of the oldest homes in Three Rivers
can still be seen on
Old Three Rivers Drive,
the site of the
in the community
that included a store, lodge,
and stage stop.
When Tulare County was created in 1852, its boundaries
encompassed 24,231 square miles from Mariposa County on the north to Los
Angeles County on the south and westward to the Coast Range and east to
the Utah Territory. Near the geographical center of these far-flung political
boundaries was a remote river canyon inhabited by about 2,000 Indians
and containing a wealth of natural beauty.
Yet, for all its scenic wonders, the isolated canyon at
the western base of the southern Sierra Nevada remained virtually unexplored
for several more years. The first white settler arrived in 1856. That
man, a cattleman named Hale Dixon Tharp (1829-1912), settled on Horse
Creek nears its confluence with the Kaweah River.
During the 1860s, other stockmen and ranchers began to
locate along the various forks of the Kaweah River. Much of the land being
claimed in the area was under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862,
which allowed a settler to occupy 160 acres, or 320 acres for a man and
wife. Early homesteads were located along the South, Middle, and North
forks of the Kaweah River.
Following the discovery of silver in 1872 and the subsequent creation
of the Mineral King Mining District in 1873, a trail, built by John Meadows
(who later founded Silver City near Mineral King), was extended from the
growing foothills community to link with a stock trail that led from Milk
Ranch into the Mineral King valley. In 1879, the Meadows Trail was improved
to accommodate prospectors and travelers who made their way up the East
Fork. This wagon road became known as the Mineral King Road.
In 1879, the name of Three Rivers was suggested by Louisa (Mrs. Lorenzo)
Rockwell, and an application was filed for a post office. The community
was so named for the North, South, and Middle forks of the Kaweah River,
which converged nearby.
In 1886, the Kaweah Colony was established as a tent camp at Advance
on the North Fork. The utopian socialists began to attract attention,
both locally and nationwide, with the building of a road to access timber
claims in the Giant Forest. On May 17, 1890, an application for the Kaweah
Post Office at Advance was granted. In 1910, the current 10-by-12-foot
structure was constructed with a materials cost of about $15 and was moved
several times to accommodate its patrons. In 1926, the post office was
moved to its present location on North Fork Drive. On Oct. 24, 1948, it
was designated a State Historic Landmark.
Having their sights
set on Giant Forest timber that included giant sequoia trees, the Kaweah
colonists inadvertently fueled a conservation movement that led directly
to the establishment of Sequoia National Park (California's first national
park and the nation's second) in September 1890. In 1892, internal strife
and the failure to procure timber claims led to the demise of the Kaweah
Colony. Many members packed up and left, but a few of the original colonists
and their descendants stayed and settled in Three Rivers. For a comprehensive
history of the Kaweah Colony, visit the publisher's website: www.ravenriverpress.com.
Travel and Tourism
After Congress established Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers began
to cater to a increasing number of visitors to Giant Forest and Mineral
King (which was not added to Sequoia National Park until 1978). In 1892,
James Barton deeded the North Fork road right-of-way to Tulare County
for one dollar, and it was extended to link with the Colony Mill Road,
providing public access to the newly created national park. In 1894, the
Britten brothers built the two-story Three Rivers Lodge in the vicinity
of the South Fork (later known as Old Three Rivers). In 1897, Noel and
Nellie Britten opened the area's first general merchandise store in that
same location. In 1899, John Broder and Ralph Hopping of Three Rivers
opened Camp Sierra on the North Fork and guided visitors into the park
on horseback. In 1900, they started the first stage line into Sequoia
Park, which traveled to road's end at the old Colony Mill. From there,
travelers would walk or ride horseback four miles to Round Meadow in Giant
Forest to stay at Broder and Hopping's camp.
In September 1898, Mount Whitney Power and Electric Company began construction
on a flume along the East Fork of the Kaweah River using redwood lumber
from Atwell's Mill near Mineral King and built a hydroelectric power plant
(located near the present-day junction of State Highway 198 and Mineral
King Road). On June 29, 1899, when the water first surged through Kaweah
No. 1, transformed to energy, and was delivered to Visalia, it was called
"an enterprise of mammoth proportions." On that day, electricity
was transmitted a greater distance than had ever been accomplished before
Ironically, Three Rivers did not benefit immediately from this electrical
engineering marvel, although it was the settlement closest to the source
of the hydroelectric power. It wasn't until 1926, after a campaign by
the Three Rivers Woman's Club, that community members had the luxury of
electricity to light their homes, provide refrigeration, and irrigate
their ranches. In 1905, Kaweah Powerhouse No. 2 (located on present-day
Kaweah River Drive) was completed, and in 1913, Kaweah Powerhouse No.
3 (Ash Mountain) was built. Mount Whitney Power and Electric Company was
acquired by Southern California Edison in 1917. In 1947, the original
redwood flume was replaced with metal siding.
In 1904, the first telephone line was installed in Three Rivers. The
"farmer's phone line" connected Three Rivers residents to each
other and to the Valley a decade later. In 1909, Sequoia Hall was built,
which became the community civic center. In 1910, Adam Bahwell and Jason
Barton donated land to the County of Tulare for the creation of the Three
In 1903, the federal government completed a road extension linking the
eight-mile segment of Colony Mill Road with Giant Forest. This route remained
the main entrance to Sequoia until the completion of State Highway 198
in 1923 and, after five years of construction, the opening of the 18-mile
Generals Highway in 1926.
1935, the park-to-park highway opened, linking
Sequoia National Park with General Grant National
Park (which was enlarged and became Kings Canyon
National Park in 1940). Also in 1935, the Three
Rivers Airport opened, dedicated as Jefferson
Davis Field. The one-runway airport closed to
air traffic in 1970.
On Dec. 23, 1955, a 100-year flood on the Kaweah River washed away homes
and bridges and marooned many sections of Three Rivers. Downtown Visalia
and hundreds of acres of agricultural land downstream also flooded. As
a result, in 1962, Terminus Dam was constructed. Lake Kaweah, with a capacity
of 150,000 acre-feet, was created to provide downstream flood control
and storage for irrigation water supply, as well as recreation and hydropower.
In 1955, the County of Tulare built the South Fork Fire Station. In 1970,
the Three Rivers Community Services District was formed. The government
entity was created to monitor water quality and to oversee any other general
services necessary for the safety and protection of the unincorporated
foothills community of Three Rivers.
In the late 19th century, many small settlements grew along each fork
of the Kaweah River, and schools were established in several locations
to educate the community's children. Most students lived several miles
away from the school and their mode of travel was by foot or on mule or
Many had to ford creeks, streams, or one or more of the forks of the
Kaweah to and from their route to school. Some students would live with
relatives or another family near the school site during the week and return
home only on the weekends.
On Sept. 9, 1873, Cove School opened on the South Fork, being the first
school in Three Rivers. It was located on the southwest side of the South
Fork of the Kaweah River in an area known as Cherokee Flat (present-day
Cherokee Oaks subdivision). On May 14, 1880, Sulphur Springs School was
established, located along the Mineral King Road (present-day State Highway
198 at Hawk Hollow Drive). In 1881, Big Oak Flat School opened, located
three miles southwest of the South Fork road, serving students from the
South Fork area south to Blue Ridge.
In 1885, Cove School moved across the South Fork river to the present-day
intersection of Old Three Rivers and Blossom drives. In 1886, the Kaweah
Colony set up a school tent for their students. In September 1890, Colony
records show 52 pupils were enrolled. In 1888, Cinnamon School was organized,
located along the South Fork road just northeast of the present-day junction
with Cinnamon Canyon Road. In 1910, Cove School changed its name to Three
In 1920, legislation passed that required every elementary school to
become part of a high school district. Three Rivers voters approved unionization
to the Woodlake High School District, which opened in 1914, over the more
established Exeter Union High School. In 1927, local voters approved unification
and the Three Rivers Union School District was formed. In 1928, a new
building was constructed along State Highway 198 and all the local school
districts merged into one.
The public library movement in the United States spread quickly and
was boosted tremendously by Andrew Carnegie, a philanthropist who donated
some of his fortune toward new library construction throughout the nation,
including several in Tulare County. In 1910, the fourth county library
in California was established, the Tulare County Free Library in Visalia.
On Dec. 10, 1910, Three Rivers residents were granted a request to establish
a deposit station. The community's first local library was set up at the
River Inn, a hotel owned by Jason Barton near the present-day North Fork
Bridge. It contained a collection of 51 books and six magazines. On Sept.
15, 1911, the River Inn was destroyed by fire, as was the entire library
collection. In 1912, the library reopened in the Silverton home and a
Kaweah branch library opened in the Hopping home.
In December 1918, the Hammond Branch Library was established with 107
books (near present-day State Highway 198 and Mineral King Road junction).
This library closed Dec. 31, 1928.
In June 1959, the Three Rivers Library was moved to an
accessible location on State Highway 198, also known as Sierra Drive
(in the present-day office
of The Kaweah Commonwealth newspaper). The Kaweah and Three Rivers
collections were consolidated in 1960, giving local residents free access
to 4,000 books. In September 1977, the Three Rivers Library was moved
to a new county-built building on Eggers Drive above Three Rivers School.
In 2000, the Three Rivers Library had a collection of 20,000 books.
1888— 150 (including
23 farmers, 8 stockmen, 2 fruit-growers, 1 lumberman,
1 carpenter, 1 surveyor, 1 county supervisor,
1 laborer, and 1 teamster.)