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Map of the River Hill Grade

Map of River Hill grade


The US Calvery in Three Rivers returning from park duty

Red Hill

The power station at Hammond was the last vestige of real civilization for the traveler up the Mineral King road. The narrow cut in the hillside turned to the right toward the higher mountains and a steep twenty-five mile climb began.

Red Hill Summit Area
Red Hill Summit Area (2002)

May 23, 1891: Camp at The Summit of Red Hill:

"I have had to send a courier off now to go 8 miles to catch the mail that leaves in an hour and a half," young army captain, Joseph H. Dorst , Acting Superintendent of the newly formed Sequoia National Park wrote to his wife Esther. "My supplies are not yet up and I have no pen yet. I had to come back here, 4 miles from my old camp [Camp Big Red Hill at the foot of the grade above Hammond] to meet the freight wagons that could haul no farther and get food and grains as our supplies have run out. The freighters said they could go no farther over these roads and the contractor has promised to get other teams."

Today's paved road up Red Hill belies the original grade. In 1873, after silver was discovered in the Mineral King cirque, a county franchise was granted to the Visalia and Inyo Wagon Road Company to build a toll road from Visalia to Three Rivers and on up the East Fork of the Kaweah River to the mines. By April of 1874, that road was only "nearly completed" to the junction of the main fork and east fork of the river. The prospects of getting the road completed into the Mineral King valley in time for the summer prospecting season looked dim.

The principal mining company in the Mineral King Mining District decided to take matters into its own hands. The New England Mining and Smelting Company continued the road up Red Hill to its summit and, deciding the north side of the East Fork canyon would be easier than the south, began construction down to the river and up the other side toward Kane or Cain's Flat. But the route proved more difficult than expected and its construction much too slow. The road was abandoned, and what had been cut from Hammond was so primitive it was called "The Mule Trail".

To make certain a good supply route to the mines was ready for the summer, a new trail rather than a road was cut from Red Hill's summit. It ran ten miles up the south side of the East Fork to a point across from Cold Springs below Look-out Point. There it crossed the canyon to the north side and eventually joined the old Lovelace trail into the Mineral King valley.

It wasn't until five years later that a wagon road was completed into the valley by the Mineral King Wagon and Toll Road Company. This road abandoned the trail route on the south side of the canyon. It followed the original New England cut down to the river from Red Hill Summit at what is now Bear Ranch instead. From there it started up the north side of the canyon. The River Hill grade climbed to Cain's Flat and finally joined the trail route near Look-out Point.

The entire road seemed to be in as much of a hurry to reach the mines as were the builders who constructed it. The hard pull began at the bottom of Red Hill.

"Beyond the Hammond Power House, it turned east, and the steep, hard grades prevailed meaning real work for the team," Eugene Allen reminisced in later years. "Today as the road passes the Hammond Fire Station, it switches back and forth on mostly a high gear grade to the top of Red Hill. In 1911, it took a short cut almost straight up a draw until it reached the summit of Old Red Hill."

In summer, the Red Hill climb up the "Devil's Backbone" could be an unpleasant introduction to Mineral King road travel.

"We began our climb up Red Hill, a climb we were not anticipating with pleasure," Alice Crowley recalled of an early stage coach trip. "The soil was brickish-red in color, and the loose dirt on top lay deep. We were driving in the heat of the early afternoon sun. The team had to stop often to rest. Each time it did, the stage and its occupants were enveloped in a thick cloud of red dust that made us cough and sneeze."

Red Hill was a place to get over and beyond, not a place to stay. Yet Captain Dorst and his cavalry found themselves camped there in the spring of 1891. Dispatched from their post in San Francisco to patrol the back country of newly formed Sequoia National Park, Dorst learned their most logical summer base would be outside the park, in the Mineral King Valley at the end of the only road into the high country.

Unfortunately for the troop, 1891 was a wet year and Dorst found himself, his 58 men, 60 horses and 20 mules unable to reach the mountain valley. On their arrival at the park's boundaries in May, camp was made at the base of Red Hill. From there his soldiers worked with the county to repair washouts and dig through snow drifts to reach the valley in late June.

For over a week in late May, Dorst found himself caught at the Red Hill summit camp waiting with half the freight to get it hauled up the steep road to Cain's Flat on the other side of the river. It as not a pleasant camp site. The weather was comfortable in the eighties, the river provided some fishing, but Dorst found little to his liking. On May 23rd, he sat at a desk under a tree in the open air and wrote to his wife about his feelings.

"I find it is very hard now not to feel lonesome. . . It is the first time I ever wanted to go back into a post after getting into the field. . . You may be sure I want to get away from here, as citizens are constantly dropping in, eating my grub and asking questions for my decision. Troops are a curiosity in this country and everyone wants to see 'the boys'."

The military camp at Red HIll was used throughout the early military administration of the park as a fall and spring base camp for the Mineral King road. In 1915 the steep pull up Red Hill was turned into a series of pleasantly winding curves to its summit. From there, a new road followed the old pack trail line to a bridge that was constructed across the deep canyon below Oak Grove.

(CREDITS: : "Old Roads" by Eugene Allen: Dorst Letters, May 23, 1891 and May 25, 1891 from Sequoia National Park archives; Challenge of the Big Trees by Lary DilSaver and William Tweed; "Heading for the Hills" by Alice Crowley Jackson; Autobiography of Arthur Crowley; The Silver Rush at Mineral King, California by Samuael Thomas Porter. Compilation by Louise Jackson. Webmaster, Jill Brown)

The Mineral King Road Corridor: Historic Points of Interest
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