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Author Topic: The saga of Colony Mill Road and the Generals Highway  (Read 1418 times)

Max Rockatansky

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The saga of Colony Mill Road and the Generals Highway
« on: August 04, 2016, 06:46:46 PM »

I stumbled onto an interesting piece of road building history out in the Sierras while I was doing some research looking for some historic maps for the Mineral King Road thread:

http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/US/839403/Tulare+County+1919+Map/Tulare+County+1919+-+Automobile+Road+Map/California/

Basically that map above shows the original road into Sequoia National Park which was known as Colony Mill Road.  Basically Colony Mill pre-dates the Middle Fork Road which became the Generals Highway by several decades.  My understanding of the history on this roadway is as follows:

-  Either in 1895 or 1896 there was a Danish socialist commune that was set up along the North Fork Kaweah River.  Apparently there was at least two town sites in what was known as the Kaweah Cooperative Colony; Arcady (now known as Kaweah) and Advance. 
-  Starting in 1896 the first 18 miles of the Colony Mill Road was constructed and sawmill operations were opened up.  The Colony Mill Road followed the North Fork Kaweah River and had an 8% grade which was meant for eventual rail service which never came to be.
-  In 1890 Sequoia National Park was opened which annexed all forest land being worked by the Kaweah Colony towns along with any possible redwood groves into protected government lands.  Basically this meant that any prospects the Kaweah Colony had of surviving were hosed and they shut down operations in 1892.
-  An eight mile extension of the Colony Mill Road was built by the U.S. Army in 1903 to facilitate wagon traffic to the Giant Forest at about 6,000 feet above sea level.  Apparently at this point car traffic was not a thing yet up to the Giant Forest and I'm really not exactly sure on the true date.
-  In 1905 the Park Service gave some hydroelectric rights out to Mount Whitney Power Company in exchange that they would improve the Colony Mill Road and build better roads to the Giant Forest; the yield of this was apparently the Middle Fork Road which later became part of the Generals Highway.
-  By 1913 there was automotive road access to Wolverton which is a small valley just north of the General Sherman Tree.
-  From 1921 to 1926 Tulare County improved the Colony Mill Road and Middle Fork Road for better automotive travel.  Traffic would take Colony Mill Road up one-way into the Giant Forest and apparently come back down the Middle Fork Road.
-  From 1926 to 1935 the Middle Fork Road was improved, paved and extended to General Grant National Park (now Kings Canyon National Park) which was re-dedicated in June of 35.
-  At some point a large portion of Colony Mill Road was abandoned; namely the extension created by the Army and is now maintained as the Colony Mill Trail.

Now with that in mind if I missed anything or didn't state something correctly here are some source articles on Colony Mill Road and the Generals Highway:

https://www.nps.gov/seki/learn/historyculture/generals-highway.htm

http://www.sierranevadageotourism.org/content/kaweah-california/sie8f39b30c374f300d5

Now with all that out of the way I was surprised to find out how much of Colony Mill Road still exists just north of Three Rivers today.  But with that in mind this is where the Colony Mill Road ended at the Middle Fork Road which is now the Crystal Cave Access Road and Generals Highway respectively:



-  Showing up early really didn't pay off today, my understanding is that there is direct access to the abandoned portion of the Colony Mill Road about four miles west of that gate.

Now with that in mind apparently almost all of the 18 original miles of the Colony Mill Road is still can be driven and is now called North Fork Drive or Mountain Route 357.  I only went about 8 miles up the road due to the weather turning to rain and didn't want to chance things on a muddy dirt road in a FWD car.  Regardless here is where North Fork Drive goes from paved to completely dirt:




According to my map data Advance was roughly where the transition from asphalt to dirt takes place.  And wouldn't you know it I found a concrete ruin right where it ought to be:



I got some amusement out of the "no parking x number of miles" signs littered all over North Fork.  Clearly the road isn't patrolled all that much as it has become the dumping ground for automotive carcasses like this:



As for the paved section of North Fork Drive....it's deceptive.  Mineral King Road is much, much, much worse shape as far as surfacing goes but North Fork Drive is much more dangerous.  The reason is simple; while Mineral King Road is narrow you aren't really wanting for a place to have vehicles pass each other but on a large portion of North Fork that simply ain't the case as it is often 8-10 feet wide in places:



There was actually another driver coming the opposite direction as me right before I took the above photo.  Basically I was lucky to have a dirt curb available at the time otherwise it would have meant backing up a ways.  I had the Sonic today which definitely made this a much easier drive to manage.  Odd thing I noticed, much like Mineral King Road the mileage markers on North Fork Drive are excellent and plentiful:



At about mile marker 3/4 North Fork Drive widens back out to about 20 feet and becomes a normal road again all the way to Three Rivers which is evidenced by the 40 MPH sign:



Oddly enough the post office from Arcady is still around, this one is from 1890.  My understanding is that Advance also had a Post Office but it shut down right after Sequoia National Park was formed.  Those people must have been livid that they staked out all those mill claims just to have them all taken away just a few years later...even though the same thing happened with logging in Mineral King as well the Mine Operators were left alone.  For some reason I guess the Kaweah part of Kaweah Colony stuck and that's what the area is now known as although I'm fairly certain it's technically part of Three Rivers now:



And of course North Fork Drive (AKA Colony Mill Road) would have ended at the Sierra Highway which I have questions as to if this was the original terminus or if this section was also once known as Mineral King Road:



Of course it wouldn't be much of a day traveling the old road to the Giant Forest without taking the newer one on Middle Fork Road/Generals Highway.  These photos were from Moro Rock at about 6,700 feet looking above Generals Highway:




In the first picture from right to left is; San Joaquin Valley covered in smog, CA 198/Kaweah River, The Generals Highway, the edge of Moro Rock and the 13,000 plus high Great Western Divide.  The second picture offers a better view of the Generals Highway and the view you actually look back at Moro Rock.

Anyways, I thought that was some interesting road lore with Colony Mill Road.  It's too bad the weather wasn't nicer or I would have gone as far as I could up the dirt section on MT 357.  I'm thinking the Parkfield Grade might be worth a look next week before I head out to Sherman Pass later this month if possible.
« Last Edit: August 04, 2016, 06:48:51 PM by Max Rockatansky »
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: The saga of Colony Mill Road and the Generals Highway
« Reply #1 on: August 04, 2016, 07:44:45 PM »

Apparently in 1948 Colony Mill Road was still open to the Giant Forest:

http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/US/158724/Tulare+County+1948+Road+Map/

Possibly into the 1980s or 90s...at least it shows up on this road map:

http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/US/1262415/Tulare+County+1980+to+1996/

Edit:  I just noticed in the second map that Mineral King is not part of Sequoia National Park.  That would put that map pre-1978 since that was the year it was annexed.  Given that CA 69 was replaced with CA 245 in 1972 that would be a 72-78 map.
« Last Edit: August 04, 2016, 08:31:50 PM by Max Rockatansky »
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