With the sun glinting off the sapphire-colored waters of Caples Lake, approximately 35 people gathered on the shoreline to celebrate the completion of the Carson River Route Interpretive Sign Project.
Eight years in the making, the project to mark the Carson Trail was spearheaded and paid for by the California-Nevada Chapter of the Oregon California Trails Association (OCTA) at a cost of $11,000.
The two signs at Caples Lake marked the last of seven interpretive markers installed at important locations in the Carson Pass and Hope Valley areas, along California State Route 88.
There for the ceremonies were members of OCTA, Alpine county officials, the president of the board of the El Dorado Irrigation District and employees with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.
John Winner, president of the California-Nevada chapter of OCTA, acted as master of ceremonies for the event.
The goal of the project is to “preserve the rich history we have witnessed,” he said, adding that the “Western emigration was the largest peacetime movement of people that ever existed.”
Going to See the Elephant
Providing the history of the trail was OCTA member Frank Tortorich, who also helped guide the trail marker project to completion.
A former school administrator who has studied the history of the Western migration for 35 years, Tortorich described the colorful history of the trail beginning with the Washoe Indians, who created and used it for 10,000 years to trade with the Miwok Indians.
However, it wasn’t until 1848 that the trail was used by non-Indians. Up until then, early pioneers used the Truckee branch of the California Trail. That trail followed the I-80 route to Reno, crossed Donner Pass, and ended up just north of Sacramento. A long and dangerous route requiring 27 river crossings, the Truckee was also the site where the Donner party became trapped in snow in 1846-47.
What late became known as the Carson Trail came into use after a group of Mormons, who had previously come to California to fight with the U.S. Army against the Mexicans, sought a different way home as they set out to rejoin their brethren in the Salt Lake Valley. Not wanting to use the Truckee route after gruesome details emerged about what happened to the Donner party, they decided to take a different route.
With a party consisting of 45 men and one woman, 17 wagons, two brass canons and a herd of 300 oxen, mules and horses, they gathered in a valley east of Placerville. James Sly, of Sly Park fame, built the corral for the animals. They then set out to cross the mountains using old Indian trails, cutting brush and moving rocks as they made their way up and over the passes.
To help them find the trail, they sent ahead three scouts who never returned. Later they found them with their heads bashed in, their bodies full of arrows, and buried in shallow graves. They reburied their comrades and named the place Tragedy Spring. They also named other places along the way, beginning with Pleasant Valley and adding Leak Springs and Hope Valley.
Once on the other side of the mountains, the group passed three other wagon trains heading to California. The Mormons told them of the Carson Route pass, which the newcomers chose to take rather than the Truckee River Route. The trail soon developed ruts from the 120 wagons plus people and animals who used it in 1848.
The trail became even more popular the following year once word got out of the Gold Rush. Hundreds of thousands of people headed to California, with many using the Carson River Route as it was the most direct and shortest route to the gold fields, even though it meant traversing Carson Pass at 8,600 feet and West Pass at 9,600 feet.
By 1852, travelers had five different routes to choose from to get to Northern California, but the Carson Route continued to be the most popular as it spiked off the California Trail, traveled through Carson City, south to Genoa and then followed the Highway 88 alignment to Placerville.
Tortorich noted the markers placed by OCTA help recall the amazing obstacles faced by these early pioneers as well as the enormous draw there was to travel to California.
“The mighty Sierra Nevada was ‘the Elephant,’ or the last major barrier of their five-month journey to California,” said Tortorich, referencing the interpretative marker behind him. On it were inscribed the words:
“During the Gold Rush, many travelers said going to California was ‘Going to See the Elephant.’ The term predated the Gold Rush and to most people it meant a great adventure, the experience of a lifetime, or a monumental undertaking. Packing all your belongings and heading into the wilderness in a covered wagon was surely the essence of ‘Going to See the Elephant.’”
More recently, members of OCTA had the opportunity to once again walk the trail when EID, which owns Caples Lake, drained it in 2008 to make repairs. The volunteers were able to walk in the steps of those who were there a 150 years ago, finding remnants of former camps, abandoned equipment, and even what they believe was the gravesite of one of those hardy pioneers.
Tortorich closed his presentation by thanking everyone who had a part in preserving the trail, including volunteers from OCTA, staff with the U.S. Forest Service, the Kirkwood Ski area and EID.
“It is the hope that all these efforts will help educate the public and future generations of this rich history.”
The Oregon-California Trails Association is dedicated to the preservation, appreciation and enjoyment of the emigrant trails of the West. More information about the California-Nevada chapter is available at canvocta.org.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.