On the road: Summer vacations in years past of Nevada County | TheUnion.com
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On the road: Summer vacations in years past of Nevada County

A typical camping party, circa 1900.
Yosemite National Park/National Park Service |

It’s vacation time! July has always been an ideal time for a getaway, but the experience was quite different in years past compared to today.

Contemporary road warriors are privileged to have clean, affordable, readily available lodging; highways are well-maintained and carefully marked; and, with some ill-fated exceptions, our vacation meals tend to be wholesome and tasty. Those who prefer camping have access to high-tech equipment, ranging from lightweight tents to dehydrated food to telescoping walking sticks made of space-age materials. Excellent topo maps, GPS positioning systems, water purifiers, and other handy items has made camping more comfortable and safe. But earlier adventurers were not so lucky.

Nevada County is geographically fortunate in that it stretches from valley flatlands to Sierra alpine regions with many varied recreational opportunities in between. Resorts, lakes, trails, and campgrounds are numerous and inviting.



And this area’s residents have delighted in the great outdoors for generations. But the character of vacations has altered through time. Less than a hundred years ago, traveling in the mountains was difficult at best. Roads were unpaved and treacherous, trails were razor thin and rough, washouts were frequent, weather was unpredictable, equipment was often unsuitable for the conditions, and housing was minimal. But, for most, the memories were priceless and worth the trouble.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”John Muir

Even during the Gold Rush era, when the focus was on finding mineral wealth, some miners took a breather to travel and enjoy some spectacular spots. Most notable among these were the grove of Giant Sequoias known as the Calaveras Big Trees and Donner Lake. The Calaveras Big Trees were a desirable vacation spot due to their unique attractions, which included a teahouse erected on a giant tree stump and a two lane bowling alley constructed atop a fallen Sequoia. And Donner Lake fascinated early travelers due to the gruesome history of the Donner Party.




Lodging was always problematic in the mid-19th century as travelers usually outnumbered the available accommodations. The usual practice outside of larger cities was for travelers to rent space, not rooms, in a hotel. For the same price charged for those with private quarters, a late arriving sojourner could secure a place to spread out a blanket on the dining room floor or obtain a quiet spot under a billiard table or, most commonly, space in a bed which you would share with other travelers, usually strangers.

Often, the lodgings were simply barebones warehouses. In the early 1850s, John David Borthwick, an itinerant Scottish visitor to the Gold Rush, described such an establishment in Nevada City. “I went to an American hotel,” he wrote, “It was in the usual style of a boarding-house in the mines, but it was a three-decker. All round the large sleeping-apartment were three tiers of canvass shelves, partitioned into spaces 6 feet long, on one of which I laid myself out, choosing the top tier in case of accidents.”

Hopefully, you would not have to share a bed with troublesome unpaid companions as did those who participated in the first meeting of the California State Legislature in 1849.

As one historian wrote, these pioneer legislators discovered that they had company, “joint-tenants in the house” who were not registered and could not “be ejected by the law, except the law of self-preservation.”

The “joint-tenants” were legions of fleas. “If a man scratched his head,” the historian continued, “nobody for a moment supposed it was for an idea.”

For years, meals in these hotels were often at a set hour and first come, first served.

When dinner was dished up, the doors would open, and there was a mad scramble: “It was a hazardous undertaking …,” a Gold Rush observer recalled, “the rush was so great, that crowding through the dining-room door put one in mind of trying to drive a four-horse team through a single door of a stable.”

Usually, the menu was a mystery — you ate what was put in front of you. And the food quality could vary dramatically. Borthwick noted that he arrived in Nevada City in a foul humor, having spent the night before near Bear River, and suffering through what he called “a villainous bad dinner” of “bad salt pork, bad pickled onions, and bad bread.”

The next night, his meal was the polar opposite. Borthwick dined at the Hotel de Paris on Broad Street. He relished the meal which he described as “the best-got-up thing of the kind I had sat down to for some months.”

The feast of roast beef, soup, cabbage, carrots, turnips, and onions, washed down with copious amounts of coffee and cognac, left Borthwick “powerfully refreshed,” as he put it.

Mostly, campouts were fun, but, sometimes, they were not.

A case in point was in the summer of 1854 when one of the most famous camping trips of the era occurred.

The infamous Lola Montez and some companions left Grass Valley for a sojourn to Donner Summit and the Truckee Meadows. The party (which included Alonzo Delano, famous humorist and Grass Valley’s first city treasurer) set off with an animal pack train in mid-July and ran into difficulties after several rough days on the trail. The horse carrying the provisions bolted and deposited all their grub in a stream.

Additionally, the imperious Lola quarreled with the other campers and antagonized them, which led to many of them immediately leaving in a huff.

When the members of the party straggled back, mostly individually, to Grass Valley, they reported a camping experience that was memorably unpleasant.

An account in a San Francisco newspaper, The Golden Era, stated that Lola Montez was so hungry that she expressed her willingness to eat a “mule cutlet,” but that “a lamentable paucity … of these animals caused her to forego the tempting delicacy.”

Of course, not all these early camping trips were disasters. But, even on the best days, camping was still a trial and required significant planning.

In days past, camping was not a simple, solitary outing but a large group gathering featuring the comforts of home.

Vacationers insisted upon heavy canvas tents, bedrolls that would be comfortably ensconced on metal bed frames, hefty cameras and bulky tripods, cast iron skillets, weapons, books, personal knickknacks, multiple clothing changes, tables, lamps, milk buckets, washtubs, and lots of groceries.

One early traveler’s guide suggested that a party of four on a two-week sojourn should carry more than 200 pounds of food.

Beef, pork, slabs of bacon, fresh vegetables, canned goods, flour, corn meal, buckets of lard, and kegs of whiskey were commonly carried items. And these articles were for those who were “roughing it.”

In the beginning of the 20th century the advent of the automobile increased mobility and access to favored vacation spots. Admittance was largely unrestricted.

Cars could pretty much go anywhere. Scores of vehicles parking on fragile Sierra meadows was a familiar sight.

There are many descriptions of “auto-tents” – cars that folded out into camping equipment or simply used the vehicle as a tent wall. There was even the development of primitive motorhomes, such as R.E. Jeffrey’s homemade RV built on a 1905 Pierce-Arrow chassis.

Despite the difficulties, the sensation for these early travelers was no different than that of today. Time away was relished and refreshing.

It could be cumbersome, expensive, even dangerous, but the rewards were enormous and the memories long-lasting.

Most would have wholeheartedly agreed with the famous 1901 suggestion of John Muir: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

Gary Noy is a Grass Valley native, Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the Sierra College Press, history lecturer, and the author of several books including “Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues.” For more information, visit http://www.garynoy.com.


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