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Gilbert: Yosemite Protected

For an old rock climber like me, there’s no place in this country more beautiful, more sacred, than Yosemite Valley, with its soaring cliffs of granite. Well, it was a hundred and fifty years ago today that President Lincoln signed a law preserving it and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove forever. It was the first time the federal government had set aside land for preservation and public use.
Examining these events, Rolf Diamant, Superintendent Emeritus of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, draws several important conclusions. He argues that art played the critical role in building support for Yosemite's preservation, specifically Carleton Watkins's black and white photographs and Albert Bierstadt's sublime paintings of Yosemite Valley. He argues that Vermonters played a key role in preserving Yosemite, and that far from being an historical accident, its preservation was wholly consistent with the Lincoln administration's expansion of the role and responsibilities of the national government, a role very much at stake in the Civil War.

Two Vermonters working in California, Frederick Billings and Trenor Park, likely arranged for Watkins's 1861 trip to Yosemite. The magnificent photos Watkins took there thrilled Easterners. Their exhibit at the prestigious Goupil Gallery in New York City stood in stark contrast with the exhibit there of Timothy O’Sullivan's horrific photos of the dead on the battlefields of the Civil War then underway. Watkins's and Bierstadt's images of an inspiring and peaceful America were perhaps the perfect antidote to the grim realities and uncertain outcome of the war. Billings and several associates probably also paid for the printing and shipping of multiple copies of Watkins’s photo portfolio to influential individuals back east, something Watkins could not have afforded.
We don't know that Lincoln was directly involved, but his private secretary, John Hay, who was extremely close to the President, was a friend of the painter Albert Bierstadt. Bierstadt saw Watkins’s photos at the Goupil Gallery and decided to go west to paint. The necessary military pass was quickly granted, and the Union Pacific Railroad sponsored his trip. From California Bierstadt wrote Hay that Yosemite Valley was a “Garden of Eden.”

Most importantly, Diamant argues that the federal government preserved Yosemite not by happenstance, as some assert. Rather it was another example of the expanded role of the national government, in education through the establishment of the land grant colleges, in agriculture through the creation of the Department of Agriculture, in transportation and land and economic development through the Homestead Act and the transcontinental railroad, in the creation of an enormous army, in the assumption of greater responsibilities in caring for soldiers’ welfare, the wounded, and the dead, and in a renewed dedication to liberty and equality articulated in the Gettysburg Address and made manifest by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.
Today, a century and a half later, news from Washington makes it clear that the debate about the scope and very nature of the federal government remains unresolved.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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