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Discovering the History of Place

Aug 23 2019

Pausing on a trail near Yosemite Park to appreciate some wildflowers. (photo credit: Elijah Thornburg)

By Julie Plummer '20

Hometown: Portola Valley, CA

Major: English

Archives Intern, Yosemite National Park Archives

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Compared to Yosemite Falls, the Solstice Canyon Falls look like a mere trickle. I’m visiting my friend in LA for the weekend, and we’ve gone on a hike up through a winding canyon to the falls. Having visited the Falls in Yosemite (the tallest waterfall in North America) less than a week prior, it’s difficult not to make the comparison in my mind. However, I find myself less disappointed in the magnitude of these falls than curious about the history of the scenery around me. Near the falls is the ruins of an old ranch house, called the “Tropical Terrace,” which was burned down by wildfires in 1982. I am reminded of the ways in which the mountain landscapes around the areas I work in El Portal, near Yosemite, are also shaped by wildfires. Indeed, my work in the Yosemite Archives this summer allowed me to view any hike through a different lens, as a sort of detective discovering the history of the natural scenery around me.

My days in the archives involved a combination of performing copyright research and digitizing historic photos of the park and organizing a forestry collection of photos and papers for use by future researchers, along with various side projects. However, another interesting part of the job was helping with the oral histories of retiring park employees. During my time in the Archives, I was able to help film two of these histories, and something that became evident to me throughout both interviews was the obvious community employees found through working in the park.

These interviews pushed me to think about the unheard histories within the archival items I was working with. I have scanned and researched hundreds of historic photos this summer, and while there is much to be learned about the history of the park through the photos themselves and the informational data attached to each photo card, there are some aspects of the history in the photographs which go unheard. And that is what I love so much about the oral histories the Archives records; the individual flavor and community of the park is recorded through the experiences of these employees. I came to appreciate through these interviews the ways in which a history can be preserved not only in the beautiful natural scenery of places like Yosemite or Solstice Canyon Falls but also within individual experiences of a place.

With countless world-famous lakes, peaks, and waterfalls within and just outside the Yosemite Valley, it’s hard to feel like I did justice to this beautiful part of our West. But I’d like to think that my time in the Archives gave me a more full perspective about all of the factors that go into shaping a place and what will one day be its history. And as I explored nearby lakes on the weekends or hiked to the top of peaks with friends, I could only feel unbelievable gratitude for the opportunity to explore and better understand such a beautiful place.

Enjoying the beauty of some mountains near Yosemite. (photo credit: Elijah Thornburg)

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