Written by Mialise Carney, COSS Communications Student Assistant
Sierra News Online runs a series about local history mysteries from the Yosemite region, sourcing information from commenters, historians, and researchers to help solve these mysteries. History Mystery 94, The Case of the Missing Maps, was solved with the extensive research and documentation that Dr. John Pryor has conducted in the area known as Fish Camp.
Fish Camp, also known as Summerdale, has been a mystery for a long time. First used by Native Americans for camping and fishing, it later became a spot for logging, fishing, water irrigation, and as an important stop on the way to Wawona when colonized by European Americans. The mystery was the specific locations of each building in Fish Camp in the early 1900s and the writers asked for maps that could identify the landscape around this time, as well as help identify some buildings with unknown names and uses.
With the help of Dr. Pryor’s research cataloged in the Mariposa History Museum, they were able to identify that Fish Camp and Summerdale were the same place, discover the location of specific buildings, and also understand the chronological history of the area.
Dr. Pryor was originally called into the area of Fish Camp to participate in an environmental project. He wrote a report for Applied Earthworks but he also uses the area for Fresno State students to become involved in field research through surface collecting and surface scrapes, as well as archival research with local museums like the Mariposa History Museum.
“My whole idea is to minimize cost and maximize recovery,” he said. “I came in late in the game, and I didn’t want to be the bad guy. But they didn’t know what was in the ground.”
The ground revealed more about the area’s history as they found most of Summerdale buried beneath. California is not known for soil strata, but because Fish Camp had burned down several times, they found layered burn horizons from the old hotels. Dr. Pryor even has one of the original landowners of Summerdale, Albert Philp’s store ledger dated from 1898-1910. In handwriting, it accounts for everything people in the area bought or sold, who they were, and who their suppliers were.
“The Mariposa Museum is just amazing with their records. We are able to bring students there and to work with them in terms of skills,” he said.
All building activities that happen in California require an environmental impact report, so the experience and skills students earn while working with Dr. Pryor at Fish Camp is invaluable as they continue on to pursue careers with private development firms and agencies. Some students are even employed by local Native tribes as part of their cultural research.
“We’re an applied department,” Dr. Pryor said about the anthropology department, “We’re not producing university professors, we’re producing applied workers.”
Though small, Fish Camp was an important railway station during the 1900s. Most artifacts came through Fish Camp and Raymond, not Fresno, and the shipping was just as quick as Amazon is today.
“You could write a letter to San Francisco and a package could arrive a few days later. Fish Camp had access to sophisticated goods. It was only when highway 41 began being built in 1931 that Fish Camp was completely transformed,” he said.
Dr. Pryor emphasizes the importance of archeology in trying to understand the stories of the past and the people who used the objects he uncovers. One of these characters was Elmer Almer, who Dr. Pryor describes as a real cowboy. One day, he won all the prizes as the horse races, and a beautiful Australian woman fell in love and married him. They ran Fish Camp before Elmer sold it and ran a pool hall in Madera.
He tells another story about Charles Beery who received Fish Camp for only a dollar coin. After he used all the land for lumber and Fish Camp burned down again, Beery built a high-end hotel with steam heating that catered to wealthy clients. This was during the building of highway 41 and wealthy southern Californians paid for it. But as soon as it was built, it burned down. It was fully insured which makes Dr. Pryor a little suspicious about arson, despite it not being reported in the original newspapers.
“I’ve been trying to convince current landowners that lodgers will want to know the story of this place,” he said. “I’m a storyteller. I want to write a popular history of Fish Camp about the people that were there. I want to tell the story about the place so it’s not lost.”