Adventures in Nature: The Merry Tramps of Oakland

Article excerpt

DURING THE 1880s, OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA, WAS POISED TO BECOME A HUB FOR MANUFACTURING AND TRANSPORTATION ON THE WEST COAST. The young city, founded in 1852, could boast of having six banks, three carriage manufacturers, a handful of successful iron foundries and companies that produced marble works, along with the Oakland Planing Mills--the largest producer of wood interior furnishings on the West Coast. An east-west line of the Central Pacific Railroad ran through Oakland, and the railroad sought to add a north-south line, while the Water Front Company was improving wharves in the harbor to receive larger vessels. As a community, Oakland was growing and changing with each influx of skilled workers and artisans from other regions seeking year-round employment in this emerging urban center.

Within this mostly affluent suburb of San Francisco, a grassroots group of artistic, avant-garde campers--which also happened to include a future First Lady of California--came together and called themselves the Merry Tramps. They took advantage of the transportation available to them to head for the hills, coast, and forests in search of recreation and renewal, perhaps heeding the call of Reverend W.H.H. Murray (1840-1904), who encouraged an expanding middle class to take the railways to access wilderness areas that aroused spiritual renewal by experiencing nature first-hand. Their adventures in the wilderness preceded by a generation Jack London's (1876-1916) popularity, when urban dwellers began to romanticize natural lifestyles of the recent past. The Merry Tramps bridged the first American wave of recreational camping that occurred during the 1870s and the philosophic movement that John Muir (1838-1914) energized toward environmentalism.

As luck would have it, among the Tramps' number was a talented photographer named Frank B. Rodolph, who captured the small community's camaraderie and good times. Other mementoes of the Merry Tramps can be found in an autograph book owned by Helen Penniman, who married George Pardee in 1887. Pardee would be governor of California from 1903 to 1907, and his wife's souvenirs and a crazy quilt that she made commemorating her adventures are preserved in the Pardee Home Museum in Oakland.

"THE MERRY TRAMPS IN THE REDWOODS." During the 1880s Oakland, California, photographer Frank B. Rodolph captured images of a community of friends enjoying themselves in the outdoors. This informal club called itself the Merry Tramps and for nearly a decade they organized lavish annual excursions to nature spots such as Calistoga, Yosemite, the Russian River, the Sonoma County coast, and even to the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. Rodolph captured the graceful figures and fashionable hats of nine ladies locked arm in arm, arrayed opposite nine gents braced across the shoulders. Perhaps these "Merry Tramps in the Redwoods" were playing Red Rover or some other game.

FRANK B. RODOLPH PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION, COURTESY OF THE BANCROFT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OP CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY

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"IN THE PULLMAN, CONTRASTS." This interior shot of a Pullman car illustrates a dichotomy of the Merry Tramps: They traveled in style before they "roughed it" on their camping trips. The Merry Tramps were not unusual in their lavish style of camping; during the 1870s millions of travelers discovered the joys of outdoor recreation. The Merry Tramps traveled by train, ferry, carriage, horseback, and on foot to reach their destinations, sometimes transporting huge amounts of equipment and provisions. In June 1884, the group traveled by train to their campsite near Guerneville, California.

FRANK B. RODOLPH PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION, COURTESY OF THE BANCROFT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY.

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"ROUND THE BRAMBLE BUSH." Although the Merry Tramps were urbanites, their keen sense of wilderness beauty may have fostered an early awareness of conservationism. …