John Muir, a dedicated advocate for the protection of American wild lands, is born in Dunbar, Scotland.
When he was still a boy, Muir’s parents immigrated to the United States. He grew up on a farm in central Wisconsin in the 1850s, a time when the region was still a relatively wild western frontier. When he was 23, Muir left the family farm and traveled around the Midwest working in a variety of industrial jobs. A talented mechanic and inventor, he seemed to be headed for a successful career in the rapidly expanding industrial economy—but an accident changed Muir’s direction in life.
While working in an Indianapolis factory for wagon parts, Muir’s hand slipped, and a file he was using cut the cornea of his left eye. Not long after, his right eye also temporarily failed in a sympathetic reaction. Muir’s experience of being blind for several weeks led him to rethink his life plans. When he recovered his sight, he abandoned his career as a skilled mechanic and opted instead to embark on a 1,000-mile walking tour of the American West.
During his western ramblings, the beautiful Sierra Nevada range in California especially moved Muir. Drawing on the ideas of American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Muir argued that wild nature offered a “window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.” Muir developed a near-religious veneration for the Sierra Nevada territory and a passionate desire to preserve the wild state of the area. In 1892, he and several other early preservationists formed the Sierra Club. Muir served as the club president for 22 years, tirelessly advocating the importance of preserving wilderness as a place where thousands of “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people” could find spiritual and physical rejuvenation.
It is hard to overestimate Muir’s influence in fostering modern concepts of wilderness appreciation and protection. However, in practical terms, Muir and the Sierra Club lost several of their battles to protect the wilderness. From 1908 to 1913, Muir fought fervently against the proposed construction of the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park, which was being built to provide a reservoir of water for the city of San Francisco. Muir railed against his opponents, calling them “temple destroyers” and “devotees of raging commercialism,” but to no avail—the dam was built and water covers the Hetch Hetchy Valley today.
Deeply discouraged, Muir died in 1914, a year after the Hetch Hetchy defeat. The conservationist ideas he proposed in books like Our National Parks, The Yosemite, and dozens of influential magazine articles have become an accepted part of mainstream American thought.