Occasionally we run across someone that causes us to stand back and think how interesting that person’s life was. The person is not well known but has definitely left his or her mark in life. Several attributes of the individual are unquestionable loyalty to a mission, visionary and being his or her own person. This person is found throughout our nation. They could be in the military, political service, a teacher or a volunteer in a soup line helping the needy. Recently I ran across such an individual that lived a very interesting life and found his niche in life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. His occupation was United States Forest Ranger.
In 1891 Congress gave authority to the President to set aside forest land for preservation, protection of water sheds and future lumber needs. The Secretary of the Interior was later given authority to “regulate occupancy and use within the reserves, develop mineral resources, provide for fire protection, and permit the sale of timber.” The initial model to control and regulate these vast forest resources of the American West was fashioned from the Prussian land management practices. (Now Germany). But who was going to enforce the regulations.
The Department of the Interior began hiring and developing the Forest Ranger. Many of the early staff came from the prestigious Ivy League schools and moved West to the rough and exciting lives that extended from the Rockies to the Pacific. One early Ranger wrote of the duties of the Forest Ranger as, “The ranger in the district was often the only policeman, fish and game warden, coroner, disaster rescuer, and doctor. He settled disputes between cattle and sheepmen, organized and led fire fighting crews, built roads and trails, negotiated grazing and timber sales contracts, carried out reforestation and disease control projects, and ran surveys.” Injury and even death was the fate of more than one early ranger.
The Ranger that I ran across was born and raised on the Sweetwater Ranch near Bridgeport, California. This is high in the Sierras on the eastern slopes north of Yosemite. What a beautiful place to have been raised. His grandparents also ran a stage coach station on the road from the mining ghost towns of Bodie and Aurora to Genoa and Virginia City. As he and his brother got older, their mother and father felt that education was the single most important aspect for their children so they sold the ranch and moved to Reno so that they could be near the University of Nevada.
The future Ranger graduated in the early 1900s in Engineering and joined the U.S. Forest Service and returned to his roots near Bridgeport, California. He followed the normal regime of work identified above with one additional activity, mapping. He would load up his pack horse with food, camping gear and surveying instruments and climb on his other horse and disappear into the Sierras for a month or two at a time. During the summer he would map the Eastern Sierras. During the winter months when access to the area was impossible he would go to the Forest Service Office in Carson Valley and turn his field notes into Forest Service Maps. The Sierras are full of high altitude Alpine Lakes. Small, cold and beautifully clear lakes that are filled from melting snow in the spring. Since the ranger was the first to map the area he also had naming rights so the lakes around the Bridgeport area were named for his wife, daughters and women from the Carson Valley area. For decades the Forest Service Maps referred to the region as Henry’s Harem. Political correctness crept into our society and the term Henry’s Harem has disappeared from the U.S. Forest Service maps.
He had a broad view of what the Forest Service could accomplish. He built a small museum from artifacts he found in the mountains only to be told that this was not a mission for the forest service and he had to remove it. Decades later the Forest Service does respect the past and artifacts are on display around the country.
While on his rounds deep in the Sierras he discovered petroglyphs carved by native Americans during a bygone and forgotten era. He reached out to the University of Southern California and they sent an Archeological team to the area but could not identify the origin of the Indians that had carved on the rocks. He also found and brought firearms, obsidian arrowheads and other artifacts from the mountains. Many were left by settlers enroute to hopes of finding gold in the mountains of California.
He also embraced photography at the same time that Ansel Adams was photographing the Sierras. He would take and then develop and then enlarge photos of the deep Sierras.
In addition to his love for the Sierras and the Forest Service, he had a family in Carson Valley in Nevada. He hand built much of the house he raised his children in. His two daughters married and had children of their own. His son was a success in his own right and became Vice President of Engineering for the Sierra Pacific power company.
The ranger died in the early 50s. His name was Henry Atcheson and he became one of the unknown and quiet individuals that helped to mold the country into being the greatest nation.