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1902 stage to Mineral King

Stage on the
Mineral King Road

Mineral King freight wagon
behind the Smith House.

1914 auto in Three Rivers

The Trip Up the Road

In the late 1800s and into the first decade of the 1900s, wagon travel to Mineral King was an exciting adventure. The first automobile travel up the steep, winding road also held much difficulty and adventure. The conveyances required for the arduous trip required durability more than comfort. They also required experienced drivers who knew how to handle situations beyond their control. Almost anything could happen and often did.

Before automobile travel was established, the trip up the road to the Mineral King Valley took one and a half to two days' travel from Britten's General Store and Hotel in Three Rivers. In the 1890s, the stage to Mineral King was operated by Monroe C. Griggs. It was an open buggy with a canvas covering that required four horses or mules to pull it up the steep grades when it was fully loaded.

Large wooden, iron-rimmed wheels and heavy-duty springs made the ride a jarring and dust-filled affair. Sometimes the wheels would slip on granite bedding that made up part of the road. At other times, the wagon might slide backward if a team stopped in a steep area. Experienced drivers only stopped their teams at level areas constructed for the purpose. Such stops were made often to rest the teams on mid-summer, mid-afternoon excursions. Sometimes paying customers would be asked to get out and walk through the heat along especially steep and difficult slopes. They had to stay ahead of the stage in case the brakes gave way causing the vehicle to roll back in a confusion of tangled horses. Some travelers kept a runner beside the vehicle to throw a block of wood or tree limb under the wheels in case of such a failure.

"This stage was not the comfortable, low-slung, colorful one we had ridden in to Three Rivers," Alice Crowley recalled. "This one was higher, much sturdier, and black all over. The horses, though not well matched, looked capable of doing whatever was necessary. The four stiff seats holding three passengers a piece - four if there were children - had unyielding springs that were bolted to the floor... The road we would travel was rutted, rocky and steep. It would take hardy equipment, strong horses, and an experienced driver to cover the miles ahead without trouble."

The stage drivers came from local ranches and some had driven the Mineral King road with freight wagons. In the 1880s, Monroe Griggs had been a teamster hauling materials and equipment to the Mineral King mines, and he knew every turn and grade of the road. W.A. "Billy" Swanson also had teamed on the road and Armien Grunigen came from his family's way-station where many travelers spent the night.

Not everyone rode the stage. Many used their own wagons and buckboards for the trip to Mineral King. The buckboard had a special spring attached to each seat to provide extra cushioning for the rough ride. But most people rode in cumbersome farm wagons that could carry both the family and their summer provisions.

Traveling with your own rig had its advantages and disadvantages. It was hard work, and inexperienced drivers often ran into problems. But more gear could be hauled, dogs could be included, and camp could be made anywhere along the road that looked comfortable.

"Travelers with their own outfits often camped over night on holdings near the road where water was available and hay for the stock could be obtained," Alice Crowley wrote. "The ranchers were hospitable folk and often became life-long friends of the Valley people who stopped by, year after year, on their way to the high mountains."

Sometimes more than what could be carried was hauled up the road. One summer, Thelma Crain's family took a wagon up to Atwell Mill for a six week camping trip. Because they had an infant and small children, her mother and father roped the family milk cow to the wagon and led it up the road.

Meeting another wagon on the road was always an exciting experience, especially if the other vehicle was a freight wagon. These long, heavy affairs could require three or four span of mules to haul them, and passing could become a problem. There would be shouts and cries as approaching dust was sighted. There would be the calls of .of the freight teamsters and wagon drivers. There would be the confusion of the animals backing up to a wide spot, the anxiety of maneuvering the teams along the road side's precipice, the roil of dust covering everyone, and relief when both teams finally passed each other.

The stops along the road were important. " Water troughs were placed at almost every permanent spring," Eugene Allen wrote of a wagon trip to Mineral King in 1911. His party rode in an open three-seater with a rack at the back for baggage and a canvas canopy top. The outfit was pulled by only two horses rather than the advertised four and required numerous stops at the water troughs to rest them. In a few short years those water troughs serviced overheated automobile engines rather than overheated horses.

The first automobile arrived in Mineral King after a new road was constructed on the south side of the East Fork canyon, eliminating the impossible River Hill Grade. A wooden bridge below Oak Grove was completed in 1918, and over it rumbled the first "car" to reach Mineral King. That car had little to recommend it beyond a little more speed than a wagon. In fact, it looked much like the horse-drawn stages, open, bulky, heavy-springed, with a canvas canopy top.

When Monroe Griggs bought his first automobile to use as a stage between Visalia and Badger, he paid the high price of $1700. It was a two cycle, three cylinder Elmore that sported carbide lights and dry cell batteries. To oil the cylinders, a pint of oil had to be poured into every five gallons of gas. Of course, there were no gas stations along the route, so gasoline and oil had to be carried with the car. Worse than that, was the problem of tires challenged by deep chuck holes, ruts and dust.

"Automobile tires were not very good then and they just couldn't take the wear they got on those roads," Griggs recalled. "I have changed tires as often as nine times in one day. I tried all kinds of tire patches and inner linings but none of them helped much."

Going both up and down the Mineral King road were equally challenging experiences. Under-powered engines often stalled and couldn't find the impetus to start up a grade again. Downhill cars often lost their bakes, causing some drivers to go off the road. When two cars met on a narrow section there always was concern over which one should or could stop to back up to a wide spot for passing. The one going up had the right-of-way, but one never knew whether the one going down could stop. And if the one going up had to stop, it might have to back down long distances before finding an area level enough to get a good run at a grade.

Whatever problems, worries and adventures occurred on the road, it all was considered part of the Mineral King trip. When passing stages, wagons or automobiles did have to stop, it was reason to chat awhile and develop friendships. The Mineral King Road was a shared experience.

(CREDITS: : Wheelers, Pointers and Leaders by Monroe C. Griggs; Heading for the Hills by Alice Crowley Jackson; Buzzards and Sunbeams, by Thelma Crain; Old Roads by Eugene Allen. Compilation by Louise Jackson. Webmaster, Jill Brown)

The Mineral King Road Corridor: Historic Points of Interest
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