Our History

Tucked away in the southern portion of Sequoia National Park at the literally breath-taking elevation of 7800 feet is a historic treasure—the Mineral King Valley.  A unique part of this valley is the “living history community” of over 65 privately owned cabins and the families who maintain and use these cabins, representing many generations of care and concern to preserve and protect these historic buildings. One cabin is being used by the sixth generation of families, dating back to the original cabin owner—the man who helped build the treacherous 25-mile mountain road to Mineral King in 1879.

The history of the Mineral King cabin community is mining. Upon discovery of gold at Coloma (Sutter’s Mill) in 1848, the Sierra Nevada foothills swarmed with frenzied search for the valuable metal. Visalia was founded in 1852 and later served as a stage stop for John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company on its way from Los Angeles to San Francisco. This brought people to an area that lay directly across the Sierra Nevada mountains from rich silver mines in the eastern California and Nevada deserts.

In 1863, Henry O’Farrell, known as “Harry Parole” by his friends, looked down into the Mineral King Valley from Farewell Gap. His job was to provide game for John B. Hockett’s military trail crew during construction of the Hockett Trail from the Tule River area south of Mineral King to Fort Independence in Inyo County. By 1870, O’Farrell and a few friends had set up camp at what is now called “Harry’s Bend” by the east fork of the Kaweah River in Mineral King Valley.

Three years later, in 1873, James A. Crabtree saw a vision of an Indian ghost who, he claimed, led him to a mine he later named White Chief.  Crabtree staked a claim and published the Mineral King Mining District Resolution and By-Laws in the Visalia Delta newspaper. This caused a rush to file mining claims in Mineral King for silver, gold and other minerals, and also the necessity to improve a trail to the area.  $3,000 was appropriated and John Meadows supervised the building of the trail. 

Adverse weather forced the trail crew to wait out the winter 6 miles below Harry’s Bend. Some of the workers built cabins there, and Silver City was born. A sawmill was built nearby on a redwood grove owned by Judge Atwell, and is still known as the Atwell Mill.

During 1874, 166 mining claims were filed and buildings were raised. The next order of business was to build a road to Mineral King to transport mining machinery, including a smelter. In 1878, Thomas Fowler purchased the Empire Mine and lobbied for a road, which was completed on August 20, 1879. With few exceptions, it is the same windy 25-mile road we travel from Three Rivers to Mineral King today. When the road opened, Mineral King had a population of about 500 people, and the town contained a post office, two-story hotel, butcher shop, barber shop, shoemaker, brewery, saloons, livery stable, general store, and dairy. 

Also constructed in 1879, was the Empire Mine tramway used for transporting ore from the mine to the valley floor.  It was designed by Andrew Smith Hallidie, who had designed a similar cable tramway in downtown San Francisco six years earlier—the famous cable cars. Unfortunately, the tramway and a bunkhouse were destroyed in a spring avalanche in 1880. Remnants of the bunkhouse and cable system can still be spotted off the Empire Mine trail.  Few miners returned to the area, which never produced enough valuable ore to justify the expense. However, many families returned to Mineral King during the summers for its “cold pure water and the salubrity of the climate” (Fresno Expositor, 5/5/1882).

Judge Atwell fired up his mill to build cabins and a summer camp for visitors. Arthur Crowley repaired the wagon road to the valley.  In 1890, he bought the old Smith Hotel to accommodate overnight guests at his “resort.” Crowley’s descendants, six generations later, own a cabin on a mill site claim filed by Arthur Crowley that same year.  In 1896, Henry Alles began running a stage up the treacherous road, and in 1897, Arthur Crowley became Mineral King’s first postmaster. By 1905, Crowley’s resort included a two-story hotel, store, butcher shop, stable, dance hall, and more than a dozen cottages, post office, and a half dozen private cabins on the five-acre site.

During the years of 1897-1902, Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company built dams on a few of the alpine lakes above the Mineral King Valley to assure the uninterrupted flow of water to its electric generator in Three Rivers. A flume to carry water from the east fork of the Kaweah River was built from redwoods milled at Atwell Mill.  This flume, now replaced with metal, is still used today, and is visible from the road below Oak Grove.

In 1905, legislation transferred the forest reserves to the Forest Service with the stated purpose that “previous actions of the Secretary of the Interior are to be perpetuated.”  Nothing was stated regarding recreation use at this time.  In fact, in 1906 an official complaint was served against Arthur Crowley and his tourist resort, in direct violation of mining regulations. The San Francisco earthquake in April of that year nearly “solved” the problem by virtually destroying Crowley’s resort.

Undaunted, both Crowley and the Mineral King community rebuilt, recycled, and remodeled their cabins and the resort, determined to continue their summer home tradition of enjoying the rugged isolation of the Mineral King Valley. This marked the beginning of the tourist industry and the end of serious mining in Mineral King. Hunting, fishing, and backpacking grew in popularity, and a pack station was created to fill the demand for pack animals and trips into the backcountry.

By 1910, the newly formed National Forest Service had developed a permit system based on the principle of controlled use of natural resources. Early USGS maps indicate the first specifically assigned cabin lots in Mineral King were at Barton’s Camp in West Mineral King, and in East Mineral King around the site of Crowley’s resort. 

As early as 1907, Forest Service philosophy stated, “Forests serve a good purpose as playgrounds for the American people, particularly for local townspeople,” and annual permits were issued for recreational residents, resorts and limited commercial ventures.

In 1917 Philip Alles, Three Rivers resident, began an “auto truck” for passengers and freight between Visalia and Mineral King. This trip took two days, with an overnight stop at Lake Canyon. Cabin permits continued to be issued as The Forest Service encouraged tenants to build summer homes. Forest Rangers welcomed the summer home users over campers and picnickers because of their stake in protecting the forests, especially from fire. 

Most of the pre-1915 cabins are in the East Mineral King area known as “Beulah.” A few cabins were built near “Harry’s Bend” at the bottom of the Empire Mine mountain. The rest were built in West Mineral King, known as “Barton’s Camp.”  Cabins in the sub-community known as “Faculty Flat” were built between 1924-1930. Faculty Flat was named from the group of Los Angeles teachers who were issued summer permits for this area of West Mineral King. The earliest known map of Mineral King lots dates from 1924, and remains virtually unchanged today.

During the establishment and development of Sequoia National Park, the Mineral King Valley remained outside of the Park due to potential mining claims on mineral deposits. However, its continuing exclusion had more to do with grazing, irrigation and hydroelectric power interests. Even the Sierra Club was willing to exclude Mineral King from the Sequoia National Park boundary in lieu of other gains in the Kern and Kaweah regions and Southern California. 

In the 1940s, Forest Service planners announced the idea of a world-class ski resort at Mineral King. Incredibly, the Sierra Club enthusiastically supported such commercial development, but did a complete about-face in the 1960s and opposed such a plan. In 1965, the non-profit Mineral King District Association was formed to oppose the proposed development in Mineral King. Made up mostly from cabin owners and their families, the MKDA worked to maintain the water system, expedite trash disposal, and set up winter security and patrols.  In 1972, the MKDA joined with the Sierra Club in a lawsuit opposing development of Mineral King, which led to the inclusion of Mineral King in Sequoia National Park in 1978, ending the threat of a major ski resort development.

With the inclusion of the Mineral King Valley into Sequoia National Park, the community was once again threatened with extinction by the very law that had saved it. According to the law, every private cabin would revert to the Park on the death of the owner of record.

In 1986, as those owners began to age, a group of valley residents formed the Mineral King Preservation Society with a mission to complete a nomination of the Mineral King area to the National Register of Historic Places, which would include not only the cabins, but the outbuildings, wagon road, mines, mill sites, trails and dams. The focus of the Mineral King District Association became the “living history community” aspect of the area, including the perpetuity of cabin leases for the purpose of maintaining and preserving historic cabins and outbuildings in cooperation with the National Park Service.

Culminating years of efforts by the Mineral King Preservation Society, and eventually the National Park Service, the “Mineral King Road Cultural Landscape District” was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. But the listing covered only the narrow road corridor with its cabin community down to Lookout Point in the foothills, and the law requiring dissolution of the cabin community remained intact.

Once again, the Mineral King District Association changed its focus to securing a legal guarantee that the living community would be preserved. In December of 2004, Congress passed an amendment to the 1978 law that provides for the continuing issuance of cabin permits to the 1978 permittees of record “and their heirs, successors and assigns.”

Today, the cabin community, MKDA, the Preservation Society, and Sequoia National Park work together in maintaining our historic district and creating guidelines to preserve its historic and Park mandated integrity.