Business leader and tourism advocate Max Stauffer dies

Long time Mountain Area businessman and tourism leader Max Stauffer with his mother Luce at the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad last year, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fish Camp tourist attraction.
Long time Mountain Area businessman and tourism leader Max Stauffer with his mother Luce at the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad last year, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fish Camp tourist attraction. Sierra Star File Photo

Max Stauffer, longtime Mountain Area businessman, school trustee and tourism industry leader, died this morning in Chandler, Ariz., following a long fight with cancer.

Stauffer, the owner of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad in Fish Camp, was born June 7, 1947 in Switzerland. When he was 3, his family immigrated to the United States and his father and mother, Rudy and Luce Stauffer built the railroad, a popular tourist attraction on Highway 41 near the southern entrance to Yosemite. The railroad celebrated its 50 years of operation last year and Max Stauffer oversaw the unique and historical business for more than 40 years.

Stauffer is well known in the community, having served as director of the Mountain Area Ski School for 20 years (a program originated by his father in the late 50s), past president and 30-year board member of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau (now called Visit Yosemite/Madera County), and 22-year trustee of the Bass Lake Joint Union School District (formerly Oakhurst Elementary School District).

From Hungary to Fish Camp

The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Mountain Railroad came about more than 50 years ago by a Swiss immigrant who was determined to make a better life for his young family in America.

After being forced to leave the Stauffer and Sons cheese business behind in Hungary in 1944, Rudy Stauffer moved his family back to his homeland in Switzerland, eventually deciding to immigrate to America to start a new life.

In 1950, the family (Rudy, Luce, sons Guido, 6, and Max, 3, and cousin George) boarded the Queen Mary and started their journey to their new home. Wisconsin, the dairy state, seemed the obvious destination to begin the cheese business anew. It was in Wisconsin that youngest brother, Bob, was born in 1952.

Rudy, having spent many days skiing and mountaineering in Switzerland, longed for the mountains.

His godparents, Dr. Clarence and Liliane Wells, lived on a large mountain ranch near Yosemite, where Wells was the resident doctor at the Sugar Pine sawmill and had told many stories about the steam trains that hauled logs from the forests of Central California.

Rudy, being intrigued by the stories and the chance to see real mountains again, moved his family to property purchased from the Wells with the idea of opening a resort near Yosemite. It was in 1954 that Rudy and Luce began developing the land and eventually built the Swiss Melody Inn.

The resort was located on the old right-of-way of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company, which ran logging trains through the mountains to supply the nearby mill. The inn with the obvious Swiss theme became a routine stop for Yosemite-bound tourists, and Luce’s Swiss restaurant cuisine soon become known throughout California.

Luce, 98, helped prepare and serve meals at the railroad up until a couple years ago.

More than 140 miles of narrow gauge track and a 54-mile flume were spread over the central Sierra Nevada. The flume sent lumber to Madera, where it was distributed to a worldwide market. As this history unfolded to Rudy, he became more and more interested in preserving this part of California’s early days.

It all started in 1965

Railroad logging equipment from an old lumber operation near Sonora became available in 1965, and Rudy purchased a Shay locomotive, logging railcars and tons of spare parts - deciding that this was the perfect opportunity to see history relived in the mountains north of Oakhurst. With the help of his wife and sons Max, Guido and Bob, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad was born.

In 1968, The Stauffers sold the Swiss Melody Inn, which later became known as the Narrow Gauge Inn.

Max credits his parents for having the vision to move to the Mountain Area, and starting and struggling with both the restaurant and railroad - two businesses no one thought would succeed.

“It was their entrepreneurial spirit that made all this possible,” Max said proudly said last year.

Max Stauffer is survived by his mother Luce, wife Michele, three daughters, Heidi Stauffer, Gretchen (Stauffer) Barriere and her husband Steve, and Shannon Artl; two brothers, Guidi and Bob, nephew Max Stauffer, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Services at this time are pending.

The family’s immediate plans are to continue the business with the railroad opening for the summer season April 1.