Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
Throughout history, there have been those who have accomplished many important things, clearly living beyond the ordinary. Whether they discovered a life-saving vaccine, developed a revolutionary new technology or overcame a debilitating injury, the results of their achievements have inspired us.
The world has had many of these exceptional overachievers and Visalia, too, has had its share. One of them was George William Stewart, a man who I believe was one of the most important to ever call Visalia home. His life was packed with many accomplishments, but perhaps the most significant was his successful campaign to save the giant sequoia trees from destruction — a feat he carried out almost single-handedly and one that earned him a special place in history.
Stewart began life on April 29, 1857, in Placerville, a Sierra Nevada mountain town in the heart of California’s gold country. In 1869, he moved with his family to Santa Cruz and in about 1872, the family began farming in Tulare County. The young man developed an interest in newspapers and the journalistic bug landed him a job as a reporter for the Visalia Weekly Delta. It obviously was a good fit and, by 1876, the 19-year old was the associate editor and, two years later, he rose to the top job of editor.
Coincidently, an article appeared in the Delta in 1878, presumably written by Stewart, condemning the removal of a huge giant sequoia in the Sierra. “The cutting down of one of these trees is nothing less than a sacrilege,” he complained, “and should be prohibited by the most stringent laws.” Stewart was already staking out his position, preparing his readers for his lifelong crusade for preservation of these giants.
In the early 1880s, Stewart left the Delta to work on other journalistic pursuits, but by 1884, he was back at the Visalia newspaper as editor. A year later, he became part owner and by 1889, he was sole owner. During his years there, Stewart frequently reported and commented on the beauty and importance of the Sierra, especially the big trees. Not only did he publicly advocate for the largest living things, he worked even harder behind the scenes persuading government officials and other influential people to join him. On Sept. 25, 1890, all of his work paid off. President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing America’s second national park. Stewart’s effective advocacy earned him the title “Father of Sequoia National Park.”
By 1899, Stewart needed more time for his many pursuits, so he sold his financial interest in the Delta. His long tenure with the paper had earned him an enviable reputation among his journalistic peers and others. During his last year as newspaper owner, President William McKinley appointed him to the prestigious office of registrar of the U.S. Land Office in Visalia. The appointee had to be of high caliber and well-respected in order to effectively administer the federal “homestead” laws. Stewart more than met the qualifications and he served until 1914.
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Images left to right:
Mt. George Stewart, the large peak shown in the center, stands in Tulare County in the Great Western Divide of the Sierra Nevada Range. It stands more than 12,200 feet in elevation. c. 1929 (Courtesy National Park Service)”
George Stewart as he appeared in September 1890 at age 33.
Col. George Stewart as he appeared in about 1925.
Stewart was made second lieutenant in the National Guard in 1887. This was his business card.
While still connected to the Delta, he was busy with many other matters as well, including his marriage to Martha Roland in 1891. As Visalia was forming a National Guard unit in 1887, he was right in the middle of it. So when Visalia’s Company E of the Sixth Infantry Battalion formed, this natural-born leader was made a second lieutenant and, in the years that followed, he moved up the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel, a title he carried with him for the rest of his life.
He was civic-minded as well. When Andrew Carnegie was offering funds for the creation of libraries, Stewart was instrumental in the organizing effort for the Visalia Free Library. After its creation in 1904, he served as a trustee on the library board and did so until 1927. He was so committed to the library, he donated his many years of professional and personal papers to the institution and they remain today in the Annie R. Mitchell History Room of the Tulare County/City Library.
In 1901, when a group of local enthusiasts who had scaled Mount Whitney wanted to form a club, they turned to Stewart and he became the Mt. Whitney Club’s first president. He joined service clubs, helped organize the Visalia Board of Trade, now called Chamber of Commerce, and, in 1921, was named president of the newly formed Tulare County Historical Society.
While involved in all of his activities, he took an active interest in studying the history of the local native people.
By doing so, he became a self-taught authority on the subject, writing about them often, including a scholarly article that appeared in The Overland Monthly magazine in January 1884. But of all his interests and studies, clearly the mountains and especially the giant sequoia trees were his favorite topics.
In 1929, in recognition for his love of the Sierra Nevada, a Tulare County peak standing more than 12,200 feet high was officially designated Mount George Stewart. A year later, he wrote a book entitled “Big Trees of the Giant Forest,” a 100-page volume describing the giant sequoia tree and its life in Sequoia National Park. His book is more than just his observations — it’s a love story!
On Sept. 6, 1931, the quiet unassuming man who had accomplished so much died of stomach cancer after surgery at a San Francisco hospital, just three months after the death of Martha, his wife of 40 years. Condolences came from all over, including kind words from Stewart’s old newspaper. “It is the sad duty of the Times Delta to chronicle in its news columns today the death of Col. George W. Stewart,” it reported, “a man who for more than half a century played a leading part in the development of this city and of Tulare County.”
Both Stewart and his wife were cremated, and their remains were placed in a niche at the base of his mountain.