18 May 2010

Magnificent two-and-one-half mile long lake

As you delve into the history of Disney theme park and resort areas, the more accustomed you grow to hearing the terms Mineral King and Disney’s America. (A quick aside, if you want to read a fantastic series on Disney’s America, please head over and check out our good friend Sam Gennawey’s expose on the park-that-never-was over at SamLand’s Disney Adventures.) A project that is a not as well known, or as often talked about, is The Independence Lake Project that was in development in the latter half of the 1970s.

The Independence Lake-Mt. Lola venture was announced in July of 1974, and was held together with a limited partnership with Southern Pacific Land Company and the Sierra Pacific Power Company. By the summer of 1977, the venture moving forward with the project by publicizing their initial master plan. What did that plan include, you might ask? Here is what was laid out in the 1977 Walt Disney Productions annual report:
“Visitor facilities, both winter and summer, will be concentrated at the northeast end of this magnificent two-and-one-half mile long lake. Here will be located a 21-acre pedestrian oriented visitor village, lodging units, restaurants, guest services, campgrounds, and base operations for both winter and summer recreational programs...The area offers some of the finest beginning and intermediate ski terrain to be found anywhere in America, with runs emanating from elevations up to 9,100 feet. The terrain is ideally suited for family skiing groups, which will be an essential part of the Disney market.”

If all stages of development had occurred within the guidelines set forth in the original master plan, Independence Lake would have had enough accommodation space for 2,900 guests each evening during the winter and 3,400 guests per night in the summer, the discrepancy in accommodations coming from camping units. At that time it was estimated that the site would be able to hold 10,800 guests per day, where peak times were the winter slope season, with an astounding 1,800,000 visitors filtering through the facilities annually.

While there was no way to predict how the government agencies required to give this project a greenlight would react, Disney was hopeful that they could begin groundbreaking in the spring of 1979 with the first facilities being opened to guests in the winter of 1981-1982 (a very good winter if I do say so myself…). In October of 1977, Disney offered this cautiously optimistic statement:
“…the Company culminated more than three years of environmental and engineering studies and master planning by filing with Sierra County and the United States Forest Service its Environmental Assessment Report, thereby beginning the formal Environmental Impact Statement process with the federal, state and local agencies.

There are no assurances at this time that this administrative process, which could take up to eighteen months, will ultimately result in governmental approval for the project.”

As it would turn out, this administrative process would wind up being the Independence Lake Project’s undoing, and it wouldn’t take long. By the early spring of 1978 Disney had deferred all plans for the area due to the increasing hazards of dealing with red tape. On 27 March 1978, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial claiming the following:
“Even if Disney had a favorable Environmental Impact Study in hand - - and none is in sight - - it still could not proceed without the additional approval of nine state agencies, ranging from the Department of Fish and Game to the Public Utilities Commission. But Disney officials were never told which agencies had jurisdiction, and did not find out until new ‘demands were made on them by still another entity of government.’”

Smaller projects like Independence Lake and Mineral King, which did not have the enthusiastic support of the government that Walt Disney World had enjoyed, floundered and died. Independence Lake was a project that spent five years in development and study, at the cost of two million dollars, but never produced a single cabin, slope, or hiking path. Still, it is hard to not wonder about what might have been, or how these plans could have affected other concepts developed down the line… Lottawatta Lodge anyone?

1 comment:

Rustin said...

Very cool to read this much about it. I had heard about this project, but never chased more information.

Thanks for writing about it!