American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

High Sierra Country

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  • Publication Year: 1956

High Sierra Country, by Oscar Lewis. 291 pages, map end-papers. Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York; Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Toronto, 1954. Price $3.50.

A glance at the title would lead one to believe that this book is about the alpine regions and high peaks of the country’s greatest single mountain range. But actually, the mountains themselves serve largely as a backdrop for man’s kaleidoscopic activities. Being the twenty-seventh volume of the well-known "American Folkways” series, it concentrates on the human story of California’s Sierra Nevada, from its discovery by the Spaniards to the present day. However, Mr. Lewis has not written an exhaustive, chronological history of the range, but rather has selected highlights which he considers interesting and significant. The effect is the Sierra done "once over, lightly,” and as such is a lively and entertaining account.

After a short introductory description of the region, the author takes up the various phases of its history. There are chapters on explorers, early travelers, Yosemite Valley, stagecoaching, the Central Pacific Railroad, gold mining camps, and various odds and ends, including literary lights, highway robbery, Big Trees, tall tales and folklore. This amazing conglomeration of men and events is successfully handled by topical subchapters, rather than a continuous narrative. Most of the action takes place in the foothills and middle altitudes; only once does Mr. Lewis conduct his readers above timberline. This is with Clarence King in his attempts to climb Mount Whitney in 1871 and his final success two years later. The map end-papers, although decorative, are too small scale to show the locations of many places mentioned in the text.

Mr. Lewis is an accomplished and experienced historical writer, and it is unfortunate that his manuscript was not checked more thoroughly before printing. For example, there is a confusion between Echo Summit, over which ran the Sierra’s most traveled stage road, and the much higher Carson Pass, to the south. Credit for the "discovery” of Yosemite Valley should be given to William Penn Abrams in 1849, not members of the Mariposa Battalion two years later. We are somewhat startled to read that surveyors running California’s eastern boundary "followed down the 39th parallel from the Oregon border” to "the spot where that parallel intersected the 120th meridian.” There are some 70 groves of Big Trees, instead of 25. The famous organization headed by Whitney was the California State Geological Survey, not Geographical Survey. The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 instead of 1890, and Yosemite National Park contains approximately 1,200 square miles, not 12,000. But these and other slips do not mar the scope and sweep of Mr. Lewis’s story.

More surprising, however, is his approval of the dam at Hetch Hetchy, which converts a valley almost as beautiful as Yosemite into a reservoir of the San Francisco water system. In a sub-chapter, "The 'Rape’ of Hetch Hetchy,” we read: "Moreover, it presently grew clear that the dire results opponents of the [dam] measure had foreseen had not come to pass. For the transformation of Hetch Hetchy Canyon into a mountain lake did not materially lessen the scenic attractions of the region; indeed, in the opinion of many, it served rather to enhance them.” Obviously Mr. Lewis cannot have visited this dreary man-made lake with its desolate mud-caked shores at low water.

However, every writer is entitled to his opinions, and slips are inevitable until electronic brains take over human affairs. Up to that time High Sierra Country will probably be one of the most readable accounts ever written about man’s activities on the slopes of our mightiest mountain range.

Weldon F. Heald

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