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John Muir - President of the Sierra Club

by William E. Colby

From Sierra Club Bulletin, John Muir Memorial Number, (January, 1916).


John Muir was the Sierra Club's first President and held that office for twenty-two years - until his death. The Sierra Club was organized in 1892 largely as a result of the wide-spread interest in California's wonderful mountain playgrounds, which had been aroused by his twenty years of preaching the necessity for their preservation before it should become too late. The Yosemite National Park had just been created as one result of his splendid work. While we could have this great leader of all true mountaineers and lovers of "pure wildness," it was unthinkable that any one else should hold the office of President.

It was my good fortune to be Secretary of the Club for the last fifteen years of this period and I came to know this wonderful man as I have known few others. It is a priceless privilege to be in close contact with a man whose mind was as pure and whose ideals were as high as were John Muir's , and moreover, one who so thoroughly lived up to this ideal purity.

John Muir will never be fully appreciated by those whose minds are filled with money getting and the sordid things of modern every-day life. To such Muir is an enigma - a fanatic - visionary and impractical. There is nothing in common to arouse sympathetic interest. That anyone should spend his whole life in ascertaining the fundamental truths of nature and glory in their discovery with a joy that would put to shame even the religious zealot is to many utterly incomprehensible. That a man should brave the storms and thread the pathless wilderness, exult in the earthquake's violence, rejoice in the icy blasts of the northern glaciers, and that he should do all this alone and unarmed, year in and year out, is a marvel that but few can understand. These solitary explorations were quite in contrast with the usual heavily equipped expeditions which undertake such work. John Muir loved and gloried in this sort of life and approached it with an enthusiasm and power of will that made hardships and those things which most human beings consider essentials, mere trifles by comparison. He was willing to subordinate everything in life to this work which he had set out to do supremely well, and it is little wonder that he attained his goal.

His latter days were so full of the rich experiences of these earlier years of devotion to his chosen work and he looked with such calm and serenity out upon the feverish haste and turmoil of those about him, engaged in making everything within reach "dollarable," that he seemed to be living in a world apart - a world created by his own wonderful spirit and efforts.

To those who thought him impractical and visionary, it is only necessary to point out his early skill as an inventor, which, if continued, would have made him world famous, or to his success as an orchardist, making his friends, the trees, bear as they had never been known to bear before or since. But these activities were chosen mainly because they seemed the duty of the hour and when finished were left for the nobler pursuits that lay nearest his heart.

His true position as a geologist will never be adequately recognized because his writings on his geological studies were so minimized by contrast with that greater field of beautiful literature in which he excelled. But any one who has read his "Studies in the Sierra", and who realizes that his views on glaciation as bearing on the origin of Yosemite Valley were written at a time when geologists of great eminence were advancing other theories, and had no patience with any glacial theory, will appreciate that John Muir was no ordinary student of the physical laws of nature. I ran across the following extract from a little pamphlet on the Yosemite, published in 1872:

"There is and has been for two years past, living in the Valley, a gentleman of Scottish parentage, by name John Muir, who, Hugh Miller like, is studying the rocks in and around the Valley. He told me that he was trying to read the great work spread out before him. He is by himself pursuing a course of geological studies, and is making careful drawings of the different parts of the gorge. No doubt he is more thoroughly acquainted with this valley than any one else. He has been far up the Sierras where glaciers are now in action, ploughing deep depressions in the mountains. He has made a critical examination of the superincumbent rocks, and already has made much material upon which to form a correct theory."

(The Yosemite by John Erastus Lester.) (1873). Prepared for and read before the Rhode Island Historical Society.

When we bear in mind the fact that at that time Muir had been in the Valley only a little over two years, and that his glacial theory of the origin of the Valley is now quite generally accepted, this prophecy is all the more striking.

John Muir himself can tell more fittingly than I am able to his relation to the Club and, therefore, the following extracts have been selected from some of his letters. From his home near Martinez he wrote under date of January 15, 1907:
"I herewith return the draft of a Club report on Kings River region with my hearty approval, excepting the first two mages of the MS, in which the Yosemite and Kings River regions are compared. Every possible aid and encouragement should be given by the Club for the preservation, road and trail building, etc. for the development of the magnificent Kings River region, but unjust one-sided comparisons seeking to build up and glorify one region at the expense of lowering the other is useless work and should be left to real estate agents, promoters, rival hotel and stage owners, etc. Certainly the Club has nothing to do with such stuff, tremendous advantages, wealth and variety of mountain sculpture depending on greater depths and height, etc. suggest boys with eyes to depth and height of butter and honey, seeing tremendous advantages in one slice of bread over another cut from the same loaf. "Have you seen the President's Proclamation of Dec. 8, 1906, creating the 'Petrified Forest National Monument' under the Act of Congress of June 8, 1906? Contains 60,776.02 acres, and includes the Blue Jasper Forest Helen and I found. The large new forest to the north of Adamana is to be added to the above. Come up some Saturday night or Sunday and talk over matters."

Martinez, Jan. 13, 1908:

"Of course I heartily approve of the proposed vote of thanks to Mr. Kent, and suggest a slight change in the form of the resolution, as follows: "'Resolved: That the Sierra Club extend a hearty vote of thanks to Mr. William Kent in testimony of its appreciation of his noble gift to the Federal Government of the Redwood Canyon on Mount Tamalpais, with its magnificent primeval groves of Sequoia sempervirens to be devoted as a public park and pleasure-ground to the people forever.'"

Los Angeles, Cal. Jan 16, 1911:

"Thanks for your kind letter and the book which you forwarded. "I am now at work on the Kings River yosemites, and I would like to have the part of the Kings River region which ought to be added to the General Grant and Sequoia National parks definitely described, because I wish to recommend the preservation of the region in the Yosemite Guide-book..."

New York City, May 26, 1911:

"I have just received a copy of 'My First Summer in the Sierra.' It is dedicated "To the Sierra Club, Faithful Defender of the People's Playgrounds.' Am stopping with the Harrimans. The above will be my address until the first of July. "The American Alpine Club is arranging to give me a dinner, at which you may be sure there will be a lot of Hetch Hetchy work.... "We may lose this particular fight, but truth and right must prevail at last. Anyhow we must be true to ourselves and the Lord."

Castle Rock, Garrisons on Hudson, N.Y., June 27, 1911:

"I've just written to Mr. McFarland assuring him of my help in the NIagara fight and my eagerness to meet him. I had not in the least forgotten him or his magnificent work, but since coming here I've had so much Hetch Hetchy and book work to do, besides planning for S. America, and have also been tousled and tumbled hither thither, dinnered, honored, etc.., almost out of my wits, I could never set a day to see him. The society weather is now growing calm as the thermometer rises, and I hope to get a quiet week or two to see friends and finish my Yosemite book.... "The American Alpine Club gave me a fine dinner, so did the Appalachian,and a great time at the Yale Commencement, getting honor for helping to save Hetch Hetchy. Glad you like the Sierra Club summer book. I'll get the publishers to send some. Remember me to Mrs. Colby and Parsons and your brave pair of young mountaineers. Good luck for your outing. Greet them all at your camp-fire with my warmest good wishes."

Para, Brazil, Sept. 19, 1911:

"I hope you all had a good time this summer, the usual Sierra Club luck. When I left New York August 12th, the Hetch Hetchy looked comparatively safe as far as I could see, but the wicked, whether down or up, are never to be trusted, so we must keep on watching, praying, fighting, overcoming evil with good as we are able. "I've had a glorious time up the Amazon. In about a week from above date, I hope to be on my way to Rio de Janeiro. Thence I intend going to Buenos Aires, sail up the Uruguay and La Plata, cross the Andes to Valparaiso and southward along the araucarian forests, etc. Then perhaps to South Africa to see its wonderful flora, etc.; may be home in the spring. "My kindest regards to Mrs. Colby and the great pair of boys and to the Parsons, and all the Club you see."
On the Steamer "Windkirk," near Zanzibar, Feb. 4, 1912:
"I've had a great time in South America and South Africa. Indeed it now seems that on this pair of wild, hot continents I've enjoyed the most fruitful year of my life. Some happy California day I'll try to tell you about it. I'm now on my way from Beira to Mombasa after a grand trip to the Zambesi Baobab forests, Victoria Falls, and the magnificent glacial rock scenery of Southern Rhodesia. From Mombasa I intend to make a short trip into the Nyanza lake region, then home via Suez, Naples and New York, hoping to find you and all the Sierra Club and its friends and affairs hale and happy and prosperous."

Martinez, May 1, 1912:

"I'll be down Friday and stop over for the Saturday meeting. If a few of the Club members wish very much to give me an informal dinner I'll not object, but my dress suit is in Los Angeles; have nothing but old clothes here, therefore the thing must be an informal sort of camp affair."

Hollywood, Cal., June 24, 1912:

"I thank you very much for your kind wishes to give me a pleasant Kern River trip, and am very sorry that work has been so unmercifully piled upon me that I find it impossible to escape from it, so I must just stay and work. "I heartily congratulate you and all your merry mountaineers in the magnificent trip that lies before you. As you know, I have seen something of nearly all the mountain chains in the world, and have experienced their varied climates and attractions of forests and rivers, lakes and meadows, etc. In fact, I have seen a little of all the high places and low places of the continents, but no mountain range seems to me so kind, so beautiful, or so fine in its sculpture as the Sierra Nevada. If you were as free as the winds are, and the light, to choose a camp ground in any pert of the globe, I could not direct you to a single place for your outing that, all things considered, is so attractive, so exhilarating and uplifting in every way as just the trip that you are now making. You are far happier than you know. Good luck to you all, and I shall hope to see you all on your return, boys and girls, with the sparkle and exhilaration of the mountains still in your eyes. With love and countless fondly cherished memories, Every faithfully yours, JOHN MUIR." "Of course in all your camp-fire preaching and praying you will never forget Hetch Hetchy."


Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January)


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