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On a Clear Day

The man who paved our way to Mount Diablo's summit


On May 2, 1874, Mount Diablo’s upper reaches opened to tourists for the first time. A group of about 20 explorers, riding on horseback and in a brand-new six-horse stagecoach, made the journey up a new road, climbing nearly to the mountain’s top.

“The road for the most part winds through green fields brilliant with wildflowers, through groves of oak trees whose luxurious foliage has not yet lost the tender green of early spring,” one enthusiastic participant wrote in the Contra Costa Gazette that month. Two miles down the road from the summit, the travelers enjoyed what papers described as a “first-class dinner” on a tented platform. Although fog enveloped most of the goings-on, it lifted briefly to reward the eager tourists with stunning views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate—pre-bridge, of course.

Helping the public realize this experience was part of a radical vision held by entrepreneur Joseph Seavey Hall. Although Native American spiritual leaders had attributed special properties to Mount Diablo and surveyors had used the vista to establish the first baseline and meridian in California, few casual travelers had progressed far up its slopes. “Joseph Seavey Hall was the first to popularize Mount Diablo as a tourist destination,” says Seth Adams, director of land programs for Save Mount Diablo. “As such, he was instrumental in it becoming a state park in 1931.”

Hall was no stranger to mountaintop tourism. Born in 1818 in New Hampshire, Hall began working as a hiking guide on the state’s Mount Washington when he was just a teen. Within a few years, he had built the first bridle path to the summit and went on to forge the first carriage road to the mountain’s top and build its Summit House hotel, where hikers and riders could take refuge from the bad weather on the newly accessible mountain.

Perhaps it was hearing about the establishment of great new western parks (Yosemite in 1864, Yellowstone in 1872) that drew Hall westward; perhaps it was the riches said to be available from mining. Hall, who had served as a civil engineer during the Civil War, and his wife, Sarah Crawford, moved first to Nevada, where he invested in silver mining, and then to the Bay Area sometime around 1873.

Once here, Hall no doubt viewed Mount Diablo with an entrepreneurial eye. In October 1873, he enticed investors to back a Mount Diablo summit road. The promoter claimed that this mountain had “more rare attractions to the lover of nature ... than any mountain of the same altitude, perhaps in the world.” Two roads, one from Pine Canyon in Ygnacio Valley and one from Danville via Green Valley, would cost only $22,000, he promised. Within a few weeks, Hall had his funding.

Local media were abuzz. “While for all these years our mountain has lifted its head up in sight of all,” one newspaper writer waxed enthusiastic, “the advantages and attractions of our beautiful vallies [sic] have remained almost as unknown to the people … as the hidden gold of undiscovered veins.”

The road and the Mountain House hotel opened the following spring to great acclaim. The hotel itself consisted of a simple wooden house with a steep gable and just 16 rooms, but it attracted tourists from all over the country. Some stayed for just a few nights, while others lingered for weeks, hiking, painting, reading, and writing. Naturalist John Muir breakfasted at the hotel in 1887 after spending the night and waking to a “glorious” mountaintop sunrise. Hall, who lived among the oaks about a two-mile hike from the summit, eventually installed a railed platform and telescope at the very top so people could hike or horseback ride to the highest elevation and enjoy the views.

The hotel, alas, burned in 1891—the fire set, most probably, “by ranchers,” Adams says. “They were petitioning [county authorities] to close the roads because they didn’t like picnickers trespassing or starting fires,” Adams says. Eventually, authorities did close the roads, and ranchers burned the rest of the inn to the ground to prevent hikers from loitering nearby.

By this time, Hall’s wife had died and he had left the area. After logging in Michigan, he returned to New England, where he lived out his days, “sickly and feeble,” until his death in 1899. It was an unspectacular end to a life that spanned a continent and conquered mountain peaks. But Hall’s legacy is apparent to all who hike or drive up Mount Diablo.

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