History & Profiles

USGS field crews historically appreciated good cooking

Backcountry culinary skills of Tie Sing literally put his name on the map in 1899.

This article was contributed by Sharlene Van Rooy with the San Benito County Historical Society.

In 1917, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) crew was working in San Benito County under the direction of Topographic Engineer Edward Percy Davis on a mapping project that lasted for two years. This field crew consisted of four topographers and two surveyors who spent the day working in grueling conditions and then spent the night sleeping in tents—hardly the best accommodations! To keep the morale high, good food was essential, so the USGS always hired the best cooks. In 1918 a Chinese man known as Tie Sing was the cook for the Davis field crew working in the vicinity of Bird Creek Road (now Cienega Road).

Tie Sing in the field in 1909. Photo courtesy of the USGS Denver Library and provided by Sharlene Van Rooy.
Tie Sing in the field in 1909. Photo courtesy of the USGS Denver Library and provided by Sharlene Van Rooy.

Tie Sing had a reputation for extravagant meals out on the trail. Having worked for the USGS for more than 25 years and providing countless meals to the men who helped blaze those trails, in 1899 a mountain at the border of southeast Yosemite and Ansel Adams Wilderness was named Sing Peak in his honor.

Sixteen years later, self-made millionaire Stephen Mather wanted to lead an influential group of 18 philanthropic men into the wilderness around Yosemite. He wanted to show them the beauty of the area—make them understand the importance of protecting places like Yosemite for future generations. Mather did not want the men to be distracted by empty bellies, and he knew that Tie Sing was the chef for this important expedition.

Tie Sing could cook anything in the wilderness, and the Mather party was no exception. With an assistant named Eugene, he packed and unpacked two small cook stoves and other provisions each day as they traveled up and down the mountains. Mules were used to carry the food, pots and pans, table linens, and Tie Sing’s precious sourdough starter. Fresh bread was baked each evening—Tie Sing would pack the dough next to the belly of the mule so that it would rise during the day. Fresh meat was kept cool by wrapping it in newspaper that had been soaked in the cold mountain water. He even packed lemons for fresh squeezed lemonade.

The adventure was not without mishap, but Tie Sing never skipped a beat. On the fifth day of this now famous Mather Mountain Party, one of the mules who had been following his nose along the trail fell asleep and stumbled off the edge of a 300-foot cliff. As he rolled, knives, grapefruit, and other essentials, including the precious sourdough starter, were flung out of the packs into the air. The mule landed on all four feet and made his way back up the cliff while Tie Sing collected all the provisions he could find. Dinner was late that evening, but just a delicious as the previous nights, minus the fresh baked sourdough—the starter was never located.

The Mather Mountain Party enjoys a meal prepared by Tie Sing. Photo courtesy of Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, National Geographic Creative and provided by Sharlene Van Rooy.
The Mather Mountain Party enjoys a meal prepared by Tie Sing. Photo courtesy of Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, National Geographic Creative and provided by Sharlene Van Rooy.

After this successful trip, the National Park Service was established, and Mather become the first director. Tie Sing continued to work for the USGS, which brings us back to San Benito County. During this two-year project, he established a presence by opening a bank account at the First National Bank of Hollister.

Tie Sing’s services were in demand—in July of 1918 he was summoned back to Yosemite to cook for Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo, who was making a 10-day visit to the mountains. Tie Sing made the journey to meet with these potential new clients but arrived too late—the job had already been appointed by the manager of the national park.

Returning to San Benito County, Tie Sing continued to work for the Davis field crew. On August 19, 1918, the survey crew was moving camp, and Tie Sing was riding in a wagon on Bird Creek Road driven by Gustine Gallon, teamster with USGS. As they were traveling, the road near Bird Creek gave way and the wagon overturned. Tie Sing was thrown to the other side of the creek and his head hit a large rock. Gallon flagged down Sheriff Croxon who happened to be in the area, and they drove Tie Sing to a pharmacy in Hollister where he was pronounced dead by Dr. Richard O’Bannon.

At the time of his death, Tie Sing was 52 years of age. He was survived by his brother Loy Yee of San Francisco, his wife Lee Sing, and two children Me Lan and Mon Wah of China. After an inquest, Tie Sing’s body was prepared for removal to Hong Kong by Fred Reimer of Hollister. Services provided totaled $337.47 including a casket, burial robe, socks, and shoes. Tie Sing’s estate was valued at $1,653.43 and two years after his death, his wife was still waiting to receive distribution.

Mystery still surrounds the humble beginnings of Tie Sing’s life. Tie Sing recounted early days in Virginia City, Nevada where he was born on September 1, 1865 and then spending his youth with Judge Hawley of Carson City. But upon his death, his wife Lee Sing swore in an affidavit that her “deceased husband, Tie Sing, otherwise known as Lim Wee Don” was the father of their two children. There are several records indicating that he may have traveled between San Francisco and China in the early 1900s under the name Lim Wee Don. Tie Sing’s dream of proving American citizenship alluded him all of his life, and he was never able to bring his family to America. The Geary Act of 1892 required all Chinese emigrants to prove their lawful presence in the United States and carry a Certificate of Residence. Reluctantly, Tie Sing had to register as an alien which may have facilitated the need for a second name to travel.

Tie Sing wanted nothing more than to be a legal American citizen. In December of 1917, he joined the American Red Cross by donating $5. Labeled in the newspapers as “A Man Without a Country,” Tie Sing promoted and supported the soldiers and sailors through the purchase of liberty bonds and thrift stamps during WWI with whatever cash he had on hand. The residue of his estate included three war savings stamps certificates and three $100 U.S. liberty bonds.

Today, in celebration of Tie Sing and all Chinese Americans who contributed to the development of Yosemite National Park, the Yosemite-Sing Peak Pilgrimage takes place in late July under the guidance of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the National Park Service. The multi-day event culminates with a trek to the summit of Sing Peak to honor the backcountry chef who was instrumental in the founding of the National Park Service through his skills at the cook stove.

At this time, it is hoped, that with help from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, descendants of Tie Sing may be located so that they too can celebrate the life of their ancestor.

Sharlene Van Rooy