Yosemite Firefall

A History and A Memory

The Mountain House

The early history of the Firefall dates back to the late nineteenth century, and has been credited to an Irishman by the name of James McCauley. Some of his story is well-documented, but details surrounding his contribution to the Firefall are not as easy to pin down.

Here is what we know. In 1871 James McCauley obtained permission from the Yosemite Board of Commissioners to build and operate a toll trail to Glacier Point. The trail was to start at the base of Sentinel Rock, then climb over 3,000 feet to its destination at Glacier Point. For the task, he hired Yosemite road-builder John Conway and a team of 9 men, completing the trail over the course of two summers. The project cost McCauley $4,200, which he earned back in tolls over the first two years after opening the trail.

With convenient access to Glacier Point now a reality, innkeeper Charles Peregoy built a small hotel at the overlook, completing its construction in 1873. Hikers ascending McCauley's Four Mile Trail to reach Glacier Point could now elect to rest for the night at The Mountain House, with its stunning views of Half Dome and the rest of Yosemite Valley.

The Mountain House McCauley leased The Mountain House in 1877, but didn't end up operating it himself until the year after his marriage to Barbara Wenger in 1879. The McCauley family ran The Mountain House from 1880 through the summer of 1897. Barbara prepared all the meals and did the housekeeping, and James waited table, tended bar, and entertained the guests.

Now, one account recalls that in 1872, McCauley built a fire near the edge of Glacier Point to entertain his hotel guests. A variation on the account suggests that the fire was built to cook that night's dinner. Then McCauley became upset that not enough people showed up, and out of anger and frustration, ended up pushing the fire over the cliff. Those who witnessed the spectacle on the valley floor were delighted and amazed, and James McCauley had a hit on his hands.

As colorful as this account may be, it is probably somewhat of a distortion of the truth. If the fire was built to entertain guests, it would have had to occur in 1880, or at the very earliest 1873, when The Mountain House was completed. However, there are indications that McCauley did not actually find innkeepers to run the hotel until 1877, when he leased the operation to Thomas and Elizabeth Glynn. And that would place the event much later in the 1870's.

Significantly, we do have an account by one of McCauley's twin sons, Fred McCauley, placing the first Firefall in 1872, and he didn't offer any explanation for why the fire was built or who was there to witness it, stating simply: "Father started the Firefall in 1872 when he pushed his campfire over the Glacier Point cliff."

Fred McCauley went on to detail how he and his twin brother John were employed to prepare the Firefalls for guests in the valley:

"When my brother and I were eight years old, father bought each of us a jackass. We attended school by riding our mules down the Four Mile Trail to the Valley. It took ninety minutes. If a tourist wanted a Firefall, we collected $1.50, the standard fee, before we rode back up the trail to Glacier Point. We had a pack animal that we used to carry provisions for the hotel on our return trip. On the Fourth of July, a collection often amounted to ten or twenty dollars. Then my brother and I were packing wood out to the point on our jackasses for at least two days."
When visitors requested a Firefall they would meet the boys when they left school at 3:30, which was actually a half hour early. The teacher allowed their early departure so they could reach home before nightfall. For their fee, the boys would haul the wood to the top and prepare the fire; and they were eager to do so, since they not only got out of school early, but also got to keep all the money. When the family left the hotel in 1897, the boys had saved some $200 apiece from their Firefall assignment.

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