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.
The colony was based upon the theories of Laurence Gronlund, an American socialist originally from Denmark, whose book The Cooperative Commonwealth was the first adequate exposition of German socialism. Gronlund envisioned an ideal cooperative colony in which working members would own and control production and profit accordingly.
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 Gronlund's theories and decided to form a colony with timberlands as the source of income. 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.
Membership in the colony cost $500, of which $100 was paid in cash and the remainder in installments, goods, or in labor. There were non-resident members from throughout the United States and Europe as well. Funds from these members were instrumental in keeping the colony solvent. Total membership was never more than 500. Actual residents, including the families of members, did not exceed 300.
A medium of exchange based on units of time worked was set up for use in the colony. Under the system, a 200-minute paper "time check" was worth $1. There were 25-cent time checks good for one meal and others in even smaller denominations. A medallion represented 24 hours of work. A colonist supposedly could cash his time checks at the colony treasury so he could make outside purchases, but there was seldom enough in the treasury to support this practice.
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 (what would become the 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 handmade road 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. They attempted to continue milling operations, but colony leaders were arrested for cutting timber inside the boundaries of the new park (California's first and the nation's second national park). The case was tried in Los Angeles Federal Court. The colonists were convicted of illegally cutting timber and were fined, but later acquitted on mail-fraud charges. In the spring of 1891, the Secretary of the Interior agreed that the timber claims were invalid and the colonists were ordered off the land.
By 1892, the colony had disbanded and most of the colonists had moved away. James Martin attempted to obtain some compensation for damages he believed the colonists had sustained from the creation of Sequoia National Park and, as late as 1934, appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for compensation in lieu of the timber claims. At that time, the General Land Office decreed that the original opinion of the Federal Land Commissioner must stand.
Congressional committees investigated the case and their reports generally favored the colonists, but money was never appropriated for reimbursement. The road, with an eight-mile extension above its original terminus built by the U.S. Cavalry in 1903 to allow tourists access to the Giant Forest area, was the only vehicular access to Sequoia National Park until the completion of the present-day Generals Highway in 1926.
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 (and host of this website) derived its name. Published from 1890 to 1892, the paper was mainly used as a propaganda tool for the socialist society, but each of the 96 issues also offered a first-hand glimpse of colony life, from business matters to recreational pursuits to births, marriages, and deaths. The weekly paper was printed on the first steam-operated press in Tulare County, given to the Kaweah Colony by Dr. M.A. Hunter in exchange for membership.
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 currently registered as State Historic Landmark No. 389. The Kaweah Post Office is still in operation today.