deliberately placed a large flat rock, projectingly, on the margin of the precipice, and stood upright upon it while the photograph was taken; one of his feet being over, and beyond the edge eleven inches, as presented in the accompanying view, taken at that time. Although unsteadied and unsupported, not a nerve or muscle quivered.

Later that year, Hutchings made yet another trip to the Dome, this time with his daughter Florence Hutchings, then 13. His mother in law, Florantha Sproat, and his future (second) wife, Augusta Sweetland, may have been in the same party.

In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26

...In October following [1877], six persons, among them a lady in her sixty-fifth year [Florantha Sproat], and a young girl, thirteen years of age (a daughter of the writer) and two other ladies, climbed it with but little difficulty, after Anderson had provided the way. Since then very many others have daringly pulled themselves up; and enjoyed the exceptionally impressive view obtained thence...

S. C. Walker worked as photographer in Yosemite in the late 1870s. He took several pictures of Anderson on Half Dome in 1877. Some of those were later published as stereoviews, under different labels. According to Paul A. Hickman, from Arkansas State University, Walker's negatives were probably used to produce stereoview prints by M. M. Hazeltine (1877), S. C. Walker & Gustavus Fagersteen, "Successors to M. M. Hazeltine" (1877-81), and Gustavus Fagersteen (1881-90). Check this stereoview from Hazeltine's series "Yosemite Valley, California". Note that the original photographers were rarely credited by publishers of stereoview prints, and Walker's name does not show up on this photo.

Selah Clarence Walker (1851-1897), was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and came to California with his family as a little boy. He grew up in Campo Seco, Calaveras County, where his father was a miner. At eighteen, Selah was in San Francisco, and declaring his profession as "photographer" in the 1870 Census. He was 26 when he joined Hutchings' Half Dome party in 1877. In November that year, he married Lillian E. West of Garrote (later renamed to Groveland), Tuolumne County. They settled in Groveland, but Selah continued working in Yosemite over summers. By 1880, the couple had two children, Selah Eugene Walker, and Clarence Reid Walker. Several years later the entire family moved to San Francisco, where S. C. Walker began working as a printer and an assistant manager for the "Elite Photograph Gallery" on Market Street. After a divorce in 1890, he progressively became more and more despondent. He committed suicide by taking a large dose of cyanide on October 27, 1897, at the age of 45.

1877: Sea of livid flames: Storm atop the Dome

Ascenders: Mary Lawrence and [possibly] James Lawrence, and other ladies and gentlemen (1877)

Sound of approaching thunders brings fears into hearts of climbers atop Half Dome even today. The following is a recollection of a storm that caught a group of people at the top of the Dome in 1877, written by "Ridinghood":

San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, July 27, 1879, p. 1

Perilous Climb of the South Dome of the Yosemite
Terrors of a Summit Storm—A Lake of Fire—Olympian Thunderings...

[A group of climbers find a charming camp-ground by the side of the Merced, in the Little Yosemite Valley, two miles up from the Nevada Fall. They climb to the top of the Cap of Liberty on the first day. Back in camp, they "rest and skirmish hereabouts for a few days, every hour's exercise strengthening us for the glorious journey ahead"]

At 8 a.m. on one of these days we leave camp, pass portions of the walls of the Little Yosemite that have been polished by glaciers... We go over these moraines, and en route to the South Dome or Tissack call at George Anderson's cabin... We ride away up to the base of the great mountain. Then comes a long, hard hand-and-foot climb up into the saddle on the eastern wall... There yet remains nearly 1,000 feet of wall to scale. The only way to accomplish it is by a rope which is swinging down from out the heavens...

For us to make this ascent is a perilous undertaking, or rather overtaking. Away we go, not daring to gaze downwards, lest we lose our senses and be dashed into fragments. Finally we hear the avant-courier shouting, "Up in a balloon, boys", as he reaches and drags us up and over the edge, when, blinding our eyes with our hands, we rush back from the dizzy spot.

All are safely landed before any one turns attention to the surroundings, for there has been much anxiety. We find eight trees, four different kinds of pines, on the summit. There are numerous shrubs and flowers growing in the crevices, while lizards, grasshoppers and chipmunk tenant this isolated mountain... We count nineteen immense forest fires away below us... The sheep-herders are thus doing disastrous work, destroying timber and the beauty of landscape, and thinning the dense groves that shelter ice fields, making them become devastating floods upon being exposed to the full glare of the sun.

But what is this? Clouds are gathering about us. Heaven have mercy on us, for how will we ever descend if a storm head us off?... Belts of red and golden and dark purple clouds, indicative of the coming anger of the elements, gather around the setting sun. But he persistently forces his rays through them all till every bank of cloud and mountain chain, dome, pinacle, spire and crest is lighted up with brilliant glare. All around our very feet, and far about us as the eye can reach, is a shining sea of livid flames. Even the deepest black canyons are filled full of a lurid purplish red... We stand in ineffable terror gazing upon the fascinating panorama... The thunder renews its crashes from summit to summit, and re-echoes again and again adown the canyon's depths. The lightning flashes in livid lines about the cliff-sides through the flaming atmosphere... Renewing our courage, [we] hurry to the edge of the precipice, down which we are to swoop through the storm and perhaps in utter darkness...

The lightning darts its fiery shafts all through the air about our feet as one after another swings into the perilous hand-clinging journey on the rope of the 1,000-foot precipice. We literally ride upon the storm [which has now broken below us], almost treading upon the lightning and grasping it in our hands... The rains falls fast, the wall is dripping with trickling water, the rope-knots are soaking, our naked hands are blistered (for our gloves were too slippery in the wet), and we only make the landing in time to save our lives. But what a grand and glorious experience, and, full of thanksgiving, little reck we [of?] the storm as we jog on our way to the river side. The rain abates, the whole world is bathed in new beauty, some evening birds chipper, and we arrive to find every protection and comfort in camp.

Also reprinted in St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 3, 1879, p. 10 , and in Des Moines Register, August 17, 1879.

Mrs. Mary Viola Lawrence. Drawn in 1896 from an old daguerreotype.
Mrs. Mary Viola Lawrence.
Drawn in 1896 "from an old

This was the last of seven articles about Yosemite and the Sierra, published in the Chronicle on Sundays between June 15 and July 27, 1879. The correspondent, signed only as "Ridinghood", gives her description of current events in the Valley, including the Sabbath-School Assembly, as well as her reminiscence of earlier visits. The author discloses that the Half Dome party consisted of eight people, including several ladies, led by James Hutchings. We also learn that "Mr. and Mrs. Snow [of the Snow's House, near the foot of Nevada Fall] were locked in their chalet all last winter". Based on that information, perhaps somebody with a good knowledge of the history of the Snow's Hotel could confirm that the exact year of the Half Dome excursion described by "Ridinghood" was 1877.

The author hiding behind this nom de plume was Mary Viola Lawrence (nee Tingley), wife of lawyer-politician-editor James Henry Lawrence. She was columnist and correspondent for several California newspapers, and an established literary figure. James Mason Hutchings praises her in his In the Heart of the Sierras as one "who has done so much by her rich and varied description to bespeak wrapt attention to the Valley", but he does not mention this trip in his books.

Mary Viola Tingley (cca 1840 - 1931), was a native of Rushville, Indiana, and came to California in the early fifties. She began her newspaper career by commenting on San Francisco social matters for the readers of the Sacramento Union in her popular weekly "Ridinghood Letters". In 1865, the first anthology of California poetry, Outcroppings, was published under Bret Harte's name, although those verses were collected mostly by Mary Tingley. In June 1870, she married James H. Lawrence (1827-1901), a California Senator representing Mariposa, Stanislaus and Merced from 1867 to 1871, and former editor and proprietor of the Mariposa Free Press. Mary Viola (Tingley) Lawrence called her husband "Ingomar" in her "High Sierra" serial. They had one daughter, Constance Violet Lawrence, born in February 1877. Mary was about 38 at the time of her Half Dome trip. Eventually, James deserted his wife and daughter, and their divorce followed, but Mary forgave her husband and remarried him a week before his death. Mary continued working for San Francisco newspapers and the Overland Monthly. She was a member of the Woman's Press Association, and a historian of a San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her book "A Diplomat's Helpmate" (about Rose F. Foote and her experiences in Korea) was published in 1918. She died in her daughter's home in San Francisco on April 24, 1931.

Ascender: Henry W. Herbert (October 30, 1877)

The only known account of this ascent is a note in the book A Souvenir of New Hampshire Legislators, for the year 1897, pp. 72-73. A biography of one of elected representatives says (emphasis mine):

Henry William Herbert, [representing Rumney],
Democrat, a member of the Committee on Industrial School, was born at Rumney, October 2, 1842. He was educated in the common schools and at Boscawen Academy. He enlisted in the 6th N. H. Regiment, but being under age and unable to obtain his father's consent, he could not enter the service. He entered a broker's office in Boston and remained there during the war. He then returned to Rumney and followed the occupation of farming until 1871, at which time he was appointed station agent on the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad at that place, which position he held until January 1, 1887. Mr. Herbert has traveled quite extensively in Canada and throughout the United States, and is one of the very few persons who ever stood on the summit of the South Dome in the Yosemite Valley. He was a Representative in 1894, and has been Chairman of the Rumney Board of Selectmen for five years; Tax Collector five years, and Deputy Sheriff two years.

However, the date of the climb was not given. Snow's Hotel Register to the rescue! According to the register, Mr. Herbert was a member of a party that stopped at Snow's on Tuesday, October 30, 1877, the last group to reach the hotel during that year. The party came on horses, and was guided by George Carter (Yosemite Valley). It consisted of "H. W. Herbert of Rumney N. H., Mrs. E. W. Cowles of Coventry, Effie and Fannie Crippen of Yo Semite, S. G. Clarks of Victoria, Australia, and Fred. R. Guilliams", the last gentleman probably from Iowa. There is no mention in the register on what was the goal of their trip. If they indeed were heading to Half Dome, we don't know if Carter or anybody else from the party had accompanied Henry to the the summit. Two Crippen sisters, Fannie (age 12 at that time) and Effie (age 10), were probably too young for such a climb, but others may have tried.

Henry William Herbert (1842-1947), was one of seven children in the family of Samuel and Lydia Herbert. His father was a farmer, then a lawyer and lawmaker in Rumney, New Hampshire. Rumney was at that time a quiet hamlet with 1100 inhabitants and two churches. Just east of the town there is a lofty 3 miles long ridge, some 2800 ft high, called Stinson Mountain. Perhaps that is where Henry gained his hiking and climbing skills. Henry spent most of his long life in Rumney. At 19, he married Susan Darling, and they had six children, three of which survived to adulthood. It is not known what brought Henry to California in the fall of 1877. He was 35 years old at the time of his Half Dome climb. Henry died at the age of 104, and is buried in the family plot in Rumney Depot Cemetery. He was survived by his son Frank Allen Herbert (1875-1966). Some of Frank's grandchildren are still alive. I wonder if they would have any additional information about Henry's climb.

Anno Domini 1878.
1878: Lady Gordon Cumming: How to do it properly

Lady Gordon Cumming, quoted already above, describes technique used in early Half Dome ascents in a letter reprinted later in Granite Crags (1884). On Saturday, May 4, 1878 (Chapter VI, in her book), she wrote [emphasis mine]:

Having thus made the ascent a possibility, Anderson's delight now is to induce enterprising climbers to draw themselves up by his rope ferry, the manner of proceeding being to keep one foot on either side of the rope, and, retaining a good grip of the rope itself, gradually to haul one's self up to the summit, there remain for a while lost in wonder at the grand bird's-eye view, and then climb down backwards.

It is all right so long as most of the stanchions stand firm and the rope does not break; but should this simple accident occur, there would not be the faintest possibility of rescue; indeed, it would be no easy task to recover the battered and mutilated remains of any poor wretch who might fall from that majestic dome. A leap from the summit of St. Paul's would be child's play in comparison. A man troubled with suicidal mania would find it hard to look down from a precipice a sheer fall of 5000 feet, and resist the temptation to cast himself down...

Two months later, on July 12th (Chapter XIII), she adds:

George Anderson, [who is] regarding the giant [Half Dome] with all the pride of a conqueror, frequently invites me to ascend [it] under his able guidance, but which I consider as a feat too dangerous to compensate for the risk...

And indeed, she left the Valley without ever climbing the Dome.

1878: Oxonian, Botanist, Astronomer

Ascender: Arthur Clarke (June 29, 1878)

In May of 1878, Walter G. Marshall left England for a three-months trip to the United States. One leg of the trip was to be a visit to Yosemite Valley. Marshall didn't go alone. With him, aboard the Cunard steamship "Scythia", and throughout the journey, was one of his college friends. Marshall's 1878 trip, as well as one of his later visits to the United States, are described in his book published in London in 1881, under the title Through America. An account of a trip from San Francisco to Yosemite, June 20 to June 30, 1878, is given in Chapters 16-19 of the book. It contains a segment that is particularly interesting for the present work: Marshall's friend, who is only identified as "C——", climbed Half Dome on June 29, 1878.

It took some detective work to establish true identity of Marshall's adventurous friend. In the first chapter of the book, Marshall introduces him as "my college friend C——", but he carefully avoids revealing anything else about "C——", as if the friend had insisted to remain anonymous. Instead, on hundred pages in the book, he is simply referred to as "my friend" or "my fellow traveller". However, towards the end of the book, in a single paragraph, Marshall (perhaps by mistake?) reveals his name: The companion was one "A. N. Clarke".

There is another independent evidence to support that disclosure. Port records from New York confirm that "W. G. Marshall, age 25, gentleman", and "A. N. Clarke, age 25, student", shared a cabin in "Scythia". Marshall had studied at Winchester College, and at Oxford. I didn't find any student with the name "A. N. Clarke" at Winchester, but a check of the book Alumni Oxonienses was more successful: Mr. Clarke, from Leeds, got his MA at Oxford the same year as Marshall (1875), and his full name was Arthur Noble Clarke.

Marshall briefly describes circumstances related to Clarke's ascent, then allows Clarke to give a detailed first-person account of that climb. Here is a segment from Marshall's book that was written by Arthur Clarke:

Through America; Or Nine Months in the United States, by W. G. Marshall, London, 1881, Chapter 19, pp. 380-383:


Leaving Bernard's [Barnard's Hotel] on foot at 10 a.m., I reached Snow's at 12.10 p.m., had luncheon there, and remained till 1.30. Then, mounting to the top of the Nevada Fall, I struck off by a trail to the left, which led me over a shoulder of the great South Dome till I came to the foot of a conical-shaped rock, called the Little Dome, which I found I was obliged to climb... This successfully scaled, I had to descend again... to a dip between the two Domes, the huge granite mass of the South Dome now looming majestically above me. The rope of the Scotchman now appeared to view, running down straight for 960 feet from the top of the curve, close to the vertical face of the mountain... The sections of this rope are not all equal, some being not more than twenty feet in length, while one or two sections near the top of the curve are nearly 100 feet in length, and, being quite loose, thus oblige one to describe a considerable arc. Where the sections are short you go up like a monkey, hand over hand, close to the rock. The lower portion of the precipice was very steep, having an angle of 10 degrees from the vertical, and this part had to be ascended without any rest. From this point the grand curve of the Dome began, the granite lying here and there in immense overlapping, concentric slabs—like gigantic armour-plates, the 'plates' in this case being three to five feet thick, difficult to climb over, even with the aid of the rope. Over these I had to scramble as best I could; but there were a few cracks in the granite which enabled me to obtain an occasional foothold, and, leaning with my back against the almost vertical wall of rock, rest awhile and contemplate the view...

The gymnastic performance now began to get easier as to the grade; but the fatigue caused by the rarity of the air, and the heat of a blazing Californian sun, glaring as it did directly in my face, caused me to inwardly rejoice when I reached the summit. That this is a much less difficult—though not the less dangerous—climb than it looks, is certain, and provided the soundness of the rope be guaranteed, a lady can without difficulty make the ascent. But her chief embarrassment would be the 'monkey' performance, if she went up in ordinary attire.

Having rested for a few moments on the top of a stony couch... the next thing to do was to quench thirst, which had become simply unendurable. To this end I made my way to a small snow-field lying about 200 yards off. Then I devoted an hour to the view, sitting down on the edge of the precipice and dangling my legs over, having first lit my pipe that I might enjoy the view the better...

The descent I found considerably easier than the ascent, for the rope had now been fully tested, and all that it was necessary to do was to cling firmly to it, and let myself down hand over hand... At Snow's... I was given a tallow candle, to light if it should get too dark during my descent into the valley. But it was not brought into requisition, for I reached Bernard's[!] at 8.18 p.m., having been away from the hotel just ten hours and eighteen minutes.

This was an excellent total time for a day hike on foot from the Valley, considering many stops that Arthur Clarke made along the way. Read Marshall's introduction and the complete text of Clarke's well written and interesting description of his Half Dome adventure.

Arthur Noble Clarke (1851-1912), the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Clarke ("physician, surgeon, and apothecary"), was born in December 1851 in Leeds, Yorkshire. He had three younger siblings: George E. Clarke, Florence L. Clarke, and Bernard L. Clarke. He enrolled in Wadham College, Oxford University, in November of 1870, studied natural sciences, and got his BA in 1875, and his MA in 1877. During his visit to Yosemite with Marshall, he was 25 years old. According to British census data, in 1881 he was in London, studying medicine. In the late 1880s, he helped putting together two essays that his father had written ("The Fate of the Dead", and "What is the Soul? and what becomes of it?") Arthur was registered in the 1911 England Census while living in Eastbourne district, in Sussex. He was probably still unmarried. He died a year later, on Feb 28, 1912, in London.

Ascenders: John Lemmon, E. W. Baker (August 14, 1878)

John G. Lemmon was a noted California mountaineer, and a self-taught botanist. Here is a fragment from a trip report describing his Half Dome adventure. Full report is also available.

Lemmon, together with John B. Lembert (Lemmon calls him "Lambert") had reached the foot of Anderson's Half Dome route. Lemmon was slightly injured earlier in the day when he fell from his horse, and he didn't think he would be able to continue up the ropes. They were ready to return back to the valley, when another man appeared...

Pacific Rural Press, September 14, 1878, pp. 162-163

Scenes in the High Sierra back of Yosemite.—No. 1
(Written for the Press by J. G. Lemmon).

...My regret at being placed hors de combat just that morning, of all the 10 weeks almost constant riding from Santa Barbara to and about Yosemite, now became agony. I gathered souvenirs of flowers and prepared to return, when a voice hailed us from over the east dome, and a man came stalking down the slope with a sure and easy tread that told the strength of his limbs and the resolution of his heart. He proved to be Mr. E. W. Baker, a cool headed carpenter from Alameda, accustomed to walking on dizzy heights. Hastily inquiring he learned my state, but declared I must go up with him if he had to carry me on his back. Taking from a bush near by the rope that Anderson used for the purpose, about 15 feet long, he tied one end about his waist and I placed the other about mine.

Promising to let me down from any point if my strength failed me, he grasped the rope and ran up nimbly as a cat, hand over hand, and I slowly followed. Raising the rope out from the rock causes your pressure against it with nailed boots to be increased in the ratio of your lifting power. So firmly your feet cling to the glassy rock, and clink, clink, the iron nails ring out upon the air, keeping time with the regular reaching of the hands up, up, up!

Occasionally, clefts in the rock afforded foothold enough for a moment's rest and a survey of the glorious scenery unveiling below... [Way below, from the attendant dome] the voice of Lambert came cheerily: "You are doing well!" "About half-way up!" Later came the shout, "Three-fourths of the way!" My back seems to be separating in the region of the lumbar vertebra and pains shoot through the part keen as knife-thrusts, but I keep on grasping the rope with trembling, weakened fingers. "Only three pins more!" I gasp and feel an inclination to halt, and turn around giddily. "Depend more upon the little rope," Baker calls down, in a firm voice, "I can pull you up bodily." "Almost up!" shouts Lambert from the far depths. "One more pin!" Baker creeps up to it, sits down above it, and pulls me up over the cape stone. The perilous climb is done; the crown of "Tis-sa-ack," is reached, over 10,000 feet, nearly two miles above the level world! Rest followed, while the hearts throbbed and the eye wandered. O, what a glorious vision lies out-spread, of gorge and dome, turret and pinnacle!

Exploring the top of the half dome, we found it a convex, elliptical table of rock, depressed several feet near its center by a cross valley, and extending about 100 rods in a direction nearly northeast and southwest. The north wall, seemingly so smooth and clean cut from below, is really notched and much diversified. On its outer point, the visor of "Tis-sa-ack's" crown, stands a flagpole of fir about 15 feet long, and eight inches in diameter at its base, upheld by piled rocks. Though seldom registering myself in the usual places, I thought it proper to pencil my name here with the thirty or forty only others that have ventured up this fearful steep... Only one tree has taken root on the summit. This stands near the edge at the western side of the ellipse and is about two feet thick at base and 25 feet high, with the peculiar, many-branched, depressed limbs of the Pinos monticola found on such highths...

The descent of "Tis-sa-ack," by the small rope swinging almost vertically over the side, was scarcely less fearful though taking less time, and was performed by backing down. Often the foot failed to find a resting place and you dangled in air until reaching over and beneath the concentric layers your iron boot-nails caught upon the inner rock...

(Read the complete article from the Pacific Rural Press).
Lemmon's trip to the top of Half Dome is mentioned directly or indirectly in several other sources.

Report of the Botanist, J. G. Lemmon, in
Second Biennial Report of the California State Board of Forestry for the Years 1887-1888, Sacramento 1888.

pp. 84-85

...But few have enjoyed what it was the writer's privilege to experience while exploring the upper heights of Yosemite. I climbed Anderson's rope (now both the rope and its intrepid maker in dust) to the top of South-Half Dome. Exploring its crown we found an ellipse of table rock about one hundred rods long, with but one tree maintaining its hold, as by an eagle's talons, to the wind-swept rock, two miles in vertical above the sea. Of course, it was the Limber-twig Pine [Pinus flexilis], over two feet thick at base, but only a few in height, with willowy branches that receded and swayed, self-protectingly, with every breeze...

After Lemmon's death in 1908, his collection of California plants and specimens, known as "Lemmon Herbarium", was transferred from Oakland to Berkeley, and many items were examined and listed in Prof. Smiley's book about the boreal flora of the Sierra. In the section about Rosaceae, subsection Holodiscus dumosus (p. 231), the author talks about various samples of spiraea shrub that he had examined while preparing the book, among them one specimen that was collected on the "summit of Half-dome, Yosemite, by Lemmon, on August 19, 1878". (See, A report upon the boreal flora of the Sierra Nevada of California, by Frank Jason Smiley, U. C. Publications in Botany, Vol. 9, University of California Press, September 1921, p. 231. Note that Lemmon dates his Half Dome visit on August 14, not August 19, see his article in the Pacific Rural Press).

More about the events that had brought the botanist to Yosemite in 1878, can be found in California's Frontier Naturalists, by Richard G. Beidleman, University of California Press, 2006. One section of the book is devoted to "J. G. Lemmon and Wife" (pp. 415-429). Beidleman's research reveals that in June 1878, Lemmon had arrived to Santa Barbara to "join a lengthy excursion to Yosemite". The party was to include several locals including Sarah Plummer, Lemmon's future wife. However, in the end, "six campers went, but Sarah was too weak to join them". We don't know who else, besides Lemmon, was in that group of "campers", but we know that Lemmon was the only one from that group that had reached the top of the Dome.

John Gill Lemmon, (1832-1908), was born in Michigan, and arrived to California in 1865, to recover from injuries sustained during the Civil War. He became interested in botany, and because of his mountaineering skills, was able to discover many new species of plants in remote parts of the Sierra. He was 46 years old when he climbed Half Dome. Two years later, in 1880, he married Sarah Allen Plummer, who would accompany him on many trips along the Pacific Coast, in the Sierra, and in the Rockies. From 1888 to 1892 the couple worked for the State Board of Forestry, John serving as botanist and his wife as artist. In the 1890s, Sarah promoted the bill that eventually made the golden poppy California's state flower. Mt. Lemmon in Arizona is named after her. John died of pneumonia in Oakland, in 1908, and Sarah died in Stockton in 1923. They are buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California.

I could not positively identify E. W. Baker. A photographer, Ellis W. Baker, worked in the Alameda county in the late 1870s, but according to Lemmon, his companion was a "carpenter from Alameda", not a photographer.

Ascender: William Pickering (late Summer, 1878)

A note in the Appalachia, Boston, Vol. 2, No. 1, June 1879, p. 93, describing previous year's activity of the Appalachian Mountain Club, says: "On December 11, 1878, at the Seventh Corporate Meeting, Mr. W. H. Pickering read a paper describing an ascent of the Half Dome, in the Yosemite Valley, illustrated by views of the Valley and its special points of interest". The note was referring to William Pickering, one of founders of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and later a noted astronomer. The lecture was describing his "recent" trip to Yosemite, perhaps in 1878, but a precise date of the ascent was not given. While Pickering's original report is probably lost, the following autobiographical note in MIT Technology Review has a few sentences about that climb:

Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Vol. 18, 1916, p. 307:

...I had always been fond of mountain climbing, and among other things ascended the Half Dome in Yosemite Valley by means of a rope. For 900 feet the ascent had to be made hand over hand, supporting a considerable portion of my weight at the same time on my feet. The ascent was continuous, as there were no intermediate ledges on which one could rest. In fact, the only ledges were inverted! Comparatively few living persons have been on the summit, since the rope was removed many years ago.

When William Pickering died in 1938, several of his friends recalled his Half Dome climb. In an obituary, in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 50, No. 294, pp.122-125, 1938, Leon Campbell wrote: "Professor Pickering was a great traveler and mountaineer... He not only scaled the heights of Half Dome in the Yosemite, and El Misti in Peru, but also one hundred other peaks in various parts of the world". E. P. Maartz, Jr., wrote in another obituary: "In 1928 Professor Pickering made a trip to southern California and this proved to be his last to that region... One thing he was most eager to do... was to revisit the Yosemite Park. He had been there once before, fifty years previously, in 1878, as a young man of twenty; and on that occasion had climbed the Half Dome. He was one of the first men to do this, and one of the very few who climbed the Half Dome at all before the iron spikes and chain guards were installed... He was a great climber in his younger days, and was always a lover of the mountains and the great outdoors..." (Popular Astronomy, Vol. 46, No. 6, June-July 1938, pp. 299-309).

The above text confirms 1878 as the year of the climb. In late July that year, William traveled to Cherry Creek, near Denver, Colorado, to observe that year's total eclipse of the sun (July 29). California newspapers then report his arrival to San Francisco on the overland train on August 6, 1878. He was accompanied by his sister-in-law, Lizzie (Mrs. Edward C. Pickering). It looks like that they have stayed at the West Coast for about a month, and then, on their way back to Boston, made a stop in Cincinnati on September 13. This further narrows down the dates of William's visit to Yosemite and Half Dome to the second part of August or to early September of 1878.

William Henry Pickering (1858-1938), was 20, and still a student at MIT in the summer of 1878. Later that year he published a note on his observation of the eclipse with two polariscopes and a polarimeter in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, Vol. 39, No.2, December 13, 1878, pp. 137-139. William stayed at MIT as staff after graduation in 1879, but later worked at Harvard Observatory, where his older brother Edward was Director. In 1884, William Pickering married Anne Atwood, and two of their three children survived him: William T. Pickering (born 1887, died in Los Angeles, in 1952) and Esther Pickering, later Mrs. Murton S. Harland (born 1889, died in 1987 in Alberta, Canada). In August of 1898, W. H. Pickering took a series of photographic images of Saturn at Harvard's Arequipa Observatory, in Peru, and discovered Saturn's ninth moon Phoebe (the work was published in March 1899). He was the author of many articles and books on astronomy. He died in Mandeville, Jamaica, in January 1938, where he lived since 1911, and where he had his private astronomical observatory.

Anno Domini 1879.
1879: Brave clergymen

Ascenders: Asa Fiske, John Allis, many others (June 12, 1879)

Congressional tourism is not invention of our days. From June 7 to June 15, 1879, a Yosemite Sabbath-School Assembly was organized, and newspapers reported huge interest among clergymen for the meeting. Delegates from 23 states attended. Just in one train coming from the East there were "one hundred and sixty-five of the party who intended visiting the great valley" (Daily Evening Bulletin, July 4, 1879, p. 4). The "Union Chapel" in the Valley was dedicated on this occasion. Galen Clark and John Muir made presentations to the assembly. Muir's speech about glaciers "inspired the crowded house with such enthusiasm that more than a hundred climbed the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls with the lecturer". (Daily Evening Bulletin, July 12, 1879, p. 2). Some of attendees were even more adventurous:

Daily Evening Bulletin, June 14, 1879, p. 3

Yosemite, June 14th.
...Excursions, semi-scientific and pleasure, are the order of the day. Rev. A. S. Fiske has led two parties of climbers to the summit of South Dome. Rev. J. M. Allis of the Occident has also made this ascent...

Fiske and Allis were Presbyterian ministers in San Francisco at the time of the Assembly.
Asa Severance Fiske (1833-1925), was about 46 years old when he made the ascent(s?) in 1879. He was born in Ohio, graduated in class of 1855 at Amherst College, and served as chaplain for the Fourth Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War. After the War, he held pastorates successively in Rockville (Connecticut), Rochester (New York), San Francisco, and Ithaca (New York), until he was eighty-four. He died in New Orleans.
John Mather Allis (1839-1899), was 39 in the summer of 1879. Born in Quebec, Canada, he left for Troy, N.Y., at the age of 14. He graduated from Princeton in 1866, and from Union Theological Seminary in 1869, then served in Albany (New York), Lansing (Michigan), and Anaheim (California). Between 1877 and 1881 he served at the Larkin Street Church in San Francisco. After a brief stay in Lafayette (Indiana), he got appointed a foreign missionary and assigned to Chile, where he died.

1879: New York Tribune correspondent

Ascenders: George H. Fitch, W. Henry Grant, Henry D. Robinson (July 18, 1879)

In July 1879, an unnamed San Francisco correspondent of a New York paper made a trip to Yosemite Valley. There, he encountered two Eastern men, who—like him—had a prejudice against riding over the trails. They "struck hands, and formed a compact to do the place on foot". Their adventure in Yosemite was described a year later in the New-York Tribune:

New-York Tribune, June 27, 1880, p. 5
Ten Days in Yosemite
(From an occasional correspondent of the Tribune)

A Perilous Climb On South Dome.

We essayed first the easier trails—those to Glacier Point and the Vernal and Nevada Falls—and by the third day felt equal to more ambitious efforts. So we laid siege to South Dome—a peak which has a bad reputation, and which was wholly inaccessible until a few years ago. It is shaped like a sugar-loaf, sliced in half, the smooth flat side being toward the valley. The trail winds about the base, makes an immense detour, and emerges at the rear of the mountain. It is thickly wooded until it approaches the summit. Then trees and vegetation suddenly disappear; nothing is left but barren rock, looking like great masses of iron welded together, and seamed by overlapping folds, which give the mountain crown a close resemblance to the flank of a mammoth rhinoceros.

The summit rises directly from a narrow plateau, on which a place is soon reached where the trip ends for the lazy or timid. The path slopes away on either side, in long roof-tree style, for a thousand feet, then falls in a sheer precipice of three thousand feet to the valley below. Up the steep crown of the mountain, 900 feet in perpendicular height, which makes a spherical angle of about sixty degrees, is stretched a rope, formed of seven strong hemp ropes of the size of an ordinary clothes-line, knotted together at intervals of eighteen inches. It is fixed to the rock by iron staples every fifteen or twenty feet. The only danger lies in the giving way of a staple or the breaking of the rope, two casualties that could not readily occur, as the rope is frequently inspected by guides, and the staples seem to be clenched on the nether side of the mountain. To an active man or woman, not given to dizziness, the ascent is without much danger. Carefully working one's way hand over hand, the slack of the rope allowing a nearly upright position, one finally nears the summit and skips over the last one hundred feet by the aid of a single line.

A barren plateau of several acres is the foreground. The entire length of valley and can[y]on stretches away in front, so near that it seems you may call to the pigmy figures moving about a mile below you, and two miles away as the bee flies. Directly below, as you lie prone on the rocky ledge and peer over, is Mirror Lake looking like an artificial fish pond. On the left is the Little Yosemite Valley, with a spray-like fall in the dim distance, and at the back the shaggy-headed monster whose fastnesses are seldom disturbed is Cloud's Rest. Mountain peaks can't be enjoyed long, more's the pity. Ten minutes on a mountain top for a five hours' tramp is usually the rule. But in those minutes one may get a view of the valley which is unsurpassed from any other point...

Photo of Wm. Henry Grant while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1878.
Wm. Henry Grant in 1878,
while studying sciences
at UPenn.


Geo. H. Fitch on a 1891 photo, twenty-two years after his Half Dome ascent.
Twenty-two years after
the ascent: Geo. H. Fitch
on a 1891 photo.

At first it looked as if the anonymous author of the article and the names of his climbing companions would forever remain unknown. But further research unearthed a strikingly similar article, just much shorter, in the Scribner's Monthly, New York (thank you Google!) This time, however, the author had disclosed his name: George H. Fitch. It was then easy to confirm that George really was a New-York Tribune West Coast correspondent. In the abridged version Fitch didn't explicitly describe the Half Dome ascent, but he mentioned that the trip up the Dome happened on July 18, 1879. The next task, finding the names of his two partners, was completed when I had a chance to check the register of Snow's La Casa Nevada Hotel (aka "Snow's Register"). The hotel was a convenient stopover for travelers to Half Dome, Cloud's Rest or the Glacier Point. Our three climbers indeed signed up in the Register, and Fitch's two 'Eastern men' turned out to be H. de G. Robinson (New York-San Francisco) and W. Henry Grant (Philadelphia). George Fitch kept track of his expenses for the trip from San Francisco to Yosemite and back. In those 12 days he spent a total of $123, with two largest items being the round fare by Madera route, $59 (railroad and coach), and board in Yosemite Valley for 10 days, $30. Two of the three climbers would achieve notable careers later in life, while the eldest one ended up living a quiet and unassuming life north of the border. I wonder if they had stayed in touch? Perhaps Google will reveal even that one day.

William Henry Grant (1858-1933), born in Philadelphia, was one of 10 children in the family of Charles and Emma (nee Collier) Grant. He obtained his Certificate of Proficiency in Science from the University of Pennsylvania in June 1878. Shortly after the Commencement, he left his home town for a year-long employment in San Francisco, where he worked in the West Coast office of the Philadelphia's merchant firm "George M. Grant & Co." (George may have been his eldest brother). Towards the end of his California stay he made the trip to Yosemite. He was 20 at the time of his Half Dome ascent. Upon return to Philadelphia he studied literature for a year, and then followed various mercantile and banking pursuits. It appears that he didn't find full satisfaction in any of those vocations. In the early 1890s his interest shifted dramatically. He found his new calling by working as a lay person in foreign missions. In the next fourty years he would travel extensively, visiting or organizing Protestant missions around the world. He held high positions in several American and Canadian Mission Boards, and he played a substantial role in the creation of the Canton Christian College, China. He left a prolific opus of articles on missionary causes in newspapers and magazines. When he died in New Jersey in 1933, at the age of 74, an obituary described him as "one of the most gentle and modest of men, and at the same time one of the most efficient and creative personalities of our time".

George Hamlin Fitch (1852-1925) was destined for success. A valedictorian in his grammar school, talented orator, popular student and a co-editor of a student paper at Cornell University (class of 1875), he became an assistant editor of the New York Tribune shortly after graduation. He arrived in California on May 30, 1879, and landed a job with the San Francisco Chronicle. Several weeks later, he and two companions would make their trip to Yosemite. He was 26 at the time of his Half Dome ascent. For the next several decades he would work at the Chronicle as a journalist, a night editor and finally as an influential literary editor. In 1881 he married Theodosia Hudson, a sister of Chronicle's city editor, and they had two children, who would later attend Stanford. Apart from the Chronicle, George Fitch was also writing articles for magazines of the day, and was the author of several well received books. By the turn of the century he was at the top of his professional career, but a downturn in family affairs would follow soon. His daughter left home and went through several childless marriages. George divorced Theodosia before 1906, and then his beloved son Harold suddenly died at the age of 25 in 1910. At that time, Fitch was just completing what would become his most popular work, "Comfort Found in Good Old Books". The first edition of the book features a touching tribute to Harold in the opening paragraphs ("...my best critic, my other self, whose death has taken the light out of my life.") In 1911, he took a 7-months trip around the world. In 1912, George remarried, but abandoned his new wife after only three months. In 1915, he left his job at the Chronicle, moved first to the East Coast, and then made a trip to Europe hoping to become a war correspondent from France and Belgium, but he didn't get a consent from British military authorities. He then spent some time in New York and possibly Florida. After 1915 he never again had a permanent address, and the only way to get in touch with him was through his San Francisco lawyer. In the last few years of his life he apparently moved to southern California. He suddenly died in Arcadia in February of 1925, while waiting for an interurban streetcar. Through the efforts of his daughter Mary (Marian), the last surviving member of the family, they all are now reunited once again: George, Theodosia, Harold and Marian share the same lot at the Cypress Lawn cemetery in Colma.

Henry De Groot Robinson (~1840-1906) was the eldest of five sons in the family of Francis and Anne (nee De Groot) Robinson. Henry's father was a well-to-do wholesale coal merchant in New York. Henry's mother descended from a prominent New Jersey family of Dutch origin. In about 1876, Henry moved to California, perhaps to gain some experience in financial affairs. For several years he worked as a bookkeeper in the Nevada Bank of San Francisco. He was 39 at the time of his 1879 Half Dome ascent. By the end of that year, he is back in New York, where he was employed in his father's dealership. A bachelor, he was still living with his parents at the time when all his younger siblings were already married. That changed in a few years, when he met Miss Florence Bush. She was a daughter of John T. Bush, a Buffalo lawyer, businessman and for a time a member of the New York State Assembly and Senate. In 1866, Mr. Bush had purchased a huge estate in Clifton Hill, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River and Falls, and erected a spacious mansion there. Henry (43) and Florence (35) got married in 1883, in a town near the Bush estate. Henry kept working in New York until about 1886, and then the couple relocated to Ontario. The 1891 Canadian Census finds Henry and Florence in Niagara Falls (township), living in the Bush mansion. Florence died in 1898, and Henry in 1906. Both are buried in a small church cemetary in what is now the City of Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Anno Domini 1880.

Anno Domini 1881.
1881: Old rope disintegrates

According to the following accounts, Anderson's rope became so frayed and unsafe by the summer of 1880, that its lower part got cut to prevent any further climbing attempts and possible accidents. However, some adventurers were still not discouraged.

Ascenders: Anderson, George Strong, possibly another person (second part of May 1881)

This is an abbreviated version of George Strong's description of his ascent of Half Dome in the spring of 1881. Check also the complete article, with illustrations on a separate page.

Pacific Rural Press, San Francisco, Saturday, June 18, 1881, p. 431

In October 1875, Mr. Geo. G. Anderson succeeded, after two days and a half, in accomplishing the first Half Dome ascent. Mr. Anderson is a Scotchman, who has resided in the valley for 15 years. He is a ship carpenter by trade, and had followed the sea in that business for many years before settling on shore. Before his residence in the valley, he was engaged in putting up one or two suspension bridges over the Tuolumne and other rivers, and acquired considerable local fame for fearlessness and steadiness of nerve. After determining to try the ascent of the dome, he prepared eye-bolts, drills, chisels, and the necessary ropes, and packed them to a convenient place, and after much hard work he reached the top, and planted a flagstaff there.

Last year the rope became unsafe, and was cut to prevent any further attempts and possible accidents. When Anderson offered to accompany me to the Saddle, which he said was as far as we could go, I eagerly accepted the invitation. We followed a comparatively easy path toward Cloud's Rest, until we reached a point where we turned off and commenced the ascent toward the Dome. We passed the cabin where Anderson lived and prepared the iron work and bolts for his attempts, emerged from the timber and caught the first glimpse of the Dome and the Saddle. We climbed the projecting spur of the Saddle, with considerable difficulty, and took a long rest upon the comparatively flat surface at the top of this elevation. Two hundred and fifty feet or more above us dangled the frayed and ragged end of the rope which had been broken at that point, and after extending, with one or two breaks, some 400 or 500 ft upward, it again terminated, and apparently where it would be most needed.

I had made up my mind before starting that, if possible, I would attempt the ascent, but dared not speak of it to Anderson, fearing that he would not allow it. But Anderson now seemed to divine my intention. He gathered a few of the bolts which had been pulled out and were lying at the foot upon the Saddle, and selected some of the best of the pieces of rope which were still lying there, to repair with. We started up, putting in a bolt here and there, and making the rope fast, for it was almost entirely loose from the point where it commenced, to its upper end. We added some rope at the lower end, and worked slowly up, not trusting the rope, as it was very weak in many places. Before we had accomplished half the ascent, the clouds began to close in around us, and we abandoned the rope and went up the remainder of the distance as fast as we could. We found the flagstaff fallen down, and set it up, and then the clouds broke away a little and gave us a magnificent view of the valley.

George Strong in the mid 1870s.
G. H. Strong in the mid 1870s.

As new ropes have been sent to the valley by the commissioners, the South Dome will soon be again accessible to anyone who has nerve and does not mind a little hard work, and it is probable that by another season a flight of steps will be put up, as Mr. Anderson has all the necessary lumber just at the foot of the Saddle, and well protected.

I couldn't find any confirmation that a new rope had been delivered and mounted in 1881. It appears that other parties during 1883 (below), still found the rope quite weather-worn, with many staples loose and detached from the rock.

George Henry Strong (1839-1925), was about 42 when he climbed Half Dome with Anderson. He was born in Massachusetts, but moved to San Francisco after graduation. He was a patent attorney (solicitor) in the City, and an avid sportsman: a member of the oldest boat club in the Bay Area (Pioneer Rowing Club), and one of founders of the San Francisco Bicycle Club in 1879. He was a co-author of a biking book, The Cyclists' Road-book of California: Containing Maps of the Principal Riding Districts North, East and South from San Francisco, published in 1893. He was also connected with Dewey & Co.'s Mining and Scientific Press Patent Agency, and a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. His younger daughter, Lilian, became the wife of Edward Hale Campbell, a Vice Admiral of the U.S. Navy, in 1899. In his later years, George lived in Oakland, with the family of his older daughter Georgie Strong Hubbard. He died on June 1, 1925.

1881: Deaf and mute teacher

Ascender: Douglas Tilden (June 21, 1881)

An anonymous correspondent of the Indianapolis News, identified only by initials W.A.C., described a South Dome ascent that happened in mid June of 1881. A party of three men took a train from Oakland to Stockton, where they spent a night in a hotel. By noon of the next day they reached Milton, which was as far as they could go by rail, and then took a stagecoach for Sonora. In this town they acquired three saddle horses and a little donkey to carry their provisions, and entered upon their several-days, 65-miles camping out trip to Yosemite Valley. Their route led them over the Tuolumne River to the Oak Flat Road. At that time, the highest point of the road was close to Tamarack Flat. From there, a steep and narrow stagecoach path [no longer passable] brought them down to the Merced River. The donkey had been slowing their progress, but became a center of attention once they reached the Valley. A photographer even offered them free photos of their party in exchange for the privilege of taking a picture of the donkey alone. [There is more on that photographer below]. In the next several days they made shorter hikes from and around the Valley, and then they focused on the majestic South Dome. It didn't take long before one member of the party, whom W.A.C. calls 'Truthful James' on account of his family relationship to the poet Bret Harte, declined to attempt the ascent. The other two were undounted. Here is a description of the events that followed:

Indianapolis News, July 21, 1881, p. 2

...For many years after the discovery of the valley all attempts at scaling the Dome were unsuccessful, and, if I am not mistaken, attended with the loss of several lives. [The author is wrong here; there were no deaths related to any of the Dome ascents in the 19th century]. The visitor now, who wishes to take this trip, goes to the eastern side of the mountain [by way of Vernal and Nevada falls], and after climbing over two smaller domes finds himself at the base of the third, with several hundred feet of rope between him and the summit... [The two of us] went as far as we could on our horses, and left them near the first of the small domes. We then proceeded eagerly on foot to the rope. We experienced some difficulty in breathing, but my companion, a deaf and mute teacher named Tilden, did not pause long before seizing the rope, and soon passed out of my sight over the curved surface of the dome. Then I gathered the ragged ends of my courage together, set my feet against the rock and began walking up the steep incline. I proceeded with marked success for about two hundred feet, when I stuck my toe into a crevice of the rock and lay down to breath—and meditate. The rope is tied to iron pins which are let into the rock. Occasionally I found where these pins had pulled out. I found three of them in one of the crevices, and one other dangling to the rope. This discovery did not tend to quiet my nerves. The rope is made by knotting together seven smaller ropes, either one of which they say, would hang a man with perfect comfort and safety, but some way this did not occur to me forcibly at the time. After a pause of a few moments I went on, but this time I dragged myself up hand over hand instead of walking and supporting myself by the rope, so that I was soon exhausted. I must confess that my sensations were not exclusively those of weariness or exhaustion; there was an element of anxiety for my personal safety, which must not be overlooked. However, whether from fright or lack of muscle, I was obliged after several more efforts, to slide down the rope and await the return of my more successful companion. He was naturally much elated, and deserves all the credit that attaches to the perilous feat. He is, I believe, the only deaf mute that has ever stood on South Dome...

The reference to the 'deaf teacher named Tilden' was enough to reliably identify the successful climber as Douglas Tilden. He graduated from the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley in June 1879 and was subsequently hired as a teacher at the same school. Douglas was born in Chico, Butte County, California. He lost his hearing and speech after a severe bout of typhoid (or scarlet?) fever at the age of four or five. I checked several Butte county newspapers to see if there is any other information about Tilden's growing up years. Although there was not much about his early days, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Douglas himself provided a description of that same South Dome climb in a December 1881 letter to a Chico paper. The editor felt compelled to add this preface to the letter: "The following description of a trip to the Yosemite Valley is by Douglas Tilden, ... who will be remembered by residents of Chico of ten or twelve years since, as a bright and intelligent lad of seven or eight years. A severe attack of typhoid fever had left him mute. He was educated at the Institute for the deaf, dumb and blind, and is now teaching in the State Institute. We feel certain that our many readers will peruse the production with true pleasure, at the progress made by the young man, and a just pride in the State Institution for the care of the unfortunate."

Here is the relevant part of Tilden's account:

Weekly Butte Record, Chico, California, December 10, 1881, p. 2

The Yosemite Valley

[The first part of Tilden's article describes a trip with unnamed companions from Berkeley to Yosemite. They began the trip on June 11, 1881, and reached the Valley on June 18, 1881. This part of the text is complementary to W.A.C.'s description in the Indianapolis News. The next section of the article describes waterfalls, peaks and other features that they could see from the Valley floor and from nearby trails. Tilden clearly had a considerable talent for writing, and uses rich vocabulary (although perhaps somewhat archaic by today's standards), to express his fascination with the beauty of the area. The article concludes with his recollection of the South Dome ascent]:

...The next day [Tuesday, June 21, 1881] I ascended the South Dome. A ride of four miles from the bottom of the valley takes you to the base of the rock, from which you have to climb 600 feet by rope to attain the top. This climb was a great experience on my part, both of seeing nature in its grandest phase and of knowing what it was to be in jeopardy of life; and I recur to this subject with a foreboding fear that I shall never look on like scenery again and with the wish that I have seen the last of the unlovely part of the experience. Verily there are not many who would think it no great matter to be suspended in midair by a slender rope, alone and without help, when the muscle was failing, the breathing oppressive and the brain reeling; there are, indeed, few who would think it a child’s fear to give yourself up to the cheerless impression that the rope might be breaking any moment, and upon the strength of this, to measure, with the gleefulness of a maniac, the distance you would be falling. Be that as it may, a greater pleasure cannot be so dearly bought than the one I had that day of viewing a scenery that rivals the Alps. Some natural convulsion had torn the Dome in twain. Looking down from the top—where a single, dwarfed, twisted and snarled oak lives as a Brahma did, eating rice, seed by seed, living yet starving—an awful glimpse of the valley may be had fully one mile below; but how serenely it did smile, cradled between mighty walls! The Mirror lake glowed like the half opened blue eye of a sleeping babe, and from it ran the Tenaya creek, glittering like hushed tears undried when the child fell asleep. To the westward may be seen a perfect wilderness of mountain tops, putting out in jagged and picturesque attitudes; to the left you may see a nameless fall—a precipice flanks it and shoots up into the lordly Cloud's Rest, and beyond it—I saw a picture I shall never forget. Ridge rose upon ridge, dipping their snow-mar[b]led peaks into the sunlight and nursing glaciers at the bottom of the ravine, and meeting the sky in clear outlines. There was snow, snow, snow everywhere. The picture was white and lonely.    D. Tilden

Some years later, Tilden would become widely known as an American deaf and mute sculptor. He first picked up sculpting in 1883. He left Berkeley to attend the Academy of Design in New York in 1887, and then embarked for Paris to study art in May 1888. His first exhibited sculpture won him a medal at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1889. Over the next 25 years, he created a series of sculptures that were installed in many public places in San Francisco and elsewhere. His life and work are well presented on the Internet, e.g., in WikipediA. Two biographical books dedicated to Tilden are also available. However, I haven't found a single reference to his Yosemite adventure in any of the sources that were available to me.

I couldn't close this story of Tilden's ascent without first learning who were his two companions, 'W.A.C.' and 'Truthful James', and how were they connected to him. Tilden didn't give us any direct clues in his article, but a search of the 'Douglas Tilden Papers' collection at the Bancroft Library (UC Berkeley), revealed his correspondence with two people whose initials were W.A.C.: William A. Caldwell, and William A. Coffin. The latter was an American painer, but he was studying in Paris during 1881, and couldn't have been in Yosemite in June of that year. The other person, William Andrew Caldwell (1853-1933) completely fit the bill! He was born and educated in Indiana and became involved in education of deaf people while working as a teacher in the Institution for the Deaf in Indianapolis. That would explain why he later chose the Indianapolis News to describe his Yosemite trip. In 1879 he transferred to the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, where he met Tilden, who by that time was already a teacher at the School. Caldwell left California soon after the Yosemite trip. He served as a Principal in a school for deaf in Florida. He also worked for a while in Philadelphia, and finally returned to Berkeley in 1892, where he was named Principal's Assistant and then Principal, of the California School for the Deaf. He retired in 1928. And who was Caldwell's 'Truthful James'? Douglas Tilden in the late 1890s.
Douglas Tilden in the late 1890s .
It took some luck to find that. Caldwell reported that they had stayed in a Stockton hotel on the first day of their trip. Fortunately, daily lists of hotel guests in Stockton for mid-June were available in the Stockton Independent newspaper. Indeed, there were entries for D. Tilden and W. A. Caldwell, both "from Berkeley". But there was another guest from Berkeley the same night in the same hotel: W. E. Zander! It was then easy to confirm that William Edward Zander (1859-1923) was the third member of the Tilden-Caldwell Yosemite party. Zander worked as a clerk at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley from about 1880 to 1886. His mother, born Sarah Matilda Griswold was a close relative to Bret Harte's wife, Anna Harte nee Griswold. This would explain Caldwell's choice of Harte's literary character 'Truthful James' in nicknaming Zander. The final domino fell in place when I found Geo. Fiske's photo of our three travelers and their 'amazing' donkey (the donkey was mentioned in the Indianapolis News article, see above). The photograph, posted at the Oakland Museum of California website, is murky and badly mislabeled, but in a way, it still nicely ties everything together.

Douglas Tilden (1860-1935) was 21 at the time of his Half Dome ascent. From his thirties to his mid fifties he enjoyed wide popularity and fame among art lovers. However, in the aftermath of WWI his style of sculpting was superseded by new trends, and Tilden’s star went quickly into decline. With no new commissions, in the early 1920s he had to accept a job of a machinist in a San Francisco factory. He then moved to Hollywood and began to sculpt various extinct animals for movies. This must have been a humiliated experience, but at least it enabled him to have a steady income. When even that work dried up, he returned to Berkeley. Strugling constantly against powerty, impoverished and probably embittered, he died there alone on August 4th, 1935. A neighbor found him dead on the kitchen floor two days later. He was 75. Find more about Tilden's life and struggles in his 1935 obituary. Sadly, his art work is disappearing from public places. The trend actually began back in 1906, when one of his first major sculptures, The Tired Boxer (1890), melted in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake. The latest example is from 2020, when Tilden's statue of Junipero Serra (1906) was toppled and splashed with red paint by vandals, and then permanently removed from San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Ironically, a sentence in the 1935 obituary reads: "His statue of Junipero Serra in Golden Gate Park... will stand forever as silent testimony to his great art."

Anno Domini 1882.

Ascenders: Anderson, Frank Gassaway, Henry Osborne, (July 21, 1882)

Frank Gassaway, whose nom de plume was Derrick Dodd, was writing popular travel reports for the San Francisco Evening Post. I don't have access to that newspaper. Fortunately, a description of his 1882 trip to Yosemite got reprinted in the book Summer saunterings, which is available online. The book has several paragraphs on Gassaway's and Henry Osborne's Half Dome ascent in mid-July of 1882. Here is what Gassaway said:

Summer saunterings, by Derrick Dodd, San Francisco, 1882:

[p. 122] ...As a standpoint for the landscape viewer, the polished summit of [Half Dome] is incomparably the finest in the whole range, towering as it does five thousand feet above the Valley floor and commanding its entire scope, from east to west. The drawback to its general enjoyment by the tourist is the undeniably hazardous nature of the present means of ascent, which from the top of the horse-trail to the apex of the eminence is by means of a rope nine hundred feet long. This cord lies upon the slippery surface of the granite slope, the angle never being less than forty degrees. The marvel of the matter is how this cord was first placed on that air-line trail by the spider-footed Geo. Anderson, a guide of the greatest strength and most iron nerve. A man ascending this dizzy slant presents about the relative appearance of a fly walking up the side of an inverted goblet. Very few visitors care to attempt it, unless under the supervision of this guide, Anderson, whose wonderful coolness was acquired as a sailor. The cord itself is hardly calculated to inspire the fullest confidence, being composed of seven thicknesses of common, hay-bale-rope. This, however, is knotted every few inches to assist the hands, besides which the climber can rest at certain intervals and anoint the soles of his feet with fresh mucilage, a bottle of which he carries in his vest pocket for the purpose...

We also have a description of the same trip by the other climber, Henry Z. Osborne. His recollection of this ascent was published in a letter to the Editor of the Los Angeles Times, thirty-tree years after the actual event. He was reacting to an earlier article about the photographer Arthur Pillsbury in the same paper. Note that Osborne placed the climb in 1881, but it really happened in 1882:

Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1915, p. II5

Climbing the Half Dome

Los Angeles, Aug. 16 — To the Editor of the Times: The feat of seventeen college students, several from this city, accompanied by the photographer A. C. Pillsbury, of climbing the Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley [in August 1915]..., is a very notable achievement in mountain climbing.

But it is not quite accurate to say that "this is the first time on record that the top of the Dome has been reached by human beings", although it is probably true it has not been done during the last thirty years.

In the year 1881, when I had less sense and less avoirdupois than now, accompanied by Frank Gassoway [actually: Gassaway], a San Francisco newspaper man, who wrote under the nom de plume "Der[r]ick Dodd", I made the ascent of the Half Dome.

I came into the valley horseback from Mono Lake, crossing by the way of Mill Creek Canyon, Mt. Dana, Tioga, the Tuolumne meadows and Lake Tenaya, and meeting Mr. Gassoway in the valley, we agreed together to climb the Half Dome, or the South Dome, as it is sometimes called.

We rode horseback from the valley to the Saddle, which is 960 feet below the summit of the Dome, and from that point we climbed the rock by aid of a rope about a half inch in diameter, which had been placed there by a sailor named Anderson in the early seventies. He had set iron staples with rings in the rock about seventy-five feet apart, and the rope was attached to each of those staples. Many venturesome people climbed the Dome while this rope was in place. At that time the rope was quite weather-worn and many of the staples had become loose and detached from the rock. These rattling on the surface of the granite were very disconcerting during the climb...

From a distance the Half Dome looks perfectly smooth and shines like glass in the sun, but in reality it is of granite of rather coarse texture, and the grain of the rock, with occasional cracks, give a slight foothold.

This rope, which was regarded as dangerous, was taken down that year, and no one has ever ascended the Half Dome in the thirty-odd years since, until the feat of Pillsbury and the students, which was really a very remarkable one.

On the top of the rock, 9500 feet above the sea level, there is an acre or so comparatively level, and on this were many bones of sheep, which had climbed the steep dome, but could not raise sufficient courage to descend, and died at the top rather than make the attempt.

H. Z. Osborne

Henry Zenas Osborne (1848-1923), was 33 when he made this Half Dome ascent. He was born in New Lebanon, New York, and came to Bodie, California in 1878, where he edited and managed the Daily Standard and founded the Bodie Daily Free Press. He made the trip to Yosemite during his Bodie years. In 1884, he moved to Los Angeles, and acquired the Evening Republican and the Evening Express, which he directed until 1897. A biographical note from 1889 states that "Mr. Osborne has a family of wife and five children, — four sons and one daughter, — and a pleasant home in Los Angeles". After 1897, Osborne pursued a political career, which culminated in his election as a Republican representative to the Congress in 1916, the post he held until his death in 1923.

Frank Harrison Gassaway (1848-1923), was only nine months older than Osborne, and had the same life span as his Yosemite partner. They both died early in 1923. Frank, an accomplished poet and reporter working in San Francisco, was 34 when he climbed the Dome. He was born in Maryland or Washington, D.C., and came to California in or before 1876. By that time, two of his most popular patriotic poems were already published: The Pride of Battery B (4th U.S. Light Artillery), and The Dandy Fifth. In California, he was a regular correspondent for the San Francisco Evening Post. Under pseudonym of "Derrick Dodd" he wrote for the Post a series of semi-humorous, semi-descriptive letters (a la Mark Twain) about popular California tourist attractions . These writings were collected in the aforementioned book Summer saunterings in 1882. Later in his life, Gassaway worked for W. R. Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. With Hearst's support, a collection of his early works Poems: By Frank Harrison Gassaway were published in New York in 1920. By that time, patriotic poetry of the Civil War era was quickly getting out of style and the book was largely ignored. Gassaway died in 1923 (see his death notice from the New York Times). [Note: Finding Gassaway's biographical data is not an easy task, because he was born Francis, then used the name Frank through most of his life, and was known as Franklin in his latter years].

Anno Domini 1883.
1883: More climbs

Ascender: Newton Chittenden (late July or early August 1883)

Newton Henry Chittenden in about 1890.
N. H. Chittenden in about 1890.

A lawyer, turned traveler, Newton H. Chittenden, published in 1884 a book with a long title, in which he described Pacific Coast's health and pleasure resorts. On the page 135, in the chapter about Yosemite, he talks about Snow's Hotel near the foot of Nevada Fall, and says: "When Mrs. Snow, the excellent hostess and housekeeper, came to take possession of her mountain home, thirteen years ago, no bridges had been built..." Since Snow's chalet was opened in April of 1870, it appears that Chittenden's visit took place in 1883. Being that close to Half Dome, and not visiting it, was not an option for Chittenden. He continued: "Six miles more, and then a climb by rope and hand over hand, of 900 feet, at an angle of 45 degrees, and I stood upon the summit of South Dome, one of the grandest pinnacles on earth. Its first ascent was made by Geo. Anderson, Oct. 12th, 1875. It should only be undertaken by those strong of limb and nerve, until rests have been provided for protection, in case of accident".

While it was likely that Chittenden had made his climb in the summer of 1883, I couldn't find any other book or newspaper article that would provide a confirmation or more details.

Note added: In the summer of 2012 I had a chance to check the register of Snow's Hotel in the Yosemite Museum. An undated entry in the 1883 register, written some time between July 27 and August 5 of that year reads:

Newton H. Chittenden, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Pacific Coast address: A. L. Bancroft Publishers 721 Market Str., S. F'o.)

Therefore, we can now fix Chittenden's Half Dome climb to a narrow window around August 1, 1883.

Newton Henry Chittenden (1840-1925), was a native of Connecticut, but moved with his family to Wisconsin in 1855. He served through the Civil War in the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry, and was honorably discharged in May of 1866. He then resumed his studies, graduated from the Law School at Columbia College in 1868, and worked as attorney in Litchfield, Minnesota in the early 1870s. After his marriage to Amelie Freidrick and the birth of their first child, the family moved to Brooklyn, N. Y. In the 1880 Census, five children were listed in Newton and Amelia's household. However, by that time Newton has lost interest in his profession and his family, and began a career of lonely traveler, explorer, adventurer and writer. He was 42 when he made his Half Dome climb in August of 1883. Chittenden became the first white man to explore the interior of the Queen Charlotte Islands, and wrote extensively about that. He was versed in several Indian languages, and his donations to museums in this country, Canada and England have included many valuable relics and much data pertaining to the Indian tribes and prehistoric Americans. In the last years of his life he may have renewed connections to his wife and children. Amelie died in San Diego in 1924, and Newton died in Long Beach a year later, at the age of 84, and is buried in the local Sunnyside Cemetery.

Ascenders: Henry Hamilton, Christopher Magee(?), Gerald Strickland(?) (September 10, 1883)

I didn't find any direct newspaper report about this ascent, but an account, written many years later, would suggest that at least Hamilton, and perhaps Magee and Strickland, climbed Half Dome in the summer of 1883.

Foot Prints, by Henry Raymond Hamilton, Lakeside Press, Chicago, 1927, pp. 121-122

[Describing events in 1883, upon his arrival to San Francisco:]

[...In the City, I met a man who] had been to the Orient and the Hawaiian Islands and had landed at San Francisco to begin his invasion of America. His name was Count Bologna Strickland; his father was an Englishman and he had been educated in England. His mother was a Maltese and his estates were on the island of Malta, from whence he took his title. We arranged to make a trip together to the Yosemite Valley, and left San Francisco by rail for the nearest point to the Valley, which I think was Merced, from which we staged into the valley, stopping overnight at the Mariposa Big tree grove. Our companions on this stage trip were Chris Magee of Pittsburgh, and his wife and sister. Chris afterwards became the Republican boss of Western Pennsylvania and had the free and easy manners of the American politician and also the American politician's indifference to titles. The count was very dignified and took himself quite seriously. We stopped for lunch at a roadside cabin, and after the rest of the party had embarked, the count was discovered making notes in his memorandum book, probably for the book he intended writing. Magee electrified him by calling out, Chris Magee
Chris Magee
"Hurry up there Bologna Sausage, old boy, we can't hold this bus all day for you." I suppose that he put this in his notes, too. We were in the valley only one day, but we saw as much as the ordinary tourist sees in three days, because we galloped our horses all day long, from one point to another. We even climbed to the top of the South Dome, a feat which, according to the guide book, had never been accomplished. However, a sailor had managed to scale the height a year or two before, and had left a rope anchored at various points in the rock. By putting one's feet against the rock, and going up about 800 feet of rope, hand over hand, the feat was not so difficult, although it required some agility. When we got to the top, we climbed down to a ledge on the vertical wall of the cliff and dropped stones to the floor of the valley, a straight drop of a mile...

It is not completely clear how many people from Hamilton's party made it to the Dome ("we[?!] even climbed to the top..."). Date of the visit is not given in the book, but it could be narrowed down from passenger and hotel guests lists published in California papers. The Sacramento Daily Union of September 5, shows "Mr. and Mrs. C. L. Magee, and Miss Magee, Pittsburg, Pa." in a train passing Wells, Nevada, on September 4, and arriving to Sacramento/San Francisco on September 5. The Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, September 8, 1883, p. 4, lists Count Strickland coming back from a trip to Honolulu, and arriving to San Francisco on the "City of New York" on September 7. One "H. R. Hamilton of Chicago" was registered in the "Golden Eagle Hotel" in Sacramento on September 14, 1883. The Yosemite trip perhaps took place between September 8 and 13. [Note added: An entry in the Snow's Register fixes the ascent date to September 10]

Henry Raymond Hamilton (1861-1940), was 22 at the time of this ascent. He was born in Chicago, and in addition to Foot Prints, he also published a book about Chicago history: The Epic of Chicago, in about 1932.
Count Gerald Bologna-Strickland (1861-1940), later Lord Strickland, was also 22 at the time of that trip. He was educated at St. Mary's College, Oscott, and Trinity College, Cambridge. In later years, he would serve as Governor of Tasmania, Governor of Western Australia, Governor of New South Wales, and as Prime Minister of Malta. I don't know if he had ever published his notes from the trip to Yosemite.
Christopher Lyman Magee (1848-1901) was the oldest of the three Yosemite visitors: his age was 35 in 1883. He would become a noted political figure in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. He unexpectedly died while serving as a state senator, in 1901.

Ascenders: Gleadell, Burns (mid September 1883)

British The Gentleman's Magazine, published the story "Yosemite Memories" by W. H. Gleadell in September 1896. The author remembers his trip from San Francisco to Yosemite a couple of years earlier, and adds the following description of his Half Dome ascent:

The Gentleman's Magazine, London, Volume CCLXXXI [281], September 1896, pp. 245-258

Yosemite Memories, by W. H. Gleadell

...The day was still very young as we galloped down the valley to the Half Dome trail... Near the foot of Nevada Fall stands Snow's Hotel and here we dismounted... At Snow's we stayed long enough to rest and refresh our horses, then continued up the trail to the top of the Nevada Fall, and round the base of a stupendous and isolated mass of rock, nearly perpendicular on all sides, known as the Cap of Liberty. Here we turned out of the Merced Gorge into the Little Yosemite Valley, and by the side of a small brook, the last water we were to see till the same spot was reached on our return, partook alfresco of the luncheon we had brought with us in our saddle-bags.

Our Mexican ponies took us to within 1,000 feet of the summit, the point at which most of the amateur climbers of the ancient abode of Tesaiyac finally stop. Comparatively few, we were assured, ever reach the flag-staff. We had been duly warned before starting of the dangers attendant on the ascent of the rounded dome itself, and we had to confess, as we looked up at the almost perpendicular (about 80 degrees) smooth granite surface and the solitary rope to which we were to trust our lives, that it did look somewhat fearful.

The rope, of fifteen strands of a very strong fibre, was securely fastened at the top of the peak, and then fixed by iron cleats driven into the face of the rock at intervals of 100 feet. The ascent is effected by pulling oneself up this rope hand over hand, at the same time firmly gripping the granite face of the mountain with one's feet. Despite the assertion of guide books that the ascent is "hazardous in the extreme", it is not a difficult feat provided one has a good head and can rely on one's fingers—for a moment's loss of power or self-control must mean inevitable destruction. Only two of us, however, essayed this final portion of the ascent—a Scotchman, bearing the truly Scottish name of Burns, and the writer—but I do not think either of us were sorry when we at last stood on the plateau beside the flagstaff. This plateau was some ten acres in extent, and surrounded on all sides, except that by which we had come, by apparently bottomless abysses, out of which the roaring of distant waters was the only sound that issued. No sign of life or vegetation was visible anywhere save a way down in the Yosemite Valley, 5,000 feet below, but the panorama was nevertheless superb. Over intervening canons and gorges the pale majestic Sierra peaks rose grandly desolate against the cloudless sky, and the bald granite rocks around us showed almost as white as the distant snow-capped heights beyond...

For some twenty minutes we stood on this awe-inspiring spot, and then commenced the return journey. This had to be performed backwards, so that fully an hour and a half had elapsed before we again rejoined our friends and ponies.

The sun was getting very low when we once more reached Snow's, and by the time we entered the wood again we found it necessary to dismount and lead our ponies as best we could through the darkness, and many tumbles and bruises were ours before we emerged from the forest on to the floor of the valley... A smart gallop to finish, and we were again at the door of our hotel, having been some twelve hours in the saddle, pleased with ourselves and grateful for all the beauty and majestic grandeur we had seen.

The text was also reprinted in the Eclectic Magazine, Vol. 64, December 1896, pp. 837-846.

The author does not identify a date of the trip directly, other than saying that it started "on a lovely September afternoon" (no year!), but he left several clues in the text that can unmistakenly determine the year. He lists other West Coast visitors at the time of his trip, among them a group "entertained by the American Bar Association", and another one organized by "Mr. Villard of the Northern Pacific Railroad", consisting of "the present Lord Chief Justice of England, and a number of other leading lights of the British Bar and Parliament". He also talks about a recent Yosemite stage robbery. All those events happened in the late August or early September of 1883.

William Henry Gleadell (1864-1941), was about 19 at the time of his ascent. From an interesting biographical note written by his son, we learn that William came to California (and back to Brittain) aboard the White Star Line clipper, Hoghton Tower (sometimes called "Houghton Tower"). This information can furhter narrow down the date of his Yosemite visit. Indeed, San Francisco newspapers show Hoghton Tower arriving to San Francisco on August 31, 1883 ("from Liverpool, via Bahia [Brazil], 175 days on sea"). Gleadell was author of several other essays in British journals (one, for example, about San Francisco Chinatown), and several letters to The Times editor. He fought and was seriously injured in WWI, has survived the most intensive period of daylight bombing of London in 1940/1941, and died "very peacefully, at a London nursing home, after a long illness" (The Times) on May 27, 1941. A good example of how a family tradition could take a life of its own, while not always being easily reconcilable with facts, is this comment in the above mentioned Gleadell's biography: "He shipped [in Hoghton Tower] as one of five apprentices, including one called Shackleton; all five swore they would never go to sea again. Many years later my father took me, while passing through New York, to hear a lecture by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his polar explorations, and it was a thrill for me to go back stage and meet the great man". In fact, while Gleadell's journey in Hoghton Tower happened in 1883/1884, Shackleton, who was ten years younger than Gleadell, first went to sea much later, and spent four years aboard Hoghton Tower from 1890 to 1894. They simply could not have been apprentices on the ship at the same time.

Anno Domini 1884.
1884: Anderson dies

Anderson never managed to build that wooden staircase, let alone the "elevator" to the top of Half Dome. No matter how much progress he made in the summer, heavy winter snows and avalanches would sweep everything away. The Yosemite Commissioners, a group of appointed people who managed all Yosemite affairs on behalf of the California Legislature, allowed him to charge one dollar to those tourists who used his rope to climb Half Dome. However, the number of potential climbers was not even enough to cover his expenses, let alone for George to make any profit. He eventually gave up and focused on building a better access path to the "saddle", just below the rope section. In October 1881 one of the Commissioners, M. C. Briggs, offered Anderson a murky contract to build a new wide trail to Snow's Hotel along the north bank of the Merced River. Briggs probably made that offer without ever telling the other Commissioners. In 1882 and 1883, George Anderson devoted himself entirely to this new project, but thanks to Mr. Briggs, he was never adequately paid for his efforts. While the upper parts of that trail remain unfinished, some sections of it between Happy Isles and Vernal Fall bridge are still in use today.

By April 1884, Anderson was penniless. And then everything came to an abrupt stop. Steve Harrison, in his George Anderson, First Up the Dome, in Yosemite Nature Notes, Vol 46, No. 2, 1977, writes: "In the spring of 1884, while painting Adolph Sinning's cottage in Yosemite Valley, Anderson contracted pneumonia and died May 8 at George Fiske's house". The Stockton Independent printed a note about Anderson's death, but stated that he died on May 10. The account from the Independent was copied by other newspapers:

Mariposa Gazette, May 24, 1884, p. 3

Death of a celebrity.
The Stockton Independent says: "George Anderson, a native of Melrose, Scotland, aged 47, and for a long time a resident in Yo Semite Valley, died there on the 10th inst., of acute pneumonia. He was a man of proverbial pluck and daring, being the first to climb the great South Dome, and it was to his skill and perseverance that its ascent was made possible to others. He was latterly engaged in building a wide passage-way from the floor of the Valley up to the Vernal and Nevada Falls, which, being cut in the side of the granite walls, required blasting most of the way".

A more dramatic description of Anderson's death was presented at a hearing in the California Senate in February 1889, by Charles D. Robinson, who spent many years in the Valley. Robinson indirectly blamed the Yosemite Commission, and especially Commissioner Briggs, for Anderson's death. Here is how Robinson described the events of the Spring of 1884 in his own words:

[George Anderson] died from want and exposure, really brought on by want of wages that were justly due him for work on that trail. He died of pneumonia. George Anderson went to Mr. Sinning in the spring (...); he says: "Mr. Sinning, I need money to buy food, and you will have to give me a job. "Well", Sinning told him: "I will give you a job. I want the front of my house washed off and cleaned off" (...) And he went to work on the house, and this storm came up, and George kept to work during the rain, and sleet, and snow falling, and he was under the weather at that time, and Sinning begged him, he says: "George, don't work any more; I will pay you just the same if you don't work". George said he had always earned his living, and he didn't want charity from anybody; he would work for it. He was finally obliged to give up, and went in and sat down in Sinning's house, and was taken with chills; and the building that I occupied for a studio he was using to do some wood work in the winter. He had permission from me. He went in that building and laid in his bunk, and they carried him away almost by force. Nobody in the valley except the Leidigs seemed to care anything about the man. He laid there, and would have died without any care or any attention at all in the valley. When it was too late they took him down to Mr. Fiske's house, I believe; took him down there, but it was too late, and he died from pneumonia, simply from want and exposure. He had nothing on earth wherewith to provide himself with the necessaries of life (...) [His death] was one of the greatest losses that Yosemite Valley ever sustained in the shape of a laborer or handy man...

George's brother, Charles Anderson, testified at the same hearing that George had only $2.50 in cash left at the time of his death. The Yosemite Commission reportedly owed George Anderson about $1,500. For the next decade, Charles fought the Commission and the State of California for back wages. In 1889 an Assembly Committee of the Legislature concluded that "although Mr. George Anderson, the subject of the disreputable action by the Yosemite Commission has long since gone to his grave in poverty and destitution, mainly consequent upon that wrong, it is hoped that the State will lose no time in repairing, in some degree at least, the wrong done to Mr. Anderson by paying to his heirs the money to which he was justly entitled". However, two successive Governors of California, Waterman and Markham, blocked any such payment, and Charles Anderson never received a penny of the money that belonged to his brother. Charles died in March 1900 at County Hospital in Sonora.

You can find Anderson's simple grave in the Yosemite Cemetery, in the Valley.

Wavy line
Some other possible early ascents, for which the dates could not be determined

Many other tourists made it to Half Dome in the summer seasons of 1876-1883, either directly guided by Anderson, or by using his system of ropes and pins. We can only guess the number of successful ascents during the years in which Anderson has kept his route in working order (apparently, up to 1882 or 1883). Hutchings estimates that almost 18,000 people had visited the Valley from 1876 to 1883, or—on average—some 2000 visitors per year (deduced from his In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 10). Hittel, in his Hand-book of Pacific Coast Travel, published in 1885, states that (p. 158) "Out of 100 tourists who visit the Yosemite, 80 go to Glacier Point, as many to the Nevada Fall, 20 to Eagle Point, 10 to Cloud's Rest, and 3 to the top of the Half Dome". This estimate, combined with Hutchings' numbers, would suggest some sixty Half Dome ascents per year during Anderson's era (compare this to as many as 1,000 hikers per day atop the Dome on a typical summer weekend in 2008). There are other, more conservative estimates. For example, in an article about Half Dome from 1901, we find the sentence: "Some years ago an old sailor was engaged for several summmers drilling rings into the rock... and by means of the rope venturesome stocking-footed climbers, to the number of about fifty, including several women, made their way over the shelf of rock..." (The Atlanta Constitution, March 24, 1901, p. A5) Unfortunately, names of climbers or dates of those ascents were not recorder in newspapers that I can reach.

In a few cases, we know names of early ascenders, but dates of their trips could not be established with certainty:

Ascender: Fannie Crippen

After their father's death, four Crippen sisters were adopted and raised by their step-father, a hotelkeeper in the Valley, John Barnard. We already met the eldest sister Abbie Crippen and talked about her Half Dome ascent in 1877. Shirley Sargent in her Pioneers in Petticoats adds that Abbie's sister Fannie Crippen, born in 1864, made it to the top with another party, but no date is given: "When Fannie climbed Half Dome with three other daredevil souls, they scorned the usual route and started at Mirror Lake, scrambling up to the dome's face, then skirting easterly around the back, and up the cable. Their shoes wore out before they reached home". No source for this (quite confusing) description was given in Sargent's book.

Miss Mary Adair, Yosemite teacher.
Mary Adair, Yosemite teacher,
1881/82 and 1882/83.

Ascender: Mary Adair (perhaps September or early October 1883)

A family history article, "The Pioneer Adair Family of Mariposa", provides the following biographical note about Mary E. Adair: "[At the age of 18] she became a teacher and taught school in Yosemite. She was also an artist and painted many pictures of Yosemite. She was the first woman to climb Half Dome..." The date of that alleged ascent is not given, but we do know that Mary taught in Yosemite in the summers of 1882 and 1883. Later in 1883 she was assigned to a school in Indian Gulch, near Mariposa. And of course, we know that Mary was not the first woman to climb Half Dome. Shirley Sargent, in her Petticoats (p. 43), has a full-page photo with the caption: "Yosemite schoolhouse and pupils with schoolmarm Mary Adair about 1881", but makes no mention of Mary's Half Dome climb. The family history may have been based on a report published in the March 1917 issue of the Grizzly Bear, the official journal of the Native Daughters of the Golden West organization. The report uses Mary's married name, Aubury, and gives this brief note about the activities of the Los Angeles branch (page 14): "Tells of perilous trip. On February 19, 1917, Mrs. Mary Aubury entertained with an account of her ascent of South Dome, Yosemite, in 1883. She was the first woman to make this then-perilous trip". If this note is to be believed, Mary's ascent probably occurred late in 1883. Snow's Register reveals that Mary was one of ten young people ("Yo Semite Crowd") returning from Little Yosemite Valley in early October 1883. Half Dome is not mentioned in the Register, but Mary added that everyone experienced "heaps of joy" during the trip. If she ever reached the top of Half Dome, it could have happened during this trip.

Mary E. Adair (1863-1925) was born in El Dorado County, California. If she did climb Half Dome in the fall of 1883, she was 20 years old at the time. She taught for several years in various Mariposa County schools, including in Yosemite Valley. Impaired hearing may have forced her to leave her teaching job. In 1887 she married Lewis Aubury. He was a talented and self-taught mining engineer. Lewis was working in Tombstone, Arizona at the time. Their only child, daughter Ruth, was born in Tombstone in 1889. In the mid-1890s, the family moved to southern California. In 1901, the Governor of California selected Mr. Aubury for the prestigious position of State Mineralogist. His new job kept Lewis away from home for long periods of time and as a result he neglected his family. Mary filed for divorce in 1908. Even after the separation, she kept her husband's last name. She devoted most of her time and energy to her daughter and her education. It soon became clear that the young woman was much more interested in acting and working on the stage than studying. In the summer of 1911, Ruth was on her way to London where she was supposed to join a vaudeville company. However, Europe was not in her destiny. On her journey east, somewhere along the way she contracted typhoid fever and died in New York. Mary Adair Aubury never recovered from that loss. In her later years, Mary struggled to earn enough to live on. She passed away in Los Angeles after a long illness on October 10, 1925.

Ascender: William Stegman (1875? 1876?)

On January 21, 1938, the Oakland Tribune printed William G. Stegman's obituary. It reads: "Veteran miner Stegman dies in Berkeley. A man who boasted he was the second man ever to climb Half Dome in Yosemite died in a nursing home here yesterday after a short illness. Stegman died after a rigorous career of mining and exploring over the North American continent, in which he touched Alaska, Washington, Oregon and most of the California mining country. His father was the first intendent of Yosemite after it became a National Park, he often told his nephews and nieces. It was while the elder Stegman was in that capacity that the son followed a guide's trail made up the granite side of the famous Sierra cliff the previous day. He came to live in Oakland in 1928, and was never married. A number of nieces and nephews survive". I didn't find any other independent confirmation of William Stegman's ascent. He made many visits to Snow's Hotel during his years in Yosemite. It does not prove anything, but his name doesn't appear in Snow's Register in October or November of 1875, which is when Anderson made his first ascent. He signed the register several times in 1876, starting with an entry on May 28, 1876, but there is no mention of a possible Half Dome climb during those visits. Stegman still may have been one of the earliest Half Dome ascenders, but there is simply no way to confirm that at this time.

William George Stegman (1849-1938) was born in Arkansas in about 1849. In 1875, the year of his alleged Half Dome ascent, he was about twenty-six years old. His father and mother, Henry and Margaret Stegman, were immigrants from Prussia. In the 1850s his family moved to Cornitos, Mariposa County, California. In the 1870s his father Henry kept a livery stable in Yosemite, and later became the first recorded Wells Fargo's agent in the Valley. He also served as a postmaster in the Valley around 1882, but certainly was at no time an "intendent of Yosemite". Young William at first worked for his father, then moved to Pima County, Arizona (1880 Census), and later to New Mexico, mostly involved in mining-related activities. In Alameda County voter registers from 1928 to 1938, his occupation is indicated as 'mining engineer'. He had several brothers and sister. His brothers were Charles Henry Stegman and E. Stegman. His sisters Margaret, Lizzie (Lizza), and Martha A. Stegman (Mattie) were married to Samuel A. Youse, Samuel Miller, and Josiah Parker Ames respectively. Another sister, Frances A. Stegman (Fannie), stayed unmarried. Several of George's siblings lived in Oakland in the early twentieth century.

Adventurous ascents continued between 1884 and 1919

The second part of this article covers years between 1884 and 1919. Then, in 1919, Hall McAllister, under the auspices of the Sierra Club, installed two steel cables attached to support pipes, which are basically still in use (though upgraded several times since). The access to Half Dome was now open to the multitudes . True rock climbing enthusiasts began exploring other routes to the top of the Dome, but those post-1919 adventures are beyond the scope of this article.

Other online resources about early Half Dome ascents:

James Mason Hutchings, In the Heart of the Sierras, Chapter 26

Steve Harrison, George Anderson, First Up the Dome, Yosemite Nature Notes, Volume 46, No. 2, 1977

Hank Johnston, The First Ascents of Half Dome [pdf file], Yosemite (Magazine), Volume 65, No. 1, Winter 2003, pp. 7-9


Go to Part Two of the Half Dome article
By the same author:
Earliest Ascents to the Summit of Mt. Starr King in Yosemite: Story Retold.
Fine Print: © 2008, 2022 by H. Galic
First posted at www.stanford.edu in 2008. Revised in 2022.
No part of this online document, photos included, may be reproduced without written permission of the author.