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The Yosemite Firefall was a summer time ritual that lasted from 1872 until 1968 in which burning hot embers were dropped in a uniform fashion from a height of about 3000 feet from the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park down to the valley below, and from a distance looked similar to a glowing waterfall. The ritual was performed by several generations of the owners of the Glacier Point Hotel. The ritual ended in January 1968 when the National Park Service ordered that the Firefall be discontinued due to the overwhelming number of visitors it attracted, and the fact that it was not a natural event. The hotel burned down a year later and was never rebuilt.
In 1871, before Yosemite was a National Park, James McCauley retained trail builder John Conway to build the Four-Mile Trail from Yosemite Valley, where McCauley had a home at the trailhead, to Glacier Point. After the trail was completed in 1872, McCauley built a small hotel on Glacier Point, the Glacier Point Mountain House. In 1879, he married, and he and his wife Barbara operated the hotel during the summer. Twin sons, John and Fred, were born in 1880; and in 1883, James McCauley sent to Ireland for his niece, Elizabeth McCauley, to come to Yosemite to help them with the hotel and the boys.
In later years, James McCauley's son Fred had an apple orchard just outside the Park, and he died in the 1930s. Fred's twin brother John (who died in the 1970s) recounted the history of the firefall to Ranger-Naturalist Bob Fry in 1961 at a party at the home of Yosemite historian Shirley Sargent in Foresta. John said that the famous Firefall began in a spontaneous way. When they lived at Glacier Point during the summer, the two boys rode burros down the Four-Mile Trail each day to school. While they were in the Valley after school, the boys talked to visitors, who commented on the campfire they had seen the night before at Glacier Point.
Many nights James McCauley would build a large campfire for his guests on the point of the granite cliff that jutted out over the Valley, and they would sit around the fire and talk and sing. When everyone was ready to go back to the hotel, he would kick the coals off the edge of the cliff. This is what people in the Valley occasionally saw. They would say to the McCauley boys something like "Mighty fine campfire your father had last night." Some visitors gave them money, saying things like "Here's two bits. Tell your father to have another firefall tonight." John McCauley indicated that he and Fred got the idea that this was a good way to earn a little money, so they encouraged visitors to donate. This way, the boys might collect at least a few dollars. Then they gathered wood for the larger fire they had promised (wood was scarce on Glacier Point) before hiking up Four-Mile Trail, leading the burros, now laden with wood. Many campers expressed disappointment because they had missed the firefall, having no way of knowing when the event would occur. James McCauley devised a signal to notify those in the Valley when the "firefall" would occur. He tied a gunny sack to a long pole and dipped the gunny sack in "coal oil". At the appropriate time, he lit the gunny sack and waved it back and forth, a signal that could be seen clearly by those below. Then he would kick over the campfire coals. Later someone suggested that he signal by sound; one night he set off a charge of one-half stick of dynamite, but he did it only the one time because people found the blast to be frightening. Dropping the fire there was later made illegal, for the Government placed a warning sign. The bluntly worded sign read:
"It is 3,000 feet to the bottom"
"And no undertaker to meet you"
"TAKE NO CHANCES"
"There is a difference"
"Between bravery and just plain"
In 1897 the Washburn brothers, who then owned the Wawona Hotel, had the Guardian of the State Grant (before Yosemite was a National Park) evict James McCauley, and they took over the hotel at Glacier Point. They did not continue McCauley's practice of the Firefall.
The following year, McCauley bought John Lembert's homestead in Tuolumne Meadows and ran cattle there. He and his sons built a small cabin on the property at Tuolumne Meadows; it still stands today, and houses Park personnel. It is called "the McCauley Cabin" and has a historical marker in front of it. James McCauley died in 1903, and the McCauley family continued to use the Tuolumne Meadows property until they sold it to the Sierra Club in 1912; the Sierra Club sold that property to the National Park Service in 1973.
Camp Curry Years
In 1899 David Curry established Camp Curry in Yosemite Valley. Soon he heard visitors reminiscing about the Firefall when McCauley ran the hotel at Glacier Point. Some time in the early 1900s, Curry reestablished the Firefall during the summer season, when guests were camping at Camp Curry. He sent his employees to Glacier Point to build a fire and push it off on special occasions.
David Curry prided himself on his booming voice, which he fancied to be like the Greek herald Stentor. He would call up to Glacier Point to signal when the Firefall should begin. At first the calls went something like this:
- David Curry: Hello, Glacier Point.
- Glacier Point: Hello.
- David Curry: Let 'er go, Gallagher.
On May 31, 1913, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Adolph C. Miller and David Curry had a confrontation over the Curry Camping Company's lease contract. Miller said, "I'm going to take the Firefall away. There will be no Firefall." Curry felt that a rival company, the Desmond Park Service Company, had influenced the Park Service against him. From that time on, he would begin the nightly entertainment program at Camp Curry by saying "Welcome to Camp Curry, where the Stentor calls and fire used to fall." In 1916, Desmond built the Glacier Point Hotel, a large chalet-style hotel with a commanding view of Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall.
On March 8, 1917, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane granted the Curry Camping Company a five-year lease and said that the Firefall could be reinstated as a nightly summertime event. David Curry died soon after, on April 30. His widow, Jennie, and son Foster opened Camp Curry the summer of 1917 and presided at the reintroduction of the Firefall. Foster Curry shouted "Let 'er go, Gallagher" that night and continued to be the caller during his tenure.
Later the calls were changed to the ones that were repeated each summer night as long as the Firefall continued. The job of making the calls was one that loud-voiced employees vied for.
- Camp Curry: Hello, Glacier Point.
- Glacier Point: Hello, Camp Curry.
- Camp Curry: Is the fire ready?
- Glacier Point: The fire is ready.
- Camp Curry: Let the fire fall.
- Glacier Point: The fire falls.
By 1960, the middle exchange of calls ("Is the fire ready?"; "The fire is ready.") was eliminated.
As the fire fell, the "Indian Love Call" was sung at Camp Curry while visitors enjoyed the sight of what seemed to be a waterfall of fire. At the campground sites where Ranger-Naturalists (as they were called then) gave nightly summer talks, "America the Beautiful" was played, and the audience sang along. The time of the Firefall was established as 9:00 p.m. The Ranger-Naturalists had to be careful to end their programs in the campgrounds and at Camp Curry right at 9:00, or the "fire would fall on the program." In 1962, President John F. Kennedy visited Yosemite National Park, and on that night an especially large fire was built on the Point to make a spectacular Firefall. President Kennedy was on the telephone at 9:00, so the Firefall was delayed until he finished, and the Firefall occurred around 9:30 p.m.
Sometime, probably by 1920, red fir bark was found to be the best fuel to produce an even flow of coals, so fires were made of red fir bark instead of wood. Employees would gather huge piles of the bark, which they stored near the hotel; each day a stack of the bark would be placed on the Valley side of the Point, to be lit that night and to burn for a couple hours to produce a bed of coals. Through the years, visitors to Glacier Point enjoyed watching the hotel employees gradually push the glowing embers off the cliff with long-handled metal pushers.
In 1925 all the rival business companies in the Park united to form the Yosemite Park and Curry Company under the direction of the Curry family. YPCC continued to be the concessionaire of Yosemite National Park until 1993 (Although the YPCC has been owned by various corporations in recent decades, the name remained unchanged).
During World War II the Firefall was discontinued. Some people in both the National Park Service and the Yosemite Park and Curry Company hoped that it would not be continued after the war. The NPS considered it an unnatural event in a natural area, and the task of presenting the Firefall each night was burdensome to YPCC. Employees drove trucks farther to find the red fir bark, because they were allowed to collect it only from trees that were dead and down. Before the Firefall ended, they were going as far as the Tioga Road. After World War II, the public demanded the Firefall's return. So it did, and was an attraction for the next two decades.
Finally, in January 1968, George Hertzog, Director of the National Park Service, ordered that the Firefall be discontinued. He stated his reasons: the Firefall was a man-made event, which detracted from National Park Service policy to encourage appreciation of natural wonders. He said that if people wanted to see something like that, they could go to Disneyland. Also, the traffic was increasingly problematic, as each night a stream of cars left the campgrounds and meadow areas where people had gone to get the best views.
The last Firefall was on Thursday, January 25, 1968. Since it was winter, no crowd was present.
The Firefall might have been discontinued by natural means the following year anyway. The winter of 1968-1969 had very heavy snow. The Glacier Point Hotel was damaged by snow pack, and needed to be razed and rebuilt, hence no guests were booked that summer. A few employees lived in the old Mountain House (then the oldest building in the Park), selling snacks to Glacier Point daytime visitors. In early July 1969, an electrical fire began in the lower floor of the unattended Glacier Point Hotel, and the hotel, Mountain House, and many trees burned. The pile of red fir bark near the hotel, left from previous summers, helped fuel the fire. Glacier Point was closed to visitors for the rest of the summer of 1969 while workers cleared the debris.
The next summer the Yosemite Park and Curry Company built a small snack shop to serve daytime visitors to Glacier Point. YPCC considered rebuilding a hotel at Glacier Point, but the Park Service would not permit rebuilding at the same location; it would have to be placed further back from the precipice.
Water was always a problem at Glacier Point. Some summers the hotel was closed in August due to insufficient water. So the Glacier Point Hotel and McCauley's old Mountain House, like the famous Firefall, became only memories.
In popular culture
- The Firefall can be seen in the 1954 movie The Caine Mutiny when one of the naval officers goes to Yosemite for shore leave.
- In 1974, musician Rick Roberts named his band "Firefall" after the Yosemite spectacle.
- Sargent, Shirley. Pioneers in Petticoats: Yosemite's Early Women, 1856-1900. Los Angeles: Trans-Anglo Books, 1966.
- Sargent, Shirley. Yosemite & Its Innkeepers: The Story of a Great Park and Its Chief Concessionaires. Yosemite: Flying Spur Press, 1975.