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National Park History: Yosemite's Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Saloon (1871-1884)


 Although the exterior of the Cosmopolitan was nothing to brag about, the services you could get inside certainly were.  Yosemite Research Library photo, undated.

Back in the 1870s and 1880s, tourists who endured the long, bone-jarring ride to Yosemite Valley could enjoy some surprising amenities at the valley's Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Saloon.  Although this unusual establishment disappeared into history 127 years ago, it left a remarkable legacy and a story well worth telling.

Concerned about the impacts of overgrazing, logging, mining, and other threats to the Yosemite area's exceptional beauty and geologic resources, Congress set the land aside as a park in 1864 and gave it to the state of California to administer.  This was eight years before Congress made Yellowstone America's first national park (there being no state of Wyoming to turn the park over to), but well into the age of mass communication and aggressive tourism promotion and development. Within just a few decades, people throughout California and all over America learned about the wonders of Yosemite and developed a yen to visit the place. The transfer to state management in 1864, the end of the Civil War in 1865, the completion of the transcontinental railroad (1869), the construction of wagon roads to the Yosemite region, and other factors combined to create a Yosemite Valley tourism industry that grew at a rapid clip. 

Yosemite's hospitality industry began to take shape in the late 1850s and 1860s with the construction of several primitive lodging facilities, including Clark's Station (1857) at Wawona, and Lower Hotel (1859) and Upper Hotel (later Hutchings House) in the valley.  Transportation improvements and recreational infrastructure development also occurred at a fairly rapid rate during the 1860s and 70s.  By the mid-1870s, Yosemite sported several privately-developed trails for horse and mule rides (few people were interested in hiking back then) and was served by toll roads that extended all the way into the valley. No railroad served Yosemite at that time, but a person living in San Francisco or Oakland could travel to Yosemite in about a day and a half  if s/he was willing to endure a punishing ride on wagon roads and (prior to 1874) complete the last leg of the trip into the valley on a horse or mule. In those early days, a visit to Yosemite Valley (aka Yo-Semite Valley) was only for hardy, adventuresome people.

While riding trails and various other tourist-oriented enterprises opened up in Yosemite Valley during the 1860s, the valley still lacked decent lodging and related hospitality amenities as the decade drew to a close. Seeing a golden opportunity, John C. Smith constructed a building that introduced a new standard of quality when it was completed in 1871.  Officially called the Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Saloon (isn't that a grand name?),  but known simply as the Cosmopolitan, Smith's establishment offered Yosemite visitors two prime amenities -- hot or cold baths at any time of the day or night, plus a very well-stocked bar  (Smith's mint juleps were a  favorite).

The clientele included some campers, but consisted mostly of well-heeled easterners, Californians, and foreigners lodging at the valley's inns.  All appreciated the Cosmopolitan's special amenities, which included fine glassware, carpeted baths, full-length mirrors, delicate bath soaps, clean towels and linens, full-size billiard tables, a barber service, a ladies' parlor, a gentlemen's reading room, and even up-to-date newspapers. How all of the fragile stuff could have been hauled into the valley without breaking it, especially on the rugged 20-mile final approach, doubtlessly mystified many customers.

Yosemite Valley visitors very much needed the comforts that the Cosmopolitan offered. The visitor register that was kept on the Cosmopolitan's porch beginning in 1873 contains liberal mention of miseries arising from dusty roads, insect bites, sick horses, foul weather, isolation, and various other afflictions. After long, wearying days of travel and sightseeing, perhaps in association with the discomforts  of camping, imagine how happy Cosmopolitan customers were to have a libation to clear the dust from their throat, a bath to wash the dirt from their hide, and maybe a go at the billiards table to make them feel even more civilized.   

By 1876, Yosemite was attracting nearly 2,000 visitors a year, most of whom stayed in the valley for several weeks at a time. At that time the valley had three nondescript inns -- Black's Hotel, Leidig's Hotel, and the Coulter and Murphy Hotel (former Hutchings House/ Upper Hotel).  The Cosmopolitan, which was located across the road from the latter, enjoyed a brisk trade.  None of the valley's rather primitive hotels offered amenities like those of the comparatively elegant Cosmopolitan.  And except for the firefall (introduced by James McCauley in the 1870s), there were no significant competing diversions after the sun went down.

The valley's lodging industry began shifting to a more modern footing in the 1870s and 1880s. Older structures underwent renovations and added new services. Prime examples of upgrading included the Yosemite Falls Hotel (later the Sentinel Hotel) in the Old Village area adjacent to the Cosmopolitan and the La Casa Nevada (between Vernal and Nevada Falls).

The Cosmopolitan remained a going concern into the early 1880s, enjoying a national reputation as a "must" stop for Yosemite Valley visitors.  Many a Yosemite newbie was eager to add the Cosmopolitan to his  "been there, done that" list.

An impressive number of impressive folks enjoyed the Cosmopolitan's comforts.  The visitor register, which is now in the Yosemite Museum, bears the comments and autographs of such notables as John Muir, Rudyard Kipling, William Randolph Hearst, Lillie Langtry, William 'Buffalo Bill" Cody, and Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Garfield.  (Theodore Roosevelt signed the register in 1903, long after the Cosmopolitan closed its doors.)

Unfortunately, the Cosmopolitan was forced out of business after a successful run of only 13 years. The State Board of Commissioners closed it down in 1884, just six years before Congress established Yosemite National Park. The commissioners had decided that any saloon in Yosemite would have to be operated in conjunction with a hotel.

The building that housed the Cosmopolitan was put to other uses for nearly half a century, but finally burned down on December 8, 1932. Today, few visitors know that the Cosmopolitan ever existed.

Postscript: A forthcoming Traveler article will provide additional information about the Cosmopolitan's remarkable visitor register, the Grand Register of Yo-Semite Valley.

Further reading:

Orsi, Richard J., Alfred Runte, and Marlene Smith-Baranzini (Eds.). Yosemite and Sequoia: A Century of California National Parks. University of California Press, 1993.  Paperback, 146 pp.

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Thanks for sharing this wonderful history of the Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Sallon, one of the classic early settler buildings in Yosemite's Old Village.
One correction for you, in that the Yosemite Falls Hotel, and later renamed and mostly known as the Sentinel Hotel, was not built on the site of the current Ahwahnee Hotel under the Arches, but actually built in the Old Village area of the Valley, adjacent to the Cosmopolitan, Degnan's, Black's, Best Studio, and others.

The Awhahnee Hotel was built on the site of the old Kenney Stables that had occupied that meadow east of the former Native American village. In fact, when construction began on the Awhahnee Hotel, the Sentinal Hotel and Cedar Room were still standing across the valley in the Old Village.

Thanks again for the story!

Cheers, Michael

[The needed corrections were made in the original article. Ed.]

Good catch, Michael, and many thanks. To avoid confusion, I've gone back into the article and replaced the misleading info about the Yosemite Falls Hotel/Sentinel Hotel.

Another excellent and fascinating article by Bob.  Many thanks.  You do a terrific job.

Where in blazes did you get the date 1859 for the Lower Hotel? The Hotel was completed (except for the chimney) in 1856, was repaired and the chimney finished in 1857, and operated as a hotel under the management of Mr. & Mrs. John Neal in 1858.

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