PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA

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Mile markers: Highway 50 pioneered by ‘Cocked-eyed’ Johnson

By March 22, 2011

MILE MARKER 13 is on Pony Express Trail. Democrat file photo by Shelly Thorene

MILE MARKER 13 is on Pony Express Trail. Democrat file photo by Shelly Thorene

I am here to reveal Tahoe history in a fun and informative fashion, specifically for locals who interact with our Tahoe guests to enhance our visitors’ vacation experience from a historical perspective. This is history in action, so you can do something, rather than just know something. These articles are a historical survey of Tahoe on how and why Tahoe is the way it is today. We will review the decisions made by people who lived here before us and the consequences of their decisions now and into the future.

The initial series is about the many mile markers you will see on the right-hand side of Highway 50 while driving from Placerville to Tahoe. I have referred to these objects being similar to hidden Mickey Mouses in Disney amusement parks. If you look closely while enjoying Disney resorts, you will see hidden Mickey shapes or silhouettes throughout the attractions. In the same way you will see the mile markers, though possibly not as famous as Mickey Mouse, as you drive from Placerville to Tahoe.

Let’s start at the beginning with Highway 50 development history. The current Highway 50 historical beginning is credited to a Placerville rancher, Col. John Calhoun “Cocked-eyed” Johnson who self-reportedly walked an Indian path mostly following the South Fork of the American River from Placerville to the Tahoe Basin somewhere between 1848 to 1851. Johnson was heavily involved with his community on the Western Slope of the Sierra Nevada foothills near Placerville.

Then named Johnson’s cutoff, the road to Tahoe became a well-used passage to California for westbound overland emigrants and many 49ers. The state of California surveyed Johnson’s cutoff and improved the trans-Sierra Nevada traveling experience in 1856. By 1859 there was demand for eastbound equipment to supply the Virginia City, Utah Territory) mines. In 1860, toll stations were franchised to develop road improvements and the Pony Express became operational using Johnson’s cutoff.

In 1869, the highly efficient western Central Pacific branch of the transcontinental railroad pulled trains over Donner Pass, current Interstate 80, decreasing freight costs, but having a devastating effect by lowering the traffic counts for Johnson’s cutoff to almost nothing.

So, in 1889 El Dorado County acquired the franchises and maintained the road. In 1896, the original Johnson’s cutoff was deeded the “oldest and most traveled road in the Tahoe Basin” to the state of California.

By 1915, the road was designated to be part of the first trans-continental Lincoln Highway system, and in 1926 it acquired the current name Highway 50. Currently the western end of Highway 50 is at Sacramento and traverses the entire United States with the eastern end located at Ocean City, Md., on the Atlantic coast.

The historical tourism importance of Highway 50 development for Tahoe is in 1860, when mile markers were placed every mile between Placerville and Stateline to keep the travelers informed on their progress in the same way the Romans did in Europe centuries ago.

The original mile markers were made of wood and there are currently several wooden mile markers noting the approximate distance (in miles) from Placerville to Tahoe.

Over time, stone markers with the number of miles from Placerville replaced the original wooden ones. All the mile markers can be seen on the shoulder of the right side of the road when traveling east toward Tahoe from Placerville.

While the most of the mile markers have stayed in place, Highway 50 has been re-routed (reducing the number of curves) and so the mileage indicated is not accurate in all places. Some have been pilfered. One marker was recently discovered in the front yard of a house in Carson City.

Remember, Johnson’s “Six Mile” Ranch was located six miles east of Placerville. Now that you know the history of the mile makers, go find as many as you can or calculate the time you will arrive by knowing your average velocity and the distance from Placerville.

The next topic in this series will be location of the known mile markers.

David Borges is a Tahoe area chiropractic doctor and a Tahoe historian.

David Borges

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