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Yosemite concessions have been controversial since 1864

Yosemite’s El Capitan is illuminated by the setting sun on Thanksgiving Day 2013.
Yosemite’s El Capitan is illuminated by the setting sun on Thanksgiving Day 2013.

Yosemite inspires passion from most of its more than 4 million visitors annually. It was the fourth most-visited national park in 2015 (after Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain).

When ardor cools, the breakup can be ugly.

Concessionaire Delaware North lost the bid to continue managing signature properties in Yosemite, but it trademarked the names before it exited. The company now argues that taxpayers (in the form of the National Park Service) must pay $51 million to buy the intellectual property attached to the names.

The Justice Department responded that the value proposed by Delaware North was “improper and wildly inflated.”

Today, the Ahwahnee is called The Majestic Yosemite Hotel as the dispute makes its way through the courts.

An editorial published in The Fresno Bee called the move a “sordid play.”

A bipartisan group of California Assembly members have introduced legislation to protect California state parks from a similar shakedown and to ban the state from contracting concessions with trademark squatters.

A story by Michael Doyle of the McClatchy Washington Bureau compared the dispute to an ugly divorce.

The story quotes Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova: “People all around California have heard of this and are outraged by it. The people I talk to evince almost a sensation of experiencing physical pain to think of such familiar spots as Camp Curry being tossed aside because of this dispute.”

According to the Delaware North website, the company operates California concessions at locations including Los Angeles International Airport, Sequoia National Park, Petco Park, Qualcomm Stadium, and Café at the Opera at San Francisco War Memorial.

(It also claims to still operate in Yosemite, but Aramark is now the concessionaire.)

A modest proposal to legislators: Perhaps those concessions have a taxable value of say, $51 million.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to bill the government for the beauty of Yosemite. James Mason Hutchings helped popularize the valley as a tourist destination in the mid-1800s. The Englishman first cast his gaze on the valley in 1855, and from 1856 to 1861, he published Hutchings’ California Magazine.

The National Park Service website said he “became the authoritative voice regarding Yosemite.”

He would operate Hutchings House, the primitive first lodge in the valley.

In 1869, Hutchings hired a shabby sheepherder to build and operate his sawmill. The sheepherder would not be mentioned by name in Hutchings’ 1888 book “In the Heart of the Sierras.” It would be up to the sheepherder, John Muir, to write his own books.

What would become the National Park Service was born in 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Act of Congress transferring Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state of California as park, reserved from settlement.

Hutchings embarked on a bitter legal and public relations battle to retain ownership of the Hutchings House.

Perhaps Hutchings deserves some gratitude.

In the book “Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness,” Alfred Runte writes that “Hutchings v. Low, in effect, established that national parks were indeed constitutional.”

However, Runte also writes that Hutchings received $24,000 and another man, James Lamon, received $12,000 from the California Legislature in 1874 to get them to drop further litigation.

John Muir would camp with President Teddy Roosevelt in the park in 1903 and convince him that it was essential to expand Yosemite and return it to federal control as a national park.

We take it for granted today, but the process has been fraught with controversy since the beginning. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns traced the path with “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

The idea originated in California.

The Tribune was barely 6 months old when it firmly endorsed the park concept for Yosemite on Jan. 22, 1870:

The Yo-Semite Valley

Hutchings and Lamon are still striving to get a grant from Congress of this beautiful valley and natural curiosity, on the plea that they squatted it first. If those gentlemen have a legal claim to the valley by pre-emption, why cannot it be prosecuted before the proper tribunal in the usual manner?

If they have not, why should that property, which Congress has already set apart for the benefit of the people of the whole world, under the guardianship of the State of California, be granted to them?

If they are to have a bill passed through Congress for their “relief,” or in plainer and more truthful language, for the enrichment of themselves, and their backers, why shall there not be bills passed through Congress for the relief of so many worthy men, real settlers, who from time to time have been by hook or by crook housed out of their bona fide pre-emptions and homesteads? We have heard of some such in this county alone, and there must be thousands of others throughout the Union.

Let these fellows be made to stand aside, and let the original design of Congress be firmly carried out. Yo-Semite should be dedicated to humanity, and there should be extended in regard to their use, “A general invitation to the people of the world!”

But they should be permitted to look at it only, not, as in the Hutchings and Lamon case, to put it in their pockets.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune: 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp