THE STORY OF BALCH PARK

Questions drift my way now and then, and one such query not too long ago inspires today’s column. How it is, I was asked, that Tulare County has a county-managed giant sequoia grove?  We’re talking, of course, about Balch Park.

If you are not familiar with the 160-acre park, it’s located in the mountains east of Porterville and offers summer camping and day-use recreation in a setting studded with impressive monarch sequoia trees.

The oddity here, of course, is that although nearly all of the giant sequoia groves in our local mountains are in public ownership, the protection of these trees has long been left mostly to the federal government. Locally, that means the Giant Sequoia National Monument, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, overseen by the National Park Service. These large federal reservations contain thousands of acres of giant sequoia forest. Also in Tulare County is the Mountain Home State Demonstration Forest containing 4,800 acres with numerous sequoias.

And then there is tiny Balch Park, operated by the Tulare County parks department. How is it that this small county park came to exist amongst its huge federal and state neighbors?

The story goes back to the late 19th century and a pioneer entrepreneur named John Doyle. Taking advantage of the generous lands sales statutes of the times, Doyle took control of the 160 acres of sequoias in the middle 1880s.  He intended to develop the property, which he called “Summer Home,” as a mountain resort. Doyle hoped to sell up to 125 lots to families seeking relief from the summer heat of the San Joaquin Valley.

The lots sales never happened, however, and Doyle maintained control of the entire tract until he finally sold it in 1906 to the Mt. Whitney Power Company.  This corporation, which was developing hydroelectric facilities on the Tule River, intended to cut the sequoias and use the lumber to build a flume to carry water to a new power plant. (Just a few years earlier the company had done the same thing on the Kaweah River, where it cut sequoias at Atwell’s Mill to build a flume to provide water to Kaweah Power Plant Number One.)

Now fate intervened.  A major figure in the power company was engineer John Hays Hammond, and it was Hammond’s wife Natalie Harris Hammond who, after visiting the property, convinced her husband not to allow the harvesting of the 200 large sequoias on the site. So the Mt. Whitney Company cancelled its logging plans and held on to the property. Eventually it was purchased privately in 1923 by Allan C. Balch of Los Angeles, president of the San Joaquin Light and Power Company. (San Joaquin Light and Power had taken over the Tule River power plant project from the Mt. Whitney Company; today, its facilities are part of the Pacific Gas and Electric system.)

Allan Balch and his wife Janet purchased the property with the express intent that it be given to the County of Tulare as a public park, and that donation was finalized in December 1930. In subsequent years, an attempt was made to transfer the property to the State of California for addition to the surrounding Mountain Home State Demonstration Forest, but the terms of the Balch donation made such a transfer impractical.

Eventually, the county parks department installed a number of recreational improvements on the property, making it a comfortable place to camp, and confirmed the identity of the site as “Balch Park.”

Now, more than eighty years after Tulare County took title to Balch Park and its campgrounds, the small park offers exactly what John Doyle dreamt about so long ago:  a “Summer Home” in the green, cool forests of the Sierra for those seeking relief from the heat of summer. For that we can thank Natalie Hammond and Allan and Janet Balch.

© Wm. Tweed