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


Hydroelectric Development on the Kaweah River

West of Sequoia Park the canyon country above Three Rivers also began to change. Half a century had now passed since Hale Tharp and a few others became the first non-Native Americans to reside in the area, and new potential uses for the land and its resources were becoming apparent. Of these the most radical departure from the traditional world of small-scale ranching and farming came from the Mt. Whitney Power Company, which began construction of hydroelectric plants on the Kaweah River in 1898. During that year, using sequoia lumber cut at Atwell's Mill, the power company built its first flume and power house, using water from the East Fork of the Kaweah. The turbines began humming in June 1899 at the pioneer Kaweah Number One Plant located at the new town of Hammond, two miles west of the Sequoia Park boundary on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah. Construction soon began on a second plant, which diverted water from the Middle Fork barely 100 yards down stream from the park boundary. And in 1902, three years before work concluded on the Number Two Plant, the company applied for permission to begin planning a third water diversion, flume, and power plant within Sequoia National Park. [70]

In 1902 the lower Middle Fork Canyon remained an inaccessible and little-visited corner of Sequoia National Park. Since the death of James Wolverton in 1893 and the eviction of squatter Bonivie, the area had been uninhabited for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. A poor trail still ran up the canyon to Giant Forest via Hospital Rock, but with completion of the wagon road to Giant Forest, the route seemed even less important than before. The canyons and river flats proposed for development by the power company were too low to support sequoias, and critically, the local agricultural interests strongly supported the proposal since the power generated would be used to run pumps for irrigation. Faced with a significant proposal to use rather than preserve a part of the park, and sensing no significant opposition, the Department of the Interior granted permission to the company to construct hydroelectric improvements.

By May 1913, when the Mt. Whitney Power Company started operations at its Kaweah Number Three Plant, Sequoia National Park had felt twentieth-century industrial technology for the first time. Developments included low dams on both the Marble and Middle forks of the Kaweah, nearly five miles of concrete canal, and a concrete power house that straddled the park's boundary, half in and half out. Additional plans called for construction of another power plant in the park, to be called Kaweah Number Five, together with additional flumes and a 100-foot-tall dam on Wolverton Creek near Giant Forest. [71] This dam, constructed on private land within the park, was necessary to provide adequate late-summer flow for power generation; failure to find adequate bedrock foundations for the dam was the only thing that stopped the project.

Between 1905 and 1915 the Mt. Whitney Power Company permanently changed the face of Sequoia National Park in several ways. Not only did the company dam two of the park's rivers, scar the Middle Fork Canyon with several miles of flumes, and clear-cut nearly a hundred acres of forest at the Wolverton Reservoir site, but it also constructed roads. To facilitate construction of the Kaweah Number Three Flume and the eventually aborted Number Five Plant, the company built a wagon road up the Middle Fork Canyon as far as Hospital Rock. Seeking access to its Wolverton Creek project, the company constructed another wagon road along the north edge of the Giant Forest, passing the base of the General Sherman Tree. Both roads opened new portions of the park to vehicular tourism.

In hindsight, it is perhaps too easy to fault the Department of the Interior for allowing the Mt. Whitney Company projects to mar the natural face of the park. If proposed two decades later, the projects would probably have been rejected as inappropriate, but in the first decade of the new century the national park idea was simply not mature enough to prevent construction of a locally popular dam. It is worth remembering that in 1914 Congress itself gave away the incomparable Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park for construction of a reservoir by the city of San Francisco. In the end, further damage to Sequoia was prevented not by the government, but by the faulty engineering of the company itself. Had it not sought bedrock at Wolverton in a nearly bottomless deposit of glacial debris, the company might well have gone on to build the Kaweah Number Five project.

map of Sequoia and General Grant NP
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap4j.htm — 12-Jul-2004