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


Use: Improving Concessions

Upon assuming directorship of the new National Park Service, Stephen Mather faced one of his trickiest duties: designing a comprehensive concession policy and implementing it in his new charges. There were two options available—competition and monopoly. Mather chose monopoly as a way to maintain quality and prevent abuse of park scenery and resources. When the director turned to Sequoia and General Grant, however, he found problems. A variety of operators controlled hotel, dining, transportation, photography, and other services, and each service was small-time and marginally profitable. Mather was reluctant to expel loyal and established businesses, but as long as the situation persisted, development of Sequoia, and implementation of his policy would go abegging. [43]

In 1920, the problem of ejecting a loyal business solved itself when Mrs. Kenney decided to abandon her lodging operations, which she had operated with her now-deceased husband since 1914. But, upon studying the situation at Sequoia, Mather found that the difficulty of access to the park severely limited customer numbers. Small-time operations like those of Kenney or the Sequoia National Park Stage Company could make a small profit scraping by with limited infrastructure or investment. But, a larger-scale monopoly, committed to aggressive modernization and expansion could scarcely hope to survive let alone make substantial improvements. What Sequoia and, incidentally General Grant, needed was a company willing to hold the concession until the Generals Highway reached Giant Forest. Mather chose a company with an established concession operation and some capital to spare, the Yosemite National Park Company controlled by Harry Chandler of Los Angeles and A.B.C. Dohrmann of San Francisco. The two men formed a subsidiary company called the Kings River Parks Company and commenced operations at the beginning of the 1920 season in Giant Forest, at General Grant, and outside the parks in Kings Canyon at the old Kanawyers site. [44]

From the beginning Giant Forest became the focus of plans for improvement and the source of most revenue. There, in the first two seasons the new concessioner built modern cabins, enlarged the dining room, and added bath, laundry, and toilet facilities. The following year saw a new lunch room and more housekeeping cabins which brought the capacity at the Giant Forest Lodge up to 234. These improvements however, were insignificant compared to what general manager Theophil Fritzen planned. For a projected investment of nearly two million dollars, Fritzen envisioned a seventy-six room hotel at Beetle Rock, 125 cabins nearby in the Camp Kaweah area, and 775 new tent cabins and cottages at Soldier's Camp about two miles from Giant Forest Lodge. In all, the three developments at the lodge, Soldier's Camp, and Kaweah areas would house more than 3,000 people with additional structures for 800 employees. This was a scale of operation that would make Sequoia National Park one of the greatest tourist attractions in the western United States and easily accomplish the NPS goal of creating public recreation grounds in the parks. [45]

Unfortunately for the company, with progress on the Generals Highway maddeningly slow, financial survival became a more immediate concern than any vast expansion. Over the period from 1920 to 1924, the Yosemite National Park Company was forced to stake its expensive subsidiary more than $108,000. More alarming was that the amount increased each year until 1924, when a new manager undertook severe and unpopular austerity measures. Efforts at bringing local businessmen into the operation to prop it up until the Generals Highway could be completed failed due to competing projects in the San Joaquin Valley. In desperation, the Yosemite National Park Company leased its southern operation in Sequoia during 1925 and abandoned it entirely the following year. For five grim years the company had done Mather and the Park Service a favor by consolidating the concession operations in Sequoia and General Grant and by considerably improving the physical plant. However, by the time the long-awaited Generals Highway finally arrived, the Yosemite National Park Company had had enough. It had retired to its popular and lucrative northern park, financially bruised and somewhat wiser by the lesson. [46]

Determined to install a single, consolidated concession operation at the two southern Sierra parks, Mather turned finally to an old friend, Howard Hays. He promised Hays ready government cooperation and sure profits when the road reached Giant Forest. In response, Hays formed a company with the lengthy name of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company. Hays had come west shortly after the turn of the century and taken a job with one of the concessions in Yellowstone National Park. During that time he had become friends with Mather and Albright. After stints as a tourism promoter for several major railroads and with the National Railroad Administration, where he coordinated projects with Albright, Hays had bought out his old employer at Yellowstone. He had operated that concession until 1924 when health problems forced him to sell.

Mather's desperation and elaborate promises finally convinced Hays, who saw an opportunity to implement plans like those of former manager Fritzen and to build Sequoia and General Grant into large, famous and profitable tourist resorts. He signed a twenty-year contract in the spring of 1926 and three years later brought in his brother-in-law, George Mauger, to manage the operation. These two men, Hays and Mauger, would operate the parks' major concession for the next forty years. During that time they would vastly expand and update the infrastructure. However, they would do so amid an atmosphere of steadily growing hostility, as the Park Service changed its attitudes toward the scale and location of concession tourism in Giant Forest—going to the heart of the promises with which Director Mather had lured Hays back into the national park concession business. [47]

After assuming the concession operations with a secure, long-term contract, Hays surveyed the facilities he had to offer incoming visitors. In Sequoia, the two principal areas were at Giant Forest, specifically Giant Forest Lodge near Round Meadow and the Glen Ridge Camp along the eastern side of the new road. Giant Forest Lodge contained a moderate-sized dining room, a lunch counter, ten two-room cabins, thirty tents, an office, and assorted maintenance structures. At Glen Ridge, which was universally described as ugly and dilapidated, there were another thirty-three tents. Near the lodge was a store and the buildings of the smaller concessioners like Lindley Eddy. At General Grant, always a small time afterthought despite substantial visitor numbers, a few tiny cabins and tent tops clustered near a small store and lunch counter. General Grant boasted few attractions compared to its larger southern neighbor. It was popular with residents of Fresno and other San Joaquin Valley towns, but these tourists often made only day visits or camped on their way to Kings Canyon. [48]

Upon completion of the Generals Highway, Hays moved quickly to exploit the publicity and overhaul his company's holdings. In his first two seasons, 1926 and 1927, Hays ordered replacement of the thirty tents at the lodge with sixty-eight new shingle and tent-top cabins, nearly tripling the overnight capacity of this popular complex. In addition, he replaced most of the tents at Glen Ridge while moving them across the road at the request of Colonel White. In late fall 1926, the concessioner moved the lunch counter to the new Giant Forest Village and commenced construction of a store and gas station. As part of an agreement, small independent operations like the post office, photography studio, and barber shop also moved. Across from the Village, Hays received permission to develop a new complex of housekeeping cabins near Beetle Rock to be known as Camp Kaweah. By the end of the 1927 season fifty units were in place along with a washhouse, office, and bathhouse. A dozen more would follow in 1928. Finally, the company built two additions onto the Giant Forest Lodge dining room and added a large new hot water system and bathhouse, as well as some warehouses and sheds. In the first two seasons alone the visitor capacity, or so-called "pillow count" of Giant Forest rose more than 100 percent and occupied vastly improved accommodations.

Elsewhere in the parks, the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company exercised considerable caution. At General Grant the miserable tents were replaced with four duplex redwood cabins. At Hospital Rock, Hays opened the Buck Eye Store to cater to campers and hikers in the foothills areas. To his dismay, Hays assumed the transportation concession as well, and it proved to be a burden for some years to come. When he took over managerial duties, George Mauger expressed considerable interest in the backcountry, and for some years the major concession company operated a pack station catering to those who would ride into the park's new wilderness. [49]

By 1930 the company boasted an imposing complex in the Giant Forest area. At Giant Forest Lodge, eighty-five new redwood and bungalow (tent-top) cabins could house more than 250 guests and employees. Two offices, a writing room, several bathhouses, a dining room and a variety of subsidiary structures crowded nearby. At the new Glen Ridge Housekeeping Camp twenty-six tents and a few employee cabins remained. At Camp Kaweah sixty-three cabins and tents lined the western side of the Generals Highway across from Giant Forest Village. In addition, Hays and Mauger had received permission to open a new "auto-camp" at Pinewood where another thirty cabins had just been completed or were under construction. [50]

There was every indication that this tremendous buildup at Giant Forest would continue until the area reached a capacity rivaling that planned by Theophil Fritzen and the old Kings River Parks Company. However, two events combined to dramatically halt company progress. One was the shocking crash of the stock market in 1929 and the ensuing Depression. No one could be sure how far the Depression would go and in that climate, Hays decided on a cautious program. The company had made a profit each year, but those annual profits rarely exceeded $10,00. [51] There was money to be made in the concession business, but it certainly was not a high-profit venture. With so little financial cushion and with the very future of tourism in doubt, caution was an intelligent man's choice. The second event was perhaps even more shocking. In early 1931, Hays proposed a small addition to the Giant Forest Lodge. Colonel White refused on the grounds that the company should not be in the sequoia grove in the first place. For the first time, someone had actually rejected a move to bring more tourists to the park's major attraction. At first Hays was nonplussed, then he was angry.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap5e.htm — 12-Jul-2004