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Yosemite's Overhanging Rock


Where Only the Fearless Dare to Stand


by Frank A. Sternad


To see the images in larger size, go to page 6 of this PDF file: 



When James McCauley's four miles of zigzagging horse trail was finally completed to the top of Yosemite's Glacier Point in 1872, photographers rejoiced at being able to transport their bulky equipment to that wondrous lookout some 3200 feet above the valley floor. McCauley charged an entrance toll, but the breathtaking vantage point could now be reached with comparative ease, and the reward at the end of the trail more than matched the expense. In the Valley, the first known camera views revealing Yosemite's incredible splendor had been taken only thirteen years earlier by Charles Leander Weed. His images of Yosemite Falls and other attractions were published as woodcuts in the October 1859 issue of Hutchings' California Magazine.


Access to Yosemite itself was greatly enhanced when three rudimentary state roads burst through to the Valley from the outside world in the mid-1870s. Wawona Road, coming from the south, was completed north of Mariposa Grove in June 1875. A branch off Wawona, climbing the back of Glacier Point to the summit, was finished in 1882. Over these dusty roads came horse drawn stages carrying people bent on experiencing the Yosemite already sensationalized through the images created by Weed, Carleton E. Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge.


The first photographer to reside in Yosemite year-round was George Fiske. A native of New Hampshire, he moved to the Valley in 1879 and built a home and studio in the original village near the base of Sentinel Rock. Some of the earliest images of Glacier Point's now famous Overhanging Rock are by Fiske, taken in the '80s and '90s. The slender granite boulder jutting out into space was occasionally photographed with no one aboard, but the really spectacular shots (hence more marketable) show the narrow surface occupied by one or more humans perched "a few feet from eternity." Popular pictures that sold for years as postcards were posed by Kitty Tatch, a waitress and maid at the Sentinel Hotel. Obviously unawed by heights, Miss Tatch would dance out onto the rock and do the high kick for photographers George Fiske and Julius T. Boysen, then autograph the prints for admiring buyers (1). After Fiske died in 1918, a young man who was impressed with the photographer's style and dramatic use of light was allowed to make prints from Fiske's negatives. His name was Ansel Adams.


Most pictures of Overhanging Rock were made with the camera pointed eastward and upward, positioned on some lower level of the cliff-top or perhaps on Four-Mile Trail just below the crest. This point of view effectively conveys a sense of great height. With the protruding rock and its precious cargo silhouetted against the sky, and Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Yosemite's high country looming in the distance, a dizzying perspective is achieved. Early postcards such as the undivided backs printed in 1903-04 by Edward H. Mitchell and Detroit Publishing Co. established the format (2, 2a); and it was emulated for decades by numerous other publishers. Julius Boysen copyrighted his photo of a gymnast doing a handstand on the rock in 1903, and ordered lithographed color postcards of the image from M. Rieder of Los Angeles bearing the title, "A Tumbler of Marvelous Nerve on Overhanging Rock" When real photo postcards were in vogue ten years later, Boysen used his original negative of the handstanding man to make the prints (3, 3a). Raphael Tuck & Sons jumped on the bandwagon with their "Yosemite Valley" series of printed color cards. One view pictures Galen Clark, the first Yosemite Guardian, standing on the snow-covered precipice (4). On the back is the reassuring statement, "the scene of many dare-devil exploits; but thus far there has never been an accident."


By 1910 four photography studios were lined up on the main street of Upper Village near Sentinel Bridge, all competing to satisfy the raging demand for views. D. J. Foley's Yosemite Falls Studio had been established in 1891, Julius Boysen set up in 1900, and Best's Studio was started by landscape artist Harry Cassie Best in 1902. In 1903 Eugene Hallet and Harold A. Taylor built the Studio of the Three Arrows, purchased four years later by Arthur Clarence Pillsbury who proved to be the most enthusiastic and creative of the early commercial photographers.


A.C. Pillsbury ran his scenic photographic business, Pillsbury's Pictures, from the main office in Oakland, but he and his family would summer in Yosemite Valley to capture images of the scenery and produce real photo postcards for the tourist trade. Pillsbury's companion on his excursions up and down the Valley was a small donkey named "Winkey," employed to carry photographic equipment when he wasn't packing around the photographer's children. On one trip up to Glacier Point, Pillsbury coaxed the docile animal out onto Overhanging Rock for a portrait. You can almost hear the brave burro muttering to himself as he patiently cooperates with the cameraman (5).


The first automobile to enter Yosemite was a Locomobile steam car driven by Oliver Lippincott who operated the Art Photo Co. in Los Angeles. Lippincott and his mechanic arrived June 24, 1900 and spent several weeks taking pictures to promote both Yosemite and the Locomobile.


Eventually the locals persuaded Edward Russell, the mechanic, to drive the vehicle up the steep and serpentine Glacier Point Road to the Mountain House hotel. They arrived in the dark after five hours on the road. The next morning according to Lippincott, "Nothing would do but that the Locomobile must go out on the overhanging rock where only the most fearless and level-headed have ever dared to stand." With ropes tied to their waists, several men tugged and prodded the little car out on the narrow, jutting slab. Lippincott continues, "The women buried their heads in their hands, horrified at the sight. I firmly believe that if the machine had gone over, every man of the party would have gone with it. We hung on with tooth and nail while the camera was adjusted. No picture was ever so long in being taken."


Arthur Pillsbury never forgot the photo of the Locomobile on Overhanging Rock, and ultimately decided he would stage a similar exhibition for his own camera. On June 10, 1916 Pillsbury broke the driving time record from Oakland to Yosemite in his new Studebaker Six, covering the distance via Big Oak Flat Road in less than nine hours. Three months later, to prove he could pass yet another difficult test, he navigated the Studebaker up to Glacier Point on a sunny mid-September morning. Surveying the approach to Overhanging Rock it was determined that a runway was necessary to pass over several boulders that barred the way. Carpenters working on the Desmond Glacier Point Hotel quickly agreed to erect a trestle, and the car was slowly edged outward. The rock measures roughly seven feet wide and fourteen feet long, and beneath falls blue space for 3240 feet. The driver stopped about a foot from the rock's end. Pillsbury's photo postcard recording the event shows Foster Curry at the wheel and Arthur Pillsbury himself straddling the hood. Pennants reading "Yosemite" and "Studebaker 1916" are attached to the car. Facial expressions on the fourteen people around and in the automobile betray some degree of tension; but seven raised arms, some holding hats, succeed in giving a wave. Two of the men appear to be the helpful carpenters (6).


Countless additional postcard views of Overhanging Rock at Glacier Point have been published over the years as real photos, colored lithos, linens, and chromes. They are most popular in vertical format, but a few are horizontal assuring that Half Dome is included in the panorama (7). When the view is taken from the east side of the rock, looking westward, the background becomes upper and lower Yosemite Falls (8). Other cards showing an overhanging rock inhabited by adventurous souls appear at first glance to be Glacier Point, but closer inspection reveals that the granite formations are different and they are titled, "Overhanging Rock, Half Dome" (9). That, however, is another story.


For many years a sign stood at the brink of Glacier Point that warned, "It is 3000 feet to the Bottom and no undertaker to meet you. TAKE NO CHANCES. There is a difference between bravery and just plain ORDINARY FOOLISHNESS." After pipe railings were installed, the sign disappeared. Reportedly it had been stacked with some fir bark and became part of a Firefall.


To see the images in larger size, go to page 6 of this PDF file: 



Yosemite's Hanging Rock Postcards 1- 9


To see the images in larger size, go to page 6 of this PDF file: 




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Last updated:  02/14/2017 07:01:49 PM -0500

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