The celebration this coming weekend (September 25th) of the 120th birthday of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks provides an appropriate moment to reflect on the life and works of Colonel George W. Stewart, the man remembered as the “Father of Sequoia National Park.”
A native Californian, born near Placerville in 1857, Stewart lived a long and full life. He fell into newspaper work early, and remained involved in journalism for several decades. His family moved to Visalia in 1872, and by 1876 he had begun to write for the Visalia Delta. He soon rose to the position of local editor. His journalism took him elsewhere between 1880 and 1885, but in that latter year he returned to Visalia and resumed editing the Delta, a role he would sustain until 1899.
It was in his role as newspaper editor that Stewart began to champion the idea of protecting the forests of Tulare County. Stewart’s argument for preservation featured two compatible talking points: not only were the forests of the Sierra worthy of preservation because of their beauty but also their protection was essential to the future of local agriculture because healthy forests slowed snowmelt and held back runoff.
By the summer of 1890, Stewart’s campaign to create a national park for giant sequoia trees was in high gear. Stewart knew the mountains well and had concluded that the best sequoia groves not already in private hands were to be found along the South Fork of the Kaweah River. This area became the focus of his campaign, and he created enough support that local Congressman William Vandever successfully carried a bill to set aside two townships (approximately 72 square miles) in that area. It was this bill that President Benjamin Harrison signed on September 25th, 1890.
Several details make the act of September 25th 1890 an interesting bit of national park legislation. First, the bill did not actually specify that the area should become a “national park,” instead setting the land aside as a “public park or pleasuring ground” under continued federal ownership. It was Secretary of the Interior John Noble who applied the national park title several months later.
The second distinguishing characteristic is that the bill rose politically from the region immediately neighboring the proposed new park. Most national parks have come into being as the result of urban populations outvoting rural interests. Thanks to Stewart this was not the situation when Sequoia National Park was created.
Complicating the Sequoia story, of course, is the fact that a second act of Congress closely followed the first, this one creating Yosemite and General Grant National Parks and roughly tripling the size of Sequoia. This was not the result of Stewart’s work in Tulare County but instead a reflection of efforts by John Muir and other Bay Area residents (who were seeking to create a national park surrounding Yosemite Valley) and lobbyists for the Southern Pacific Railroad (which apparently wanted to reduce the potential for logging in the southern Sierra’s sequoia groves).
For the next forty years, Stewart maintained a close relationship with the national park he had helped to create. He studied the region’s geography and natural features and documented the lives of the local Native Americans. In 1899, he organized an expedition that crossed the mountains east of Visalia and successfully ascended Mt. Whitney, a notable undertaking at the time. He organized the Mt. Whitney Club and edited its annual magazine. Stewart corresponded with John Muir and became an active member of the early Sierra Club. He worked with Stephen Mather in the campaign to create the National Park Service and later in the effort that led to the 1926 expansion of the park. Late in his life, he even wrote a book about the park, The Big Trees of the Giant Forest (1929).
On April 30th, 1929, less than three years before his death, the National Park Service participated in an event honoring Stewart’s long history of support for the giant sequoias. The climax of that evening was the naming of Mt. Stewart, a 12,205-foot peak on the Great Western Divide. Several years later, after the completion of the High Sierra Trail, the NPS erected a plaque at Kaweah Gap that commemorated Stewart’s role in founding Sequoia National Park.
Eighty years later the plaque still stands by the trailside, reminding us of the contributions of this man who loved Tulare County’s mountains.
© Wm. Tweed