Exploring California's Historic Carson Route with Frank Tortorich
© By Janet and Stuart Wilson
Once we knew where to look we saw the traces: smooth-worn granite slabs stained with iron oxide, graffiti painted on huge boulders, and swales worn into the ground. All these were evidence left by wagon trains of gold rush-era "emigrants" seeking the easiest or most direct route over the formidable Sierra Nevada, the final obstacle before reaching the Golden State.
We learned where to look one day while investigating the Carson River Route under the tutelage of Frank Tortorich, retired teacher and recognized authority on westward migration. Six of us joined Frank on a tour, alternately car-pooling and hiking as we hopscotched along a 33-mile segment of California Highway 88 between Woodfords and Corral Flat. This modern highway follows the historic wagon route closely for most of this stretch.
Frank Tortorich View From Devil's Ladder Rust stains on stone
At Woodfords we picked up the trail. Here, the West Fork of the Carson River emerges from the Sierra, tumbling out of a canyon just where the Great Basin"s high desert abruptly gives way to rugged, tree-clad slopes. The canyon's steep gradient has quickened the river's flow. The "emigrants" pulse must have quickened too when they arrived here, both in anticipation of their destination (a mere 50 straight-line miles to the goldfields) and in awe of the towering ramparts still blocking their path.
The narrow, five-mile long canyon between Woodfords and Hope Valley is strewn with granite boulders. About three miles up the canyon we pulled into the Horsethief Canyon trail-head and walked along the old wagon route. Frank pointed to a flat-faced granite boulder . By shading the rock and peering closely, we made out an inscription: "ROGERS AUG 28 49" written in axle grease 160 years ago. A little farther along we found another large chunk of granite, its surface polished by countless wagon wheels, rust stains testifying to the friction of iron against stone. We could almost hear the screeching.
This mountain gateway was not an easy passage in mule- and ox-drawn wagons. Still, it proved easier than others, requiring only three stream crossings compared to 27 on the more northerly Truckee route over Donner Pass. Thus in 1849, 1850 and 1851 the Carson River Route became the main gateway to California. Frank spun a gripping tale of how it came to be so. A remnant of the historic Mormon Battalion, "Forty-five men, one woman, 17 wagons, two brass cannon and 300 animals," broke this trail as they traveled from California to Utah in 1848. Frank repeated this refrain each time he returned to the story as we, like the emigrants, traveled the opposite direction.
"ROGERS AUG 28 49" on stone We walk up a section of the old Emigrant Trail
William Henry Bigler, a member of Mormon party, wrote in his journal: "July 29, (1848) Moved across about one and a half mile and camped at the head of what we called Hope Valley, as we began to have hope." By the time they reached this broad, grassy alpine valley, they had crested two passes, one over 8,500 feet, another more than 9,500 feet, and descended a rocky precipice known as Devil's Ladder. They had only the West Fork canyon to navigate and they would be through the Sierra. We stopped near Pickett Junction, where Highway 89 joins Highway 88 in what is still called Hope Valley. Here Frank showed us how, more than a century and a half later, to detect the "U"-shaped swale left by wagon wheels and animal hooves.
The steep, treacherous path up the escarpment between Red Lake and Carson Pass earned the badge "Devil's Ladder." We explored this section from a parking area just east of the crest. We found plenty of rust stains, plus signs of improvements, including the (1860) Amador-Carson Valley Wagon Road. Hiking back up hill, we needed no convincing of the difficulty dragging heavy wagons up this grade. Leander Loomis' 1850 journal describes it thus: "Aug. 8th. Thirsday, . . . the mountain is near 1 mile high and verry steep and rocky, we might Say almost perpendicular, it Beet anny thing that ever I Saw, for wagons to pass over, however we came over, . . ."
And so they did. After meeting the party of Mormons coming across Nevada, perhaps 500 to 700 emigrants in at least 125 wagons made it over this Carson River Route in 1848. During the next three years--the peak of overland migration to California--between 20,000 and 50,000 people passed this way each year.
Today a few hearty hikers and history buffs trace the old wagon trail in sections looking for signs, while thousands glide by on Highway 88 perhaps unaware of the significant, even inspiring traces of history just outside their window.
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Find Janet and Stu at www.wilsonstravels.com .
This story was originally published in Trailer Life magazine.