Yosemite guest register a look at valley's past

Intern Kimberly Loeper of Reading, Pa., left, and Miriam Luchans, registrar of the Yosemite Museum, open the Grand Register of Yosemite Valley on Wednesday.
Intern Kimberly Loeper of Reading, Pa., left, and Miriam Luchans, registrar of the Yosemite Museum, open the Grand Register of Yosemite Valley on Wednesday. Modesto Bee

YOSEMITE -- Heavy and wet, the blanket of snow brought with it a peacefulness that wouldn't be dislodged.

It resisted everything; even the thunking metal chains, bound tightly around the tires of cars and trucks as they chewed a path through still frozen sections of roadway.

Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk.

There were more travelers than I would have guessed, and many seemed to take special delight in the pre-Christmas tease to which we were being treated.

And why not?

They were snug in their heated cabins. Plenty of gas in the tank. Snow tires. Snow chains. Four-wheel drive.

It wasn't always this way.

There was a time -- between 1873 and 1884, for instance, before Yosemite became a national park -- when the valley pretty much was left to itself during the wintertime.

Back then, visitors preferred the late spring, summer and early fall.

At least, that's when most of the entries I observed had been written in the "Grand Register of Yo-Semite Valley."

The register?

It's a hidden treasure.

Call it a window to the past that for decades had been largely ignored -- until recently, that is.

It was started in 1873 by C.E. Smith, who built and operated the Cosmopolitan Saloon and bathhouse.

Before the leather and silver-plated cover of the Moroccan-bound wonder was closed for good in 1884, more than 18,000 visitors had signed it, covering some 800 pages in the process.

Experts figure that's just about everyone who visited Yosemite Valley during the 11-year period ending in 1884.

Many of those who signed the register also inscribed it with poems and personal observations.

The Cosmopolitan boasted a well-stocked bar and hot baths -- the only hot baths within at least 20 miles in any direction -- but no overnight accommodations.

Here's the way Pete Garvey, one of the early visitors to the Cosmopolitan described his experience:

"Mr. Smith is the prince of bar keepers and his baths are not exceeded on the continent."

Others were enamored of Smith's whiskey selection and his deft hand at crafting the perfect "Mint Julep," generously praising both.

The register's pages contain the names of the famous.

Four U.S. presidents -- Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes and Theodore Roosevelt -- signed the book. Roosevelt, however, didn't make his entry until after the Cosmopolitan had closed in 1884.

A week ago today, the register was on display, briefly, at Stanford University, for a press gathering announcing its purchase by the Yosemite Fund.

With the purchase, however, the register is assured of remaining at Yosemite permanently.

It has been on loan to the Yosemite Museum since the early 1930s, though it hasn't been displayed publicly for several years.

Shaking the slush off my boots, I walked into the museum shortly before noon. That's where I meet Miriam Luchans, museum registrar.

Luchans had agreed to show me the register after a series of telephone calls between Peter Bartelme, a spokesman for The Yosemite Fund, the group's president, Bob Hansen, and myself.

The register, it turned out, was being stored in a very inauspicious room, filled with hundreds of other Yosemite artifacts.

Once inside, I noticed the temperature felt almost as cold as the air through which I had trudged on my way from the parking lot.

The register is large. And heavy. It weighs about 70 pounds.

It's also fragile.

Very fragile.

In fact, the register's pages are so delicate that those handling them must don gloves.

Two people -- Luchans and National Park Service intern Kimberly Loeper -- turned the pages for me.

Since the register is too delicate to just flip through, I was given -- in advance -- a list of notables and the number of the page upon which their signature and-or comment had been written.

I opted for Page 678 because it contained the signatures of actor Lilly Langtry and naturalist John Muir -- hoping to find not just their names, but a comment or two that might provide historians some new insight.

Born in 1853, the British-born Langtry became almost as well known for her affairs as she was for her acting ability. The notorious Judge Roy Bean supposedly was smitten with her.

As for Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club needs no introduction. Suffice it to say that without him, there might not be a Yosemite Valley for us to enjoy today.

My search ended almost as soon as it had started. There would be no new insight gained this day.

That the entry made by each had consisted only of their name, hometown and date of visit doesn't diminish the register's value, however.

Taken as a whole, the register still provides us with a glimpse of what life was like in the Yo-Semite Valley.

There are other anecdotes, personal observations and even a questionable pun or two.

A Sacramento man, who signed the register on May 10, 1874, may have been reading some of those other entries before making his own.

He distinguishes himself from all the other "wits and scribes a plenty" and the philosophical observations they penned, with this couplet:

"I will simply make an entry and leave my hard but modest name. (In the register the word hard is underlined.)

"And that would be?

"Why, Daniel Flint, of course."

Bee staff writer Mike Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.