Scarcely anyone remembers Clarence Rivers King (1842-1901) anymore, but a century ago, he was one of the leading lights of America. Born to an old, distinguished WASP family in Newport, R.I., King missed a chance at inheriting a fortune from the China trade through a series of disasters (his father James died of fever at Amoy in 1848, his uncle Frederick drowned in a South China Sea typhoon, and King & Co. was finally destroyed when the steamer it sent to Shanghai in 1857 to cover its illegal opium debts never reached port): Was all this a portent of King's unsuccessful scramble for the millions needed to guarantee a life in the grand style?
Sent to the new Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1860, King got a solid grounding in chemistry and geology, which he soon put to work exploring and mapping the Sierra with the California Geological Survey team under Prof. Josiah Whitney. In the rugged mountains of the West, as on the playing fields of New Haven, the short (5 foot 7) but strongly built King proved an instant success: He was witty, debonair, cool under pressure, a vigorous climber, first-rate naturalist, and a boon companion. The collected tales of King's high-altitude exploits, some real, some fanciful, appeared in the one popular book he wrote, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" (1870), which is rightly considered a minor classic of American literature, in the same league with Francis Parkman's "The Oregon Trail" (1849) and Mark Twain's "Roughing It" (1872). But thereafter King wrote nothing more for mass consumption except a few reviews and magazine articles. He kept promising to turn out a novel, but he dissipated his narrative forces in the endless gripping stories he told around the campfire or at the Century Club in New York and other fashionable watering holes. Years after his death King's audiences could recall the time he had tracked a grizzly to its pitch-black den, met it eyeball to eyeball and shot it dead; the time King was nearly crushed to death beneath his own ill-fated pony and the furious, wounded buffalo that had landed on top of them.