Yosemite Firefall dazzled early tourists from 1872 to the 1968. This was not the natural illusion when Horsetail Falls appears to be molten lava for a few weeks in February. Although in the same location, the Yosemite Firefall was a nightly show during which a stream of campfire embers tossed over the waterfall at Glacier Point looks like fire.
This is a story that reveals the intrepid and sometimes quirky characters who were among the early settlers of our National Parks in general, and Yosemite in particular. All of this takes place against the backdrop of exquisite natural wonders.
Following are a few highlights of the once crowd-pleasing spectacle known as the Yosemite Firefall.
#1—The Natural Fire Show At Horsetail Falls, Yosemite California
Horsetail Falls at roughly 1,570 feet at its longest drop. It is neither the tallest nor most spectacular waterfall in Yosemite. That said, it has moments of magical grandeur. It also has a robust history of early settlers with magnetic characters.
According to the National Park Service, Horsetail Fall is famous for appearing to be on fire when it reflects the orange glow of sunset in mid- to late-February. The waterfall is best seen from just east of El Capitan.
James Kaiser, author of Yosemite: The Complete Guide writes:
“…the Yosemite Firefall can be finicky. Although Horsetail Fall is visible from multiple viewpoints in Yosemite Valley, several factors must converge to trigger the Firefall. If conditions are not perfect, the Yosemite Firefall will not glow.”
There must be enough snowpack for the fall to flow. Temperatures must be warm enough to melt the snow. The sky must be clear at sunset.
“If everything comes together and conditions are just right, the Yosemite Firefall will light up for about ten minutes. To see Horsetail Fall glowing blood red is an almost supernatural experience.”
To date, the discovery of Horsetail Falls is not well documented. Undoubtedly, the Awahneechee Indians, who lived in Yosemite Valley for hundreds of years, most likely knew of its existence, but there is no evidence that they passed this to white settlers.
Kaiser writes, “Yosemite Valley was first seen by white explorers in 1851. Although its natural wonders were heavily promoted in the following decades, the natural Firefall was never mentioned.”
#2—The Manmade Yosemite Firefall Delighted Generations
The human-made Firefall show started sometime in the 1870s. Operators of Camp Curry kicked embers from a campfire over the edge of Glacier Point each summer night at 9 p.m. The booming cry of “Let the fire fall!” delighted up to hundreds of spectators gathered below as the waterfall of sparks fell.
Like so many stories in history, accounts vary.
According to Carl Parcher Russell in One Hundred Years In Yosemite (1947):
“the real claim for Glacier Point patronage came from one James McCauley, who in 1870-1871 met the expense of building a horse trail from Black’s and Leidig’s over a four-mile route..”
The trail started at the base of Sentinel Rock, then climbed 3,200 feet to its its famous vantage point at Glacier Point. Initially a toll was charged at Four-Mile Trail so McCauley could recoup his investment.
Innkeeper Charles Peregoy built a small hotel at the overlook, completing its construction in 1873. Hikers ascending McCauley’s Four Mile Trail to reach Glacier Point could now elect to rest for the night at The Mountain House, with its stunning views of Half Dome and the rest of Yosemite Valley.
One of his visitors of the early ’eighties was Derrick Dodd. Russell writes that Dodd concocted something of a classic in the way of Glacier Point lore.
“As a part of the usual program, we experimented as to the time taken by different objects in reaching the bottom of the cliff. An ordinary stone tossed over remained in sight an incredibly long time, but finally vanished somewhere about the middle distance. A handkerchief with a stone tied in the corner, was visible perhaps a thousand feet deeper; but even an empty box, watched by a field-glass, could not be traced to its concussion with the Valley floor. Finally, the landlord appeared on the scene, carrying an antique hen under his arm.”
For all of us animal lovers, we’ll cut to the chase, or in this case the flight.
“…the hapless fowl shot down, down, until it became a mere fluff of feathers no larger than a quail. Then it dwindled to a wren’s size, disappeared, then again dotted the sight a moment as a pin’s point, and then—it was gone!
After drawing a long breath all round, the women folks pitched into the hen’s owner with redoubled zest. But the genial McCauley shook his head knowingly, and replied:
“Don’t be alarmed about that chicken, ladies. She’s used to it. She goes over that cliff every day during the season.
And, sure enough, on our road back we met the old hen about half up the trail, calmly picking her way home!”
The Firefall website offers several other possible histories regarding McCauley, the Firefall and the Mountain House. He stated that his father started the Yosemite Firefall when he pushed the remains of a campfire over the cliff. The show was such a hit, the brothers became involved in its preparations.
“When my brother and I were eight years old, father bought each of us a jackass. We attended school by riding our mules down the Four Mile Trail to the Valley. It took ninety minutes. If a tourist wanted a Firefall, we collected $1.50, the standard fee, before we rode back up the trail to Glacier Point. We had a pack animal that we used to carry provisions for the hotel on our return trip. On the Fourth of July, a collection often amounted to ten or twenty dollars. Then my brother and I were packing wood out to the point on our jackasses for at least two days.”
#3—Camp Curry Kept the Fire Flowing
David and Jennie Curry moved to Yosemite Valley in 1899 and established a family campground at the base of Glacier Point, called Camp Curry.
Tent cities were enormously popular for vacation destinations including Catalina Island and Coronado Island. Curry Camp followed suit, opening in June of 1899 with as many as seven canvas tents beneath the cliff. They initially charged $2 per night.
Many people predicted that the enterprise would fail because the site was isolated not to mention cold. Most visitors still preferred the more comfortable accommodations that could be had at the Sentinel Hotel for $4 a night. That summer 4,500 people visited Yosemite Valley and only 290 of them stayed at Camp Curry.
But Curry was determined to make a go of it. He had many marketing ideas. One of the most popular was to reinstate the Yosemite Firefall. According to Firefall.info:
“David Curry was well known for his booming voice. He would greet visitors to his camp with a resounding “WELCOME!” which could be heard from a great distance, and would similarly see his guests off by yelling “FAREWELL!” as their wagons pulled away from the main gate. Curry’s nickname was “The Stentor”
“Is the fire ready?” The faint answer could then be heard, “The fire is ready!” followed by Curry’s roaring command “Let ‘er go Gallagher!” And the glowing embers would begin their plunge off the edge of the cliff to their resting place on a ledge 1,700 feet below. Presumably Gallagher was the regular fire tender at that time. The call was changed to “Let the Fire Fall!” in later years.”
Between 1913 and 1916 the Yosemite Firefall was cancelled due to a disagreement between David Curry and the Assistant Secretary of the Interior. It was reinstated in 1917, but Curry did not live to see it.
Over the years, several more people kept the dream alive on summer nights with the Yosemite Firefall. A History of the Yosemite Firefall offers detailed accounts of those who carried the torch to 1968 when the Park Service Director ended the show forever. The (anonymous?) author of the website describes his or her first-hand experience.
“And then it fell, looking nothing like the time-exposure photography that would appear on postcards, depicting that solid line of orange extending down the cliff. Instead, it would be little sparks — thousands and thousands of individually discernible sparks — floating down the cliff in complete silence.
The Firefall was so much more than entertainment on a summer night. For many, it was a sublime experience.
“Thousands of onlookers felt something in common for that short period of time. It was something parents shared with their wide-eyed children, and something that those children would never forget. It illustrated how grand Yosemite really was; how unspeakably tall were its cliffs; how quiet its forest; and how much we treasured the company of our family and our friends.”
Dozens of visitors to this extraordinary website offer their own personal memories of the Yosemite Firefall creating a profound collective memory. And it all started (possibly) with an accidental toss of campfire embers in the 1800s.
Yosemite Became A National Park
Native Americans traveled Yosemite thousands of years before the discovery of gold in 1849. The Mariposa War (December 1850 – June 1851) occurred between Native Americans and miners in Mariposa, central California. According to the National Park Service:
“The first non-native group to enter Yosemite was the Mariposa Battalion, a Euro-American militia formed to drive the native Ahwahneechee people onto reservations. After the Mariposa Indian War came to a close, Yosemite was now open to settlement and speculation.”
Various expeditions included illustrators, authors, painters, and photographers to publicize the magnificent valley in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. Early pioneers built hotels and started stagecoach companies to bring the interested early tourists on the long journey to Yosemite.
“By 1864, the value of Yosemite was recognized by the federal government when Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, placing Yosemite under the protection of the state of California.”
In the 1987 Historical Resources Study sponsored by the National Parks Service and written by Linda Wedel Greene, September 1987.
“… between 1855 and 1864 the number of visitors to Yosemite Valley totaled 653. By 1874, with the completion of the first stage roads into the valley, travel had increased to more than 2,700 visitors annually.”
On June 30, 1864, Congress passed an act preserving the Yosemite Valley for public use and recreation for all time.
“The discovery of Yosemite Valley provided the first believable evidence that the United States had a valid claim to cultural r ecognition through scenic wonders. Yosemite became the object of scenic nationalism and was popularized as such in the press of the time.” p.51
Yellowstone was the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872. With Western Expansion, waves of tourists grabbed their cameras and headed for national parks. President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service on On August 25, 1916. The new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior is responsible for protecting 35 national parks. Kīlauea and Mauna Loa – were designated national parks in 1961.
High-Kicking Glacier Point Dancers Were Fearless
Residents of Yosemite and Yellowstone were generally a wild bunch of rebels. We couldn’t pass up a chance to take another look at the Glacier Point dancers in Yosemite. They found the irresistible vantage point for the 1890s equivalent of daring photo ops. The idea of the American Wild West entered the zeitgeist as the subjects of these photos posed above the great unknown
Perhaps the most famous of these danceres shows two women in long skirts doing can-can kicks into the abyss. Soaring 3,200 feet above the valley floor, the vantage point was made famous by these Glacier Point Dancers. Overhanging rock is at the end of Glacier Point Road, about an hour’s drive from Yosemite Valley.
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