The Manmade Firefall
“Let the Fire Fall!”
For decades those words ushered in one of Yosemite’s most famous spectacles: The Firefall. Each evening in the summer, a roaring bonfire was built at the edge of Glacier Point, which towers 3,200 feet above Yosemite Valley. By sundown hundreds of spectators had gathered in Curry Village below. At 9pm sharp, a master of ceremonies in Curry Village shouted out, “Let the Fire Fall!” and the bonfire’s glowing embers were pushed over the edge of Glacier Point, creating a glittering “Waterfall of Fire.”
The Firefall was inadvertently started in 1872 by James MacCauley, owner of the Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel. Each night in the summer, MacCauley built a campfire at the edge of Glacier Point to entertain his guests. He then put out the fire by kicking the smoldering embers over the edge of the cliff. As the glowing embers tumbled thousands of feet through the air, they were spotted by visitors below in Yosemite Valley. Before long, people began requesting to see the “Firefall.” Sensing a business opportunity, MacCauley’s sons began asking visitors in Yosemite Valley for donations. They then hauled extra wood to Glacier Point to build bigger campfires, resulting in more dramatic Firefalls.
In 1897 MacCauley was evicted from Glacier Point, and after 25 years the nightly Firefall came to an abrupt halt. Several years later, Yosemite Valley hotel owner David Curry heard his guests reminiscing about the Firefall, and he took it upon himself to reinstate the spectacle for special occasions. He also added a few dramatic flourishes of his own. After his employees had built a roaring fire at Glacier Point, Curry would call out in a booming voice, “Hello, Glacier Point!” After receiving a loud “Hello” in response, Curry would thunder out, “Let ‘er go, Gallagher!” at which point the burning embers were pushed over the edge.
In 1913 the National Park Service banned the Firefall (possibly as punishment over a leasing dispute with David Curry), but it was reinstated in 1917. Within a few years, the Firefall had adopted the following ritual: At 9pm sharp, a master of ceremonies in Camp Curry would bellow out the following exchange with a firemaster at Glacier Point…
“Hello, Glacier Point!”
“Hello, Camp Curry!”
“Is the fire ready?”
“The fire is ready!”
“Let the Fire Fall!”
“The Fire Falls!”
The glowing embers were then pushed over the edge in a steady, controlled manner, resulting in a prolonged glittering cascade. As the spectacle unfolded, visitors in Curry Village sang a song called “Indian Love Call” while visitors at National Park Campgrounds sang “America The Beautiful.”
During World War II, the Firefall was temporarily discontinued, and some in the National Park Service hoped that it would never return. By that time attitudes towards the environment had shifted, and the unnatural spectacle of the Firefall in a national park was considered inappropriate by many. After the war, however, the public outcry for the Firefall’s return was so great that the park service relented, and the Firefall was reinstated.
In 1968 George Hertzog, the director of the National Park Service, decided to end the Firefall once and for all. He stated that the Firefall was an unnatural spectacle more appropriate for Disneyland than a national park. He also argued that the Firefall attracted huge crowds that damaged local meadows. Despite howls of protest from the public, the National Park Service stood firm in its decision to permanently end the Firefall. A final ceremonial Firefall was held on Jan 25, 1968. According to a National Park Service press release:
“The Firefall, a fancy of James McCauley’s that caught on, and was popular for almost a hundred years, died Thursday, January 25, 1968 in a blazing farewell. It was a dandy Firefall, fat and long and it ended with an exceptionally brilliant spurt, the embers lighting the cliff as they floated slowly downward … There weren’t many people around to watch. Maybe fifty. Hardly any congestion at all.”
Then in 1973, within months of the 100-year anniversary of the first Firefall, photographer Galen Rowell took the first known photo of the “Natural Firefall” at Horsetail Fall. That single photo ushered in an exciting new chapter in the history of the Firefall, and within a few decades the Natural Firefall had become as famous as the Manmade Firefall.
• In the 1920s it was discovered that red fir bark produced the best burning embers. From that point on, the Firefall was fueled exclusively by red fir bark.
• The Firefall was featured in the 1954 movie The Caine Mutiny, when one of the naval officers visits Yosemite National Park on shore leave.
• In 1960 when President John F. Kennedy visited Yosemite Valley, the Firefall was delayed 30 minutes because Kennedy was on the phone at 9pm. This was the only time that the Firefall did not start at 9pm sharp.