Madera County Historical Society
In 1912, George W. Mordecai convinced the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to turn thumbs down on a proposal to make Merced County’s Big Oak Flat Road the first automobile route into the Yosemite Valley. Mordecai argued successfully instead for the Madera route.
One hundred five years ago, on October 14, 15, and 16, the United States Secretary of the Interior, Walter Fisher, came to California to hold a conference to choose the best automobile route into Yosemite. The era of horse drawn stagecoaches into the Valley had drawn to a close.
More than 50 dignitaries, including John Muir, joined Fisher for the three days of deliberations, and two residents from Madera also participated. They were R. L. Hargrove and George Washington Mordecai.
Mordecai brought considerable influence to that fall conference. He had twice been elected to the California Assembly and just three months earlier had served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. He was widely and highly respected, and when he spoke, folks stopped to listen.
Thus it came as no surprise, when the former assemblyman from Madera got the floor to make an argument, he got everyone’s attention. Mordecai rose to oppose, turning the Big Oak Flat wagon trail, which ran through Merced County to Yosemite, into the first automobile road to the Valley. He had a much better idea.
He wanted the first automobile road into Yosemite to begin in Madera County. As he spoke, Mordecai secured the rapt attention of Secretary Fisher, and his argument was described by Hargrove as “one of the ablest and most tactful that was made at the conference.”
Mordecai began his discourse by citing a trip he had made to Yosemite some 40 years earlier. He said he then had traveled on the old Indian trail to reach the Valley and that the present road he took from Madera was the same one he followed back then.
It was in the summer of 1870 that George Washington Mordecai made his first trip to Yosemite. He had been in California for two years and was farming in the Alabama Colony along Cottonwood Creek.
Things had ground to a standstill on his farming operation during that summer, so Mordecai and some of his fellow pioneers decided on the trip to the mountains. In August. When he returned, he recorded his memory of the majesty of Yosemite Valley in a letter to an aunt back east. On Sept. 18, 1870, he wrote the following.
“I have been doing little this summer and have not left the neighborhood except for a short trip to the mountains, including the Yosemite Valley. We had a most delightful trip, and everything came up to my expectations, which I think speaks well for the sights.”
“The scenery surpasses anything I ever imagined for beauty and grandeur, and I only wish I was capable of description. You would have gone wild over the flowers, which were almost as numerous in the mountains in August as they are in the plains in April. I had a little account book in my pocket and I pressed a great many that I pulled as I rode through them.”
“All the growth was new and strange to me until I caught sight of a Dogwood and some wild Honey Suckle both in bloom. I almost shouted, it reminded me so forcibly of home.”
“As to trees — well I saw arborvitaes six feet in diameter and ninety feet high—not one or two but hundreds of them — Redwoods thirty in diameter and 400 feet high.”
“The Yosemite is a great resort now, and we had a great deal of fun noticing the different kind of people. I expect our appearance was an equal source of entertainment to our friends from the cities, for we had been hunting and camping through the mountains for a week — had on gray flannel hunting shirts — blue cotton overalls, boots outside, and slouch hats — so you can see we were anything but fashionable.
“We had our group photographed, horses, pack mule, and all — just as we traveled.”
Forty-two years had now passed, and no doubt, Mordecai’s memory of that first trip to Yosemite remained firmly in his mind. Certainly the route he took to get there was clear.
When Mordecai had finished speaking at that 1912 conference, Congressman Raker, representing the Big Oak Flat group, tried to counter the points made by his opponent but was “badly disconcerted by some of the remarks of Mr. Mordecai and was completely squelched by Secretary Fisher.”
At the close of the meeting, Fisher rendered his verdict. The first automobile route from the San Joaquin Valley would be from Madera via Raymond and Wawona.
Maderans were ecstatic. The Tribune headlines shouted the news, “Madera wins Yosemite Highway,” and to a large extent, the people gave George Washington Mordecai the credit. Just as he had fought for the creation of Madera County, he contended for the Madera road to Yosemite.
Time and again, this Old Dominion transplant had proved his worth to his community. Whether it was politics, irrigation, banking, or farming, George Washington Mordecai was a molder of Madera — indeed he was a founding father.