Escape to Kings Canyon, part 5: the past and present of Hume Lake

This post is part 5 of a series. Click here to read the first post. To see the gallery, click here.


Cedar Grove had felt like the bottom of the canyon, enclosed by mountains, low and secret. As we climbed uphill on our way to Hume Lake the next morning, we left that hidden world behind. We drove back through the Boyden Cave Roof Pendant and past Junction View, then took a left turn and followed a winding road through the trees. Hume Lake appeared in the distance, a shining gem, vanishing as we got closer and trees obscured it.

We were out of the bigger section of Kings Canyon National Park by now and had entered Sequoia National Forest. The Hume Lake campground was more rustic than the Sentinel Campground down at Cedar Grove. We didn’t have reservations here either, but we got lucky again, finding a perfect spot right next door to another Lazy Daze RV. Our hearts were merry and our spirits high when we set out after lunch for a walk around the lake.

Hume Lake encompasses two different worlds: that of National Forest campers like us, and the realm of Hume Lake Christian Camp. Everyone shares the lake, and the Christian camp offers some services to all, like gasoline and a small food market. We made a detour to check out their ice cream offerings. A more peaceful and idyllic-looking summer camp would be hard to imagine, especially on that day when the weather was perfect, not too hot and not too cold, and the sky above the lake was brilliant blue with delicately sculpted clouds. 


As I walked along at a lazy pace I pondered the contrast between Hume Lake and the wild backcountry of Kings Canyon. I recalled the stories I’d read about all those solitary Sierra wanderer types. Hume Lake camp was not oriented toward solitary wandering. Its focus was union, community, and a particular subculture. While I took pictures of the lake and its lovely surroundings, my mind was busy making up fictional scenarios about campers and counselors. This location was fertile ground for such imaginings.

Ever since my own childhood summer camp I’ve been fascinated by the way places like this create group bonding and a shared memory of a transcendent experience, one that’s outside the temporal framework of everyday life. A lot of work and planning goes into making camp and its rituals feel magical and transformative. I remember watching this happen as a child; even when I was caught up in it, I found the mechanism intriguing, and was curious about what went on behind the scenes.   

In a setting this magnificent, a Christian summer camp could hardly fail to achieve its spiritual purpose. The same Sierra loveliness that drew writing with a Biblical cadence from John Muir could certainly produce sacred feelings in campers. But Muir himself might not have felt rapturous about this body of water. Though Hume Lake looks natural to the untutored eye, it was in fact made by humans. When the summer camp was established here in 1946, it was built on the shores of a lake which had only existed for 37 years.


Thomas Hume and Ira Bennett bought 30,000 acres of timber from the Kings River Lumber Company in 1909 and decided to build a mill, damming Tenmile Creek and flooding an area called Long Meadow to create Hume Lake. The lake was needed to store the logs they were cutting. The two lumber speculators built a flume from the lake which connected to an older flume extending all the way down to the town of Sanger, CA. Logs were floated down the flume to Sanger and cut into boards, and the railroad took them from Sanger to markets elsewhere. The railroad depot in Sanger is now a museum, and its website was very helpful when I was looking for information about the history of the logging industry in this area.

The Hume Lake enterprise happened within a larger context of systematic pillaging of the Sierra Nevada’s timber, facilitated by the passing in Congress of the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. Under this act, individuals could acquire 160 acre parcels of federal land with a small fee and an easy filing. Lumber companies took advantage of this opportunity to amass large tracts of land by paying people – often alcoholics who would commit fraud for liquor – to acquire plots and transfer their ownership to the company. Hiram Smith and Austin Moore, original owners of the Kings River Lumber Company, used this fraudulent method to get 30,000 acres, which Hume and Bennett were later able to purchase all at once.  

The original Kings River Lumber Company of Smith and Moore never made a profit, partly because of the Depression of 1892 and partly because of the expense and difficulty inherent in cutting and milling such enormous trees so remotely located. Nor did the subsequent Hume Bennett Lumber Company make a profit. A forest of enormous redwood trees was destroyed, with over 8,000 trees aged 2,000 years or older cut down. Nearly four-fifths of the giant sequoias felled were unable to be used. After growing for perhaps thousands of years, they were killed and left to decay in the forest. The destruction was enormous.


As the Sanger Museum site points out, there was a lot of human ingenuity involved in such operations, and that is interesting too, despite the waste and lack of foresight of those times. The dam at Hume Lake is one such example. Civil engineer John Eastwood was commissioned for this task by Hume-Bennett in 1908, and what he produced was the world’s first concrete multiple arch dam. We examined this relic of logging times on our walk around the lake.

An arch dam curves upstream to allow the pressure of the water to make the arched structure stronger. As water presses on the dam, the arch is squeezed together. Such dams use far less material in their construction than other types, and they’re good for locations like this one on Tenmile Creek where the opening in the waterway is narrow and there’s a firm support for the arch. The Hume Lake dam is built on solid granite bedrock.

Arch dams have been built since the first century BC, at least as far as we know, in many forms and using many substances. The introduction of concrete as a building material made many more innovations possible. Eastwood was the first to make a dam with multiple arches, and after this accomplishment he went on to build seventeen more dams in his lifetime. His first dam still holds today, in much the same condition as when it was first built.

Near the dam I saw flowers in rich colors, ants farming aphids, even trout swimming in the water. Though this dam had once been a part of the destruction of the forest and had helped flood a meadow, it was now part of a new ecosystem, a scene of natural beauty, and a place where many people find it possible to connect with nature. Logging had paved the way for tourism, and I was reminded of how this happened in Santa Cruz.


Just as technically advanced as the Hume Lake Dam was the flume system that transported logs from the region’s forests to Sanger’s lumberyard and train depot. In 1878, when the Timber and Stone Act opened the door to the wholesale harvesting of forests in the Sierras, the only way to transport logs down from the mountains was via carts pulled by mules and ox teams. This method was slow and very dangerous. Smith of the original Kings River Lumber Company wanted to construct a railroad down the mountain, but when he saw the Kings Canyon gorge he realized the impossibility of such a project. He decided on a log flume instead.

This incredible flume was 54 miles long and dropped 4,200 feet in elevation by the time it reached Sanger. Flume channels were raised high on scaffolding and clung to canyon walls and crossed over steep gorges. When the lumber company was later bought by Hume and Bennett and moved to the newly made Hume Lake, another section was added, bringing the total length of the flume to 71 miles, the longest in existence.

There’s nothing left of that flume now except for a few rotting sections here and there. I didn’t see any signs of it at Hume Lake, yet a whole way of life once revolved around it. Like the South Pacific Coast Railroad described in this post, the Kings River flume was a mountain-traversing engineering achievement not profitable enough to last forever. Its role in lumber transport and in society is now hidden in the past. I’d love to go back in time and watch logs going down the flume, and maybe even take a ride on the logs as some people did, surely an exhilarating experience like no other.

« Escape to Kings Canyon, part 6: Grant Grove and the national park story | Main | Escape to Kings Canyon, part 4: climbers, rangers, wilderness lovers »

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