Meadow Lake via the Old Henness Pass Highway
On August 2-3, members of a highway association without a highway will spend the weekend camping at an incorporated city without any residents or buildings that was built near rich gold mines which produced no gold!
The Henness Pass Highway Association (HPHA) started in Nevada City in 1953, and has continued uninterrupted annually a trek to Meadow Lake. This year marks the 55th anniversary of the first trip. None of that small group of a dozen men and seven vehicles, mainly Jeeps, who made that first trip are with us today. Today, some who have been going on subsequent trips since they were children are now bringing their own children. There are even a few three generation in the same family on the trip or boast that distinction.
What are we talking about?
The Henness Pass Highway Association’s August journey on portions of that old trans-Sierra road that passes near Meadow Lake. Next weekend some 50 members and friends of the association will leave Nevada City early Saturday morning on their annual trek to Meadow Lake at elevation 7,300 ft. in Nevada County’s high country.
The association was founded to call attention to the long-ignored, historically significant Henness Pass route that crosses portions of Yuba, Sierra and Nevada counties. Beginning at the docks at Marysville, heavily loaded freight wagons and stage coaches moved their cargo and passengers on this road to the silver-rich Comstock Lode in Nevada.
Commencing in 1860 and continuing for some nine years, the Henness Pass Road was one of the busiest Sierra crossings. This route was favored by teamsters and stage drivers over the Placerville route because of its lower elevation and easier grades. The route was given up by most teamsters when the Central Pacific Railroad was completed in 1869.
The HPHA’s secretary, Jackie Attebery of Penryn, points out that the Henness Pass follows a far easier trans-Sierra route than today’s much traveled Interstate 80 Donner Pass route to the south.
According to the group’s historian, Bonnie Hazarabedian of Moraga, early in the association’s history a group of members seriously lobbied the California Legislature to choose the Henness Pass route for the proposed new Interstate Highway 80, but business interests along old Highway 40 prevailed and the Donner Pass crossing was chosen.
Hazarabedian, now the mother of two who also enjoy the trip, has been going on the treks since she was a child in the 1960s. Her parents, Bill and the late Betty King, always included her in their entourage.
The route followed to the Meadow Lake campground varies. Some years the group will travel through North Bloomfield, on to Graniteville and Bowman Lake. From there they visit Catfish and Tollhouse lakes and on into Meadow Lake, arriving late afternoon. Some years the route is through Alleghany, to Milton Reservoir, across Jackson Meadows Dam, on to Meadow Lake. The original Henness Pass Road across Jackson Meadows lies at the bottom of that lake.
In past years due primarily to road conditions into Meadow Lake, the group has camped at other sites including Webber Lake, site of the old hotel and stage stop which was on the actual route. In 1961, in cooperation with the U. S. Forest Service and the Wm. Morris Stewart Chapter No. 8591, E Clampus Vitus, the group placed a wooden marker on the hotel building giving a brief history.
However, Meadow Lake’s uniqueness (the name is given to both the lake and the town) is favored as a destination due to better camping facilities and to the area’s history. Meadow Lake’s glorious two-year existence as an incorporated city of some 3,500 residents is recounted annually at the group’s campfire.
Briefly: gold was discovered here in 1863, and the rush was on! The next year, some 1,200 mining claims were filed, but work had not yet begun as optimism ran rampant.
In its short lifetime, Meadow Lake City was incorporated, boasted such refinements as a stock exchange, a daily newspaper, banks, a first-class hotel, a dozen saloons; some 180 businesses of all types, but within two years was deserted. It seems that the gold ore defied refinement and the yellow metal was locked tight in the rock and termed “rebellious.” Even today, no method has been developed to separate the gold from the rock.
Mark Twain visited Meadow Lake, the city in October, 1866, on his way to Virginia City, his old stomping grounds, and observed:
“Meadow Lake is the prettiest … town that I know of; and the town … is the wildest exemplar of speculation I have ever stumbled upon. Here you find … recklessness and improvidence repeated (relying on highly promising but unexplored ledges); they have built a handsome town and painted it neatly and planned long wide streets, and got ready for business and then jumped aboard stage coaches and deserted it! … A bright, new pretty town all melancholy and deserted … I never saw the like before!”
The town comes to life once a year at the campfire, when city officials are elected including a mayor, dog catcher, police and fire chiefs, commodore of the Meadow Lake Yacht Club and a City Council with no town to govern.
BOB WYCKOFF is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor/publisher and author of local history publications including “The Way It Was; Looking back in Nevada County” The book is publisher by and available at The Union’s office 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley. Contact Bob at: firstname.lastname@example.org or PO Box 216, Nevada City CA 905959.
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