Driving (and hiking) through history in Nevada County 3/96
Nevada County is ripe with history. This drive – with an optional hike – includes highlights that may interest locals more than tourists. Emigrants, miners, skiing pioneers, the Chinese, railroad builders, movie stars, and American Indians are remembered.
Our tour begins where Highway 20 leaves Nevada City. This stretch of Highway 20 was a cutoff of the 1844 Overland Emigrant Trail, according to local historian Charles Graydon. Look for the shallow ditch on either side of the road – mountain bikers now ride in ruts made by stagecoaches.
The Lone Grave is on the right at Mile 7. Two-year-old Julius Apperson died May 6, 1858, and is buried nearby. A marker was placed at the site in 1863, the site cleaned up in 1921, and the fence and headstone added in 1948.
Lore has it that Julius fell sick and died while his pioneer family was camped here. The family buried him and continued on. However, Julian actually died from burns after his pants caught on fire while he was playing with fire at the nearby family ranch, according to JIm Rose, chairman of the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission.
Mile 18 is the Alpha-Omega rest stop. The emigrant trail cutoff followed what is now the Steep Hollow cross country ski trail. A plaque on a boulder marks the emigrants’ route.
Continue up Highway 20 to its junction with Interstate 80. Turn off at Mile 33, the Cisco Grove exit, onto Hampshire Rocks Road. This was Old Highway 40, also called the Lincoln Highway, the cross country route that preceded Interstate 80. This Donner Summit section of I-80 wasn’t completed until 1964. Look for old vacation homes built of native rock and timber, and abandoned homesites with only their chimneys remaining.
At Mile 35, Highway 40 crosses under 80 to the Big Bend exit. Look left for an oblong granite knob. The Emigrant Trail ditch behind it has many rust-stained rocks and trees scarred by wagon wheel hubs. This was the old Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Road, built by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1864.
Rainbow Lodge, at Mile 35.5, is one of the oldest resorts in the Sierra. Its fireplace area was a stagecoach stop built around 1890, with the lobby and rooms added in 1925 by German stonemasons.
Guests came by rail to the Cisco or Soda Springs stations when the Lincoln Highway was closed by snow. Rainbow was once a gambling facility and the scene of many Prohibition violations. The bar has vintage ski posters from Europe and photos of record snow years. Couples in their 80s, who were married at Rainbow in the 1930s and ’40s, still revisit it. In the late 1950s until 1961, Rainbow operated three ski lifts; the chalet behind the lodge was the bottom lift tower.
Just beyond Rainbow, Highway 40 veers left over I-80 and becomes Donner Pass Road. At Mile 42, it crosses back over I-80 at the Soda Springs/Norden exit. Sugar Bowl ski resort, at Mile 45, is one of the oldest in the West. The Sugar Bowl publicists have the delightfully idiosyncratic “Sugar Bowl, 1940 to 1980” by John Wiley and Sherman Chickering (1979), chronicling its beginnings.
In 1935, Austrian ski champ Hannes Schroll came to California after competing in Washington state. He founded the Badger Pass ski lodge near Yosemite, and, after its success, convinced investors to give him a shot at a Donner lodge. In 1938, Schroll purchased 696 acres for $6,750.
In 1939, Walt Disney became the fledgling resort’s first substantial investor. In gratitude, Schroll named a mountain after him. In 1941, Disney made “The Art of Skiing” cartoon, the climax of which has Goofy careening out of control down Sugar Bowl’s slopes.
In 1939, a Bavarian-style lodge sturdy enough to withstand the weight of 20 feet of snow was built. Rooms with a bath were $3.50 a night, a dorm bed cost $2 and three meals in the dining hall were $3.
In 1939, Henry Howard, an ore mine tram engineer, designed the first chairlift in California for Sugar Bowl – for which an all-day lift ticket cost $2.50.
Sugar Bowl’s gala opening was Dec.15, 1939 – in a sea of frozen mud, as there had been no snow. On Jan. 4, 1940, a massive storm set in. By April there was more than 20 feet of snow, threatening to destroy the new lift.
The Disney connection brought 1930s-40s entertainment figures to Sugar Bowl, including Lowell Thomas, Margaret Sullivan, Leyland Hayward, Claudette Colbert and Disney himself, who once stood in for the bartender. Errol Flynn “appeared to enjoy not only the seclusion but most of all the lady skiers who all but swooned the moment they recognized the handsome fellow sunning himself on the Lodge porch,” according to Wiley and Chickering.
The snow scenes for Greta Garbo’s last film, “The Two-Faced Woman,” with co-star Melvin Douglas, were shot at Sugar Bowl in 1941.
From the top of Sugar Bowl tramway, gaze at Sierra history as captured by the names of surrounding peaks: Mounts Stephens, Judah, and Disney, Donner Peak and Schallenberger Ridge.
To the west above the Old Highway 40 bridge is Mount Stephens, honoring Elisha Stephens, leader of the 50-member Stephens-Townsend-Murphy emigrant party, the first to make it over the Sierra in 1844. The party received directions from a Paiute Indian named Truckee, for which Truckee (now Donner) Lake was named. Stephens’ accomplishment was eclipsed by the sensationalistic Donner story in 1846-47. But his cause was championed by the Nevada County Historical Society, and Mount Elisha Stephens was dedicated Sept. 24, 1995.
Schallenberger Ridge looms to the south of the lake. Missourian Moses Schallenberger, age 17, came west with Stephens. When six wagons became stuck beyond Truckee Lake, Schallenberger and two men volunteered to stay behind. They built a crude cabin in mid-November 1844; in two weeks it was covered by snow. Starving, the trio ate all of their stock then found hunting almost impossible in the deep snow. They tried to escape on crude snowshoes, but the men sent the exhausted youth back to the cabin and continued on.
Schallenberger was alone in the cabin for three months until he was rescued in February 1845. In a quirk of history, his cabin was used by the Donner party a year later.
Mount Judah to the south is named for Theodore K. Judah, a young engineer brought from New York by transcontinental railroad promoters. Judah began intense lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., and persuaded merchants to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad in Sacramento in 1861. As chief engineer, Judah surveyed a route over Donner Summit, hitherto considered impossible because of its steep grade. But Judah’s headstrong ways caused a falling out with his Big Four investors. In 1863, he contracted yellow fever crossing Panama en route to New York during another attempt finance his dream and died at age 37 – less than a month after the Governor Stanford locomotive arrived in Sacramento over his route.
At Mile 45.5, turn right at Alpine Skills International. After about 300 yards, you’ll see a left fork with a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail to Roller Pass. Get out your lunch and water and head south on the well-marked trail. After about a mile, take the marked fork up to Donner Peak for a spectacular view. The emigrants’ Coldstream Pass, between the saddle of Donner and Judah peaks, has an Emigrant Trail marker made of a railroad tie.
At this point you have a choice of routes to Roller. Go right, back down to the fork and traverse the west side of Judah for another mile, or veer left on the east side and over the top of Judah. Sugar Bowl built this trail as part of a deal with the U.S. Forest Service when it expanded its runs in 1994-95.
Roller Pass is the lowest point between mounts Judah and Lincoln. Go left off the trail for 100 yards to the Emigrant Trail marker and USFS sign on the lip. Incredibly, emigrants winched wagons with chains on log rollers 400 feet, up a 30 percent grade, to the 7,860 pass.
Back at the PCT trailhead, face the sign and go left behind it down the Old Emigrant Road, now strewn with boulders. Go left under the abandoned tracks, then immediately look back at the China Wall. Chinese laborers built this train support without mortar, but it was sturdy enough for rail use for more than 100 years. Veer to the left and look for a large, faded hotel advertisement painted on the flat granite to be viewed by train passengers.
Snake downhill and begin to examine the granite planes just up from the highway for very faint Indian petroglyphs. This area was a meeting place for traders from the both sides of the Sierra – foothills people brought acorns to trade for the eastern mountain groups’ obsidian. The glyphs are simple: abstract, curvilinear, zig-zag, or rectilinear designs. Walking on, making rubbings from, and even touching the glyphs destroys them, so look only.
Walk up the highway and cross the 1926 Highway 40 bridge. The graceful cement original was replaced with a re-engineered replica in 1995. Head back up to ASI and your vehicle at the PCT trailhead.
Cross the bridge and descend to Donner Lake’s south shore and Donner State Memorial State Park at Mile 51. The monument at the visitors’ center is one to all western pioneers. Its 20-plus foot-high base is at the supposed snow level in 1846-47, at the time of the Donner incident. Down the path behind the center is a boulder, which formed a wall of one of the Donner Party’s cabins. On it are the names of the party – divided into the survivors and those who perished.
Back on Donner Pass Road, cross left over the freeway and wind into old Truckee at Mile 55. In front of the Amtrak station is a boulder with a plaque installed by the E Clampus Vitus fraternity honoring Judah.
Walk across Donner Pass Road up to the intersection of High and Keiser streets to a steel gazebo sheltering a boulder. The Rocking Stone is a glacial erratic, a boulder plucked up in a sheet of ice then abandoned as the ice melted and flowed on. Until it was stabilized for safety reasons, the 6-foot-diameter, 16-ton stone could be rocked with the push of a hand. Read about it on another “Clampers” plaque.
Go back down Spring to Jibboom Street. On the corner is one of the few remaining original buildings in town, one of the oldest jails in the state. Before the Old Truckee Jail was built in 1875, the town sent one prisoner a day to the Nevada City jail. The original one-story, native stone building with 30-inch thick walls cost $1,235. By 1900, the facility was in a state of disrepair. In 1903 it was reinforced with steel-lined rooms, and a second story of brick was added. It was used until 1964, restored in 1974, then deeded in 1993 to the Donner-Truckee Historical Society, which operates a museum there on summer weekends.
Continue down Bridge Street over the tracks to the Swedish House Bed and Breakfast Inn on the left. Charlie Chaplin and his crew stayed here while he filmed the snow scenes for his 1925 Yukon adventure-comedy, “The Gold Rush.”
Go over the Truckee River and turn left on South East River Street. The first building on the left, McCarthy Sign Co., is a survivor of Truckee’s 1868 Chinatown. In 1878, the Caucasian League burned the shantytown – but the Chinese residents merely moved across the river. A ripped, paper notice tells the story.
Back on 80 and heading west, take the Boreal exit at Mile 70 to the Western Ski Sport Museum. Its quirky historical collection includes a photo Hall of Fame of the top U.S. and Olympic skiers and a display on the 10th Mountain Division U.S. troops who fought in snowy Italy and the Alps in World War II.
The museum also chronicles the development of recreational skiing from its Sierra mining camp origins. The large statue out front is of Snowshoe Thompson. In 1856, Thompson, a Norwegian immigrant, offered to carry winter mail across the Sierra from Placerville to Genoa, Nev. The sole communications link, Thompson shouldered an 80-pound sack of mail on 25-pound skis (in the museum collection) for the arduous, 90-mile trek.
Retrace your route back to Nevada City and discuss county history over a tall cold one.
Pat Devereux is a copy editor at The Union.
This article was originally published on 3/23/2001.
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