A History of the Kaweah Colony:  Road Work Begins

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.

The “men of backbone, brain and brawn” pause to pose for a photo while at work on the Colony’s road to the timber. (Courtesy of Bancroft Library)

So the work began — a work in reality stupendous, contemplating as it did the building of a mountain road for twenty miles to cost not less than a quarter of a million, upon a cash capital of some twenty-five dollars and by about thirty enthusiastic but determined people. (Burnette G. Haskell, The Commonwealth)

When members of the Land Purchase and Colonization Association, immediately after filing claims on timber land in the Sierra Nevada of Tulare County, met at the courthouse in Visalia and organized the Tulare Valley and Giant Forest Railroad Company, their plans were still in the formative stages. Little did they suspect there would be any problem with their applications as they set about refining their plans and investigating their options.

Considering the immediacy in which the articles of incorporation for their proposed railroad were filed — it was done in the evening of the very day that timber land applications had been made — it was apparent that original plans had always involved building a railroad at least part way to the forest and the valuable timber. By late November 1885, newspapers were reporting on the proposed railway, which would “run from Tulare City to the Giant Forest, through a belt of the best land that ever laid out of doors.”  Reports even went so far as to claim that “work on the road is being pushed rapidly forward and grading will be commenced the coming week.” This was a generously optimistic prediction.


Before any work could begin, the members of the association had to come up with some sort of plan for how to proceed now that they had located their land. In other words, the “Association” was passing from its “Land Purchase” phase to the considerably more complicated “Colonization” phase. Charles Keller’s memoirs recount the first important step:

After we had [filed our claims], we called a meeting of the timber filers and organized a pool, by entering into an agreement to jointly build a road into the forest to exploit the timber co-operatively, the interest of each timber claimant to be equal to the standing timber upon his holdings: Each was to become, and to remain, the owner of the full value of his claim, but the various quarters were to be exploited completely, each member to receive remuneration according to the equity of each land holder as a member of the pool. Membership in the pool was fixed at $500; which sum was to be expended in the construction of the road.

The “road” by which this timber would be accessed had yet to be defined, and it is interesting to note how Keller avoids any mention of deeding individual claims to the “association,” which is exactly what was in effect done.

Charles Keller was elected General Manager of the Timber Pool and James J. Martin its Secretary. Legal Advisor for the new organization was Burnette Haskell, and at their initial meeting it was decided that the first order of business was to determine “the most feasible plan to be adopted to reach the source of the Association’s wealth [timber] with the least outlay of expense.”


Two possible plans were discussed. One involved the construction of a flume from a mill site in the forest to the mouth of the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. The other proposal was to build a railroad all the way into the forest via the North Fork of the Kaweah. Charles Keller was given carte blanc, in his own words, to investigate the feasibility of both plans and report back to his associates.

He visited the facilities at the Madera Flume and Lumber Company farther north, interviewing station men and repair crews and obtaining estimates of construction costs from the management. Knowing a little something about flumes, he returned to the Marble Fork to determine the practicality of such a flume in its steep canyon. Keller quickly “discarded all ideas regarding the construction of a flume” where the “natural difficulty would be almost impossible to overcome.”

Securing the service of an engineer formerly in the employ of the Southern Pacific, Keller then set about investigating the possibility of a railroad into the Giant Forest. Keller’s idea was to secure rights-of-way and obtain bonds from landowners to a five-mile depth on each side of their railroad “for the payment of $5,000 for every running mile of our road; the money to be paid as soon as our road reached Lime Kiln hill on the Kaweah River” [site of present-day Terminus Dam]. The Association, according to Keller himself, was enthusiastic about his plans for a railroad and instructed him to proceed and “follow his own bend.”

Burnette Haskell later recalled that the next year was “spent in raising money to survey the route of the railroad, procure rights of way, etc., etc. Some $25,000 to $30,000 was spent in this direction. Routes were surveyed to three different stations on the S.P.R.R. [main line], many rights of way were secured, and subsidiary bonds were obtained.” Newspaper editor George Stewart later claimed only $10,000 was raised to pay for the survey, which was done but “still is unpaid for.”

One unexpected turn of events, before any surveying of the proposed railroad commenced, actually created a cash windfall. In December 1885, when the Land Office suspended the claims and withdrew the land from entry, the filers could almost look upon the misfortune as an interest-free loan. That was certainly the spin Haskell put on it. With the claims suspended, the members did not have to immediately pay the $400 for each quarter section upon which they had filed claims.

It is also interesting to read Haskell’s version of why the applications were suspended. In putting the situation in a positive light, Haskell went so far as to state that it was a “capitalist pool,” which had designs on the land themselves, who had influenced the Land Office to suspend their claims. Therefore, when Haskell and his associates returned to offer necessary proofs and tender money, the Land Officer Receiver…

…declined to receive, but gave on demand a certificate of his declination. From his decision an appeal was taken and the Certificate of Declination, proof of tender, claim of title, and notice of taking possession of the lands bought were placed on record in the recorder’s office of Tulare County. The claimants were advised by their attorney [Haskell] that this constituted them owners and that it was doubtful whether upon appeal they would even be required themselves to pay the money theretofore tendered; it had been illegally refused and the bondsmen of the Receiver and Register were therefore liable.

Thus Haskell saw, and convinced his associates, that they not only legally owned the land for which they had yet to receive title; but that because of the suspensions, payment would be at the very least deferred and perhaps waived entirely. The members must have concurred to some extent for they unanimously decided to forge ahead.

Keller continued his work on the proposed railroad. He ran surveys from both Traver and Tulare, hoping to play the citizens of both towns along the main Southern Pacific line off one another. Keller’s memoirs suggest he was successful in getting a group of people from Tulare to secure a bonus of $5,000 per mile, and that the city greeted him at the depot with “a grand bonfire in progress” and “the Tulare city band in evidence to give me welcome; it was in fact an acceptance and ratification of my proposal.”

But no matter how successful Keller had been in securing rights-of-way and funds for the railroad, he eventually realized that the timber would have to be accessed by wagon road before the railroad could be built. The reason, Keller explained, was “to secure ties and timbers for [rail]road construction from our holdings.” His decision was again backed by the membership.


Haskell recalled the decision a bit differently. Although he concedes that much was accomplished toward realizing their railroad, he recalled the idea of the wagon road as more out of necessity because “the railroad idea [had] been shelved on account of scarcity of means.” Haskell also noted that since “large bodies of agricultural and grazing land were discovered on the North Fork and adjacent canyons and were homesteaded, pre-empted or bought by various members of the Pool… the determination was arrived at to found a co-operative colony on the agricultural lands and build a wagon road to the timber.”

One has to wonder what Haskell and Keller both left unsaid. Without legal title to the timber lands, it seems highly unlikely they would have been able to raise the necessary capital to build a railroad or get the support of prominent Tulare County businessmen who undoubtedly knew the status of their applications. But with their positive spin on the suspended claims and a confidence that once investigated the claims would be honored, the members — who had begun thinking of themselves as colonists for they were beginning to settle the area — proceeded with the construction of a wagon road to the forest.

The stupendous work, for such it was [Haskell wrote], was begun October 8, 1886, by Captain Andrew Larsen, Horace T. Taylor, John Zobrist, Thomas Markusen, Martin Schneider and Charles F. Keller, Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Keller cooking for the camp. An average of twenty men worked continuously until done, and without proper tools, powder, or other appliances. At no time was there a dollar ahead in the treasury of the company and it was literally a struggle from hand to mouth.

Haskell’s account may have contributed to a later belief that the road was constructed without dynamite, but this was a typical exaggeration on the part of the relentless propagandizer. James Martin, in a letter to the editors of The Fresno Bee decades later, corrects the misconception that no blasting powder was used in building the road.

“Several hundred pounds, if not tons, of dynamite and black powder were consumed in construction,” Martin explained.

Road construction began at the north end of Samuel Halstead’s ranch, about three miles up from the North Fork’s confluence with the Middle Fork. The road was begun on the west side of the river, as Halstead’s property was on this side and one must assume there was already some pre-existing wagon trail up that far. The first road camp was established on a bluff overlooking the river and Andrew Larsen, a tall, muscular sailor from Sweden, built a small cabin there. This would eventually become Burnette Haskell’s homestead and be known variously as Haskell’s Bluff or Arcady. At the foot of this bluff, the road crossed the river and continued up along the east side of the canyon.

Early progress of the road was outlined in the 1st Annual Report of the Executive Committee of the Kaweah Colony Association from October 1, 1887:

In January, 1887, the first bridge across the river was completed. Structure consists of seven 20-foot spans and, including the approaches, is about 150 feet in length. In February, 1887, Camp No. 2 was established and about 1½ miles of the road finished. In March, Camp No. 3 was established at Sheep Creek Flat. In April, Camp No. 4 was established at Advance which has since become a permanent residence.

After the establishment of a permanent camp at Advance, members of the Colony Association and their families began to move to the foothills settlement in the summer of 1887. It was slightly less than a year since road work had begun. The settlement housed families in canvas homes, and grew slowly but steadily in its first 18 months. By the spring of 1889, it was reported that Advance had 32 inhabitants “counting old and young” and that on “moonlit nights the voices of the young folks and children fill the air, as they play their outdoor games or join in singing merry chorus songs.”


Still, even with the growing, idyllic settlement of young and old, all efforts were necessarily focused on building the road, which was excruciatingly hard work for the crew that averaged 20 or so men. Many of the road crew, like Larsen, had been members of the Coast Seamen’s Union. Frank Roney once suggested out-of-work sailors were profitably used, even exploited, by Haskell’s “scheme.” Roney, a San Francisco labor leader who had once been instrumental in Haskell’s conversion to the cause but ended up a bitter enemy, once wrote:

When there was no demand for sailors at San Francisco and there was a likelihood of wages being reduced, the members of the union were sent to Kaweah, where rude shelters were constructed for their accommodation and food supplied for their subsistence. No wages were paid for their labor, the men being satisfied that they were upholding the union. So long as they lived healthily and had all the food they needed they were satisfied.

Roney’s accusation of exploitation was obviously a subjective assessment, and the relationship between Haskell and the out-of-work sailors involved more than just labor for sustenance. Many of these men must have believed they were laboring for a stake in utopia. While many of these sailors came to share Haskell’s vision of a social revolution, for others the primary motivation was the promise of some land on which to build a cabin — their own private utopia, perhaps. One sailor whose relationship to Haskell and the cause went far deeper was the big Swede: Andrew Larsen.

One colonist, who had carried water to the road workers as a teenager, remembered Larsen as a big man, strong and stout. (He was not as big as another worker named Lybeck. In fact, there was a tool at the road camp known as the “Lybeck crowbar” because it was so big no other could wield it.) Nonetheless, when Haskell called the road crew the men of “backbone, brain and brawn,” Larsen had to have been foremost in his mind.

Back in San Francisco, during Haskell’s revolutionary period a couple years prior, Larsen had served as a bodyguard while living with the Haskell family. Haskell related an amusing incident in his journal in 1885. He described the household that year as comprised of his father, his 19-year-old brother Benjie, his wife Annie, a roomer named Rose Caffrey, and “Andrew Larsen, a sailor, friend and employee who runs the press when he is not engaged in shooting himself to pieces.”

The shooting he referred to involved Larsen nearly shooting off his little finger while handling a gun he had obtained for protecting Haskell, who apparently became woozy at the sight of so much blood. According to Haskell’s journal, the mishap prompted some teasing remarks from his father:

You are nice ducks to make a revolution! One shoots himself and the other faints away. When the revolution comes on, I shall refuse to go out in the same army with Larsen until the hammer and trigger are taken out of his pistol.

A few days later Larsen got back at the senior Haskell with a good-natured jibe. One evening, a visiting friend commented that Larsen should try some Sure Cure — the  health elixir Haskell’s father sold — on  the wounded hand. “Oh, Edward says it is no good to put that on till the sore is healed,” Larsen retorted to general laughter all around.


As the roadwork began, the men were supervised on site by the man who had done so much in formulating the plan for the association. Charles Keller, general manager of the Timber Pool — a voluntary association with no real legal status was now being referred to as the Kaweah Co-Operative Commonwealth Company — served as  engineer and foreman of the road project. Under his superintendence, the first four or five miles of road were constructed. In March 1887, articles of incorporation were filed for the Giant Forest Wagon and Toll Road, with Keller, Martin, and John Redstone listed among its directors and, in addition, Haskell among others as subscribers of 50 shares valued at $100 each.

But somewhere along the way a rift began. Haskell later described Keller’s portion of the road as “not built to grade and runs up hill and down hill in a very annoying and unnecessary way.” If continued according to Keller’s plan, Haskell claimed, “It would have landed us at the foot of Rommel’s hill down in the gully with 2,000 feet elevation to climb by balloon.”

Journalist George Stewart recounted the growing rift as symptomatic of Keller’s poor treatment of the men and his “attempts to get sole control.” Stewart claims the crews’ provisions were “reduced finally to bread and beans only” and that the workers passed a resolution “demanding the right to select their own foreman.” That man was Horace T. Taylor. It was once said that he and his German wife were the kind of hardworking, practical individuals who could “make a living on a desert island.” Taylor proved to be a manager of rare ability, as one associate observed:

He was the greatest hand to extract the limit of work from a gang and make them like it, one reason being perhaps his ability to do a little more himself. A little Napolean of a man, but there was no softness or pudginess about him and he never seemed to tire.

Taylor became the new superintendent of road construction and roadwork proceeded. George Stewart later observed, with an irony he undoubtedly recognized, that the leaders of the association “were much incensed by the assertion of their rights by the laborers” and noted quite accurately that “troubles continued to arise from this time forward.”

As the road progressed toward the forest, other matters were headed toward a crisis.

SOURCE NOTES:  In addition to contemporary newspaper articles in the San Francisco Examiner, the Visalia Weekly Delta, and the colony-published The Commonwealth, this chapter relied on first-person accounts via The Keller Papers, Burnette Haskell’s journals, and an up-published memoir by Philip Winser entitled “Memories” (1931, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA).  The Frank Roney quote is from his autobiography Irish Rebel and California Labor Leader, and Oscar Berland’s notes on an interview he conducted with Albert E. Redstone in 1960 were also consulted.