The Kern River Valley
COLORFUL VALLEY HISTORY
The Kern Valley was originally inhabited by Native American people. Indians--as local Native Americans prefer to be called--were here as early as 100 A.D., and they probably lived here much earlier. Evidence of Indians living here is all around the Kern Valley, from rocks with grinding holes to petroglyphs (drawings or writings on rocks). The local Indian tribe was called the Tubatulabal. They were related to the Shoshone. Many descendants of the Tubatulabal tribe live in the Kern Valley today keeping alive their ancient traditions and wisdom, especially in the South Fork area.
Although some of the Tubatulabal may have had contact with the early Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, probably when they traveled to trading sites near the coast, the first non-Indian traveler who entered the Kern Valley came from the east along the South fork of the Kern River. He was Capt. Joseph Reddeford Walker, and he entered the Kern Valley in May, 1834. Walker was looking for the northernmost pass through the Sierra that was relatively snow-free. The pass he came over, which is now named Walker Pass in his honor, filled the bill at only 5,200 feet elevation.
Capt. Walker made another trip through the Kern Valley in 1843. He was working as a guide for a wagon train coming to California from Missouri. The emigrants passed through the Kern Valley on their way to the coast.
In the winter of 1845-1846, Capt. Walker led yet another party through the Kern Valley. This was an expedition of artist Edward M. Kern, for whom Kern County, Kernville and the Kern (River) Valley and all named. The party camped where the north and south forks of the Kern River joined, a spot which is now deep under the waters of Isabella Lake.
In 1848, gold was discovered in Northern California, and the tide of gold-seekers soon became a flood. A number used the Kern Valley route as a pass through the Sierra, and then continued to the gold fields up north. But gold fever caused exploration of streams and rivers in the Kern Valley as well.
In 1853, a gold miner named Richard M. Keyes discovered gold in a quartz vein a few miles from the present community of Lake Isabella. An instant mining town, Keyesville, sprang up at the site. Over the next few years the Greenhorn area was swarming with would-be millionaires looking for the next big gold strike, but with little luck.
Then in 1858, in what would become a Kern Valley legend, a Cherokee man with the poetic name of Lovely Rogers was chasing his mule in the area of what is now Wofford Heights, when he paused to pick up a rock to throw at the animal. but before he could throw it, his eye caught, the gold flecks in it.
So, like Keyesville, soon there was Rogersville, adjacent to the newfound Big Blue gold mine. Then an enterprising fellow threw a plank across two barrels and opened a whiskey bar, which prompted the name of the gold mining encampment to be changed to Whiskey Flat.
A few years later, in 1864, the name was changed by the people of the growing town to the less wild and woolly name of Kernville. The rush for gold had supplanted the Indian village of Tulonoya, next to the site of the original Kernville.
Also in 1864, gold was found again just a dozen miles south of the Kern Valley at Havilah, setting off yet another gold boom. Havilah rapidly grew to 3,000 residents. Stagecoaches and freight wagons traveled the Kern Valley's dusty trails, going to and from gold fields.
But the gold rush gradually burned out, and the Kern Valley turned to another activity--ranching. This was the main activity of the area at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. During this bucolic era, the Kern Valley ranchers established homesteads, schools, and churches here. Stores popped up. Land parcels were laid out into townships. In the late 1800s, small communities such as Bodfish and Isabella developed and grew.
During the early 1900s, the Kern River was harnessed for hydroelectric power, which the growing cities of California needed. The towns of the Kern Valley were hopping as power company workers swarmed. A good road from the Kern Valley to Bakersfield along the Kern River connecting the power projects was clearly needed and was built in portions for several years. It was finally completed in 1926.
At the time Western movies were all the rage and movie companies began to come here to the Kern Valley to film. Soon there was so much filming activity in Kernville that the town built a special street of false fronts, which they named Movie Street. Some of the actors who were seen in the Kern Valley during those years were Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Yvonne DeCarlo, Hoot Gibson and Gene Autry. Many local cowboys rented wagons and stock to the movie companies, and even acted or appeared as extras.
A dam on the Kern River in the Kern Valley was being considered as early as 1913, but was finally authorized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1944. Many of the residents of the Kern Valley were in shock when they were told their homes were in the way of a new lake. The entire towns of Kernville and Isabella were to be under water when the dam was completed.
The work, consisting of two side-by-side dams, was started in 1948, and was finished by 1953. Some of the residents of Old Kernville moved north to what was the Burlando Ranch and started a new Kernville; some moved south and west to the Irvin Wofford Ranch and created Wofford Heights. Isabella moved south to what was historically known as Hot Springs Valley and became the town of Lake Isabella.
In the 1960s a new freeway was planned for the Kern Canyon along the Kern River, to be built in phases, bypassing the old highway. The upper part was opened in the late 1970s, but the lower part is not yet a reality. That portion of the road has been improved many times and is still undergoing improvement.
It continues to be one of the most scenic highways in California, but it requires careful driving. It is a reminder to drivers entering the Kern Valley from the west that they are leaving the city behind and entering an area that was involved in the Gold Rush when many of the cities in California were still just open fields.
The history of the Kern Valley can be examined in much greater detail at the Kern Valley Museum in Kernville. There you'll find exhibits and displays on all facets of the history of the Kern Valley, built and maintained by volunteers with the Kern Valley Historical Society. The museum is open on weekends and admission is free.