A History of the Kaweah Colony: On the Road to Success
By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.
What life was like for the workers building the Colony’s road to the timber can only be imagined. The “men of backbone, brawn and brain,” as Haskell once praised them, were not as prone to written communication as some of the Colony leaders. Nonetheless, much can be gleaned from progress reports issued in the spring of 1889 by colonist George Speed:
Another report related “having finished a good half mile using some 200 pounds of Giant Powder” and recounted how two large gulches were filled and a wall built “some 300 feet long over a large face of granite, in part of which we drilled holes and put in iron pins in order to hold the rock up, and then filled it in with dirt to the grade.” Perhaps this was the section known as “The Elephant,” named for an old Gold Rush term. For the argonauts who flocked to the mountains of California, to “see the Elephant” meant to come across a new and foreign sight and particularly to encounter insurmountable hardships in their exotic adventures.
A progress report, dated April 3, 1889, was offered by George Speed, a member of the roadwork crew, in the Commonwealth. He wrote:
As the Colony road wound its way upwards toward the timber belt and neared completion, many “elephants” of varying shape and size were conquered as cliff after cliff was cut out of solid granite. But for the Kaweah Colony, one other hurdle loomed larger than any elephant, standing squarely between them and the success of their endeavor. This particular beast was the United States government.
While the Kaweah Colony concentrated its efforts on road building and membership recruitment, and had survived an internal crisis that defined its legal and governing structure, the leadership was unable to address one key hurdle in the way of their ultimate success. The applications for the timber land their road approached had been suspended pending investigation. This was an issue that both the Colony leaders and the Government Land Office dealt with similarly. It was actively ignored.
In 1887, Government Land Office Commissioner William Sparks, who had suspended the Colony applications and withdrew the land from the market, was replaced by S.N. Stockslager. There was, however, little change in policy and Stockslager maintained the suspensions and withdrawals of his predecessor. With the presidential election in November,1888, and Republican Benjamin Harrison’s defeat of the incumbent President Grover Cleveland, a change in policy finally stirred some action from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Harrison’s appointment to head that department helped undo the excessive and narrow reading of the land laws that had occurred during Cleveland’s Democratic administration. In 1889, his new Secretary of the Interior, John Noble, made it clear that he disagreed with the policies of his predecessors and promised that he would work to return as much withdrawn land as possible to the market.
In March,1889, a Special Land Agent was finally directed to visit and investigate the Kaweah Colony for “the purpose of ascertaining the facts regarding the character of the land embraced in the applications and the good faith of the parties making the same.”
On October 22, 1889, Land Agent B.F. Allen sent a 29-page, handwritten report to the commissioner of the Land Office in Washington, D.C. It began by stating that “in order that you may fully understand the situation both of the land and the parties making the applications to enter, I have found it necessary to make an unusually long report.” Long and thorough, the report described the forest land and the Colony settlements. He recounted their history and ideology. He explained the circumstances surrounding the suspension of the application and the local political climate. But more than anything, he paid tribute to the industriousness and honesty of the colonists.
He dispelled any local myths that they were “dummy entrymen” and made a point of stating that “a large majority of them are of American birth and continence and of more than mere ordinary intelligence.” He emphasized their plans of permanent settlement and pointed out that “they do not care to build permanent houses of the Shanty kind, preferring to wait until they can use the lumber and put up first class residences.” He praised their road, calling it a “work of skill and judgment and sense” and pronounced it “the best mountain road in the state.”
Allen did not limit his discussion of the situation to the colonists. After pointing out the improvement the Colony had made, he made mention of damage inflicted upon the land by local stockmen using the high country as summer range for sheep and cattle. “These men are absolutely irresponsible and reckless,” Allen wrote, adding that “they delight in forest fires as they clear the country and bring good grass the next season.”
And of the damage the Colony-proposed logging would cause, Allen explained their plans in a positive light:
Indeed, a more glowing account of the Kaweah Colony exists nowhere else (with the possible exception of Colony-published promotional literature, of which Allen apparently read a great deal.) He certainly didn’t look too closely at other sides of the story, such as the stockmen’s point of view who were supposedly “destroying the forest.” Instead, he seemed to have a naïve faith in all the Colony showed and told him; not unlike the “absolute faith and dependence that all the Colonists have that the government will protect their rights as actual Settlers and improvers,” which Allen called “remarkable.”
Allen concluded that the colonists should be given patents to the land. The report closed with the following comments:
LARSEN AT ROAD’S END
In the months following Allen’s investigation and positive report, things certainly seemed promising for the Colony. By the spring of 1890, the road had reached the timber belt and work could begin on the mill, although some roadwork was needed that spring to repair what they had already built due to the damaging winter storms. Spirits were high and optimism flavored the air at Kaweah. Not even the obviously impending death of one of the Colony’s own could extinguish the high hopes.
Andrew Larsen returned to Kaweah in June 1890, the Colony newspaper reporting that he was “just recovering from a severe illness and will stay until his health is recovered.” An original pioneer of Kaweah and one of the first of the road workers, Larsen had gone back to the coast to continue his career as a seaman, captaining for a time the schooner Mary Andersen. But illness ultimately interfered. Larsen looked the part of a rugged man of the sea, tall and muscular with a big droopy mustache, but poor health made him an increasingly delicate invalid. He had to give up his vessel in October 1889 and spent the next eight months convalescing at the Haskell home in San Francisco. A doctor advised a change of climate, and as his heart longed for Kaweah, he was sent there. A month after his return to Kaweah, it was reported that though he was “suffering from consumption…he is steadily gaining under Dr. S. Guy’s treatment.” No one would admit the obvious. Andrew Larsen had returned to Kaweah to die.
Decades later, the story would still be told how Larsen refused to die until the road, which he had begun, was complete. An elderly Al Redstone, who was a young man that summer of 1890, remembered Larsen’s words as he started out in a wagon one day for the pines on the newly completed road: “All aboard for the graveyard.”
In early August 1890, Andrew Larsen, at 28 years of age, died of tuberculosis. Burnette Haskell eulogizing him in print, wrote:
Larsen the man had become Larsen the legend. He lived just long enough to see the completion of the road that would no doubt lead to the Colony’s good fortune. Even the government, in the person of Agent B.F. Allen, was convinced of the Colony’s success, and his recommendation that they receive patents on their land claims was the best news they could hope to hear.
CAULDWELL, CRANKS, AND THE COMMONWEALTH
Agent Allen’s report was promptly ignored, and considering the less-than-impartial tone, it is possible to understand why. The following year, a second Special Land Agent was dispatched to investigate the Colony and their applications.
Agent Andrew Cauldwell visited the Colony and did a thorough job of investigating, filing his initial report to the General Land Office in July,1890. Like Allen, he reported favorably on the Colony and was especially impressed with their road, calling it the “best mountain road I ever traveled over.” Cauldwell, however, was somewhat more subdued in his praise of the Colony than his predecessor, as evidenced in the tone of the following passage:
Cauldwell’s report also offers a look at life at the Colony, and by the time he arrived there the settlement of Advance was a flourishing town (although Cauldwell seems to exaggerate the population, evidence that he, too, was caught up in the heady enthusiasm of the Colony at the time):
Cauldwell also described one very important aspect of Colony life that was first described in Allen’s report the year before. Cauldwell mentions the “well-equipped printing office from which a weekly paper is issued,” and enclosed four copies in his report. Allen had mentioned in his earlier report that the Colony had just purchased “a cylinder printing press steam engine and a large lot of type and will soon have it in Advance under canvass cover but with wood floor and sides.”
By the time of Cauldwell’s visit, The Kaweah Commonwealth had been publishing weekly for several months at Advance. A continuation of the monthly journal entitled simply The Commonwealth, which Burnette Haskell had printed in San Francisco, The Kaweah Commonwealth was obviously a propaganda tool for the Colony. It was their sales brochure with which they “sold” memberships. But it was also, in many respects, a typical small-town newspaper. And while reports by Agents Allen and Cauldwell offer some description of day-to-day life at the Colony, The Kaweah Commonwealth provides a deluge of detail, from the trivial to the vital, on what life was like for enthusiastic pioneers of above-average intelligence who were cranky on the subject of cooperation.
SOURCES: Two primary sources for this chapter were B.F. Allen’s Report to Commissioner, General Land Office, dated October 22, 1889 (National Archives, RG 49, via Bancroft Library) and Andrew Cauldwell’s July 16, 1890, Report to Commissioner, General Land Office (National Archives, RG 49, via Bancroft Library). Contemporary reporting in both The Commonwealth and The Kaweah Commonwealth was also a key source, as were Joe Doctor’s notes on interviews he conducted with Frank Hengst and his resulting article in Los Tulares (No. 63, December 1964) entitled “The Old Kaweah Colony Road.” Dilsaver and Tweed’s book, Challenge of the Big Trees, was also consulted. It should be noted the author has hiked the old Colony Mill Road several times, once as part of a group seminar led by Bill Tweed.