One hundred and sixty-five years ago, 45 members of the Mormon Battalion and one woman were on their way home to Utah from Sutter’s Fort. With 27 river crossings, the California Trail was too treacherous for the group and they blazed their own route over the Sierra Nevada, naming places like Tragedy Springs and Pleasant Valley for the experiences they had along the way. In 30 days, they hacked out 170 miles of trail which was later used by more than 50,000 wagons and 200,000 gold seekers during the Gold Rush.
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Today, you can see artifacts picked up off the Mormon Emigrant Trail and a diorama that explains their use and the history of the trail along with diary entries from the trail blazers themselves and some interesting facts about the trail, courtesy of Emma Holm.
Holm, 18, built the traveling exhibit, now in the Forestry Service headquarters on Briw Road, for her Gold Award Project. A Gold Award is the equivalent to an Eagle Scout Award, and Holm knew, if she were going to put in the extensive time to create a Gold Award project, that it better be something she was really interested in.
“I really love history, so I went to the El Dorado County Historical Museum to ask if there was anything they needed help with,” said Holm, a 2013 graduate of El Dorado High School.
Museum director, Mary Cory, had just the thing: a box of donated artifacts from the Mormon Emigrant Trail taking up space in storage. No one knew what all the artifacts were or how they were used, but someone needed to do something with them.
Holm used resources at the museum and on the Internet to research the Mormon Emigrant Trail; she talked with people who shared family memories, and, with the help of a variety of people at the museum and more than 80 hours of her time, she identified all the artifacts and put them into a display case along with an explanation of what purpose they served.
Iron wagon chains, lynch-pins for wheels, nails, horseshoes, brakes and the hound plate for steering the wagon are a few of the metal artifacts from the trail. In Holms’ diagrams and photos you can see how the pieces fit on a wagon and how challenging the trail would have been without them.
“Emma took rusty implements and put them into the context of a wonderful part of El Dorado County history,” said Cory. “It’s quite a challenge to take a rusty bit of metal and translate what it came from.”
The exhibit has been on the move since it was finished: at the El Dorado County Historical Museum, the El Dorado County Library in Placerville and the Fountain-Tallman Museum in downtown Placerville. It even traveled to Oregon City when Holm shared it at the Oregon-California Trail Association Conference in July, where she received the Young Octan award for her work.
The exhibit now belongs to the El Dorado County Historical Museum. “We’d like to take it to the other ranger stations and to the other branches of the library, particularly the Pollock Pines branch,” said Cory. “I think we have another few years of taking it out to display in other areas of the county.”
Holm has continued to volunteer with the museum, helping with research for other projects, and as a volunteer with the Forest Service archaeology group that is mapping out the original trail locations. “I went out with the metal detecting group and found a Bowie knife,” said Holm. ” We mapped it and reburied it. ”
Removing historical artifacts from public land is no longer allowed, said Cory. “Our box was in storage for a long time, but now it’s out where people have access to the artifacts.”
One of the most important things Holm said she took away from the experience was the exposure to different aspects and possibilities in her interest area of history. “I learned about artifact preservation and met a lot of people and organizations that I might be working with in the future,” Holm said.
On Aug. 27, Holm left for college at Pacific Lutheran University where she is majoring in anthropology.
“Sometimes people have a real interest in history, but don’t see a lot of career opportunities in it,” said Cory. “It’s so good to be able to be where those possibilities can be seen. You can see what you can do with history and how you can make a career out of it.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.