Exploring The Kaweah River Part I

Our guest blogger this month is Dr. William Tweed. In his writing, William Tweed utilizes the knowledge and skills he developed during thirty years with the National Park Service where he worked as an interpretive writer, historian, and naturalist. William specializes in writing that brings together the natural and human worlds.

His major published works include:  Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks: The Story Behind the Scenery (KC Publications, 1980); Challenge of the Big Trees: A Resource History of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (Sequoia Naturalist History Association, 1990) (Co-authored with Lary Dilsaver); Death Valley and the Northern Mojave: A Visitor’s Guide (Cachuma Press, 2003) (Co-authored with Lauren Davis); and Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks (University of California Press, 2010).

Tweed also writes a column for the Visalia Times-Delta on nature in Central California. Since 1997, when the column first appeared, more than 400 of his essays have appeared in the newspaper.

Tweed holds a Ph.D. in history from Texas Christian University and makes his home in Three Rivers, California.







The numbers confuse at first.  The community of Three Rivers has either one river, or four, or even five.  It all depends on how you count.

The one river is the Kaweah — a stream that takes its name from a band of Yokuts Indians who once made their home near modern Lemon Cove.  In the early nineteenth century, when the first Europeans to see the stream arrived on its banks, they called it

El de Rio San Gabriel.  But it was the Indians’ name that endured — a name combining the Yokuts words for “raven’s call” and “water.”  The Kaweah, not inappropriately, is the “river of the calling raven.”

Although it is a single stream by the time it leaves the Sierra, the Kaweah is actually a complex system with five major mountain tributaries and, before it was channelized in the middle nineteenth century to serve the needs of agriculture, at least

four major “distributaries”  that spread it waters across the floor of the San Joaquin Valley.  In the nineteenth century the area around Visalia was known as the “Four Creeks” country and even today the idea of a dividing river is retained in such names as the Kaweah Delta District Hospital.

The name “Three Rivers” remembers a time when the foothills town was only a small dot on a map rather than an extended community filling several canyons.  Originally, the name applied to a small rural community centered around the confluence of the Middle and South forks of the Kaweah.  The third river implied in the name was the North Fork, which enters the river’s main stem less than two miles upstream from the mouth of the South Fork.  Left out of the equation altogether were the other two major forks: the East and Marble forks.

Today Three Rivers might better be called “Four Rivers” for the name has come to apply to the community that fills the lower reaches of the East, Middle, North, and South fork canyons.  Once these recesses each had their own settlements, with their own markets and post offices.  Largely forgotten today is Hammond, the old name for the settlement that developed around the Mt. Whitney Power Company’s Kaweah Number One hydroelectric plant when it was built in the late 1890s.  Gone, too, is the town of “Oak Grove,” where lower East Fork ranchers once picked up their mail and supplies. Enduring still, but subsumed into modern Three Rivers, is “Kaweah,” with its tiny, fiercely defended community post office.   Also surviving as a place name but slowly losing its separate identify is Ash Mountain, where Sequoia National Park’s rangers have made their homes since the 1920s.

Each fork of the Kaweah has its own character.  The big Middle Fork Canyon, with its views to Alta Peak and the high country, has long been the visible connection between lowland residents and the high Sierra of Sequoia National Park.  The East Fork, the first of the mountain canyons to have a road, has twice inspired dreams of greed and glory.  But neither silver nor skiing turned out exactly as expected.  The North Fork is the land of the Kaweah Colony with its Utopian dreams of Arcadian life.  The Marble Fork, flowing entirely within the national parks, confuses the parks visitors, who have trouble connecting its disparate parts. And the South Fork, scoured in the mid-nineteenth century by the greatest Kaweah flood in human memory, remains yet a quiet land of ranchers and privacy.

In coming essays in this series, we will explore each of these stories.  We’ll start, next time, with the Kaweah’s Middle Fork, the stream that ties together all the environmental elements of the Kaweah watershed.  In succeeding essays, the four other canyons and the Kaweah’s delta will each receive their due. Perhaps by telling these separate stories we can discover the single place we call home.


NOTE: The above has been modified slightly from the original version published in the Fall 1995 issue of the Kaweah Quarterly. The Quarterly was the newsletter of the Kaweah Land Trust, which is one of the three organizations that merged in 2000 to become what is now known as the Sequoia Riverlands Trust.

© Wm. Tweed


One Response to Exploring The Kaweah River Part I

  1. Andrew Glazier says:

    I love his stories!

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