National Park History: The Grand Register of Yo-Semite Valley

The Grand Register of Yo-Semite Valley occupied a conspicuous place on the Cosmopolitan's porch. Yosemite Research Library RL2739.

A guest register maintained at the Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Saloon in Yosemite Valley during the 1870s and 1880s accumulated many thousands of signatures and related entries describing visitor experiences and impressions. How fortunate we are that this treasure trove of information about early Yosemite tourism was donated to the Yosemite Museum.

The Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Saloon was a magnet for tourists in Yosemite Valley from 1871 to 1884. Yosemite National Park had not yet been established, and since creature comforts were rare in the Valley, the relatively elegant Cosmopolitan functioned as a much-appreciated oasis of civility. It was a place where a weary, road-beaten Yosemite visitor could get a hot bath and a good drink, play billiards, and enjoy rare amenities like fine glassware, carpeted floors, and a barber service.

Beginning in 1873, the Cosmopolitan maintained a guest book on the premises. It looked a lot like a hotel register and had advertising on its pages. Few of the Cosmopolitan's customers could resist perusing and signing the register, which perched on a portable stand on the establishment's porch.

Distinguished guests, of which there were many, were urged to enter their names and comments. Among the noteworthy contributions were entries made by four presidents (Grant, Garfield, Hayes, and Theodore Roosevelt) and a constellation of other American and international high achievers, including -- to name just a few -- John Muir, William Randolph Hearst, General William Tecumseh Sherman, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Lillie Langtry, and Rudyard Kipling.

The comments that Cosmopolitan guests left in the register are illuminating. While many people gushed about Yosemite's beauty and majesty, there was no want of complaints about the miseries that early tourists endured. Dusty roads, insect bites, sick horses, foul weather, isolation, and various other afflictions are liberally mentioned.

The Grand Register of Yo-Semite Valley was finally closed in 1884, together with the establishment that housed it. By then the ornately bound, impressive-looking register was a foot thick, weighed a hefty 70 pounds, and bore around 18,000 signatures and related entries on its 800 pages.

Considered a precious heirloom, the register was passed down through the family of Cosmopolitan owner Eliakim Standard Utter for more than a century until its then-current owners (William Utter and siblings Cynthia and Sam Imelli) finally decided to dispose of it in 2007. At that point, a philanthropist friend of the parks stepped in and saw to it that the register would be returned to Yosemite.

Lawrence William "Bill" Lane (1919-2010), former publisher of Sunset magazine and U.S Ambassador to Australia, had a lifelong love of the western national parks in general and Yosemite National Park in particular. It was therefore hardly surprising that the Yosemite Fund, upon learning of the register's availability, asked Bill Lane to provide the money that the NGO needed to buy it. Lane wrote the check (reportedly $130,000) and in December 2007 the Yosemite Fund donated the register to the park.

The Grand Register of Yo-Semite Valley is now housed in the Yosemite Museum next to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. In 2010 it was made available for public viewing as part of the museum's popular exhibit "View & Visitors: The Yosemite Experience in the 19th Centuryā€¯ (closed October 31, 2010). An interactive kiosk offered visitors the chance to peruse a sample of entries from the register.

Postscript: The four Presidents' entries in the register include three that are humbly understated and one that might be considered downright bogus. Grant signed his "Mr. and Mrs. U.S. Grant," Hayes signed his "R.B. Hayes, Fremont, Ohio," and Garfield simply inscribed "J.A.G" after commenting that visiting Yosemite Valley is a mind-broadening experience. Teddy Roosevelt signed the register in 1903, nearly 20 years after it had been officially closed, and was in San Francisco at the time.