Milestones in California History — The Birth of the Sierra Club
One day in 1892 a small group of men gathered in San Francisco to establish a mountaineering and conservation association dedicated to the exploration, enjoyment, and protection of the Sierra Nevada. Little did they imagine that this organization would become a national leader in efforts to protect and enhance the quality of the environment for all people. They called their infant association the Sierra Club.
The impetus for creating the club came from two sources: a desire to enjoy the recreational opportunities of the Sierra Nevada and a wish to protect its scenic beauty from commercial exploitation. According to historian Holway R. Jones, recreational interest in a club originated in 1886, when Professor J. Henry Senger of the University of California at Berkeley proposed a library in Yosemite Valley where mountaineers could gather to consult maps and books before they began treks into the wilderness. Senger’s proposal attracted the attention of other faculty members and a few students at the University of California and at Stanford University who began to discuss the possibility of an alpine club.
Interest in forming a mountain association gained momentum in 1890 with recognition of the need to conserve the newly established Sequoia and Yosemite national parks. Naturalist John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of the Century Magazine, had been instrumental in the establishment of the Yosemite park. They now worried about its protection from overgrazing by trespassing flocks of sheep and devastation caused by sheepherders’ fires. In addition, loggers and others coveted the timber, mineral, and water resources within the park’s boundaries. Johnson called for a “Yellowstone and Yosemite Defense Association,” but since Yellowstone already had defenders in the eastern United States, a small ‘group of Californians decided to form their own “defense association’ to protect the Sierra
These two interests — the recreational interest of mountaineers and the conservationists’ concern to protect Yosemite —were joined when Senger took the initiative and enlisted a friend, attorney Warren Olney, to formulate a plan of action. After extensive discussions, the two men called a meeting for ‘May 28, 1892, in Olney’s legal office in San Francisco. Muir accepted the invitation enthusiastically, expressing hope “that we will be able to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” A week later, twenty-seven men gathered to sign the articles of incorporation of the Sierra Club. They selected a board of directors and unanimously elected John Muir as the club's first president. At meetings that fall, members and friends listened attentively to accounts of trips into the wilderness and took their first official action in support of conservation, asking the board of directors to send a resolution to Congress to protest a proposal to reduce the size of Yosemite National Park.
In the century that followed, the Sierra Club developed a recreational outing program that extended beyond the Sierra to all corners of the globe. Many who first visited the mountains on these trips later became the club's leading conservationists, and the club's environmental concerns spread to national and then global issues. The small California club of 1892, dedicated to the enjoyment and protection of the Sierra Nevada, became a major force in the movement to explore, enjoy, and protect the earth.
Douglas H. STRONG
Professor of History
San Diego State University