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for people who care about the West

From the backcountry to the building zoo


The summer after graduating from college, we shared the best job in the world. Armed with a GPS unit, a digital camera and the keys to an electric-blue Dodge Durango, we were charged with tracking down and evaluating the condition of historic structures in Yosemite National Park. Since no map existed of the nearly 700 historic structures scattered throughout the park, our summer became a scavenger hunt through some of the most stunning country in the West.

Our quarries included a stone retaining wall, an asphalt parking lot, the apple orchard in that parking lot, a collapsed mining cabin, a cinderblock comfort station (park-speak for bathroom), a fire lookout tower, tens of miles of trails, an elusive park bench that no one had seen since the 1950s, and a huge dead fire-scarred tree with a tunnel through it for stagecoaches.

Often the structures' locations were not immediately obvious from the terse descriptions that remained. Hetch Hetchy Railroad Engine No. 6 was not at the reservoir, but a mile from our Park Service office in the town of El Portal. Nor was the Hodgdon Meadow Cabin in Hodgdon Meadow, where we first looked for it. When we finally asked our boss, she told us it was in a place called "the building zoo." She didn't want to talk about the building zoo. She refused, on principle, to set foot in the place.

You enter the building zoo, officially known as the Pioneer History Center, through a gorgeous covered wooden bridge that seems to take you back in time. Once inside, an original 19th century bakery, a bank, wooden cabins, a blacksmith shop, a barn, a patrol cabin, and a jail welcome you.

But this is not a 19th century pioneer village. The buildings were all moved here from various locations within the park and reassembled in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during a post-war push to shore up crumbling park infrastructure across the country. Some of the buildings were slated for demolition; others were simply destined for oblivion and decay in the backcountry.

During the Pioneer History Center heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, a "living history program" animated the site. Costumed park rangers baked bread in Degnan's Bakery and gave tours of the board-and-batten wooden structures.

Now, due to budget cuts, most of the buildings are locked tight. Visitors can still amble around the town, peering at musty interiors through hazy glass windows. Volunteer blacksmiths make trinkets for visitors a couple of days a week, and a stagecoach driver still gives rides that rattle the wooden bridge. Visitors can read interpretive signs that tell them how each building represents distant times and places in the park's history: The Hodgdon Meadow Cabin symbolizes battles over homesteading and grazing in the park. Degnan's Bakery represents services provided to early park visitors.

The vast majority of the structures we surveyed during the summer never reach this Park Service version of a retirement community. Many, hidden from view, are allowed to age in place without intervention - victims of deliberate park policy or just a lack of funding. We discovered abandoned mine shafts filled with debris, cabins with foundations and framing incongruously stacked in a grove of spindly pines, log sidings rotted to the ground, and buildings literally flattened by decades of snow.

You could easily pass by these structures and never notice them. And even if you did, it would be difficult to draw any conclusions about their past, for there are no interpretive signs, no jovial costumed stagecoach drivers. But there was a kind of wildness permeating these places, the same wildness that makes so many of Yosemite's landscapes special. Today, hikers who stumble upon rotting log sidings in the middle of meadows and mountains can experience the thrill of discovery, and the magic of being able to wonder at and interpret each structure on their own terms. In doing so, each creates a new story.

That's likely why our boss didn't like the building zoo. Why go see structures stripped of their habitats and contexts, uprooted, relocated, and on display?

The buildings in the building zoo are not eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, since they have been moved and thus lost their "integrity of place" - an essential criterion for a historic structure. But in a few more years - historic structures have to be at least 50 years old - the argument could be made that the building zoo, this historical place made up of historical places, is valuable in itself, because it preserves a 1960s interpretation of the park's pioneer history. The zoo may be valuable not so much because it teaches history, but because it is history. And what could be more fitting in a postmodern national park?

Robin Pam and Erin Beller worked for Yosemite National Park on research internships with the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West at Stanford University. Robin works in online communications at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Erin studies historical landscape for the San Francisco Estuary Institute's Historical Ecology program.