KEYS TO MARIPOSA HISTORY-CARLTON E. WATKINS
This begins a series of Mariposa history presented in perhaps a different way than one might find in a formal history text. My interest has been stimulated by the photography left behind that gave us a true picture of what existed and what occurred during the life of our treasured home. The Mariposa Gazette has been an important chronicle of the day to day or week to week events and activities but it must always be understood, both during the first days of our county until even today, in any media the reporting is often biased along the lines that have been predetermined by the producers. Take for example the reporting of the two major television networks (Fox and CNN). You have to view both to receive something resembling the truth. Even then the truth is subject to the interpretation of the viewer, reader or listener.
I prefer, for historical purposes, to base my understanding on the visual evidence presented by thousands of photographers over the years and then seek confirmation in the written evidence, whether it be from court records or the written page. Being both a pharmacist and photographer has lead me to try to be as accurate as I can in my interpretation of the evidence of history. Pharmacists are trained to not make mistakes because they can be fatal. Photographers also have the responsibility to capture accurately the scene presented with out modification. In this era of PhotoShop, it is quite easy to make changes to the photograph in many ways. Thus, just as in journalism, one relies on the integrity of the journalist writer. In photography modifications of the final product has always been done. For example, Gustav Fagersteen, l9th century Yosemite Portrait photographer, almost always posed his subjects in front of Yosemite Falls, and since he was working with glass plate negatives, regardless of the time of year he took the picture, Yosemite Falls was always full and evident.
There are two principals in photography in regard to enhancement. One is to use the light that is presented and by the use of filters, rebalance the effects of that light to present a more pleasant and artistic product. This is really using the principles of physics of light matching with the properties of silver halides. That is how Ansel Adams got his dramatic dark skies to present a more pleasing final print with almost infinite detail. Yet, his and many photographers use these techniques and not change the basic subject, only enhance it. Digital photography is similar. So off we go.
I start with Carlton E. Watkins because no where else in the world did an artist record the world as he saw it at a specific time, in such a way as to give more and more information to us concerned about, not only the development of photography as an art form, but the development of a place and activity. The discovery of gold in California coincided with the invention of photography in Europe. And more importantly to us, the development of reproducible photography. The early years of photography were based on one print from one exposure, much like Polaroid. But in those days it was called tintype or daguerreotype or callotype, all being process on various receiver material which occurred in the camera or dark tent producing one product not immediately reproducible. These process depended on the light modifying characteristics of silver salts which would reproduce an image the magnitude of which, or darkness, was dependent on the volume of light that fell on a specific point.
In the development of photography it soon became understood that silver salts suspended in egg albumin or gun cotton, could be spread on a plate of glass. The negative image presented was the result of light coming through the glass plate rather than a positive image created by reflected light off a tintype or daguerreotype. Thus while Watkins’ first craft was as a daguerreotype portrait photographer in San Francisco and San Jose, he soon was to learn the glass plate negative process, probably from a colleague, Charles L. Weed, working in the same studio. It was Weed who first photographed in Yosemite and perhaps Mariposa. But his production never reached either the output or the artistic quality of Watkins.
Mariposa County was formed by the legislature in 1849, awaiting the acceptance of California as a state. It was the largest county in the new state, covering almost 1/5 of the territory. The new county comprised most of the San Joaquin Valley even to the boundary with Utah-Nevada Territory, the Coast Range to the west, the top of the Tehachapi Mountains to the south and Stanislaus County to the north. Little activity south of Mariposa was of interest to the legislature because Mariposa was essentially the southern termini us of the Mother Lode. The most influential private land holdings in the state was the Fremont Grant, Las Mariposas. It was the only privately claimed land during the Gold Rush, although American Title to the land did not accrue to Fremont until l856. Why the first county seat was located in Agua Fria is probably because, while it was inside the claimed Grant property, it was not the new town of Mariposa and under the influence of the development and banking firm of Palmer Cook and Company. Agua Fria was also, at that time, most active in placer mining and if a vote was to be taken, which was required of establishment of a county seat, it would have a greater population and thus more votes. By 1851 activity in the Agua Fria area was waning and flood and/or fire convinced the citizens that it was time to move the county seat. By that time the town of Mariposa had grown considerably with most of the activity requiring government taking place there.
I will cover more of the interim history in future editions of the Sun Times, but for the story of Watkins I now move to l860. By this time Fremont had acquired a partner, Treanor Park of Vermont. He had become a partner because he came with capital to relieve some of the debt Fremont had built up in San Francisco. Fremont and Park had a problem. They needed further investment so the answer was either sale or new investors. The sale of the Grant seemed more possible because Fremont had run out of friends fairly early. So to create a sale or investment portfolio, Park hired the San Francisco photographer Carlton E Watkins to photograph the assets of the Grant. This resulted in approximately 52 scenes of mines, towns and activities on the Grant. Watkins did not photograph in detail but like the familiar Mariposa picture, treated the subjects as landscape.
He photographed Mariposa, Mt. Bullion, Bear Valley and Benton Mills. (Bagby).
He gave detail of the Mariposa, Princeton, Josephine, and Pine Tree mines and the landscapes surrounding these properties. I have showed a number of these pictures at the History Center, in books and at the Arts Council, but they are difficult for viewers to place and understand unless I am present to interpret. None the less they are the finest, most complete photographic inventory of a section of the Mother Lode ever done.
This is perhaps because the 44,386 Acre Grant was well developed by l860 and there was
motivation on the part of Fremont and Park to have Watkins do such a complete inventory.
(Next-Watkins in Yosemite and his importance in establishment as a State Park)
It is time for me to write the History of Mariposa County as I know it. Most of the items that I write will appear in the Sierra Sun Times at goldrushcam.com. But here, on my blog, I will place each item together so that they always appear together and form a text. Many of the photographs that would usually accompany such test are contained in mY Arcadia book-Mariposa County- available at many places in Mariposa and Yosemite. Also, other books of history containing many photographs incluide, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, and Yosemite Valley Railroad. All published by Arcadia.
My text is going to be arranged a little different that one would usually expect. The story will be influenced by the many photographs I have collected and will be centered on the important characters of Mariposa County History. For example the first I choose to explore is Carlton E. Watkins. He was the San Francisco Photographer who was hired by Treanor Park, partner of Fremont, to photograph the assets of the Fremont Grant in l860. The 52 or so photographs that were taken covered the towns, mines and countyside of the Fremont Grant and give us a excellent understanding of the environment that men had to work in the first days of Fremont’s development. From time to time I will add other photographs to the text appearing here and in the Suntimes to try to give a good understanding of the happenings from the first of Mariposa County.
A couple of letters from the editor relating to the Mariposa County Sign Ordinance is interesting. Tolley Gorham’s letter describes the ordinance pretty well but the devil is in the details. For many years the ordinance was not enforced against existing signs. The ordinance calls for the removal of signs from closed business within one year of closing. That allows for the sale of the business and the continued use of the sign. The first it was enforced was the forced removal of the Gold Coin sign quite a few years after closure. I am not sure what precipitated the action except the owner was an irritant to the Planning Department. Other signs stayed up much longer with no removal. Maybe the stimulus was a citizen complaint. As you may or may not know many ordinances, mostly planning, are not enforced until someone complains. Then the county acts. Maybe.
Perhaps the greatest and longest discussion about enforcement has been related to how the complaint becomes initiated. It is not difficult to understand why the county wanted the complaints to be citizen initiated. First, the county did not have, for many years, an enforcement officer. Once one was acquired, it was a part time position and on top of that, the inspector was not trained in the legal aspects of inspection and compliance control. Only a few complaints were investigated, and for the most part, dismissed.
One complaint concerning a mineral extraction process that got out of control, was followed through. Involved were state air quality issues. Compliance issues concerning construction projects were handled by the Building Dept. Projects without building permits very often skated until permits were required for establishment of PG & E service. However, those who provided their own power often got by. It is the building permit that triggers many other department interest, such as assessor. During major fires some of these issues are discovered.
The county sign ordinance, among other development ordinances, have been unevenly enforced. Part of the problem relates to the lack of an advisory committee in the town of Mariposa for the TPA. There are some fundamental problems related to the formation of such a committee. For example, a high percentage of the residents are renters and often transient.
Another is that most of the business owners do not live in the TPA. Two county supervisors represent parts of the TPA and have other obligations that may conflict with the best interest of the town. Next problem is that planning is also a political process. Supervisors who do not receive even a large percentage of their vote at election time from inside the TPA, feel pressure from their fundamental political base and thus, are easily persuaded by the Planning Department that there are higher priorities from the planning and perhaps the political standpoint.
So what are the compelling reasons to for an advisory committee to update the now 20 year old plan, far past the 10 year review. The number one reason would be to provide a document that has met the test of community standards, that everyone can understand and abide by, and to allow rational change to occur. I will not go into detail of what needs review as the issues come up almost all the time. But it is fair to say that it is way over due for review and more importantly badly needed. Many years ago we adopted this planning model. To ignore the process established tells me that we are not serious about our community plans. Otherwise, they should be abandoned.
CARLETON E. WATKINS (1829-1916)
Photographer of the Emerging American West
Watkins was born and grew up in the rural village of Oneonta, New York, the eldest son of John Maurice Watkins and Julia Ann Mc Donald. Being of Scottish decent, he had a stubborn streak that caused him to be determined in the pursuit of excellence in photography. Some time in 1854, at the age of twenty two, he came to California with friend Collis P. Huntington and his brother landing in Marysville. Huntington started a general merchandise store and hired his friend Carlton to help run the operation. First a fire and then a flood sent both of them to Sacramento, and a flood sent them on to San Francisco. Huntington moved on to become the railroad magnate of the west while Watkins joined Robert Vance, a photographer, who worked in the daguerrean process.
The Daguerreotype was an early photographic process in which a plate is coated with an emulsion which is light sensitive. The plate is then placed in the back of a box with a light focusing lens that transfers the image of the person or persons sitting in front of the box (camera), to the sensitive plate. The plate is then processed in chemicals which fixes (make reasonably permanent) the impression of the image on the plate. Because there is no negative (in the context of our current understanding) one image on one plate is made and dried and the operator has thus made a picture. If one wished a second and third and on, then another plate would have to be exposed. The length of time needed to make the light sensitive plate accept the image might be quite long by today’s standards,(on the order of minutes not seconds) and thus the subject had to remain quite still. Thus theses early photos appeared as those the subjects had already passed on. The blinking of the eyes were not recorded because the sensitivity of the plate was not sufficient to record the blink. That is why once in a while one will view a Daguerreotype finished picture and everything except the eyes seemed to be sharp or in perfect focus but the eyes seemed to have a slight blur.
At the age of twenty five, Mr. Vance sent Watkins to San Jose to sit in for an operator who had left his studio. He was instructed to greet the customers who usually came on Sunday. He was, however, to sham taking a picture, take the customers money and make an appointment for the following Sunday when a skilled photographer would be present. Vance went to San Jose on Friday or Saturday with the news that no new operator was available and took a few minutes to train Watkins in the process. The brief training was the only that Watkins received but it was enough.
Advances in photographic processes came rapidly and soon Watkins was making his exposures on a glass plate which was coated with collodion containing a silver salt, usually silver nitrate and/or bromide, suspended in the coating or emulsion. These glass plates were coated usually in a dark tent and exposed while still wet. While the glass negative was still wet it had to be processed or would become unsensitized upon drying. Once dried, the negative on glass would be exposed using sunlight, to a paper coated with sodium chloride thus making the positive print. These prints are referred to as “salt prints”, and thus those that he made for the Fremont mining company in Mariposa County in 1860, and Yosemite the following year were thus characterized.
The advantage of the wet plate process was that multiple salt print could be made from the glass negative. Watkins, and other photographers of the time, liked to expose their prints in the San Francisco area because the foggy mornings presented an even soft light. Thus, even when he was photographing in Yosemite at later times, he would pack away his dried plates and take them to the Bay Area for final printing.
Because of the difficulty with the Daguerreotype process, photography was usually confined to a studio where light could be controlled by window shades. Watkins was probably not the first to photograph the landscape but was quite early. His first experience photographing on glass plate was creating images of the New Almaden mercury mines near San Jose for a court case. In 1859, Vance sent Charles Weed, using the same wet plate process, to the mines of the American River to record their activity, and in the process Weed went to Yosemite and made the first images of natures grandest establishment. Watkins soon followed but only as the result of being hired by Treanor Park, Fremont’s partner, to record the assets of the Grant.
Watkins found Mariposa in 1860 to be a well developed town. It had a proper court house, yet to add the clock tower, multiple newspapers, a concert hall, hotels restaurants, saloons, churches, harness shop, blacksmith,
a sash and door maker, all the things that a mining community would need. Much of this would disappear in a few years in fire. But mainly he was here to photograph the mines and mining areas on the Las Mariposas Grant. By 1860, deeply in debt, Fremont had to either raise capital or sell the properties.
Lengthy legal problems over the section of the grant given to him by the courts that contained properties developed by Merced Mining Company, had cost him dearly. Never a proper manager in the first instance, Fremont had failed to develop what was called a very wealthy holding. The towns of Mariposa, Princeton and Bear Valley were well developed with miners families living and working at his or leased mines. Fremont essentially gave away many parcels within the grant hoping to attract permanent families and investors, The main mines were leased to other operators representing stockholding companies and they were not always operating at all profitably. The mining properties that he acquired by way of the court actions turned out to be developed improperly. A Irish mining engineer hired by the Merced Mining Company caused the mill for the area to be built at Mt Ophur, at the far south end of the section. It was soon discovered that the bulk of the gold was at the north end, at the Pine Tree and Josephine north of Bear Valley. So what had been given to Fremont, and he later paid the Merced Mining Company for, was of little use to him. He embarked on building a major mill at Ridley’s Ferry (Bagby) and constructing a road from the mill to the mines on the hills above. The 1860 Watkins pictures clearly show this development.
As well as the other mills, saw mills and homes scattered through out the Grant.
We have gathered together this collection of photographs which represent the finest and most complete body of work by one of the most recognized landscape photographers of the west. No other area of the Mother Lode had such an extensive coverage as Watkins.
His photographs of Yosemite taken in 1861 helped President Lincoln to grant Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the State of California to form the basis of a State Park. Eventually we will have a show of the Yosemite scenes that were so instrumental in the saving of Yosemite Valley and the Park for the people of the United States.
Windows on the World-Books and Art in the Mariposa Hotel Inn Building, is growing to include this gallery, dedicated to fine art regardless photography or other disciplines. This gives the town of Mariposa a number of fine art gallery venues downtown. The Mariposa County Arts Council, Sierra Artists, The Market Place, and Shockley’s Designs Un-Limited all represent the artists of our community. In the case of Windows on the World Books and Art, the addition of the gallery in a separate space gives Mariposa a adequate space for small community meetings, book signings and other events so badly needed. In a few weeks we will have a grand opening and working together with our neighbors, letting the world know that coming to Mariposa to enjoy art and other fine amenities, is well worth the drive.
INTRODUCTION TO MY BLOG
It is amazing that I can now write what I want, when I want it and not have to rely on someone or something else to publish the words. Words that can penetrate the ether and spread around the world for anyone to see or consider. This is a major responsibility as I see it. I will tell you what I know, if it is important or not, has value or substance. I do not attempt to entertain you for there are better sources for entertainment. I will continue to write for the SUNTIMES because it is an important avenue and frankly I like the editor/owner and his wife. But the important thing to me is that if he decides that he doesn’t want to publish my musings, then I will not be left with no avenue to express or explore.
The new blog is attached to a new website: yosemitemariposahistory.com and has a separate address also of:
yosemite history.com. What does this mean. It means the my favorite subjects are and will be Yosemite, Mariposa, History and Photography of which there will be as much of as I can muster. I have been very fortunate to have lived my life in Mariposa, known the people I have known and be next to the greatest natural feature combined on the face of the earth.
It also means that sometimes if I become controversial that it will not reflect on the editor and his wife of the SUNTIMES. I have no time to waste on attacking individuals who I know or have known because I have come to realize that in properly exploring history, at least my version of it, I will offend someone who thinks I don’t know what I am doing or saying. But the beauty of this blog and webpage will be that I can put ideas and memories out there for you to choose to read, and perhaps respond, or not.
I intend to examine western history as it applies to Mariposa and Yosemite, family history as it applies to a remarkable family of whom I am now the oldest, and a art/craft that became the first step in the mechanical recordation of instants in time. Think about how long the world has existed and short a time we have been able to view a snippets of that time which can enlighten, explain or entertain us about the past, no matter if it was one hundred and fifty years ago or this last second that just went by.
The more enduring features of our lives are related to objects that define our moments in time. I just finished the dismantling of the lives of two people who gradually had lost the ability to communicate. One was a lady who I knew very well, at 90 years of age she passed away and I oversaw the scattering of her life through the objects that she gave various levels of importance to. The same may be said about a gentleman who I knew less well but who’s possessions demonstrated a love of travel, learning and a close relationship to God. Perhaps somewhere in all of this I can explain why I have a great attraction for photography of the past. How the conveyance of information about past lives and times seems important. Why would humans want to scratch a bison on the wall of a cave in Spain. Maybe because it is a demonstration of the attempt at immortality. But it was not the artist that is immortalized by the drawing of a bison, but the communication of the figure of the bison. For it is a conveyance of life around us at any point in time that is important, not our presence in it.
Quite soon a new art gallery will open in conjunction with Windows on the World Book Store in the Mariposa Hotel Building downtown. The first show will be a collection of the photographs of Carlton E. Watkins taken in l860 when Mariposa was only ten years old. Mr. Watkins of San Francisco was hired by Treanor Park, a partner of John C. Fremont, to photograph the assets of the Fremont Grant, Las Mariposas. The purpose was to show the world this wonderful 44,386 acres of mining property, looking for investment in it’s activities or sale. The fifty or so views did much more than act as a real estate promotion. It opened to all who would see a bit of time and history for us to examine and understand. Associated with this gallery will be opportunities for group examination of these scenes to try to uncover the real value of their content. We will have receptions for these opportunities.
Some years ago I became acquainted with the biographer of Carlton E. Watkins, Peter Palmquist, now diseased. Through his research and writing I came to know Mr. Watkins as an extraordinary man who pioneered landscape photography on the west coast. He was not the only one, but one of a very few who took the time to study the early invention of photography and it’s application. He saw taking the scenes of the Fremont Grant as evidence for communication, just as he had taken pictures of the New Almaden Mines near San Jose before l859 for a trial. In this case, his pictures were intended to explain the activities and give substance to the inventory of the Grant, be it buildings, towns, mines and landscape. What makes these photographs remarkable is the artistic skill which Watkins possessed. He somehow knew instinctively the “best angle, light, and view of his subjects”. How did he learn this? In subsequent articles I will review his life for the experiences that shaped his skill.
So, this is my quest. Even if you do not want to read what I write in this space, there will be another. And even if no-one is interested at least what I know and love will be exposed in the ether for you to capture. My only task is to keep paying the phone bill.
Since I was a baby I was the subject for my father’s camera. A Ziess Ikon 2 ¼ X 3 1/4 folding camera which for it’s time produced an excellent negative in black and white; comparable to large format. At some point I will publish some of my fathers photography. My first real camera was a Leica 4C 35mm which I purchased while in the Air Force during the Korean War. I still have that camera and it can still capture excellent image although it can not compete with my Nikon F100 and computer designed lens. But the image quality is different due to the construction of the lens.
Next I purchased my fathers Roliflex 2 ¼ camera. This twin lens reflex camera had a 80mm Ziess Planar lens which is still the standard for normal lens. But the lack of interchangeability of lens seemed to be a handicap to me so, as soon as I could, I acquired a 4X5 Crown Graphic and three lenses. This led to the beginning of a real career in photography. Later I began adding a Hasselblad set which became the work horse of thirty years of weddings in Yosemite and elsewhere.
Today my work is mixture of digital and large format (4X5 mostly). I am happy to perform custom printing from your negatives or slides, and to copy your prints to make enlargements. I can also restore damaged black and white or color prints or negatives back to their original condition or better. The computer is a wonderful invention and in the hands of a professional photographer, much can be done. Give me a call at 966-5522 to arrange for me look at your project and give you an estimate. All work is done here in Mariposa with no chance of your precious originals getting lost in the mail or elsewhere..
During the intervening years I worked as a pharmacist at Mariposa Drug and John C. Fremont Hospital but it was photography, and writing books and for newspapers that sustained my creative needs. This web site is now growing with many of the original photographs that I took over the last 35 or so years. My favorite subjects are nature and the evidence of man in unusual places. I am not so interested in what man was doing, like mining, but the evidence of life in these places. I like the towns of Mariposa County very much because I have a personnel connection with their history and the people who lived there.
Other places like Bodie are special because of how nature preserved the structures that were built but also understanding that lives went on, men worked, had families, dreamed of a richer future, became sick and died and lost many of their children to disease and accident. The cemetery at Bodie is full of children. At one time, and for a short period, this was a boom town that raised the hopes of many people. Like most of the Mother Lode, these boomers were subject to failure. But they became aware of their surroundings and reduced their expectations to understand the beauty of nature and how it could provide if only one would let it be understood. The native populations of the Sierra survived generation after generation living off the land. They were hunters and gatherers who lived in harmony with what was provided to them. They became so close to nature that somehow their numbers came into balance with what was available. For example, their diet was rich in carbohydrates and the fact that many stored fat easily, limited their reproductive processes.
I like to photograph the sea coast as well as the mountains, as a similar set of subjects exist in that environment. I also am interested, as I have demonstrated through many of my books, my love of the history of my native land. I have collected thousands of images of the past and have included them in many books. Hopefully in the future I will be able to publish my current work, but times change how we expose the product of our art. Therefore I use the web site as a way to accomplish this.
I also like to work with photographers who have similar visions and their work, while different than mine, are a personnel expression of their vision. Robert Chapanot is a retired San Francisco photographer who’s work helps define the nature of the urban setting in juxtaposition to the natural world. Hopefully my long time friend, Ira Estin, will join me in helping to express his vision through catalogue pages of his work. All of the images that we display will be available for purchase which will be the way that we satisfy our urges creatively as well as support this unquenchable habit of photography.
I hope over the years and months ahead as we develop our inventory of images that you will enjoy seeing them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.
If you have any photographic questions please ask them on the blog and I will answer as soon as I can. The address directly to the blog is www.yosemitehistory.com.
WELCOME TO OUR BLOG
Having lived in Mariposa and around Yosemite for more than 65 years, I have developed a great love for the history of our county, the area around Mariposa County and the wonderful photography that has introduced millions to Yosemite National Park and the Mother Lode. As a photographer and writer, I appreciate the mixture of subject material available to me to examine and interpret. You will see on my website a number of publications that I, through Mariposa Heritage Press or Arcadia, have made available for public purchase. In addition, many of the historic images of both Yosemite and Mariposa are also available.
Now joining with a wonderful photographer, Robert Chaponot, we are putting together a series of web pages added to the web site which offer original photography. We have both been working as professional photographers for many years and now we will put together all in one place the images we have taken over the years and in many venues. We offer them for your enjoyment making them available for purchase for your homes or other displays. In addition we will be working over the next few years to create new images designed to further advance the art.
I also intend, with this blog, to offer information that will assist you who wish to advance your own photography. I will discuss technique as well as exposing subject location perhaps seeing them with experienced but fresh eyes. Photographic equipment and accessories are changing rapidly placing the ability to capture excellent subjects in ways not always available with film.
I will continue to write my weekly commentary for the Sierra Sun Times and if you have not examined this daily on line news and information presentation, I recommend it to you. You need only “Google” Sierra Sun Times, or go to firstname.lastname@example.org for daily, up to date information about our community and county.
So here we go. I am looking forward to working with Bob Chaponot and visiting with you on a frequent basis. There will be a place for you to comment on what we are doing and I look forward to the communication.