Our Ghosttowns – from Grabtown to Summit Springs

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 2/1990

The great irony of the Mountain’s early lumbering is that it was never very profitable. Despite 15 foot diameter old growth redwoods that cost almost nothing, most mills’ were marginally profitable because the transportation costs were too high to “gulch out” over the Mountain to the big markets to the east . Transporting from most mills typically totaled as much as all other costs together. It made mill location the key to success. Never was this worse than with Eugene Froment’s mills. Instead of choosing location, he unwisely chose choice lumber and put his lumber mill right next to today’s Tunitas Creek Road — at the point where Mitchell Creek feeds into Tunitas’ creek — in today’s Kings Grove. His shingle mill was farther up Mitchell Creek. The problem was there was no road there then. So he built Tunitas Creek Road, (then called Froment Road) to get his lumber out. It ran from the mountain top to his mill, but stopped there. Beyond the extra capital cost of road building, the ongoing costs eventually bankrupted him.

Most mills could get to market in one day. Froment’s mills, due to the very difficult and steep uphill pull, took two full days to get wood to Redwood City. Enroute, teamsters needed overnight shelter. Again, Froment wasted capital. About 1868 he financed one of his men to build and run “The Summit Sprinqs House” — a hotel at the location that would evolve into the Mountain’s 19th century center of culture. His teamsters would grind their first day up the steep Tunitas grade and sleep at Summit Springs. The next day they would get the wood to town. And the third they would return to Summit Springs. Summit Springs itself was about 500 yards below the Summit on today’s Kings Mountain Road — around both the flat meadow on Peter Garratt’s place (2001 Kings Mountain Rd.) — and the steep meadow across the road to the north. Summit Springs soon sported the Pharis School, a store, two hotels, a saloon, a part-time barber shop, a livery and blacksmith, and stand alone houses and residents.

When the wagons returned empty they could move faster than when full, and could get well past Summit Springs in a day. Also, due to the sporadic nature of milling, there were days the mills were silent. So Grabtown evolved. It centered around Froment’s mill office, which he built while building the road, along the ridge that separates Tunitas and Purisima canyons and connects to the base of Bald Knob.This was on land now part of Kings Grove, on both sidas of Tunitas Creek road, just above the steepest part of the grade, and centering around the flat area where the Planks live. It is just below where the Open Space District gate leads to their Grabtown Gulch trail. Froment owned the land and built a small boarding house and stable. But he supervised it loosely, letting any of his workers build shacks pretty much wherever they wished. According to Stanger in his classic Saw Mills in the Redwoods, “If a dweller in one of the better houses moved away, someone in a less desirable one took quick possession; Then someone else in turn, took his house, and thus there was triggered a game of musical chairs (or homes). Garden space was also “grabbed”, since there was not much level land”.

By encouraging employees to build there and even to bring families, Froment hoped to attract the best local workers. While families were rare at most mill sites, at Grabtown families were common. There are many stories about how the name “Grabtown” evolved, and none are definitive. It most obviously ties to the musical chairs nature of the residency. Some claim it was because thievery was common. Sarah Church Arnold, who was raised there, claimed the name started after some folks built a barn in their garden. No one will ever really know. One thing that is certain is that Grabtown outlasted Froment. Froment lost his mill in 1876. But other mills were running strong. The Saunders mills were running further down in Tunitas now, and mill men from the eight Purisima Canyon mills could commute from Grabtown via horse in less than 30 minutes. Grabtown continued as a renters’ and squatters’ shantytown. Early on a road ran west from Grabtown, along its saddle to the base of Bald Knob, skirting Bald Knob to the south, continuing west down Irish Ridge, and connecting to the tiny coast town (now ghost town) of Lobitos. So Grabtown was directly in line for anyone wanting to get to the coast from the summit. But the road was so bad it was an all day wagon ride, and was finally abandoned when Froment Road was extended to the coast.

As milling faded in the late 1800s, so did Grabtown. There were still a few renters living in Grabtown at the turn of the century, but fire destroyed it, and without lumbering, there was no real reason to rebuild. Today absolutely no sign of it remains. This xerox of a U.S. Geo Topo map shows Grabtown and Summit Springs, which I’ve circled. The Summit Springs House faded as the nearby and more modern King’s Mountain Brow House became the center attraction. Here too, without lumbering, the need for Summit Springs faded. Eventually the Summit Springs House was dismantled for its lumber. Again, nothing remains.