Bahwell Saloon: The first saloon in Three Rivers is recreated

 

The first saloon in Three Rivers has been faithfully recreated on the property of the Three Rivers Historical Society. The beer and spirits were chilled in a dugout cellar cooled by water from a nearby spring after 1896 water from the Bahwell ditch. The restoration work was completed by 3R Historical Society board members Mike Law and Daryl Bruns.

 

The Three Rivers Historical Society has added a new historical reproduction to its collection of outdoor display items. Currently displayed outdoors, on the property just west of the museum, are two vintage fire engines, Pat O’ Connells tow truck, that was lighted throughout this past Holiday season, the long-awaited Public Restrooms opening soon, and the most recent addition, the Bahwell Saloon. It is another preserved part of what in 1994 was planned to be, along with the Bequette House, components of the Bahwell–Bequette Historic District. 

Turn back time to 1994 and all that was visible on the parcel due west of the current Three Rivers Historical Museum was the Bequette House built in 1926. In the 1990s, Jessie Bequette still occupied the small white frame house that, prior to her death in 2010, was acquired by the Three Rivers Historical Society.

Keep in mind that the upstart Three Rivers Historical Society had only been formed in 1991 and it did not as yet have a headquarters. In 1994, the current historical museum building  was still owned  by Jeanette and Jim Barton and was operating as Mountain Arts. Jessie Bequette, one of Woodlake High School’s renowned class of 1924, was enjoying all the recognition as one of the pioneers of the Three Rivers community; her grandfather Walter Fry was the first civilian superintendent of Sequoia National Park.

Her husband Bruce Bequette, worked for Sequoia National Park and propigated giant sequoias tending a small nursery that shipped the potted specimens around the world. On the current museum property, Jessie had a small gift shop and gas pumps that catered to tourists until she sold it to Jeanette Barton in 1975. 

Historical roots of Three Rivers

In the 1870s, old Three Rivers wasn’t even new yet nor did the name exist. There were two areas that had a small cluster of ranch structures where the semblance of settlement developed. One was adjacent to, and just above, the present-day North Fork bridge. There were several Barton families here and others established small ranches nearby.

The other was the area in the vicinity of where the Bequette House was built in 1926.  The parcel now owned by the Three Rivers Historical Society was the center of the local universe in the 1870s. The name Three Rivers was not even in use until it was applied to a local post office established in 1879.

Meanwhile, back at the Bahwell property adjacent to the Three Rivers Historical Society Museum, a small settlement developed here in the 1870s too. It was on a homestead, land claimed by Adam Bahwell ca. 1870. There was a house and barn early on and after 1874, there was also a building used as a store and a saloon. 

Of course, trying to plot the precise locations of these structures from historic maps is problematic at best. So with the guidance and support of Janine Chillcott and the Three Rivers Historical Society, Elliott Research Associates put together a plan to preserve the property,  and apply for funding to make the place a roadside Rest Stop. One of the selling points of the project was to create an archaeological district where future generations could explore the early history of Three Rivers; not the least of which is the first saloon (public house) in Three Rivers.

Bahwell Saloon 1874-1919

The association of the saloon with the Bahwell family ended in the mid-1890s, that according to Forest Grunnigen, one of Jessie Bquette’s classmates at Woodlake High. In fact, Forest, at age 14, had a beer at the saloon in 1919 at the “grand closing party” when Prohibition became the law of the land. 

 

This thirsty cyclist, Philip Alles, stopped off in 1907 for some refreshment at the Bahwell Saloon (then Dave Carter’s place.). The more times change the more they remain the same. Three Rivers Historical Society photo

The site of the saloon, the Bahwell House, Bahwell Ditch, and a stretch of the Mineral King Road that traversed the property, and later the Bequette House told a story in microcosm of the earliest development in Three Rivers in a way that no other local property could do. Hence the Bahwell–Bequette Historic District was proposed to the State Office of Historic Preservation in Sacramento in 1994. 

It was easy to understand the strategic location of the property; and the fact that it grew up catering to an increasing number of prospectors, speculators, and the curious making their way to Mineral King during the mining heyday 1874-1879. 

But economic exigencies of the late 1990s dictated changes for the proposed Bahwell–Bequette Historic District. The proposed roadside Rest Stop never came to fruition.  In 2000, the Three Rivers Historical Society saw an opportunity too good to pass up and purchased the Gallery 198, formerly Mountain Arts (1975-1996).  That building has evolved into a showplace of local history.

The adjacent parcel is finally getting those sorely needed public restrooms that were first proposed in 1994. As to the fate of the Bahwell- Bequette Historic District, it is being put back piece by piece the latest is the Bahwell Saloon, the first saloon in Three Rivers.   

 

A portion of the 1892 Tulare County atlas showing a portion of the Bahwell property site of the first saloon in Three Rivers.

 

Editors note: Historical preservation is important to the identity of any community and it takes lots of fundraising to make it happen. In a pandemic, non-profits are struggling just like any small business. Consider making a donation to preserve history and keep it local.  

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