Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Five:
Selling Sequoia: The Early Park Service Years


Roads and Trails

The Army's completion of the Colony Mill Road to Giant Forest in 1903 was a banner event for Sequoia because it opened the park to the common traveler for the first time. However, almost from the day of its completion, engineers, park rangers and visitors commented on the need for a replacement road which would provide a gentler grade and wider, more sweeping turns. With the advent of regular automobile traffic shortly before the founding of the Park Service, such suggestions became demands. The Colony Mill Road wound tightly up precipitous slopes at a steady grade of about 10 percent, far too narrow and steep for the substantial traffic expected in the upcoming years. A potential solution was provided by the Mt. Whitney Power Company's road along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River which extended nearly seven miles up the canyon toward Giant Forest. As a mechanism for implementing Mather's program of increased visitor use, a new highway into Sequoia National Park became the first and foremost priority, the lifeline by which all else would hang. [13]

During his visit to Sequoia in 1918, Director Mather saw firsthand the limitations of the Colony Mill Road. The bumpy, grinding, dusty trip frustrated the director who envisioned the tangle that would inevitably result from a summer weekend's traffic. Accordingly he ordered a survey of an additional road to be undertaken and bids for construction to be accepted by Superintendent Fry. An engineer by the name of Peters completed a preliminary survey from the power company's road terminus at Hospital Rock up over Deer Ridge to Giant Forest, and a Fresno contractor agreed to undertake the job. Unfortunately, the funds for construction of a road over this "Peter's Survey" route, estimated at $300,000, remained unavailable for a couple of years while Congress contemplated the worth of such a project. [14]

The delay in construction gave Mather and new Superintendent White an opportunity to review the project and its implications. In the original plans the new highway would supplement rather than replace the Colony Mill Road. The one-lane power company road would continue as a one-way road into the park, while the old road would furnish a lane for outgoing traffic. Ironically, this concept would reappear repeatedly as park planners struggled to control traffic and protect the park atmosphere. However, after considerable discussion and consultation, park officials decided to construct a two-lane road up the new route and abandon the old road due to the high expense of maintaining both. [15]

Meanwhile, a decade-old scheme known as the Park-to-Park Highway steamrolled onto the scene and into the planning. This scheme had been a popular notion among businessmen, publishers, and others who urged the public to "See America First." The idea was to build a network of roads connecting the national parks upon which Americans and, presumably, Europeans could travel from one spectacular attraction to another. A well-developed road connection from Sequoia to General Grant had been an early and obvious link in this planned scenic chain. By 1920 the idea was being seriously considered as an extension of the road project from Hospital Rock to Giant Forest. Two years later the Park Service secured Forest Service approval and commitments of funds from the affected counties and state. The "Generals Highway" project was born. Vastly improved access roads from Visalia and Fresno to the new parks had recently been promised, and the vision of a comfortable, scenic loop through the spectacular mountain country sparkled in the mind's eyes of the Park Service, Forest Service, and local business representatives. The road would connect the General Sherman Tree with the General Grant Tree and allow visitors to cruise comfortably up to 7,000 feet and through both parks in a day. Work began in 1922, with a total projected cost, including expansion of the existing Mt. Whitney Road and construction of the portion from Hospital Rock to General Grant National Park, of slightly more than $400,000. [16]

In July 1926 the highway opened from Ash Mountain, where a new administrative center had been constructed two years earlier on the bluffs above the Middle Fork of the Kaweah, to Giant Forest. The road entered the Giant Forest plateau from the south near Beetle Rock and proceeded northeasterly toward the General Sherman Tree and the future site of Lodgepole. The new Generals Highway passed through the heart of the old development area in Giant Forest and necessitated a redesign of the entire area. A few months later, after assumption of the duties and facilities, the new concessioner, Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company, ceremoniously and literally picked up its stores and dining facilities and moved them from the old site near Round Meadow to a new site on the eastern side of the road across from Beetle Rock. The new location and its facilities became known as Giant Forest Village and would later become the focus of intense Park Service efforts to remove concession buildings and their respective functions from Giant Forest. [17]

With completion of the all-important Ash Mountain-to-Giant Forest segment, attention was turned to the slowly progressing connection between the two parks. Blasting and grinding through the rock and cliffs of the seasonally snowbound Forest Service territory came the road builders from General Grant. Northward from Giant Forest, past the huge General Sherman Tree and the newly developed camping area at Lodgepole came the Sequoia contractors. North of Lodgepole the builders encountered a series of creeks which demanded expensive bridges—Wolverton, Silliman, Clover, and Suwanee as well as a large one at Lodgepole itself. The work was slow and one contractor went bankrupt trying to complete the bridges. Another, the Bechtel Company, devoted some ninety-five men to the project in a desperate attempt to stay on schedule, but by summer of 1931 they still struggled to finish. Bechtel lost heavily on the job as did the subcontractors employed for bridge approaches and other related tasks. [18]

The reason for the slowness of work and consequent construction troubles came partly from the quality control exercised by Park Service landscape architects. The 1920s and 1930s marked the apogee of landscape architecture as a determinant of Park Service policy and development. With every decision to build came a studied effort to blend the features into the surrounding environment, to look rustic, scenic and "appropriate." One of the results of this attitude of scenery preservation was the defeat of a plan to build a large and elaborate hotel, like Yosemite's Ahwahnee, near Beetle Rock. Instead the Park Service approved a scattering of tiny cabins and tent-tops which still in the late 1980s litter dozens of forest acres. Another impact was a set of stringent specifications for the Generals Highway and its bridges. Arches and supports of carefully cut and molded stone pleased the eye and suggested a rustic coordination with the rocky streambeds and towering cliffs nearby. They also called for back-breaking and expensive labor. Bechtel and the other companies suffered from drastic employee turnover which slowed the job even further and exacerbated the cost overrun. [19]

Nevertheless, the job continued. In October 1931 most of the heavy bridge work concluded and the contractors faced the easier task of pushing the road ahead to connect the two parks. Four years later, on July 23, 1935, at Stoney Creek on Forest Service land, the Generals Highway was dedicated. It had cost $2,250,000, more than five times the original estimate, yet it provided one of the finest, most scenic highways in mountain America. With its completion the Park Service and the public realized their long-held dreams of a loop road through both parks. Sequoia and General Grant were more firmly bonded together than ever before. The Generals Highway marked the most important piece of roadbuilding in the history of the parks and continues to be the artery of visitor circulation today. [20]

Ironically, even before the Generals Highway construction began, engineers from the federal Bureau of Public Roads began to consider alternate routes from Hospital Rock to Giant Forest. Although the new highway would be a vast improvement over the Colony Mill Road, it still required many tight turns and a grade that occasionally exceeded 8 percent. From an engineering stand point there was another, far superior route available. In 1920, NPS civil engineer George Goodwin proposed that an access road extend far up the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, make one turn back, and proceed along the plateau to enter Giant Forest from the east. Such a road could avoid hairpin turns and progress at an easy grade to Panther Creek or perhaps even as far as Redwood Meadow before executing its 180-degree turn back to Giant Forest. Goodwin pointed out that this extension well into the roadless backcountry could later be continued over the Great Western Divide and into the Kern River country. [21]

Initially both Mather and White looked favorably upon this project. Yet there were problems with the route. Chief among them was price. This much longer road would cost at least twice as much as the "Peters' Survey" route and for that reason in 1921 Mather advised Visalia businessmen that the shorter and steeper route would be constructed first and the longer road postponed until more funds became available. For a time this decision quelled the calls for a "Middle Fork" route, yet it was by no means out of the minds of road engineers and local businessmen who saw any improvement and extension of access as a potential money maker. In March 1927 the topic again surfaced among Park Service engineers who had had a full season to watch more than 10,400 cars weave up the Generals Highway to Giant Forest. [22]

In the intervening years, however, Colonel White had studied the proposed new route and found some serious flaws in the proposal and in its potential results. After seven summer seasons in the parks, the superintendent had become quite proprietary and had modified his views principally toward those of the landscape architects with whom he worked. He saw three reasons why the Middle Fork Road should not be built. First, it would cost at least two million dollars, money that was needed on the Giant Forest to General Grant connection as well as other roads and projects in the parks. Second, it would necessitate a complete reordering of the road pattern and redistribution of structures on the Giant Forest plateau and create a good deal of traffic congestion. Third, and ultimately most important, the Middle Fork Road would be a visible scar running smack across the vista from the park's major overlook at Moro Rock. As a footnote, White questioned the wisdom of extending a road that far into the backcountry where hitherto only trails interrupted the sublime wilderness experience available to visitors. [23]

With such extensive and ardent opposition by the superintendent, any project would seem to be doomed immediately. However, at this time Stephen Mather, in ill health and distracted by other problems and responsibilities retired and passed the directorship to his longtime friend and associate Horace Albright. The new director was, if anything, more committed to paving the way, literally and figuratively, for vastly increased visitor use in the national parks. Evidence of his lifetime commitment to the notion of "parks for people" is abundant. He maintained his philosophy long after the Park Service itself had evolved toward preservation and stricter control of visitor use. [24] Albright had regarded the Generals Highway up the "Peters' Survey" route as insufficient and potentially dangerous from the start and he was no happier with it when, as director, the Middle Fork proposal resurfaced.

Here began the first sparks in what was to become an emotional clash of wills between a strong, passionate, and even dictatorial superintendent and his equally resolute boss. At one point, Albright in disgust referred to the new Generals Highway as a "rathole," an incident and term which deeply offended Colonel White. [25] For years afterward, White brought up the remark when any reference to the road was made and long after serious discussion of the Middle Fork alternative ceased. The conflict, which fortunately never fatally harmed the friendship the two men shared, later spread to a variety of other development issues, particularly in Giant Forest. [26]

map of roads and trails
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

In the case of the Middle Fork Road, the questions of scenic disruption and the rising cost of such a project continued to stall any decision. Park Service engineer Frank Kittredge, a future NPS regional director, repeatedly resurrected the notion, but could not overcome the twin fears of scenic injury and expense. [27] White, in a letter to Francis Farquhar of the Sierra Club, dismissed the ideas of engineers: "I have the highest regard for Frank Kittredge, but in dealing with engineers you must not always follow their tangents of thought. They deal so much with tangents on roads that they sometimes think along the same lines." [28]

In the end, White outlasted the opposition and even convinced Albright, after his retirement, to join in opposing the Middle Fork Road. What convinced most Park Service administrators was the continued success of the Generals Highway. By 1931 it carried up to 2,000 cars on some summer days. A few years later the road remained open throughout the winter with no problems. By the mid-1930s the Generals Highway, including the "Peters' Survey," had proven itself. Agitation for alternative routing faded to a murmur from discontented engineers. [29]

In addition to the Generals Highway, several shorter but important public roads and a network of rough fire roads also commanded Park Service attention from 1916 to 1931. One of the first to be constructed was a road from Wolverton to what came to be known as Lodgepole. Completed in 1917, the road proved useful later when the government turned to Lodgepole as an alternate site for both public and concession development. [30] Another important road developed along the old horse trail from Moro Rock to Crescent Meadow. Here the Park Service met some resistance from the Sierra Club which conducted some of its popular summer camps at Crescent Meadow and opposed opening the area to auto traffic. After construction and oiling of the route was completed in the mid-twenties, the Park Service found the road so popular that a tangle of parked cars crowded up to the very base of Moro Rock. For a while, Park Service engineers and Colonel White considered a loop road that would bring drivers past Moro Rock, around Crescent Meadow, and back to Giant Forest via Bear Hill, where another road had been constructed to the garbage incinerator and bear show. However, after further reflection, White blocked the plans because of the potential damage to the scenery and serenity of protected sequoia areas. [31]

While the Park Service designed, developed, and oiled public roads and campground accesses, it also vigorously extended the trail system, especially after park expansion in 1926. Where the Sierra Club and other preservationists urged caution or actively opposed roadbuilding in the parks, they enthusiastically lobbied for trail development. [32] In 1916 a fairly complete network of high Sierra trails already existed, the legacy of years of sheep and cattle grazing as well as hunting and recreational camping. But, these trails often consisted of little more than the eroded paths made by past domestic animals. To serve an anticipated boom in backcountry hiking and riding, Sequoia at least would need extensive improvement of old trails and construction of new ones. General Grant National Park was simply too small, although a few miles around its principal grove and up to the Paradise overlook needed work.

After the 1926 expansion of Sequoia, the Park Service undertook an aggressive trail program, prodded consistently by an eager Sierra Club. In the first full construction season the following year, seventeen men worked on improving or building thirty miles of trail, including the popular Alta Trail from Giant Forest to Alta Peak and a new trail along the Marble Fork from Lodgepole to Tokopah Falls. The largest job involved reconstruction of nearly sixteen miles of trail at scattered points in Kern Canyon, a part of the recent addition of former Forest Service land. Toward the end of the season another eight and one-half miles in the southern part of the park in and around the Garfield Grove were upgraded with fire prevention funds. In the ensuing several years, park employees accelerated this pace of reconstruction or development of trails both in Giant Forest, where the routes of heaviest use were lightly oiled, and in the new backcountry. [33]

During the period from 1916 to 1932, however, construction and maintenance of two spectacular and costly "special status" trails commanded the attention and much of the appropriations of Sequoia National Park. One was the premier backcountry trail in California if not in the entire West—the John Muir Trail. The other was the Sierra Nevada's most elaborate and ambitious trail, a veritable hiker's freeway—the High Sierra Trail. Both projects were the product of high expectations and dreams, both cost years of effort, tens of thousands of dollars, and in the case of the John Muir Trail, even some lives. And both today form the backbone of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon trail system.

The John Muir Trail was officially adopted by the California Legislature in 1915 when it appropriated $10,000 toward construction of a high-altitude trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. The route was sanctioned in August of that year after consultations between state engineers, the Sierra Club, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Forest Service, with the latter having actual jurisdiction. Construction began a few weeks later on the 184-mile trail and proceeded against late snowfalls and funding interruptions until 1933. In the process 17.5 miles of the trail were transferred to Sequoia National Park in 1926. The Park Service then undertook extensive repair and rerouting of that segment, which had been among the earliest completed and most heavily damaged by long winters and travelers' pack stock. Although the bulk of the John Muir Trail lay still in Forest Service land, it began and ended in national parks and was most associated with its famous terminus Mt. Whitney. At Sequoia the annual maintenance of this trail, which wove through altitudes of 10,000 to 14,495 feet, placed a heavy burden on park trail appropriations. [34]

The High Sierra Trail was the most colorful of all the backcountry projects, a symbolic step in unifying the original park with its huge backcountry addition; it was also one of Colonel White's pet projects during his first dozen years at the helm. During the twenties, the superintendent had become convinced that the future of the parks and, indeed, the future of the conservation ethic in America, lay in the wilderness, specifically in public experience it and education from the wilderness. To diffuse stressed and crowded visitors from auto-jammed, urban-like camps of Giant Forest and show them the wisdom and peace of the natural world, they had to be separated from their cars, cabins, and dingy amusements and propelled into the wilderness. But, the average visitor was not prepared for the rough and tumble of the improved sheep trails that lined most of the park's new territory. The solution was a gently sloping, high quality, carefully designed trail that would lead visitors through meadows and canyons and over passes between towering peaks from one of the park's major attractions, Giant Forest, to the other, Mt. Whitney. The first hurdle was convincing the Washington office of the necessity for such a project and the considerable cost it would entail. This White accomplished by early 1928 when Sequoia received new trail-building funds with provisions for the High Sierra Trail. He secured the temporary assistance of a National Park Service engineer and began to plan the exact route of his new "tourist" trail.

Initial study convinced White that Crescent Meadow was the logical starting point for the trail. During the first construction season in 1928 Ranger Guy Hopping and his crew constructed a mile-and-a-half of gentle pathway along the slopes above the Middle Fork. For the next two years, laborers drove the trail eastward, blasting and hand-digging through miles of solid granite on steep slopes while engineers Guy Edwards and John Diehl studied how to bring the trail over the Great Western Divide. Their options eventually boiled down to crossing either via Tamarack Lake and Lion Lake or via Hamilton Lakes. Either route involved heavy work near the crest of the divide and down the other side. Eventually, Diehl chose the Hamilton Lakes route which offered the lowest pass at Kaweah Gap but presented one of the most rugged sections of the park's high country. Included in the western approach to Kaweah Gap was an imposing sheer-walled, steeply angled avalanche chute known as Hamilton Gorge. To cope with this barrier, Diehl resolved to construct an elaborate suspension bridge with tons of cable, steel, and concrete brought in twenty-one miles by pack train from Mineral King via Black Rock Pass.

Through the summers of 1930 to 1932, work crews continued the heavy construction, literally carving the trail out of pure stone. By September 1932 the only task left west of the divide was construction of the costly bridge. More than 200 pack animal trips were required to deliver some 41,000 pounds of material. By October 10, the Park Service announced that the spectacular bridge was complete and with it the entire trail from Crescent Meadow to and beyond Kaweah Gap. Original plans had called for the trail to continue eastward over Kaweah Peaks and on to the John Muir Trail to connect with Mt. Whitney. However, the Depression deprived the Park Service of funds to finish the job. Instead, the trail connected with existing trails that skirted south of the Kaweah Peaks, through Chagoopa Plateau and back up Kern Canyon, to Junction Meadow and its original planned route. Five years later, red-faced engineers found that the fragile Hamilton Gorge Bridge had plunged into the canyon, a casualty of extremely heavy snowfalls and an avalanche. After rerouting the trail around the gorge, using half-tunnels to make a ledge along the sheer cliff, the High Sierra Trail, as it now exists, was complete. It had taken five summer work seasons and $120,00 to construct the twenty-one miles from Crescent Meadow to Kaweah Gap. Improvement of the trail on the other side cost tens of thousands more. Yet the project initiated a new phase in the use of the Sierra Nevada backcountry and of Sequoia National Park. The High Sierra Trail was the first trans-Sierra trail built entirely for recreational purposes, and was the highest quality mountain trail in California if not the entire nation. With its completion the backcountry wilderness became easily accessible to the burgeoning number of park visitors and realized Colonel White's dream of bringing wilderness opportunity to the general public. [35]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap5c.htm — 12-Jul-2004