Sierra Crossing
First Roads to California

179 pages
Thomas Howard 1998 University of California, Berkeley Press

Our research department was on the trail of Donner Summit routes.  The Stephens Party took Donner Pass in 1844 but by 1846 everyone was using Roller and then Coldstream (except the Donners).  The Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Rd. goes down the original Donner Pass or today’s Summit Canyon.  It was built by the CPRR to facilitate railroad construction and carry freight as a toll road.    Between the emigrants and the 1864 completion of the Dutch Flat Rd. did anyone travel the route?  The trip up Donner Pass was so difficult that wagons had to be disassembled.  Did someone build a road to ease travel or did they continue to use Coldstream Pass until the Dutch Flat Rd. was done?

One avenue of research was the California State Railroad Museum’s library.  They must have some information and so a query was sent.  The librarian there recommended this book as being helpful.

It wasn’t. The Truckee Route to California quickly fell to disfavor The Truckee Route and Donner Summit is given short shrift. The Dutch Flat Rd. is barely mentioned  and only at the very end.  But that’s not the only reason to get this book which is available at the library.

If you are interested in general California history and the stories and facts about the who, what, where, when, and political machinations of the routes to California and road building over the Sierra, you’ll be interested in this book.  There are so many routes and that means a lot of history is covered.

The book covers all the routes to California by giving their stories: when they were made, who made them, who promoted them, and what happened to them.  Some of the better used routes are analyzed more than others.

Howard starts the whole story with the first trappers and explorers, then moves on to the emigrants, first road building attempts, State action, stagecoaches, National action, and then the coming of the railroad.

You learn about the explorers: Walker, Chiles, Fremont and their backgrounds.   You learn about the stories behind the different routes: Truckee, Carson, Beckwourth, Lassen, Henness, Big Trees, etc.  You  find out that different California towns promoted different routes, the routes that led to their towns and competed with each other.  They even sent agents to Ft. Hall to convince emigrants to take their particular routes.  There are lots of emigrant quotes when the emigrant routes are discussed.

If you like general history books about California history this book does a good job with this obscure topic.  Who knew there were so many routes.  If you are looking for something in depth or for something in particular, then you probably won’t want this book.  It’s good for general history reading but not historical research.  The lady at the library was wrong.

One strength of the book is the use of quotes to illustrate the human element of the travel to California.  The quote in the next paragraph is by J. Ross Browne who traveled over the Sierra early and then after civilization had tamed travel.  His quotes are very illustrative of travel at the time and he complained about it well.  In this excerpt he rues the old days.  This quote was written in 1864.  Unfortunately it is about the Placerville route as were his other quotes and so I could not pay much attention. Otherwise I’d have repeated some of them here.

With the development of roads and stage lines, “ Yet I must confess the trip to Washoe has, to me at least, lost much of its original charm.  No longer is the way variegated by long strings of pedestrians, carrying their picks, shovels, and blankets upon their backs; no longer are the stopping-places crowded every night with two or three hundred adventurers inspired by visionary thoughts of the future; no long ear the wild mountain passes enlivened by grotesque scenes of saddle-trains and passengers struggling through the mud and snow; it is all now a regular and established line of travel; too civilized to be interesting in any great degree, an too convenient to admit of those charming discomforts which formerly afforded us so much amusement. Only think how the emigrants who crossed these mountains in 1848 would have stared at the bare suggestion of a Pioneer Stage line."

There is only a small bit in the book about the Truckee Route, the railroad and the Dutch Flat Rd.  In that the author has an interesting insight worth repeating here.   The Truckee Route to California quickly fell into disfavor because it was so hard coming west.  It became the preferred route later for the railroad and the highway route because of the ease of approach from the west.   Improved technology surmounted the problems on the eastern flank of the Sierra.  Now it is a prime route over the Sierra.