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Yosemite's Firefall: A Waterfall Made of Fire

The Firefall at Yosemite National Park
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A view of Glacier Point
A view of Glacier Point |   University of Southern California. Libraries/California Historical Society

"Let the fire fall!" That was the exciting call that once echoed from the bottom of the Yosemite Valley to the peak of Glacier Point to mark the thrilling conclusion to an evening's entertainment at Camp Curry. For decades, visitors to Yosemite witnessed the Firefall, a shimmering curtain of glowing embers and hot coals cascading nearly 3,000 feet to the valley floor. The tradition, captured in postcards and on film, represents a unique moment in California’s history. The event also highlights the competition that existed between the state’s earliest entrepreneurs.

The California Gold Rush brought little mineral wealth to the vast majority of those who braved the journey. Yet the state's natural beauty, along with new steamship routes and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, allowed some prospectors to find their fortunes by enticing tourists to spend time and money in the pristine wilderness. 

Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell provided the first written descriptions of the Yosemite Valley with his account of the Mariposa Battalion's persecution of the native Ahwahnechee. Bunnell described the stunning cliffs and valleys of the region in vivid detail, capturing the imagination of James Hutchings. While Hutchings had some success as a prospector, his greatest triumph was his self-published Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine.

The magazine served as both an advertisement and a guidebook for tourists. Hutchings hired the artist Thomas Ayres to accompany him into the valley and provide illustrations for the magazine. Ayres' sketches of the majestic scenery, along with Hutchings’ travel narratives, enticed tourists to trek into the wilderness and convinced some settlers that there was a profit to be made when serving the sightseers.

Watch this episode of Lost LA: Yosemite to learn more about the history of the Firefall

James McCauley, an Irish immigrant, moved his family to the Yosemite Valley seeking his share of the California dream. He hired John Conway to construct the Four Mile Trail from the valley to the peak of Glacier Point, where McCauley then built the Glacier Point Mountain House hotel. McCauley and his wife operated the hotel for tourists during the summer months and, by 1872, the innkeeper would build nightly bonfires on the edge of the cliff for his guests to enjoy. 

The Wawona Hotel at Yosemite National Park
The Wawona Hotel at Yosemite National Park |   University of Southern California. Libraries/California Historical Society

As the night ended and the fire waned, McCauley would push the last glimmering cinders into the void. Those who saw the Firefall from the cliff’s base were entranced by the vision of a waterfall made of fire and paid McCauley’s sons to ensure the spectacle would return. McCauley continued the Firefall until 1897 when two other entrepreneurs, the Washburn brothers, successfully lobbied to have the family evicted. The brothers, proprietors of the popular Wawona Hotel, took over the Glacier Point Hotel and ended the Firefall.

Several years later, David Curry, owner and operator of Camp Curry, which competed with other vendors in Yosemite, determined to continue the tradition. Camp Curry sat on the floor of the Yosemite Valley and offered a perfect vantage to watch the Firefall. Curry prepared for the show by sending employees to the peak with masses of firewood. Following entertainment by musicians and others, Curry would call up to the fire tenders who then pushed the burning wood and ash from the cliff face. Curry prided himself on his powerful voice and bellowed for the fire with a theatrical flair. The pyrotechnic display awed those below and became a centerpiece of the camper’s visits. Though the attraction brought new customers to the burgeoning business, it also brought unwanted attention from Curry’s competitors.  

Stephen Mather, Sierra Club member and wealthy businessman, had a vision for Yosemite. Conveniently, Mather‘s former classmate Adolph Miller had been appointed Assistant Secretary of the Interior and, as such, was responsible for administering the leases on federal land. In 1913 Miller canceled the Firefall, leaving Curry without his famous show. This gave D. J. Desmond, Curry’s bitter rival and another close associate of Mather, the opportunity to expand his business.

Postcard of the Firefall from Camp Curry, circa 1930 | Courtesy Nathan Masters
Postcard of the Firefall from Camp Curry, circa 1930 | Courtesy Nathan Masters

The Desmond Park Service Company took advantage of an open space near McCauley’s defunct Mountain House to build a luxurious lodge. The Glacier Point Hotel took a year to finish and represented a significant investment for Desmond. A covered porch ran across the entire length of the building and offered an unparalleled view over the valley with Half Dome in the distance. Though the hotel proved popular with visitors, the business struggled financially due to high costs and thin profit margins. At the same time, a political shift led to a reversal of fortune for Curry and company.

President Woodrow Wilson authorized the creation of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. Yosemite, along with all other parks on federal land, came under the jurisdiction of the new independent agency. As part of the reorganization, new contracts for concessions were parceled out. In March 1917, Secretary for the Interior Franklin K. Lane authorized a five-year lease for the Curry company and decided that the Firefall could be reinstated as a summer attraction. Though Curry won his battle to light the fire, he did not live to see it fall. David Curry died on April 30, 1917, and was remembered in the Mariposa Gazette as the “Stentor of Yosemite.”

Foster Curry, David’s son, reintroduced the Firefall that same year. For the next 50 years, the Firefall continued, with only a brief hiatus for World War II. The Curry Company worked to make the Firefall as spectacular as possible. The staff determined that red fir bark provided the best fuel, so employees would scour the park for fallen trees, hauling mounds of tinder up the mountain. The bonfire would burn for several hours until, at 9 p.m. exactly, the call would echo from the valley to the peak. As the glowing coals fell, musicians in the camp sang the popular ballad “Indian Love Call.”

By 1925 Curry’s family business had vanquished its rivals. The Curry Company absorbed the Yosemite Park Company, taking ownership of the Glacier Point Hotel. The new YPCCC controlled both the peak and the valley, offering guests the opportunity to view the Firefall from either vantage. The event became so popular that the YPCCC expanded the show, eventually performing the Firefall nearly every night of the year. The attraction decorated postcards and was the subject of magazine articles. It also served as the backdrop for a scene in the 1954 film “The Caine Mutiny.”

Though the Firefall continued nearly unchanged for decades, the National Park Service evolved. NPS leadership sought to emphasize natural wonders and determined that man-made attractions were incompatible with the intentions of the national park system. In 1968 the NPS ruled that the Firefall cease. The YPCCC acquiesced and the last official Firefall occurred on January 25, 1968.

Thousands of visitors marveled at the Firefall for nearly a century. The audiences, while enjoying the natural wonders of Yosemite, also clamored for the added attraction of the manufactured spectacle. These tourists spurred the development of the region, and entrepreneurs responded by reshaping the wilderness. Today, as devastating wildfires rage across California yearly, pushing the remnants of a campfire to fall freely and drift on the wind would be criminal. Yet the spectacle lives on, captured on film, postcards, and in the memory of those who witnessed the Firefall.

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