History of Giant Forest Development

Early black and white photo shows ancient car on dirt road leading into the Giant Forest

In 1903, a road was built into the Giant Forest.

NPS photo

The early years

Commercial recreational use of Giant Forest began in 1899 with the construction of a tent camp that was accessed via pack train. In 1903 a proper road was completed and the tent camp grew accordingly. The terminus of the road at Round Meadow became the location for a ramshackle assemblage of semi-permanent summer camps, along with administrative and concessioner buildings. Ensuing campaigns to draw people to the national parks in general, and to see the "big trees" in particular, produced an eightfold increase in visitation. For example, the first formal lodge was erected in the summer of 1915 in anticipation of visitation spilling over from the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. In 1921, the concessioner erected the cabins that formed the core of the lodging area next to Round Meadow, for which the name "Giant Forest Lodge" was first applied in 1926. In the same summer, "Camp Kaweah" (Upper Kaweah) was established with the goal of pulling overnight development away from Round Meadow. Pinewood was developed in 1931 with the same goal. All this led to an infrastructure that by 1930 amounted to four campgrounds, dozens of parking lots, a garbage incinerator, water and sewage systems, a gas station, corrals, and over 200 cabin, tent-top, dining, office, retail, and bath-house structures. Many of these were located directly among stands of monarch sequoias.

By the late 1920’s, the first voices decried this already disturbing human impact on the Giant Forest. These voices came from two different sources, each of which were to play major roles in the restoration of the grove. The first of these sources was Emilio Meinecke, an eminent forest pathologist. He was commissioned by NPS Director Stephen Mather to study the "effects of tourist traffic on plant life, particularly big trees" in Sequoia National Park. In 1926, Meinecke reported that humans were heavily impacting the Giant Forest. The second voice was that of Colonel John White, superintendent of Sequoia National Park. He was appalled by the congestion and over-development of the grove. In 1927, he suggested that the Giant Forest Lodge cabins be removed. The efforts of these two groups, science and NPS management, were to gain power fitfully during ensuing decades.

Cars in Giant Forest

In a scene typical of the Giant Forest's early days, automobiles appear as numerous as trees.

NPS photo

Another voice to arise in the late 1920’s was that of the park concessioner, the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company (subsequently, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Company). This fledgling company immediately recognized the commercial value of the Giant Forest. Indeed, by 1941, the company owned 180 buildings in the grove.

The outspoken Colonel White was to be Superintendent of the parks for two decades, beginning in the late-1920’s. During that time, his conviction regarding the restoration of the Giant Forest would grow in nearly equal measure to the power of the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company. The latter won out in almost every regard during Colonel White’s tenure as park superintendent. In 1931 Colonel White stepped up his battle against development in Giant Forest by refusing the concessioner’s proposed addition of five new cabins to the Giant Forest Lodge. He refused on the grounds that "the company should not be in the sequoia grove in the first place." The Director of the National Park Service overruled White’s decision. While Colonel White was not successful in gaining the Director’s support for removal of development from the grove, he did institute limits on guest capacity; this was the first NPS limit on tourism development in any of its parks. The concessioner was able to construct additional development before hitting this limit, and within a few years of Colonel White’s retirement, the grove was to contain more than 400 structures.

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