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When you look back to find when the Old West died, GG would like to nominate 1906 as that magic year.

In 1906, the last of the classic gold rushes of the West reached its peak.  Goldfield, having been found just a couple years earlier, became the most populous city in Nevada on the basis of its considerable bonanza gold deposits.  It and its companion silver boom town of Tonopah represented the last gasp of big finds by miners wandering the west. As these towns faded out, the state of Nevada would try to find a new economic base.  First they encouraged travel for getting a divorce, and then they removed the restrictions on gambling. That transition from a mainly extractive economy to a mainly tourism based economy began as Goldfield started to empty out. The memory of the mining heritage would live on: nearly every Nevada town seems to have a casino named the Nugget (and most others have some mining theme, like “Bonanza” or “Silver strike”), but it would increasingly be tourists and not mineral veins that would be mined.

Another tourism related event–one most folks overlook these days–occurred in 1906. The first park set aside by the nation was Yosemite Valley; in 1864 it was transferred to the state of California to be protected in perpetuity. In 1890, advocates for protecting the surrounding high country had given up on the state, feeling it had mismanaging the park, and worked to get a federally managed national park created. Thus Yosemite National Park (the federal version) was created as the third national park behind Yellowstone and Sequoia. The state, however, continued to manage the valley. Continued agitation by park advocates finally led the state to relinquish control of the valley in 1906, in essence declaring an end to any possible equivalence of state and federal control of parklands. The transfer to the federal government would also end the state’s practice of allowing Native Americans to continue to live in the valley; though it would take the Park Service decades, they finally removed the last descendant of the Ahwahneechee from the valley. For most of the following century, Native Americans would be denied a modern presence in federal parks; instead they were relegated to colorful descriptions of their ancestors’ historic occupation of the land.

And then in 1906 the San Andreas Fault, only recently named at that point, failed in the catastrophic San Francisco Earthquake.  Between the quake and the fire, much of the city’s Gold Rush heritage was lost–not only buildings but photographs, written records and other memorabilia of a city that grew from a small trading post to an international metropolis on the back of the riches that passed out of the Sierra. As the city rebuilt, it would not be in the mold of the old Gold Rush town but would be the new financial and trade capital of the West Coast, one stylistically different from the city that had just been demolished.

So 1906 saw the loss of much memory of the Gold Rush, both in records in San Francisco and in activity as Goldfield began its decline. The era of modern tourism, with federally managed playgrounds and locally permitted houses of various sins, was grafted onto declining mining camps and previously state-managed land.

A coda helps to illustrate the transition. The 1906 quake triggered avalanches in the Sierra Nevada, including in the remote Mineral King valley high in the southern Sierra, where many of the buildings of a small resort were smashed.  The resort’s owner was seeking a patent on land being claimed as a mill site for associated mineral claims, a request opposed by the Sierra Forest’s supervisor, who pointed out that no mining was actually occurring. Despite the destruction of much of the resort, Arthur Crowley pushed together remains of two buildings to continue operations as he continued his quest for a paten. A court held that Crowley’s claim was valid, and the patent was granted. Mining law had opened up a tourism future; the driver of the West in the 19th century was giving way to that of the 20th century.

Mountains that Remade America

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s upcoming trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers. Read More…

A Range of Opinion

…or, perhaps, when engineers and geologists collide. (This is one of those little episodes GG had pulled up for possible inclusion in his book The Mountains that Remade America only to find it something of an orphan).

In 1863, the Big Four responsible for construction of the Central Pacific Railroad were in desperate need of funds. The 1862 Pacific Railroad bill allowed $48,000/mile to be loaned once the railroad entered the Sierra Nevada but only $16,000/mile before then. Up to 150 miles of mountainous terrain could be claimed.  Eager to get the most money possible, Charles Crocker got the state geologist, Josiah Whitney, to go on a buggy ride to decide where the western edge of the range might be. Whitney allowed that the Sacramento River might be the most appropriate spot, but both he and Crocker could see the terrain was quite flat.  So they rode off some 6 or 7 miles east to Arcade Creek where some reddish sedimentary rock was exposed, and Whitney allowed that this was an appropriate spot to claim the edge of the range. But when Theodore Judah, who was director of the line and was responsible for identifying the route and who had shepherded the 1862 bill through Congress heard, he was appalled. This was 21 miles west of where the line would encounter its first real grades.

This episode is widely derided as Whitney engaging in deception to aid the railroad.  Was this another example of Josiah being a total ninny, as when he accepted the Calaveras Man claims, or when he said there had never been glaciers in Yosemite Valley?


Detail of Wagner et al., 1981, Geologic map of the Sacramento quadrangle, California, 1:250,000.

On the map above, the Sacramento River is at the left and the edges of crystalline rock of the Sierra is at the right. The Central Pacific runs under the “r” in the Arcade Creek label. The orange patterned unit on the map is the Turlock Lake Formation.  According to Unruh (1991), the 0.6 Ma Turlock Lake is tilted 0.19° to the west. For a geologist, this western edge of tilted and eroded Tertiary and Quaternary rock is indeed the most likely spot to mark the edge of the range. (Geologists today would not go along with the Sacramento River as the edge as its floodplain extends well east of Sacramento).

Whitney had, in fact, chosen a perfectly appropriate spot even though it was one that Stanford and Crocker had decided upon by measuring backwards 150 miles from the Truckee Meadows on the east side of the range. That this was not the essence of “mountains” as envisioned by an engineer like Judah was not Whitney’s fault; indeed, had the bill been written to assure that only truly mountainous terrain be included, Judah should have inserted minimum railroad grades or some other direct measure.

Whitney’s written acceptance of the Arcade Creek edge to the Sierra was seconded by two government surveyors in California and sent on to Washington, where Abraham Lincoln agreed that this was the appropriate point for the mountains to start. The Central Pacific got their higher loans earlier, but more through the ambiguity of the original legislation than deliberate misrepresentation on the part of the state geologist.


Return of the Young Sierra

Well, time to catch up on the evolution of the Sierra Nevada.  Although a large collection of paleoaltimetry papers has bolstered a case for the elevations in the Sierra having been created by the Eocene (most based on Rayleigh distillation of precipitation), a couple of other recent works, one geodetic and the other geomorphic, seem to indicate that Sierran topography has grown over the last few million years.

First up is an update on vertical GPS velocities in California and Nevada by Hammond et al. in the Journal of Geophysical ResearchThey find “…the Sierra Nevada is the most rapid and extensive uplift feature in the western United States, rising up to 2 mm/yr along most of the range….Uplift patterns are consistent with groundwater extraction and concomitant elastic bedrock uplift, plus slower background tectonic uplift.” This in some ways is trimming the sails a bit on the earlier Amos et al. paper in Nature; as we previously discussed this wasn’t entirely unexpected. Their money figure would be this:


The red blob in most of eastern California is the Sierra Nevada.  For most of the range, the pink colors correspond to uplift rates of 0.5-1.0 mm/yr. The presence of the pink/red colors in the central to northern Sierra, where there are no blue colors to the west, would indicate uplift is not being caused by groundwater withdrawal to the west (which is the cause of most of the dark blue south of 38°N and was the focus of the Amos et al. paper). Given the these rates would produce the modern mean elevation of the Sierra in under 6 million years, this would seem to strongly support the young Sierran story and be broadly consistent with the geologic story of a young uplift caused by removal of a dense root.

But, hmm, let’s look more closely…

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Disrepair…or misunderstood?

Nicholas Kristof apparently was on the John Muir Trail with his daughter about the same time GG was on the trail with his daughter (but GG had 3 llamas, while poor Nicholas had to make do with a backpack).  How did we miss each other?  Anyways, he wrote a bit about how we all own national parks but then included this damning note:

Even on the John Muir Trail, large stretches are in disrepair and had turned into creeks of snowmelt when my daughter and I hiked them. This quickly erodes the trails so much that new ones have to be built nearby. This reluctance to pay for maintenance isn’t even fiscally prudent, for it’s far more expensive to build new trails than to maintain old ones.

Now there are a lot of things that need repair or maintenance in national parks, but you know what?  It isn’t clear that the John Muir Trail is anywhere near the top of the list.

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Road gaps

Hiking the Muir Trail this summer got GG pondering what might have been, as is still evident in the California highway numbering system…

If you are in Denver and driving east on I-70 and want to be on I-70 in Washington DC, you can simply stay on I-70.  This is pretty much true throughout the interstate system: get on I-5 in San Diego and you can follow it all the way to Seattle.  But get on California 190 in Porterville and head east and you’ll need an atlas to somehow get on California 190 heading east from Olancha. Similarly, following highway 168 east out of Fresno will carry you past a small ski area and to the edge of the Huntington Lake Resort, but try to continue on to the Bristlecone Pine forest and you’ll quickly find yourself on what amounts to a paved horse trail heading to Florence Lake with no hope of getting across the range in your motor vehicle. Those oddly disconnected pieces of numbered highway are reminders of how the long Wilderness of the Sierra very nearly was not to be.


Disconnected and incomplete trans-Sierra highways

These highway numbers are not an accident or a malicious joke by Caltrans.  These two highways were intended to be connected; two others were the Minarets Highways crossing the Sierra near Devils Postpile (a continuation of highway 203) and a continuation of highway 180 across Kearsarge Pass to Independence. As roads to the north were completed, continuing the march to the south seemed likely in the 1950s and plans were laid for expansion of the highway system.

Increased experience in mountain highways and a shift from a need for access to a need for preservation conspired to block this march of progress.  The cost of maintaining the existing trans-Sierra roads was proving to be significant, lessening Caltrans’s appetite for more expensive mountain roads only open a few months of the year; the need for residents of Fresno to visit Bishop was hardly compelling, the Forest Service established a Primitive Area across some road alignments, Congress legislated Wilderness areas in some other areas, and the most promising road (the Minarets Highway), which would have given Central Valley ski bums a quick link to Mammoth Mountain, was scotched by Governor Reagan and his Secretary of Resources, Ike Livermore, who apparently was scarred by finding automobiles at Reds Meadow as a youth working as a packer. [Reagan also killed the designation of the Mineral King road as a state highway].

This is generally good news though for Muir Trail hikers, though.  Had planned highways been completed, we would have crossed three major trans-Sierra highways instead of hiking for nearly 200 miles through wilderness. While this maybe has made getting a resupply harder than it might have been, it is difficult to imagine Highway 168 plowing down Evolution Valley or winding down Piute Creek towards the Muir Trail Ranch; the halfway point for the John Muir Trail might have been a highway rest area. Highway 180 would have replaced the busiest backcountry area in Kings Canyon National Park with gas fumes, car campgrounds and even more abuse. The fragmented wilderness would have been quite different.

In a way, it is possible that Los Angeles’s appropriation of the Owens River helped to keep the roads from being completed.  Had water stayed in the valley, it is nearly certain that populations would have been larger and more eager for major east-west highways.

Whatever the reasons, it is well to recall that one of the longest wilderness hikes in the country nearly became impossible.

Is Through-hiking Killing the Wilderness?


One observation from hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) with llamas was just how many people are on that trail (a separate observation was just how many of those backpackers are baby-boomers–seems like about a third if not more). Does this represent a big increase in Wilderness use, or is it misleading?

If you try and hike the Muir Trail, you quickly learn it is very popular.  Yosemite has a quota of 45 on permits leaving the park over Donahue Pass; this was instituted after the number of JMT hikers jumped from about 1000/year 14 years ago to 3500/year more recently. Similarly, the Forest Service has a quota of 25 people/day for exiting at Whitney Portal (there is also a quota for entering there).  The result of these has been to push hikers to other trailheads; the quota for entering at Cottonwood Pass, for instance, was met for most days in July this year. We met a lot of folks who started there.


JMT trail use, from Yosemite National Park website.

Is this a blip on the radar?  Is it an increase in popularity?  It is hard to tell…

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