The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Muir, John

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Muir, John

MUIR, John, geologist, inventor, naturalist, and explorer, b. in Dunbar, Scotland, 21 April, 1838; d. in Martinez, Cal., 24 Dec, 1914. Daniel Muir, his father, was a grain merchant in Dunbar. The Muirs trace their ancestry back through distinguished Scottish lines, while the family of Gilderoy, through which John Muir was descended through his mother, Ann Gilderoy, carried in its veins some of the best and bravest blood of the Highland chiefs who made Scotland's history. In his native town, by the stormy North Sea, the boy first showed that love of nature in the wild which later in life found expression in books that treated of trees, flowers, animals, and birds with the authority of a scientist, and yet with a tenderness that always revealed his love of anything and everything that grew or lived in the forest, the fields, and particularly in the mountains His inborn spirit of romance was fostered by his environment, for his favorite playground as a boy was the famous old Dunbar Castle, to which King Edward fled after the defeat at Bannockburn. Built more than a thousand years ago, the old castle has so rich a legend and historic story that it was unavoidable for the expressionable boy to come deeply under its influence. In 1850, when he was twelve years of age, he came to America with his father, a sister, and a brother. His mother and three younger children were to follow later, when a home had been made for them in the New World. The sailing-ship on which they crossed the Atlantic was six weeks and three days journeying from Glasgow to New York. After considerable deliberation and almost deciding to go to the backwoods of Upper Canada, the father took the little family to Wisconsin, taking up a farm claim in the heart of the wilderness near Fox River. The last hundred miles from Wisconsin was made by wagon over the trackless prairie, just after the spring thaw, and John Muir never forgot how they stuck in the mud again and again, and how doubtful it seemed many times whether they ever would reach their destination. They got there at last, however, and the boy worked on the farm, besides doing his part toward clearing the forest, with a vigor and industry that were a matter of course with the sturdy Scottish lad. But his mind extended far beyond the borders of the farm. He had access to good books, and he not only devoured them, but he remembered what he read. At sixteen he turned his attention seriously to inventions, having early shown a bent in that direction. His first achievement in this way was a self-setting sawmill, which he made with tools fashioned by himself — bradawls, punches, and a pair of compasses — out of wire and old files; and a fine-tooth saw, which had formed part of an old-fashioned corset, capable of cutting hickory and oak. Afterward he invented water-wheels, curious door locks and latches, thermometers, hygrometers, pyrometers, clocks, a barometer, an automatic contrivance for feeding the horses at any required hour, a lamp-lighter and fire-lighter, an early-or-late-rising machine, and so forth. All these things were done either in the small hours of the morning, which he took from his sleeping time, or in odd moments during the day when farm work permitted him to use his whittling-knife to make tangible realities of his ingenious ideas. He contrived to obtain an appointment as school teacher in the periods when farm work was slack and with the money thus earned added to what he made in farming, he entered the University of Wisconsin, in 1860, for a scientific course, and paid his own way for four years. At the end of that period he began a botanizing tour which continued for years. He went into Canada, around the Great Lakes through Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Then he travorsed the Southern States, visiting Cuba, and finally striking out for California. The Far West had always held a fascination for him, and when he arrived there in April, 1868, he was content to go no further. He made the Yosemite his home. Before reaching there and while exploring the swamps of Florida for certain rare plants, he was smitten with malarial fevor. This illness laid him up for some time and compelled him to abandon a plan he had formed to make his way to the headwaters of the Amazon. In the Yoaemite he supported himself by herding sheep and working in a sawmill, continuing his studies in natural history at the same time. By dint of stern thrift, he saved a few hundred dollars and then set forth on a systematic survey of the Sierra Nevada. For ten years he led an isolated life in the wilderness. Hardship and peril came to him, but he never minded, and only when he needed bread did he show himself in civilization. He studied the flora, fauna, and meteorology of the region minutely, but his accomplishments as a geologist were far more important. He studied the effects of the glacial period, and he discovered no less than sixty-five small, residual glaciers on the High Sierra. Declining various flattering inducements to prepare himself for professorship in colleges, in 1876 he became one of a party connected with the geodetic survey in the Great Basin, and three years afterward, in 1879, made a tour of exploration in Alaska, where he not only discovered what is now called Glacier Bay and the enormous glacier which bears his name, but pushed on to the very headwaters of the great Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers. In 1881 he went still further north as a member of one of the party on the ship “Corwin,” which went in search of the crew of the lost Arctic vessel, “Jeannette.” John Muir's love for the Yosemite was little short of devotion, and he was the first to proclaim to the world the beauties of that glorious region. He wrote a series of magazine articles on “The Treasures of the Yosemite” in August and September, 1890, and it was largely through the interest awakened by those papers that the Sequoia and Yosemite national parks were established by the United States government. In the cause of forest preservation he was a vigorous and life-long worker, and his slogan, “Save the trees!” was taken up all over the land with splendid results. His published volumes are: “The Mountains of California” (1894); “Our National Parks” (1901); “Stickeen, the Story of a Dog” (1909); “My First Summer in the Sierra” (1911), and “The Yosemite” (1912). He was editor of “Picturesque California,” and most of the text of that work describing mountain scenery came from his hand. In addition he was the author of some 150 descriptive articles published in various newspapers and magazines, including the “Century,” “Atlantic,” “Harper's,” “Overland Monthly,” “Scribner's,” etc. John Muir was an extensive traveler. Besides exploring the North American continent pretty thoroughly, he also traveled in Russia, Siberia, Manchuria, India, Australia, South America, Africa, and New Zealand. Among his magazine contributions which are recognized as of more than common permanent value are the following: “On the Formation of Mountains in the Sierra,” “On the Post-Glacial History of Sequoia Gigantea,” “Glaciation of Arctic and Sub-Arctic Regions,” “Alaska Glaciers,” “Alaska Rivers,” “Ancient Glaciers of the Sierra,” “Forests of Alaska,” “Origin of Yosemite Valley,” “American Forests,” and “Forest Reservations and National Parks.” Honorary degrees were bestowed upon Mr. Muir as follows: A.M., Harvard University, 1896; LL.D., University of Wisconsin, 1897; L.H.D., Yale University, 1911. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; member of the Washington Academy of Sciences; president of the Sierra Club, and the American Alpine Club. John Muir was married, in 1879, to Louise Strentzel, daughter of Dr. John Strentzel, of Martinez, Cal. Mrs. Muir, having inherited, from her father, a fine fruit ranch near Martinez, Mr. Muir devoted much of his time in the latter part of his life to its cultivation, but he never permitted it to interfere with the scientific investigations which had been his life-long occupation. Probably the greatest achievement by John Muir was his successful campaign for the setting apart of the Yosemite National Park, in 1890., as a great public playground. His name has always been associated with that magnificent public acquisition, and there is never any question that it was his skillful and sincere word-painting of the natural beauties of the Yosemite that caused Congress to pass the measure which gives America the most stupendous pleasure ground in the world — a park absolutely unique in its primitive grandeur and diversified scenery. Long before the Yosemite was taken in charge by the government and held to be a people's park, John Muir knew perfectly its mountains, valleys, canyons, waterfalls, and wild denizens. He had been through it again and again. So he was well equipped as a guide when Ralph Waldo Emerson requested him to lead the way through the Yosemite Valley. It was a labor of love for John Muir, and for days he took a delight in pointing out to the “Sage of Concord” the beauties of this Fairyland of the West. That Emerson appreciated both the place and the man was announced in the emphatic remark he made when the trip was over: “Muir is more wonderful than Thoreau.” The unquenchable energy and physical vigor of John Muir was well shown when, at the age of seventy-four, he returned from a wilderness journey up the Amazon and through the trackless jungles of Africa. At seventy-six he was busy on a new book, and had he lived longer there was every indication that he would write many more. After his passing away a great mass of literary material was found that obviously he had intended to turn into concrete form if his life had been longer. Much of it is contained in his “Life, Letters, and Journals,” compiled by and published after his death. In 1879, when he discovered, in Alaska, the great glacier since known as “Muir Glacier,” his erudition as a geologist enabled him to make an important prediction. He said that there were rich deposits of gold along the Juneau River, which could be opened up without much difficulty. Prospectors taking on his suggestion set to work the following year. The result was the establishing of the famous Treadwell mine — a bonanza — which soon paid, in virgin goid, the purchase price of the territory ten times over. Mr. Muir had many narrow escapes from death in the course of his mountain-climbing, but was never daunted. On one occasion he climbed along a three-inch ledge to the very brink of the sixteen-hundred-foot peak of the Upper Yosemite Creek “to listen to the sublime psalm of the falls.” Riding on avalanches, crossing crevasses on glaciers, and weathering a winter storm on the summit of Mt. Shasta, freezing on one side and parboiling on the other as he lay by the acid-saturated steam of a fumarole, were some of his diversions when past seventy years of age. Once while exploring a glacier-enameled sky-peak with a missionary named Young, the latter fell to an apparently inaccessible ledge. Muir cut steps in the ice to the wounded man, and actually carried him to safety with his teeth, while he clung to the cliff's side desperately with fingers and toes. Afterward he brushed aside impatiently any reference to his feat by declaring that it was a mere incident. The modesty of true courage was characteristic of John Muir.