Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Mount Whitney Military Reservation
US Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District History (1993)

Site Name
: Mount Whitney Military Reservation

Location: The former site was composed of approximately 84,480 acres located between the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Range and eastern edge of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. This area includes all of Township 15 and 16S, Range 34E; Township 16S, Range 35E, Sections 19 to 36 inclusive; Township 15S, Range 35E; Township 15S, Range 36E, Sections 19, 20, 29, 30, 31 and 32.

Site History: At 14,453 feet above mean sea level, Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States. The first actual ascent of the Mount Whitney was documented in 1873. The first of many scientific expeditions was that of Professor Samuel P. Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, who climbed the mountain in 1881. On 13 February 1882, Professor Langley wrote to General W.B. Hagen, Chief Signal Officer, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C., stating that the territory surrounding Mount Whitney would make an excellent site for a signal service station and he gave a number of reasons for his opinion. Professor Langley laid particular stress on the fact that the site, due to its elevation, would be very valuable for scientific observations.

The War Department requested the creation of the reservation on 17 September 1883 based on the recommendation of General Hagen. The Reservation was established by Executive Order on 20 September 1883, through the transfer of 84,480 acres from the Department of Interior, Sierra Forest Reserve. The Mount Whitney Military Reservation was created nominally for military purposes. In fact, military officials at that time considered that the area was set aside as a military reservation solely to preserve Mount Whitney for observatory purposes. But as late as December 1903, there was no correspondence or evidence which could have suggested that any station or observatory facilities were constructed or any such activities took place on this site. War Department correspondence does suggest that the reservation was under the supervision of the Headquarters, Department of California, located at the Presidio of San Francisco, and that horse-mounted calvary troops regularly patrolled the area. It appears from this correspondence, however, that the chief complaint which made these patrols necessary, was that sheepherders regularly trespassed on the reservation.

The Reservation was ultimately abandoned by the War Department because it was considered to be useless for military purposes. It was transferred to the Department of the Interior, Sierra Forest Reserve by an Executive Order dated 2 February 1904. The majority of the former site is currently part of the Sequoia National Park and the Inyo National Forest. The remainder of the former site is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management or owned by the city of Los Angeles and Department of Water and Power. The area is devoted primarily to resource conservation and recreational use. A few scattered private residences are also located adjacent to the only roadway in the area, Whitney Portal Road.
Sequoia Parks Foundation History (2010)
by William tween
Surprising to most is the fact that before Mt. Whitney was a part of Sequoia National Park, even before it was part of the Inyo and Sequoia national forests, the region was set aside as a military preserve. For almost a quarter century, Mt. Whitney and its surrounding terrain fell within the boundaries of the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation. How that now long-forgotten place came to exist, and what happened to it, is worth remembering.
The Langley Expedition of 1881 explored the potential of using the Whitney area, with its very high altitude and unusually dry atmosphere, for scientific purposes. Langley’s interests focused primarily on the measurement of solar energy, but his team also collected metrological data. At that time, very little weather data had yet been collected at very high altitudes, and Langley took advantage of his access to the summit of Mt. Whitney to capture at least a bit of information.
Throughout his expedition, Langley enjoyed support from the United States Army, including the participation of Captain Otho E. Michaelis, an ordnance officer on temporary assignment with the Signal Corps. A decade earlier, seeing the need for a program of nation-wide weather measurement, President Ulysses S. Grant had issued an executive order instructing the Army Signal Corps to begin collecting weather data throughout the United States. This was the mission that brought Captain Michaelis to Mt. Whitney.
Michaelis found the summit of Mt. Whitney an exposed and inhospitable place, and he collected little data, but the seed had been planted that the mountain’s extensive summit plateau presented an opportunity for further research. Langley’s final report reinforced the point, suggesting that studies continue on the summit of the Sierra’s highest summit.
Someone in the Signal Corps took this message to heart, and after due consideration the army acted, creating the Mt. Whitney Military reservation by executive order on September 20, 1883. The new reserve contained 84,480 acres, an area of about 132 square miles, and included the high peaks from Williamson on the north to modern Mt. Langley (then called Sheep Mountain) on the south. On the east side of the mountain, the reservation extended down almost to the outskirts of the town of Lone Pine.
And what did the Signal Corps do with this new research site? For the next twenty years, exactly nothing. The army placed no one on the ground and spent no time managing the area. The only significance of the reserve was that its lands remained outside the Sierra Forest Reserve when that protected area was defined in 1893.
Not until 1903 did the army finally notice the existence of the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation. That summer, the army assigned Captain Charles Young as the officer in charge at Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, and this most ambitious and capable of all the early cavalry officers to oversee the parks read the maps and discovered the presence of the military reservation a few dozen miles to the east of the national parks. Young, who seemed to have almost preternatural energy, was soon drawn to the long-neglected reservation.
By this time, the trail Langley had roughed out to the summit back in 1881 had largely disappeared, but tourist interest in the mountain was growing. Responding to this challenge late in the summer of 1903, Young diverted a portion of his command to the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation and began improving trails.
His primary improvement was the cutting through of a new and much shorter trail to the west base of the mountain, the route that is now known as (old) Army Pass. Prior to the opening of this cutoff, anyone traveling to the Crabtree area from Lone Pine crossed over Cottonwood Pass, and traveled south all the way to Tunnel Meadow on the South Fork of the Kern River before turning north and climbing to Siberian Pass and Rock Creek. Young’s new Army Pass route cut at least twenty miles off the old route, and not incidentally, opened up a new part of the military reservation to stock travel.
After Young, military interest in the area rapidly waned. The Signal Corps, for whom the reserve had been created, had no particular interest in managing the reservation, but another new organization did. In February 1905, responding to strong encouragement from President Theodore Roosevelt, Congress transferred responsibility for management of the federal forest reserve system from the General land Office of the Department of the Interior to the Forestry Bureau in the Department of Agriculture. A month later, this newly empowered USDA agency renamed itself the United States Forest Service.
Founding Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot immediately went to work to strengthen his new bureau, and one of his interests was in cleaning up anomalous public land designations. Pinchot soon discovered the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation and also the fact that it held no specific significance to the army. Pinchot put his staff to work, and the following year, 1906, the War Department abandoned the reservation and its lands became a part of the Sierra Forest Reserve, soon to be reorganized as the Sequoia and Inyo national forests.
Through the lens of hindsight, the significance of the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation appears minor. During its twenty-three-year existence, it attracted little attention and accomplishment nothing towards its original mission of meteorological research. It remains, however, the first part of the southern Sierra to be withdrawn from potential public sale and one of the building blocks out of which modern Sequoia National Park eventually emerged.
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Updated 8 February 2016