Photo © The Kaweah Commonwealth
Between 1886 and the spring of 1892, the area along the upper North Fork of the Kaweah River was the scene of an epic experiment in utopian socialism that, to this day, continues to be the subject of serious study by historians, writers, and students of economics, history, and political science. This was the Kaweah Co-Operative Commonwealth, generally referred to as the Kaweah Colony, and today within the boundaries of the small community of Kaweah.
Kaweah is located on North Fork Drive near Three Rivers, three miles from State Highway 198. The town’s entrance sign boasts a population of “480 Souls.” The town exists today because of the historic Kaweah Post Office, established to serve the Kaweah Colony in 1890. There are no retail businesses in the community, only the post office, a church, homes and ranches, historic remnants of the Colony, and the beautiful North Fork of the Kaweah River running through it.
Colony founders Burnette G. Haskell, John Hooper Redstone, and James John Martin, all of whom had been active in labor organizations in San Francisco, were impressed with the theories of Laurence Gronlund, an American socialist originally from Denmark. They decided to form a colony with timberlands as the source of income based on these principles. After a search of the entire Pacific Coast and parts of Mexico, the leaders of the proposed colony selected land between the Middle, Marble, and North forks of Kaweah River, which became the Colony's namesake.
Fifty-three timber claims totaling about 12,000 acres of adjoining land were filed in the General Land Office in Visalia. Because several of the applicants gave the same San Francisco address and some were not U.S. citizens, and due to the large number of claims, the Federal Land Commissioner in Visalia became suspicious of fraud. The colonists, however, were convinced their claims would eventually be validated by the courts and moved forward with the venture.
The first Colony settlement, established in the spring of 1886, was called Arcady, later named Haskell's Bluff. It was a camp located three-and-a-half miles up the North Fork from present-day Three Rivers on land owned by Sam Halstead. The first undertaking of the Colony was to build a road to the timber claims so pine and fir lumber could be brought down from a sawmill in the forest. The colonists originally planned to build a railroad along the North Fork, easterly along Yucca Creek (called East Branch by the colonists) and up to the sawmill in the vicinity the future Colony Mill Ranger Station (that would become the original entrance to Sequoia National Park, created in 1890). The colonists soon realized that their limited finances would not support a railroad project and it was abandoned in favor of a wagon road.
Colony headquarters and the primary settlement during the road-construction period were at Advance, a few miles up the North Fork from Arcady. The building of the road began October 8, 1886, and as work progressed, various other road camps were established. After four years of backbreaking labor, with a crew of 20 to 30 men and tools that consisted of little more than picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, the road was completed. To this day, this hand-built road (now a part of Sequoia National Park) is an engineering marvel, maintaining a gradual eight percent grade for the nearly 18 miles and 4,000-foot vertical elevation gain from start to finish. A sawmill was built and in operation by the summer of 1890, cutting lumber at the rate of 3,000 board feet per day.
Concurrent with the completion of the road, Congress created Sequoia National Park. Any possibility of the colonists securing their timber claims was usurped with the stroke of a pen. By 1892, the colony had disbanded and most of the colonists had moved away.
The Colony Mill Road, with an eight-mile extension above its original terminus built by the U.S. Cavalry in 1903 to allow tourist access to the Giant Forest area, remained the only vehicular access to Sequoia National Park until the completion of the present-day Generals Highway in 1926. The coolonists were never compensated for their efforts in building the road.
During the short existence of the Kaweah Colony, the colonists published the first newspaper in the Three Rivers area, the weekly Kaweah Commonwealth, from which the current local newspaper derives its name. A lasting, local vestige of the Kaweah Colony is the Kaweah Post Office that is now located three miles up North Fork Drive. On May 17, 1890, the colony's camp of Advance was granted a post office. From time to time, the building was moved to meet the needs of its patrons or to accommodate the postmaster. The present 10-foot by 12-foot structure was built in 1910. It is registered as State Historic Landmark No. 389. The Kaweah Post Office is still in operation today and descendants from Kaweah Colony resident members still reside in the Three Rivers and Kaweah communities.