August 6, 1908 was the first date entered in my grandmother’s diary. That day, Bessie and Charlie Etter began their trek over 100 years ago from Hollywood, California to Yosemite National Park in their two-horse covered Studebaker wagon drawn by Dollie and Dick.
That was the beginning of a fascinating and informative account of how travel was in those early days — in sharp contrast to today’s air conditioned and heated comfort. So hop aboard my grandparent’s wagon as we travel with them.
This account is just a very short version of the whole story that I’ve taken from their letters, notes and the diary. My grandparents encountered all that Mother Nature could provide—fierce winds, torrential rain, 117° heat and freezing snow. Through the heat, horrible wind and a freezing snowstorm they traveled on. The roads were horrible at times but when they finally made it to Yosemite Valley it was all worth it.
Fortunately my grandmother kept a daily diary of the trek and she and my grandfather wrote letters. We even have an account of the price of their needs along the way. Obtaining enough water at times was a very long day’s drive. They even raced a train, but not on purpose. At one point, they became so fatigued they fell asleep while driving. They met people of some historical recognition, such as the Gordons, who ran a stage stop on the Wawona Road, more on that later.
In the desert Bessie and Charlie encountered a lost family of four adults and several children “who looked ready to die. They had been lost in the desert for 3-4 days, driving in circles, no water. We had just bought a bushel of peaches, and I handed them over to these thirsty people. Lucious, juicy peaches. How they went for them.” The lost family were given water and directions.
They recorded many observations at various places: — Mojave – “Every other door a saloon.” — Mojave Desert - “The most God awful place.” The wind was so fierce they had to tie their wagon down, or it would blow over. They took cover in a school house. — Bakersfield – “Tough town. Every man has to bring a Winchester to town with them.” — Fresno – “A fruit belt. Peaches, grapes, figs.” — Coarsegold – “The largest nugget found at ‘CG’ was valued at $800.” — Fresno Flats (Oakhurst) – “All uphill.” — Fish Camp (Happy Camp) – “Nice place and decent people.”
My grandmother’s style of writing was humorous with a hint of sarcasm. While at Fish Camp, “A large beast walked past our wagon one night, creating great noise. Immediately there was great commotion within the wigwam. I manfully grasped my trusty revolver and sat up, peering out into the inky darkness while my brave husband shirt-tailed it out into the blackness, chasing and shouting after a stray bovine and offspring. You see, we were afraid she might devour our hay, ‘ere we were aware.”
While camped outside Fish Camp, they took a hike to the Mariposa Grove. “Walked to big trees, four miles to gate and six miles to Wawona Point, it is all grand. Grizzly Giant is estimated to be 8,000 years old, to contain 1,000,000 feet of lumber, is 224 feet high, 100 feet up to the big limb which is six feet through. Big fella, all right.” Well, as we learned later, the Grizzly Giant was not quite so old (about 2700 years) or tall (209 feet), but still a magnificent tree.) “Stopped at a log cabin and registered. Then up to Wawona Point.” I would think that the cabin was Galen Clark’s.
I wonder if that register still exists with my grandparent’s name on September 6, 1908. That hike was a 20-mile one day round trip! Amazing.
Sept. 7, 1908: Bessie and Charlie left Fish Camp for Wawona. “Met a man who asked for $6.75 and all we paid was $4.50. Still need to pay $2.25 as we return. Left guns at Soldiers Camp.” (Now A. E. Wood, Wawona Campground.) As they paid their toll, the man gave my grandparents the 1908 Rules and Regulations of the park. The rules included: — Automobiles are not permitted in the park. — Dogs are not permitted in the park. — No one person shall catch more than 50 fish in one day. Automobiles were allowed prior to 1908 and again in 1913.
Courtesy of John Etter
This photograph is my grandfather Charlie Etter next to his Studebaker wagon that he and my grandmother Bessie took to Yosemite in 1908, pulled by their two horses Dolly and Dick.
Charlie with Dolly and Dick
Photograph Courtesy of John Etter
Bessie, the diarist, also made pies and appleasuace from fresh fruit they picked during their trek from their home in Hollywood to Yosemite. She also kept an account of the cost of provisions purchased along the way.
Bessie Over a Hot Stove at Wawona
Photograph Courtesy of John Etter
Charlie Etter at their Yosemite campgrounds, which they were quite reluctant to leave but there was work in San Francisco for Charlie, a carpenter by trade, even though the adventurous couple arrived several years after the devastaing earthquake of 1906.
Charlie Awaits Supper
Photograph Courtesy of John Etter
Sept. 15, 1908: Charlie and Bessie hated to leave Yosemite. They wished they could live there, but on this date they headed to San Francisco. Bessie wrote, “I walked up the hill backward a good deal of the time – I could not help it, the view was calling me all the time. A long, last farewell look at the valley and surrounding country.” “Drove on to a stable, where Mr. and Mrs. Gordon lived. We were invited to ‘come up’ and did so in the evening, taking them apples, as they had none.”
Sept. 16, 1908: After a night of heavy rain their trip continued “after warming our feet at the Gordon’s. Difficult conditions at 9:00 a. m. As we progressed it got colder and colder and finally found we were in the midst of a snowstorm amid Christmas trees. ‘Twas pretty, but oh so cold. After 11 miles of slippery and sliding road we passed Chinkapin. I yelled, ‘Merry Christmas’ as we passed a stage and folks were good natured, if they weren’t already.”
Sept. 17, 1908: Two days after leaving the Valley, they arrived back at the A. E. Wood, Wawona Army Camp. They retrieved their guns and lunched by the river. It was a nice sunny day as they traveled to Mariposa. Bessie’s diary continues to entertain with their adventures as they headed into San Francisco over 100 years ago. Charlie was a carpenter by trade, and they reached San Francisco just two years after the devastating 1906 earthquake where Charlie would look for work.
Sept. 10, 1908: “It rained a little but we donned our old duds and staggered forth the see the great and glorious Mirror Lake. There wasn’t much left of the lake.” They sat under a tree on a rock next to the water, probably the same rock I would sit on many decades later. “The rain came down in torrents upon the peaks and even as we looked at the mountain side we could see streams of water rushing down the mountains. Clouds came sailing along by us, and surrounded us completely at times. A grand sight it was – one which I wouldn’t have missed for any price.”.
Ever since that August day back in 1908, my family keeps the tradition alive by continuing our treks to the most beautiful place on earth. I reflect upon Charlie and Bessie’s story as I note the same places they traveled to and how it must have been then, and what it’s like now. But of all the changes in this modern world, one thing hasn’t changed;
the grandeur and beauty of Yosemite National Park.
Their story is very much a “Little House on the Prairie” type of adventure. Our family has continued the tradition
of visiting Yosemite ever since that first trip by Bessie and Charlie back in 1908, although in far greater comfort.”
Sept. 8, 1908: “Inspiration Point, 2 o’clock. Grandest thing I ever saw. It is beyond all conception. Bridal Veil Falls, scarce on water supply, but pretty, and El Capitan as natural as life.”
Then they traveled a “rocky road” to the Valley, registered and got camp #10 under the Washington Column. Bessie picked blackberries and apples, from which she made pies and applesauce.
Editor's Note I: Alice van Ommeren, a contributer to the Yosemite Gazette, has compiled a fascinating collection of old postcards in an Arcadia Publishing (Images of America series) imprint "Yosemite's Historic Hotels and Camps." For more information: https://www.facebook.com/YosemitesHistoricHotelsAndCamps.
'Editor's Note II: This contribution "From Hollywood to Yosemite or Bust in the Summer of 1908" by a Yosemite Gazette subscriber John Etter is a preview of the article that will be published in a future edition. Please email me, Michael Gahagan at: Editor@YosemiteGazette.com if you have a personal or "heirloom" account and/or phtographs of a visit, excursion, climb, hike in the Yosemite region.
Written with humor and a bit
of sarcasm all the way from Hollywood to Yosemite (1908).
From Hollywood to Yosemite
or Bust in the Summer of 1908