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
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
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
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. Langleys
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 mountains extensive
summit plateau presented an opportunity for further research.
Langleys final report reinforced the point, suggesting
that studies continue on the summit of the Sierras highest
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. Youngs 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
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