Yosemite National Park, 1940

Since none of these people are still alive, I can’t ask them anything about their train journey from Chicago to San Francisco (and back) in May and June of 1940. So I just have to rely on the photos and captions in my father’s photograph album.

The five people in the lead photo, above, are (from left to right) my uncle Bill, my grandfather and grandmother, my aunt Grace (Bill’s wife) and my mother.

The other three

Here are the other three, who weren’t in the first photo. They are my aunt Jean and uncle Clyde on the left, and my father on the right.

After going through all the photos, I realized my uncle Don and aunt Peg weren’t in any of them, so I assume they didn’t even go along on the trip. Perhaps they weren’t even married yet.

Falls and parking lot

Apparently there was already lots of automobile traffic to and in Yosemite National Park in 1940, but the Yosemite Valley Railroad was still in operation, running daily passenger trains between Merced, California, and El Portal, at the edge of Yosemite National Park.

I have looked up the Yosemite Valley Railroad and found that it was operational between Merced and El Portal for thirty-eight years, from 1907 to 1945.

I’m not sure exactly which trains my relatives took, but from Salt Lake City they must have taken a train on the Western Pacific Railroad, because that was the only railroad that went west from there. (The competing Southern Pacific went through Ogden, Utah, thirty-some miles further north.)

They might have taken the Western Pacific’s ‘Exposition Flyer’, which left Salt Lake City every night at 11:25 pm. This was not (yet) a streamliner, but a string of heavy Pullman cars pulled by a steam engine. After twenty hours, they could have changed trains in Stockton, California, and traveled either on the Southern Pacific or the Santa Fe Railroad to Merced. The trains to Yosemite left from the Santa Fe station in Merced.

In Yosemite Valley

Since the railroads were not allowed to build tracks within the national parks, transportation inside the parks was by shuttle buses, or on foot.

Judging from their footwear, I don’t think my relatives were planning on doing any serious hiking, but at least they changed out of the fancy suits and dresses that they had been wearing on the trains on the way from Chicago to here.

Vernal Falls

According to the National Park Service (NPS) website, the Vernal Fall is one of those that flows all year, although “by mid to late summer it narrows and separates into one, two, or three falls as water flows decrease; peaks in late May.” Since my relatives were there in late May or early June, my father’s photo shows the maximum flow.

Nevada Falls

The Nevada Fall is another one that flows all year, with peak flow in late May. I believe this photo must have been taken from Glacier Point.

To Nevada Falls

Here they seem to be resting on the way to Nevada Falls, so they must have walked a bit to get there.

Bridge at Nevada Falls

Unlike the Vernal and Nevada Falls, most of the other falls in Yosemite tend to dry up in the late summer, especially in dry years.

Among the big trees

The giant sequoias are among the largest trees in the world. There are three groves of them in Yosemite National Park. My relatives visited the largest of these, the Mariposa Grove, at the southern end of the park.

From the NPS website, I learned that the Mariposa Grove was closed for three years, from 2015 to 2018, for the largest restoration project in the history of the park. “Crews improved habitat for sequoias by removing parking lots and roads, and restoring the natural flow of water to the trees. Parking was relocated two miles away from the grove, and is connected by shuttle buses.”

Hetch Hetchy Valley

The Hetch Hetchy Valley of the Tuolumne River is in the northeast corner of Yosemite National Park. My father labeled his photos as “Hetchie Ketchie” in his album, but the official name seems to be Hetch Hetchy.

Hetch Hetchy reservoir

In the first decade of the twentieth century, there was a long and bitter public controversy about whether to build a dam on the Tuolumne River and turn the Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir to store drinking water for San Francisco.

According to the NPS website: “For the first time in the American experience, a national audience considered the competing claims of preservation and development. Until the early 1900s, many Americans viewed wilderness as something to subdue and natural resources as infinitely renewable. The long battle over Hetch Hetchy asked Americans to weigh the true cost of progress.”

In 1913, Congress finally voted to authorize the dam, which was built in two stages ending in 1923 and 1938.

Today an organization called Restore Hetch Hetchy is campaigning to undo “this Great American mistake” by demolishing the dam and restoring the valley to its original condition. “The only questions are how much human intervention is desirable and to what degree should we let nature take its course.”

Three couples at the “Happy Isles”

“Happy Isles” is the official name for a pair of small islands in the Merced River at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. Today there is a shuttle bus stop called “Happy Isles”, which I assume already existed in 1940. The three couples in the photos are my parents, my grandparents and my uncle Bill and aunt Grace, all looking much younger than I remember them.

My father’s photos in this post are from 1940. I wrote the text in 2023.

See also: Royal Gorge, Colorado, 1940 and Stopover in Salt Lake City, 1940.

27 thoughts on “Yosemite National Park, 1940”

  1. dear Don .danke dir sehr für die eindrucksvollen Bilder .Es hat mich so sehr an unseren Besuch dort 1992 erinnert, als wir Johannes von seinem Amerikaaufenthalt abholten. Nun haben wir auch Bilder von diesem eindrucksvollen Ort.liebe Grüße,Epha

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Looking at old photos always moves me, imagining what the people were like. I get emotional every time I look at my own old family albums, so it’s really nice you’re bringing yours to life 🙂 It is amazing how much the world has changed since they were taken – yet they’d still recognise Yosemite.

  3. Thanks for following my blog 🙂 I have been reading your interesting and informative posts from time to time.

  4. It’s fascinating to see these old photos of Yosemite. A lot seems not to have changed since then, apart from the numbers of visitors and how they dress! Even if your family had ‘dressed down’ for their time here, they still look over-dressed compared with today’s casual clothing 🙂

  5. It’s good to bring your family to life Don and to learn about what Yosemite was like back then. I wonder how it will all look in 80-100 years from now.

  6. My grandparents and my father traveled a lot out west back in the 1940s and 50s. I should go through all their photos. We live so close to Yosemite but I’ve only been there three or four times. It’s too crowded in summer and the weather closes the roads rather often in winter so we just never go.

    This is fun. Keep posting the golden oldies.

  7. A fascinating read. Isn’t it interesting to see how people put on their finest clothes for travelling. That lasted quite a while, I remember taking my first flight with my parents in the early 70s, and Dad & I wearing a jacket and tie to fly to Spain. Having visited Yosemite last year and absolutely loving it, it’s fascinating to see pics of it from so long ago.

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