Sierra Nevada Phillips, a pioneer entrepreneur

By From page A1 | March 07, 2012

SIERRA NEVADA PHILLIPS is seen here around 1910 with her daughter Alice and husband James Bryson. Courtesy photo, El Dorado County Historical Museum.

SIERRA NEVADA PHILLIPS is seen here around 1910 with her daughter Alice and husband James Bryson. Courtesy photo, El Dorado County Historical Museum.

March is Women’s History month and in the annals of El Dorado County history, there is one woman’s name that stands out — perhaps because there were two places named for her and her family.

Sierra Nevada “Vade” Phillips was born in Nevada City in 1854. Her parents, Joseph Wells Davis Phillips and Mehitable Clark Phillips named her for the imposing view of the mountains they could see from their home in Nevada City where Joseph was superintendent of the United States Mine Co.

In 1858, Joseph Phillips came to El Dorado County and homesteaded 160 acres near the Johnson Pass Road, about 2 1/2 miles from Echo Summit. He built a 2 1/2 story hotel and five barns which served stagecoaches, freighters, and cattlemen moving their herds to summer pastures along the heavily traveled “Bonanza Road” from Placerville to to the Comstock in Virginia City.

“Vade” Phillips grew up helping her mother cook meals for travelers at the station which also served as a Pony Express station.There was never a lull in the traffic passing by and the road was kept open even in the winter.

In 1870, the family leased Phillips Station to John J. Sweeney who was more interested in his dairy business than in running a stage stop. The station burned down in 1873 and by the 1880s, the Central Pacific Railroad offered an easier way to travel to Nevada. Mines played out  and the traffic along the Bonanza Road dropped away. Cattlemen leased the meadow and grove area at Phillips from the Phillips family for the next 20 years.

Described as a small robust woman, Vade was a hard worker and a good cook. She married a Lake Tahoe steamboat captain, A.W. Clark, in Glenbrook, Nev., and had a daughter, Mehitable Jane Clark in 1879. After her husband passed away, the enterprising widow bought 40 acres at Rubicon Springs from George Hunsaker for $5,500 in gold coins. Two years later she bought 80 acres at Potter’s Spring a mile away, hoping to one day combine the two properties.

Vade built the  2 1/2 story Rubicon Mineral Springs Hotel and Resort near the west shore of Lake Tahoe and organized camping facilities there. The hotel had 16 bedrooms and an elegant parlor. She served three meals a day on white linen tablecoths with polished silver to as many as 100 people. All goods and food had to be brought by steamboat to McKinney in Tahoe and then transported by wagon over Burton’s Pass on the mountainous Rubicon Road.

Vade talked El Dorado County into making the Rubicon Road a one-way road and established “The Rubicon Flyer,” a six-passenger coach pulled by four horses that took 2 1/2 hours to travel the nine miles from McKinney to her hotel. The experience was described by passengers as  “hair raising” and the buttons on the upholstered seat cushions as “bun busters.”

Vade sold Rubicon Springs in 1895 back to Hunsaker for $3,800 in gold coins and married James Bryson in 1897 — when he was 20 and she was 43. She went on to own and manage resorts around Lake Tahoe and in 1899, gave birth to her second daughter, Alice Elaine Bryson.

The year 1901 found Vade back at Rubicon Springs. She leased the property from owner Daniel Abbot and replaced his”Enter at your own peril” signs with signs that welcomed guests. Each fall she and her family traveled up the Wentworth Springs Road from Rubicon Springs through Georgetown and into Garden Valley where they spent the winter and in the spring, they made the journey back to Rubicon Springs, sometimes having to let the wagons down into the gorge over snowdriftsby  using blocks, cables and pulleys.

 In 1907, Vade spent her final season at Rubicon and in 1908 she was managing a tent city at Meek’s Bay, having “severed all connections with Rubicon Springs.”

In 1909 Vade inherited the decrepit Phillips Station. She renovated the station by adding more cabins, a general store, a cocktail lounge and a campground to take advantage of the state highway that now went right past Phillips.

Each fall she and her family closed the station and journeyed to Placerville  where they spent the winter. Each spring, they took loads of supplies up to Phillips and reopened the station for the summer.

In October of 1911, just before Vade and her family left for their winter soujourn in Placerville, the Phillips hotel burned to the ground. The family, living above the kitchen where the fire started, escaped with their lives.The bedding and the cottages were also saved, but they lost a considerable amount of currency. In November, Vade brought her family down to Placerville for their annual winter stay and it says something for the regard in which she was held that the citizens of Placerville raised $300 for her keep for the winter.

In May 1912, Vade rebuilt the station as a summer resort and by September 1912, she was successful in getting a post office established at Phillips. However, since there was already a Phillips Post Office, it was named Vade, in honor of her nickname. Vade Phillips Bryson became the first postmaster of the post office which remained open until 1961.

Phillips Resort, along the highway, became known coast to coast for its fine food, hospitality and beautiful view. Notables such as U.S. Secretary of State Frank Jordan and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara spent time there.

When she died in Placerville on May 21,1921 after an illness of several weeks, Vade Phillips Clark Bryson was managing a boarding house in Sparks, Nev., and getting ready to open Phillips Resort for the summer. She  left 320 acres of property, including the resort, to her daughters, Mehitable Jane Sickels and Alice Elaine Bryson Lyon. She left nothing to her husband, James Bryson, who was living in Williams at the time of her death, but when the estate was settled he received five horses and a wagon.

The front page obituary for Sierra Nevada Phillips Clark Bryson in the  May 28, 1921, issue of the Mountain Democrat lauded her for her “open-handed hospitality and kindly influence.” In addition to her two daughters, Vade left five grandchildren.

Phillips Station closed in 1929  due to the economic conditions of the Great Depression and when it reopened, the resort was converted to summer cabins and the general store was sold. The heavy snows of 1951-1952 crushed the cabins which were later sold to the state of California for highway right of way.

The property was later  purchased by the Carters and renamed the Pow Wow restaurant and gas station with a sign along Highway 50 that read, “Eat at Pow Wow’s and get gas.”  The location of Phillips is now the turn-off from Highway 50 to the Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort.

Sierra Nevada Phillips Clark Bryson, entrepreneur, businesswoman, mother and cook par excellence was a woman who knew how to make folks feel welcome in El Dorado County.

Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected]

Sources for this article: El Dorado County Historical Museum; Rubicon Springs and Rubicon Trail: A History  by Rick Morris, copyright 2011, Rubicon Historical Group; Mountain Democrat; Saga of Lake Tahoe, Vol. II, Sierra-Tahoe Publishing, 1973;”I Remember…” Stories and pictures of El Dorado County Pioneer Families, Betty Yohalem, copyright 2000, published by El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, Historical Souvenir of El Dorado County, by Paolo Sioli, Cedar Ridge Publishing, 1998 reprint of original 1883 edition.






Wendy Schultz

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