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John Muir and the 1872 Earthquake:
Where was Eagle Rock?

by Ron Limbaugh


(reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter, , Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1991)


Dr. Gerald F. Wieczorek of the U.S. Geological Survey has been evaluating rockfall hazard in Yosemite Valley in cooperation with the National Park Service and has been trying to pinpoint the location of Eagle Rock, whose thunderous collapse during the 1872 earthquake Muir witnessed and described in his 1912 book The Yosemite. Muir's remarks about this "noble earthquake" should be read in full to appreciate his descriptive powers and the romantic flavor of this reminiscence written nearly 40 years after the event. This excerpt omits all but the clues bearing upon the location of Eagle Rock:

At half-past two o'clock of a moonlit morning in March, I was awakened by a tremendous earthquake.... I feared that the sheer-fronted Sentinel Rock, towering above my cabin, would be shaken down.... The Eagle Rock on the south wall, about half a mile up the Valley, gave way and I saw it falling in thousands of the great boulders I had so long been studying.... After the ground began to calm I ran across the meadow to the river to see in what direction it was flowing and was glad to find that down the valley was still down.

Following these clues has not been easy, as Dr. Wieczorek describes:

We are uncertain exactly where Muir's rock avalanche occurred because Eagle Rock is not identified on any maps of Yosemite Valley dating from that period or more recently. A stereographic photography by Eadweard Muybridge identified Eagle Rock on top of what is currently known as Taft Point. The setting for an 1872 photography by J.J. Reilly (Stereo No. 555) captioned "Earthquake Rock Fragments" has been recently relocated below Taft Point. Although this apparently resolves the location of Eagle Rock and Muir's rockfall avalanche, there remains a geographical dilemma. If Muir's cabin was located (as best we know) near the swinging bridge near Black's Hotel, below Sentinel Rock and east of Leidig Meadow, then Eagle Rock (Taft Point) was about 1.8 miles southwest or "down valley" (contrary to Muir's "up the valley"). Was Muir disoriented? Could his Eagle Rock have been different from Muybridge's? Could Muir have been located in a different location than his cabin when he made his observations upon which he based his description? Are there other explanations for his location?

In response to these questions, I searched Muir's journals and correspondence for additional clues. His letter to Emerson on March 26, 1872 claimed that he tumbled out of his cabin and after a pause heard Eagle Rock falling " from up the Valley opposite Yosemite Fall... ." Later, in working on his Sierra Studies, he wrote:

On the 22d of March 1872 I was so fortunate as to witness the sudden formation of one of these interesting taluses by the precipitation of the Yosemite cliff formerly known as the Eagle... .

The latter part of the sentence is crossed over, and "Eagle Rock" is inserted after "Yosemite." (see Studies in the Sierra, No. II, ca. 1874, John Muir Papers, Microform Ed., Reel 36, 04713). This suggests "Eagle Rock" was a later adaption, not in common usage during the 1870s.

Whether Muir was "up" or "down" the Valley of course depends on the location of his cabin relative to the rockfall. But which cabin? Muir had several Yosemite homesites. His first cabin, constructed late in 1869, was close to little Yosemite Creek near Lower Yosemite Falls. This he evidently left in January 1871 for a "hang nest" he built under a gable at the north end of Hutchings' mill, very close to his original cabin site. In the fall of that year he moved into another "cabin" at Black's Hotel, where he spent the winter of 1871-1872 working on manuscript drafts. Sometime in the spring of 1872 he selected another cabin site and began construction. A letter from Muir to James Cross, April 25, 1872, refers to this third site:

I am building a cabin for my indefin[ate?] self in a clump of carnus bushes by the river bank but will be at 'Black's' this summer.

This cabin was located "up" the Valley near the Lamon home on the Merced River bank just opposite the Royal Arches. It clearly was not the cabin he was using at the time of the earthquake.

That leaves us with the vicinity of Black's Hotel as the best candidate for the site Muir occupied during the earthquake. Since Muir was operating as caretaker during his stay at Black's, his "cabin" must have been very near the rest of the resident rooms, which were constructed in an L-shape at a site in the old Lower Yosemite Village area on the south side of the river southeast of the current swinging bridge. A detailed site map showing Black's Hotel and Muir's earlier and later cabin sites can be found in the National Park Service Historic Resource Study, Yosemite, v. 3 (Sept. 1987).

Dr. Wieczorek's dilemma is clear when the Black's Hotel site is compared to a geophysical map of the Valley: Taft Point is clearly "down" river from the old Lower Yosemite Village site. Only three explanations are possible: 1) Muir's description was in error; 2) Muir's caretaker cabin was downriver, far from Black's Hotel; 3) Taft Point was not the site of Muir's "Eagle Rock." I'm inclined to the latter option. Yosemite nomenclature was still in transition in the early 1870s. It seems more than possible there was another "Eagle" rock or spire upriver from Black's on the south rim. Note the term itself was applied on the north rim as well ("Eagle Peak"). Muir's letter quoted earlier said the fallen rock was "opposite Yosemite Falls," which, if accurate, places the site more upriver from Black's than downriver. Finally, the fact that Reilly, who worked closely with Muir in the 1870s, did not use the term "Eagle" in describing the rock fragments below what later became known as Taft Point, makes me all the more cautious about accepting Muybridge's designation as definitive. Taking Muir's notes at face value, if he was at Black's when the earthquake occurred, and if the rockslide was about a half-mile upriver from that point on the south rim, then the best location for the site of Eagle Rock would be somewhere in the vicinity of what is now Union Point, above LeConte Lodge. That makes as much sense to me as the Taft Point site.

Any readers having different views or information are invited to write the editor of the John Muir Newsletter or to contact Dr. Wieczorek directly at the U.S. Geological Survey .

Update

Eagle Rock Found! 2003 Update


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