MAKING HISTORY: Preserving Mineral King
The year 2016 marks 30 years since I first visited Mineral King. We all have those life-changing experiences or moments that define our lives. September 26, 1986 — the day I first set eyes on Mineral King — was without question one of mine.
My first visit was at the request of Mineral King cabin-owners who sought my services as a public historian. The assignment: help the Mineral King Preservation Society (MKPS) convince the National Park Service (NPS) that this rustic mountain community was worth preserving owing to its historical significance.
The place, notwithstanding its unique scenery, has associations with the area’s colorful mining and environmental history, simple vernacular architecture that depicted an important era in Sierra Nevada recreation, and what turned out to be arguably the most important factor, a community of people who are a living link to a cast of characters who, for whatever reason, found themselves drawn to this place.
From my first visit I, too, came under the spell and allure of Mineral King. The attraction is not something easily described or understood until you have visited nearly every nook and peak multiple times.
The Mineral King Road is also part of the allure and easily deters the faint of heart. Those who travel it frequently will admit the road is a big part of why we go to Mineral King in the first place. Since 1978, the 15.2 mile portion from just below Lookout Point to its end in the upper Mineral King valley, has been under jurisdiction of Sequoia National Park.
The section of road apparently is unique in all national parks because when the NPS decided to designate an assemblage of historically important resources in the Mineral King Area, it was their association with the Mineral King Road that was the critical determinant.
Thus in 2003, NPS cultural resource managers designated the Mineral King Road Cultural Landscape District and created a management tool to begin to care for what had been so obvious to most folks since Mineral King became part of Sequoia National Park. The new cultural landscape district didn’t specifically preserve the Mineral King cabins but it did acknowledge that many of the cabins contributed to the historical significance of the landscape.
In December 2004, Congress passed an amendment to the 1978 bill that provided for the continual issue of cabin permits to the 1978 permittees of record “and their heirs, successors, and assigns.” For the first time since the uncertainty of the Disney development era that begin in 1966, the Mineral King cabin community has a legal guarantee of a future.
Today, the cabin community — the Mineral King District Association, the MKPS, and Sequoia National Park — work together in maintaining the cultural landscape and has created guidelines to preserve the integrity of the historic district.
MK campfire stories— Through all the uncertainty of Mineral King’s last 30 years, there has been a willingness on the part of community members to help the NPS by sharing the unique history and their love for this incredible place that is a mere 90 minutes from Highway 198.
On Saturday, July 9, I was one of a dozen attendees at the 8 p.m. ranger’s campfire at the Mineral King Ranger Station. The program was billed as “Mineral King Stories.”
Having attended others like this one in the past, it’s usually a member or two of the Mineral King Preservation Society (formed in 1986) who follows a script of a pioneer or colorful character and recounts Mineral King experiences of yesteryear. On this night, it was Bert Weldon, from the Peterson-Davis Cabin doing a faithful retelling of some Sol Sweet adventures.
Sol Sweet (1905-1988), a Visalian and pioneer aviator, was instrumental in the establishment of the Visalia Municipal Airport and the landing strip that became the Three Rivers Airport. His claim to fame in Mineral King, so the story is told, was as a nine-year-old he snuck out a rather sizable gold nugget from inside the Empire Mine.
In tough times, and there were lots of them in those days, the Sweets would scrape some gold dust from that nugget just to get by. Bert claims he can prove that nugget still exists because when the Mineral King Room at the Three Rivers Historical Museum opens, the family who has that nugget in their possession will donate it to the Mineral King Preservation Society for display.
But don’t get gold fever and lower yourself the 90 feet into the pitch black, on-the-verge-of-collapse shaft of the Empire Mine. That mine in Mineral King was a silver mine.
Perhaps Sol got this nugget mixed up with the other Empire Mine in Grass Valley, a bona fide gold mine and now a California State Historical Park.
The point is that there exists a long line of Mineral King storytellers — James Crabtree, Billy Clough, Ben Harris, Bob Barton, Joe Doctor — to name a few, who have always fueled the imagination of Mineral King dreamers.
To hear more Mineral King stories like these, attend the 30th annual Picnic in the Park tomorrow (Saturday, July 16) at noon. Park at the end of the Mineral King Road (Sequoia National Park) and walk down the dirt road to the cabins. Pull up your chair outside the Peterson-Davis Cabin. An annual MKPS tradition since 1987, the event is free and open to the public.