Making it to the Top
Text and photos submitted by Terry Ommen
Visalia has had a long and interesting kinship with Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States. As a result, the name of this well-known peak can be found in the titles of local organizations. The Mt. Whitney Power & Electric Company, headquartered in Visalia more than a century ago, incorporated the name, and the company eventually became part of Southern California Edison. Then, for a number of years, Visalia was home to the
Mt. Whitney Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and today we have Mt. Whitney High School, an institution that has been educating our young people since 1950. But there was another organization, one with a much shorter life, called the Mt. Whitney Club.
The idea for creation of the club has its roots deep in Visalia history. In 1852, when the town and county both began, the 14,500-foot peak that today is known as Mount Whitney stood in the middle of a much larger Tulare County.
Prior to the arrival of European settlers to the area, the Native Americans called the mountain “too-man-i-goo-yah,” which means “the very old man.” In July 1864, members of the California Geological Survey officially named it in honor of state geologist Josiah Whitney, but the first recorded climb didn’t happen until Aug. 18, 1873, when some fishermen from Lone Pine scrambled to the top.
As the crow flies, it is only about 60 miles or so from Visalia, but the route for early trekkers was much farther than that. The first trails followed natural terrain, animal paths and routes used
by native people, and they were not always the most direct. As the number of explorers increased, so did the number of trails, and the mountain became more accessible. By 1889, Visalia was claiming to have the most direct route to Mount Whitney from any place in the San Joaquin Valley, with the trailhead at Mineral King.
By the 1890s, Visalia boasted its claim to be the natural starting or ending point for any Mount Whitney adventure. And the town’s gateway status was supported by many who passed through. So by this time, momentum was building for the formation of a group of like-minded Mount Whitney enthusiasts. The effort was probably led by George W. Stewart, noted newspaperman, who almost single-handedly saved the giant sequoia trees from destruction through his successful effort in getting Sequoia National Park created.
On Saturday evening, May 11, 1901, Stewart hosted an informational meeting at his home at 209 E. Center St. to discuss formation of a club. It was well-attended, with interested people coming from as far away as Eshom Valley. Overwhelmingly, the group decided to form a club with membership limited to those who had made it to the top.
On May 25, the Mt. Whitney Club formally began. Thirty-two charter members kicked it off, with an impressive group of officers at the helm. George Stewart was named president, Tulare County Superior Court Judge William Wallace first vice president, teacher and first woman ever to the top Anna Mills Johnston second vice president, banker Susman Mitchell corresponding secretary, newspaperman Morley Maddox recording secretary and mountaineer S. L. N. “Sam” Ellis treasurer. Committees were also formed.
The objectives of the club were ambitious and clear from the beginning. In the club brochure, they wrote, “The purposes of this club shall be to aid in making Mt. Whitney – the crown
of the Sierra – and the adjacent mountain region better known to the world; to assist in mapping the Mt. Whitney region (embracing the watersheds of the Kings, Kaweah and Kern rivers) and in naming the streams, lakes, meadows, pinnacles, peaks and other natural objects therein for the purpose of identification; to promote the building of trails and roads, and the placing in proper places of signboards giving directions, distances, altitudes or other necessary information; to collect and exhibit views and objects of interest from the Mt. Whitney region;
to encourage the preparation and dissemination of literature descriptive of that region; to publish a journal and to issue, at times, special bulletins containing information valuable to explorers, campers, tourists and the public; to stimulate a love for our mountains and their majestic scenery.”
Even though the club was headquartered in Visalia, members came from all over. Tulare County members also came from Dinuba, Three Rivers, Kaweah and Exeter. Members signed up from California cities, including Fresno, Modesto, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Bakersfield, and the states of Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland were represented, too.
The charter members were a virtual “who’s who” of celebrities, who included George Stewart, his wife Martha and their 6-year-old daughter Emily. Within two years, John Muir, the famous conservationist; Theodore Hittel, well-known California historian, and Joseph N. LeConte, noted engineer, were on the membership rolls.
As mentioned in its objectives, the club created a publication called the “Mt. Whitney Club Journal,” in which members shared details of their challenging trips, news of club activities and trail improvements.
Meetings were held at courthouse offices, city hall and homes of members. A membership pin was created and adopted consisting of a triangular-shaped piece of polished granite from the summit of Whitney above a gold base inscribed with the letters M. W. C.
The club earned an excellent reputation for doing good work. For that reason, the news on March 12, 1909, in the “Visalia Daily Times” caught many by surprise when it reported that the Mt. Whitney Club had been dissolved. The article explained that because so many of the “… members of the club were residents of San Francisco, and as since the fire [earthquake of 1906] it has been almost impossible to locate them, it was thought best to discontinue the organization.” The last meeting was March 11 at the Stewart home, and it was decided to close the club account of about $20.00 and to buy mountain-related books for the Visalia Free Public Library. After that meeting, the Mt. Whitney Club was a thing of the past.