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Enjoy Magazine

The Changing Times

07/24/2014 11:16AM ● By Gary VanDeWalker
By Gary Vandewalker

California's Brigadoon: The Lost City of Hilt

Rising up into the Siskiyou Mountains, cars speed north on Interstate 5 past the last town in California. If they stopped and took the Hilt exit, with the exception of an office and a few scattered homes, the rolling hills and an empty road would be all they would see. However, if you knew when to look, once a year you could find this town once again, appearing with its own Brigadoon existence.
Men from Oregon crossed the border in 1902 to form the Hilt Sugar Pine Company. Eight years later, the Fruit Growers Supply Company purchased the town and lumber mill, remaining for the next 62 years. Hilt didn't appear out of nowhere. The Cole family ranch, an established stage stop, and the Bailey Hill School District were built before 1902. A toll road over the Siskiyous ended here.  The road, built by A.G. Rockefeller, cousin of John D. Rockefeller, charged horsemen 25 cents for passage. Owner John Hilt sold the old sawmill to the Oregonians.  The new company established a town, producing 35,000 board feet of lumber a day.
The town expanded in 1906, when “Slim” Warrens bought $10,000 of lumber company stock in exchange for the right to build a saloon on company property. The mill added on at this time, building a box factory while the community’s first hotel was constructed and a row of houses added. In 1910, the owners, the Northern California Lumber Company, found themselves in extreme debt, allowing the Fruit Growers to purchase the assets. The new owners added a large steam engine, providing the factory and some homes with electricity. By 1911, Fruit Growers was producing two million boxes and 15,370,000 board feet of lumber a year.

By 1913, a movement called “Better Roads” began, proposing for improved roadways to be constructed across the United States, including over the Siskiyous, following the route of the toll road. This later would become the general path of Interstate 5, being completed in 1915 as Highway 99. With more access, Hilt continued to grow.  However, in 1932, plans were made to shut down the community.  Railroad logging became impractical, but the new road and the ability to make roads kept the operation alive as new access to timber was acquired. By 1940, the highway was reengineered and modernized.
In the 1950s, Hilt began to improve itself. The mill was upgraded.  Homes were painted. A volunteer fire crew was formed. With the changing times, the Box Factory was closed, and by 1965, the lumber mill was producing 37.8 million board feet a year. 
From Old West-style stagecoach robberies to the baseball team in the 1950s, the town reflected the life of each American decade passing by. Men went hunting. Children climbed rocks and fished. Summer afternoons were spent swimming in the pond. The annual company picnic drew the people together. Families grew up as the seasons marked the life of this village.
As the town reached its peak in production, the lumber industry began to change. In October 1972, the closing of the Hilt Mill was announced. The saw blades ceased spinning on June 27, 1973. Within six months, the post office was closed. One year after the work stopped, the sawmill caught fire, but no one was left in town to put the fire out.
This year marks the 40th reunion of Hilt residents and workers. On the first Sunday of August each year, they gather to remember their time here. The town comes to life through the people who called Hilt their home. Tables are full of photographs and conversations are mixed with memories.
One might be tempted to be sad, but as Hilt makes its yearly appearance one can hear the whispers of the citizens of Brigadoon:  “And this town is only a cursed place, if ye make it so. To the rest of us, ‘tis a blessed place.”