Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Four:
Parks and Forests: Protection Begins


The First Summer

While the secretary of the interior, the Land Office, and federal court system debated the future of the Kaweah Colony, the U.S. Army prepared to assume responsibility for the physical protection of the new national parks. On May 14, 1891, the fifty-eight men of Troop K, Fourth Cavalry, under the command of Captain Joseph H. Dorst, rode out of the Presidio of San Francisco, crossed the San Francisco Bay by ferry to Oakland, and boarded a Southern Pacific train for Tulare County. On the evening of the sixteenth, the troops, traveling with sixty horses and twenty mules, arrived at the western boundary of Sequoia National Park, above Three Rivers. There they came face to face with a myriad of problems.

Dorst brought to the assignment nearly twenty years of military experience. An 1873 graduate of West Point, he had spent fourteen years in the field during the Indian Wars, mostly in the Southwest. During the last years of the 1880s he returned to West Point as a cavalry instructor. Assigned in 1890 to the Fourth Cavalry in San Francisco, Dorst now faced a new and distinctive challenge—protection of America's second national park.

Dorst's first problem was to locate the new Sequoia National Park, and tiny General Grant National Park as well, and to develop plans for policing the tracts. The winter had been relatively wet and much of Sequoia Park remained snow-covered when Dorst and his troops arrived. He soon discovered that two roads entered Sequoia—the 1879 wagon road to Mineral King and the recently built Colony Mill Road ending at the temporary sawmill several miles west of Giant Forest. While the Colony Road led to nothing but the now-closed mill, the Mineral King Road, despite its difficult grades, led to an area that had become a significant summer resort. Since most people entering the new park would do so via the Mineral King Road, Dorst focused his initial interest on this area, even though the new park did not include Mineral King Valley itself. From a temporary camp at Red Hill, just above Three Rivers, Dorst sent troops to assist the county in repairing winter damage to the roadway. On June 7 he entered Mineral King Valley, although the melting snowpack prevented establishment of a permanent camp there until June 29.

Once established on the ground, Dorst turned to exploring the rugged reaches of the new reservation. Almost before he could start, however, he ran into the problem that would dominate his first summer in the park—the Kaweah Colony's attempt to cut sequoias at Atwell's Mill. Arrested and convicted for their efforts to cut trees at Colony Mill, the determined remnants of the colony regrouped after the trial in Los Angeles. On May 1, barely two weeks after the end of the trial, they signed a one-year lease allowing them to log on the 160-acre Atwell Tract along the Mineral King Road. [26] Logging had begun among the sequoias at Atwell's Mill during the last days of the Mineral King silver rush, but the mill never really produced much owing to its remote location. Now, under the leadership of Irwin Barnard, who negotiated the lease for the remaining colonists, another attempt was to be made to make Atwell's Mill profitable. At risk was the existence of the colony itself, for since the loss of their Giant Forest lands the whole enterprise had fallen into doubt. In the way stood Captain Dorst and the U.S. Army, reluctant agents of the new and still vague national park idea.

On the scene again was Congressman Vandever's man, General Land Office Special Agent Andrew Cauldwell. Cauldwell learned of the colony's lease of Atwell's about June 1, while he was looking into the organization of the new Yosemite National Park. On June 12, Cauldwell talked with Dorst at his Mineral King camp. Cauldwell told Dorst that under the rules and regulations the secretary of the interior had decreed for the park the previous fall, the felling of standing timber, even on patented land, should not be allowed. According to Cauldwell this was the rule that the army was enforcing in Yosemite. [27] Cauldwell had already requested clarification on this issue from the secretary, when he first reported the potential conflict. Two weeks later the commissioner of the General Land Office told the secretary's office that, as private land, Atwell's Tract was not subject to the rules promulgated for Sequoia National Park. [28] The problem, however, was that like most other officials in pre-air-conditioned Washington, D.C., the secretary had left the city for a prolonged summer vacation. Hence, the commissioner's recommendation did not receive immediate attention. The secretary's office did warn Cauldwell, however, to take no action at Atwell's until the secretary returned. [29] Though the interior secretary was on vacation, the Kaweah colonists were not. After Dorst found several trees freshly cut at Atwell's Mill on June 18, he sought the foreman, a Mr. Purdy, and told him that until he received answers to the questions he had sent to Washington, Purdy was not to cut any trees in Sequoia National Park, even on patented land. Purdy strongly objected both to the order and to the fact that it was coming from a military officer. Dorst explained that the order was based on a cautious reading of the secretary's rules for the new park and that he was serving as acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park, a civilian office, not as an agent of the War Department. Purdy politely thanked him for the explanation and told him that he did not intend to comply. Alone and unarmed, Dorst left the scene, heading for Visalia where he hoped to find Cauldwell and make some sense of the escalating situation. [30]

The following day, June 19, at Dorst's request, Lieutenant J. E. Nolan visited Atwell's Mill. Nolan found Purdy, and Purdy denied being told by Dorst not to log; for spite he added that if he had been told such a thing he would not obey. Nolan renewed Dorst's order not to cut trees. The next day Nolan returned to the mill, where Irwin Barnard presented him with a written statement strongly protesting the illegality of Dorst's order. The colony would sue, if necessary, to carry out their legal rights, he threatened. [31] Meanwhile, Dorst proceeded to Visalia, where he failed to locate Cauldwell, but did find the secretary's telegram of June 16, warning Cauldwell to take no action until he received further instructions. [32]

On the stage back to Three Rivers from Visalia, Dorst met Barnard, and he told the colonist of the secretary's telegram, which seemed not to threaten the colonists' interests. For the next week, believing that the situation was resolved, Dorst turned his attention to other matters. Then, in early July, he received a long-delayed response to his initial request for clarification on this issue. This letter, from the acting secretary of the interior, instructed Dorst to prevent destruction of the "great trees" in the park. Confused, he telegramed Washington. Which instruction from the Department of the Interior was he to follow? Should he take no action or should be protect the trees aggressively? [33] On July 9, Acting Secretary of the Interior George Chandler telegramed an answer: "You will not permit the cutting of any timber within the park until further orders."

Dorst's military sense of duty expressed itself clearly in the letter he had hand-delivered to Irwin Barnard as soon as he received the July 9 telegram:

In reply to a question of mine addressed to the Secretary of the Interior, concerning the cutting of timber at Atwell's Mill, I have received a telegram of which the enclosed is a copy. You will see that I am directed not to permit the cutting of timber within the park until further orders. I have the honor to request therefore that you will cause the cutting of timber to be discontinued on the tract of land in the vicinity of Atwell's Mill, which you have leased or claim to control, for I am informed that all that land lies with the limits of the park.

On July 15 Dorst visited the mill to see if his instructions had been carried out. Barnard was present and told Dorst that he would cease only under threat of direct force or court injunction. The situation was getting completely out of hand. [34]

Nearly half the summer had now passed and the controversy over the colony's activities at Atwell's Mill had thus far prevented Dorst from undertaking any serious work in the remainder of the two new parks. Because the mountain terrain was so poorly known, Dorst's commanding general had authorized him to hire a civilian guide for no more than four weeks to help explore the new reservations. During the lull before Chandler's telegram arrived, Dorst had hired a guide. Now, with the Atwell's situation heating up again, one of the four weeks of the guide's time had already been wasted. Determined to see the rest of the two parks, Dorst prepared to leave Mineral King for the Giant Forest area on July 18, only to have the colonists purposefully fell a tree in front of one of his soldiers on the seventeenth. Apparently, the angry socialists had gone so far as to cut a young sequoia nearly through, and then wait to fell it until a soldier came by. Dorst sent a corporal and several troops to the mill while he stubbornly took most of his troops north over Timber Gap toward Giant Forest. The scouting party sent to the mill reported that no trees had been cut, and Dorst continued his exploration of Paradise Ridge. By the morning of the twenty-first his party had worked its way down to Red Hill, on the lower Mineral King Road. There news arrived that the colonists had cut more trees, and Dorst ordered Lieutenant Nolan and a dozen troops to proceed up the road to Atwell's Mill to investigate. Just before Nolan left for Atwell's, Dorst received a telegram from Cauldwell which told him to "carry out the orders of the Secretary." [35]

Early in the evening of the twenty-first, after a blistering hot eighteen-mile ride, Nolan and his troops arrived at Atwell's Mill. Under strict orders to avoid violence, Nolan met briefly with Barnard, who told him that the colonists would cease logging only if physically forced. Worried, Nolan took his troops to camp a half-mile away for the night. The next morning, Nolan's troops returned to Atwell's to be met by thirty colonists armed with axes, and a deputy sheriff who threatened to arrest them if they interfered with the logging. Sensing that the situation was totally out of hand, Nolan again withdrew and took his men back down the long hot ride to Red Hill, where he reported to Dorst. Frustrated that his exploration time was being lost, Dorst nevertheless ordered his entire command back up the Mineral King Road that same afternoon. Late in the afternoon, as they climbed the steep, dusty road, they met Barnard coming down, heading for Visalia to swear out warrants for the arrest of Nolan and Dorst. After an inconclusive conversation, Barnard continued down the road. By midnight, the troops were bivouacked at Nolan's camp near the mill; at dawn they moved past the mill seeking a better campsite for the large party, and as they passed the colonists dropped a tree they had readied for the occasion. Dorst, bone tired and sick with a fever, ignored the provocation and moved on up the road. [36]

The following morning, July 24, 1891, Dorst felt no better, but he realized that he must act. On Dorst's orders, Nolan returned to the mill, where he found angry colonists chopping away at the trees. Several times he approached individuals, ordered them to cease cutting, and then laid his hand on the logger. In each case the colonists ignored the symbolic application of force. Again, Nolan withdrew. Later the same day, however, Foreman Purdy entered Dorst's camp and told him that all logging had been voluntarily stopped because his men were so excited that nothing could be accomplished anyway. Dorst, sensing an opportunity, ordered Nolan and all the troops who had been directly involved at the mill to prepare to leave the next morning for the northern portion of the park with the civilian guide. At least, he hoped, that would make it difficult for the county sheriff to arrest them. [37]

Lieutenant Nolan, with nineteen troops and a civilian guide, left Mineral King on the morning of July 25. That same day Dorst received a telegram from Cauldwell enclosing a message from Washington:

It appears that Atwell's Mill is on private land. If this is correct, instruct Captain Dorst to defer action on all patented land until I can communicate with Secretary, now absent on his vacation, and obtain his directions.


Dorst forwarded a copy of the telegram to Barnard together with the message that he would cease his interference with the colony's activities at Atwell's Mill. [38]

With the unfortunate incident at Atwell's Mill stabilized, Dorst was finally able to turn his attention to the two national parks under his control. Between July 25 and August 9 Lieutenant Nolan's patrol made the first official visits of the U.S. Army to the northern part of Sequoia and to General Grant National Park. After his 207-mile journey, Nolan noted that the Giant Forest was the most interesting part of the new park, yet the least visited, owing to remoteness. Within the grove, Nolan wrote, were more than forty simple cabins built by the colonists in their attempt to claim the land. At the confluence of the Marble and Middle Forks Nolan recorded the presence of squatter Jim Wolverton's cabin and gardens. A few miles downstream, just inside the park, another squatter named Bonivie also had settled. [39]

While Nolan explored the north, Dorst sent out several additional detachments of troops from his Mineral King camp. Between July 18 and August 31, Sergeant Patrick Daugherty and his men rode 970 miles patrolling the area around their camp at Zimmerman s (Hockett) Meadow. [40] Another detachment camped at Colony Mill to look after the Giant Forest and Grant Grove country.

Early in August Andrew Cauldwell returned to the park to inspect Dorst's efforts. On August 10 the two men visited Colony Mill, where they met Colony Director Horace Taylor and told him to remove the mill equipment, but not the cut lumber since that was the property of the government. [41] Cauldwell also visited Atwell's Mill where he reported that the colonists had resumed cutting sequoias, although because of their inexperience they were losing much of the wood to breakage. Cauldwell thought they were operating at a loss. One hundred persons, he reported, had left the colony in the past year. [42]

The troops remained in the vicinity of the parks until the winter rains began on November 16. In his annual report Dorst recommended that Sequoia Park be extended to the east to protect the Mt. Whitney area, which was so heavily grazed that tourist parties could not visit it, that the boundaries of the two parks be surveyed, and that legal penalties be provided to support the parks' rules and regulations. [43] Andrew Cauldwell resigned his position as special agent, fraudulent land entries, on September 17. In a cover letter attached to Cauldwell's resignation by the local congressman, W. W. Bowers, Bowers complimented Cauldwell's work and summarized the feelings they apparently shared about the ill-fated enterprise: "Suffice it to say at this time—that this Colony Scheme is the most. . .bald-face piece of villainy I ever knew of—and I intend to fully to ventilate it." [44] Attached in the files to Cauldwell's resignation was a note remarking that Cauldwell's only recent project had been the Kaweah problem, and that it was now resolved. [45]

In a way the "Kaweah problem" was resolved because the colony was dying. Cauldwell's suspicion that their logging activity at Atwell's Mill was unprofitable proved to be true, and the colonists never succeeded in making a significant dent in the forests at Atwell's Mill. In May 1892, when the time came for the colony to renew its annual lease on the tract, the organization no longer formally existed. A century later it is difficult to survey the story of the colony and its demise without mixed feelings. Undoubtedly the logging of the Giant Forest would have been a tragic mistake; certainly we are fortunate that it survived intact as the center of a national park. Yet, in many ways the colonists—a hard working and dedicated group—were not treated fairly. Their claims to the Giant Forest appear to have been legally filed, and by the precedents of the time should have been transferred to them. The road they built, which for many years served as the main route into Sequoia National Park, was taken from them without compensation. And certainly, their treatment at the hands of the army during the summer of 1891 was unjustified by any legal doctrine. Why did Andrew Cauldwell change his mind so completely about their efforts, and what was his real role in their destruction? Why did Ventura Congressman Vandever involve himself so deeply in the affair? What was the hidden role of the Southern Pacific in the destruction of the colony? A century later these questions are probably unanswerable and likely to remain so.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap4e.htm — 12-Jul-2004