Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Three:
Exploration and Exploitation


The Prospectors

Increasingly, there were other people in the mountains. After the drought of 1864, domestic sheep, often attended by Basque shepherds, became an annual summer feature in all but the most remote high parts of the range. Lower on the western slope, most of the meadows had long since been appropriated for summer grazing by ranchers. The Brewer party met a group of prospectors in Kings Canyon in 1864, and in 1869 Frank Dusy made his first trip to Tehipite Valley on the Middle Fork of the Kings. By 1877 sheep were grazing in the Middle Fork Canyon, having been brought over the crest of the Sierra from Owens Valley. [22] Assaults from the south increased also. We have already mentioned that Hale Tharp visited both Kings Canyon and Mineral King in 1861. In 1864 Harry O'Farrell, a meat hunter working north from the Hockett Trail, entered Mineral King from a more southerly angle. All of these people were seeking a way to make a living or even a fortune in the mountains. Not until 1873, however, did anyone discover a resource of sufficient value to attract real attention.

Repeatedly, prospectors had been frustrated by the apparent lack of minerals in the southern Sierra. Some "color" in the streams had already attracted attention to the Kern River areas well to the south near Walker Pass and to a small gold mining district on the White River in extreme southern Tulare County. Neither area had produced much, however. Most of the southern Sierra, it seemed, consisted of barren, gray granite. In those limited areas where the bedrock was not granitic, however, prospectors continued to hope that something valuable might be discovered. As the population of the valley and foothill towns continued to grow, the level of resource pursuit intensified. Harry O'Farrell, for example, continued to return to the Mineral King area after his first visit in 1864, and in 1872 he located a likely looking area high on the reddish metamorphic slopes of Empire Mountain. During the summer of 1873, O'Farrell found two other prospecting parties in the Mineral King area, one from Three Rivers and the other from the southern Tulare County community of Porterville. In late July it was the Porterville group, led by James Crabtree, that finally found something.

Crabtree's story reflects the similarity of experiences that tied together the generation which came to California seeking gold. Like Hale Tharp, Crabtree had been born in the Midwest and had come west as a young man. He was twenty-three when he arrived in California in 1852. When opportunities in the northern mines seemed to dwindle, he wandered south to farm 160 acres of land in the southern part of Tulare County. Not far away was the White River mining district. Regularly, when the seasons allowed him to be away from his farm, he prospected in the local Sierra. [23]

On July 26, 1873, Crabtree located the White Chief lode in the Mineral King area at the head of the East Fork of the Kaweah River. According to Crabtree, he had been guided to the site by an Indian who came to him in a dream—hence the name. There may have been an Indian in his dreams, but it seems no accident that Crabtree stumbled into Mineral King Valley. The area was just a short distance north of the Hockett and Jordan trails and was already known for its odd rock formations. Once he was sure he was on to something, Crabtree did what many other prospectors have tried. He went home quietly and recruited some friends to join him in getting rich. The enlarged Porterville Group unobtrusively returned to the mountains in early September, laid out their claims, organized a mining district, and elected themselves to the key positions. A few days later the word was out in Visalia and Porterville and the rush was on.

Fall weather arrived in the mountains before Crabtree's discovery became public knowledge, but with fortune beckoning, mineral seekers wasted no time worrying about an early storm. Before winter snows finally buried the area in November, a total of sixty-five claims were filed by ninety-three hopeful prospectors. Of these, at least seventy-five were residents of Tulare County and among them at least forty were local farmers. [24]

The winter passed quickly, and eager prospectors pushed their way up the East Fork canyon well before the snows melted in the spring of 1874. During the warm weather of July and August, the subalpine valley the miners optimistically called "Mineral King" swarmed with humanity. Cabins and houses were erected from lumber cut nearby, and by the end of the season 166 additional mining claims had been filed; the value of claims sold during the year was recorded at more than $36,500. Although more than 200 mining claims had now been filed in the district, no real mines had been developed. Mine development required that the many small claims be consolidated into workable units and that adequate capital be raised to construct a road to the district and a smelter to treat the ores. At the end of 1874 none of these necessary events had occurred. However, the following year, 1875, saw the arrival of the New England Tunnel and Smelting Company, which hoped to carry out the necessary consolidation and development work.

During the second full summer of the Mineral King excitement, the New England Company energized the district with hope. Consolidation began through purchase and trade. A number of prospectors traded their claims for stock in the new company. The company carried out exploration work on its holdings, especially the White Chief Mine, and talk continued about building a road and ore processing mill. One hundred and forty additional claims were recorded during 1875, and optimism remained high. But soon another reality asserted itself. During the centennial summer of 1876, the New England Company ran out of money. It had never succeeded in collecting full sales price for its shares, and much of its stock had simply been traded for property in the district. But necessary development demanded hard cash. During 1876 the company three times assessed its stockholders. Each time, if the assessment was not paid, the stock was repossessed and resold by the company. The local prospectors who had traded their claims for stock soon found themselves being forced out unless they had additional cash to invest in the company. By the end of the year the New England Tunnel and Smelting Company had been locally renamed the "New England Thieving and Swindling Company."

The new year, 1877, brought little to improve the situation. Still short of funds, and now under new ownership as a result of the assessments, the company constructed a simple smelter to treat ores from the White Chief Mine. Arguments over operations, however, soon disclosed that the company was still not able to produce silver bullion from its ores. After a desperate special stockholders' meeting in early September, the New England Tunnel and Smelter Company filed for bankruptcy. Court-appointed management, under the control of the creditors, attempted to continue operations, but on February 18, 1878, a powerful avalanche destroyed the company's main facilities at the White Chief Mine. The thirty-by-sixty-foot bunkhouse, already straining under twenty feet of snow, was shattered. Miraculously, no one was killed, but operations were suspended until spring, and when spring came, the New England Company was dead. During the summer of 1878, only ten new claims were filed in the district. [25]

map of mines
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

In 1878, at the end of five years of mining activity in Mineral King, little of a permanent nature had actually been accomplished. Several hundred mining claims had been filed, but most were nothing more than insignificant scratches on the mountainsides. A few had received some minimal development, but none had produced enough ore to be fairly termed a mine. A number of simple houses and cabins had been scattered about the valley, but the lack of a wagon road kept development simple. Only accessible by a long, rough mule trail, and apparently without a successful mine, Mineral King certainly had failed to live up to its name. The mining history of Mineral King should have ended with a whimper in the fall of 1878. The fact that it did not is testimony to the energy, wealth, and poor judgment of one individual, Thomas Fowler. In mid-September 1878, Fowler purchased the Empire Mine from a group that included Harry O'Farrell. Almost overnight Fowler's purchase rekindled interest in the nearly dead mining district. Local residents responded vigorously to Fowler's involvement because he was a well-known and well-to-do local politician. In 1878 he was described as one of the largest cattle and landowners in California. [26] So, if Mineral King were good enough for Tom Fowler, there must be something there after all! During the last four months of 1878, ninety-two new mining claims were filed versus ten in the first eight months of the year. Mineral King had come back to life.

During the next twelve months Fowler poured most of his personal fortune into the Empire Mine. Tunnel work began on the mine, high above timberline on Empire Mountain, and continued throughout the winter. In March 1879, with Fowler's support, a toll road company was organized. By August 15 after an incredible burst of road-building work, wagons entered the Mineral King Valley for the first time. Soon construction began on a fifteen-stamp ore processing mill and a mile-long bucket tramway connecting the mine with the mill in the valley below. By September 27, all the materials for the mill and tram were on the site, and two months later both facilities were operable. Fowler had built more in one summer in Mineral King than everyone else together had done in the previous five years.

In December Fowler closed the mill for the winter but attempted to continue work at the mine. The risk involved was not fully apparent until a huge avalanche destroyed much of the Empire works late in the evening of April 16. Again, no lives were lost, but the main bunkhouse and several other buildings were destroyed. A little snow was not going to close the Empire, however, and activity resumed at the mine as soon as the winter snowpack melted. On July 23, 1880, the mill resumed operations and the Visalia Times headlined "TOM'S BONANZA—MILLIONS IN SIGHT."

But millions weren't in sight, and in fact it soon became apparent, despite denials, that the Empire Mill wasn't producing silver. Fowler was silent about the mine's problems, but the obstacle seemed to have to do with getting the silver out of the ore. The Empire announced next that it would build a small smelter to treat ore prior to stamping, but that didn't solve the problem either. Before the summer ended, Fowler found himself in money trouble; to keep the mine operating long enough to find a way to produce bullion, he turned it over to a court-appointed trustee. The following summer Fowler resumed direct control of the mine and attempted to reopen the facility, but very little actually happened. The same scenario occurred in 1882. Fowler was broke, and the Empire Mine was not the bonanza that would save him. In 1884, depressed and worn out, he slipped while stepping off a train and injured himself. Within a day he was dead.

In hindsight it seems that Fowler, a rancher and politician, but not a miner, did almost everything wrong at Mineral King. He bought an unproven mine and invested everything he had in it. The stamp mill he constructed was designed to process gold and free-state silver, substances not found in the Empire ores. At best Fowler was terribly careless in his Mineral King investments and developments; at worst he may have been swindled by the mine's previous owners and the manufacturers of the stamp mill. Either way he proved that Mineral King was not a significant mineral district, a verdict that has been repeatedly challenged but never overturned in the intervening century.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap3e.htm — 12-Jul-2004