American River Canyon, Part 1, The Road

Georgetown Junction

Georgetown Junction

In the early days of California, there were more than forty stations or travelers stops located along the portion of what would ultimately become Highway 50 between Placerville and Echo Summit. Some were large structures and some as small as one roadhouse, toll house, blacksmith shop or simply a cabin or shack with meals and a room to rent.

Many of these were originally established to provide badly needed supplies and services to the exhausted emigrants arriving in California during the early years of the Gold Rush.

Even more were added a few years later when the road became crowded with the endless line of coaches and wagons hauling freight and passengers over the summit to the mines at Virginia City. In fact, it is reported that within days of the discovery of silver in Nevada, there was a shack, tent or bench at every wide place in the road, from which people were selling all kinds of goods.

Over the years most of these places, and even their locations, have disappeared from maps and memories, leaving only a few with names like Fresh Pond, Pacific House, Whitehall, Kyburz, Strawberry and Phillips.

To understand the history behind the rapid appearance and disappearance of these stations along this historic road, one must first take the time to look at the complex history of the road itself. A road which, in a relatively short period of time, went from being not much more than a trail to the major highway it is today, connecting Sacramento to the southern end of Lake Tahoe and points east.

Who knows who first established and traveled this route. The local Indians were well known to have migrated east and west with the seasons and likely made the first passable trail along an existing animal migration route. However, this way across the Sierra Nevada would not become well known until a new connection between Mormon Station (Genoa, Nevada) and Placerville was pioneered through portions of the American River Canyon by John Calhoun (Jack or “Cock-eyed”) Johnson in 1848 (some argue 1852).

Johnson reportedly made several trips carrying the mail between these two towns and in looking for a shorter route, established what was then not much more than a walking trail, which just happened to pass by his ranch, where he sold provisions and feed for livestock. Within a short time the first of some 300,000 emigrants would use this route to enter California and the trail would rapidly become a road.

This road, appropriately called Johnson’s Cut-off, followed the old highway from Placerville to just east of Pacific House. From here it crossed the South Fork of the American River on a bridge built by one William Bartlett (possibly with Johnson’s money) and then climbed upward to Peavine Ridge. It then followed the ridge to a point on Wright’s Lake road, just south of the Lyons Creek crossing, where the Georgetown road turned off towards Onion (Union) Valley.

Johnson’s Cut-off then followed the present Wright’s Lake road south, connecting with old Highway 50 at Georgetown Junction, some 38 miles east of Placerville where the Georgetown Junction Toll House was located.

From there the road followed old Highway 50 to what was originally called Johnson’s Summit, but has been relocated and is now known as Echo Summit. From there it dropped down the steep grade into Lake Valley and then over Spooner’s Summit, and down Kings Canyon to Carson City. The route was rough and difficult so, almost immediately it was modified by others to make it more usable.

On May 1, 1851 mail contractors Major George Charpenning (Chorpenning?) and Absalom Woodward left Placerville with the “Jackass Post” following Johnson’s Cut-off. Upon reaching Lake Valley they turned south over what was later known as Luther Pass (Highway 89) into Hope Valley and then east to Mormon Station.

Around 1855 the Bartlett Bridge washed out and was replaced by a new bridge a little further east, downstream of Riverton. Anthony Richard Brockliss (Brockless?), who built this new bridge, then constructed a road parallel to and below Johnson’s Cut-off, to Silver Fork. His new toll road – Brockliss Grade – replaced a difficult portion of Johnson’s Cut-off along Peavine Ridge.

Six years later, a gentleman named Ogilsby would create his own bypass of Johnson’s Cut-off and Brockless Grade, by building a new toll road – Ogilsby Grade – from the east end of what is now Pollock Pines to Whitehall.

   Sources for this story include: “History of California”, by Theodore Hittell (1897); “California Gold Camps”, by Erwin Gudde (1975); “California Place Names”, by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “The Wrights Lake Story” by the Historical Committee of the Wrights Lake Summer Home Association (revised 1994); “The Saga of Lake Tahoe”, Volumes I & II, by E. B. Scott (1973); “History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976”, researched by H. E. Salley (1976); “Mother Lode of Learning – One Room Schools of El Dorado County” by the Retired Teachers Association of El Dorado County (1990); “I Remember…, Stories and pictures of El Dorado County pioneer families”, researched and written by Betty Yohalem (1977); “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); and the archives of the Mountain Democrat (1854-Present).

  3 comments for “American River Canyon, Part 1, The Road

  1. Dana
    November 19, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    There seems to be a a lot of inconsistencies related to your claims about Cockeye Johnson. I would how Johnson could be in California in 1848, when his family history states, he left for California with the 49ers. Moreover, I do not believe the Johnson’s Cutoff was a used thoroughfare in 1851, and certainly was not used as the mail route as documented by histories and contemporary accounts. How did Johnson “reportedly” carry the mail between these two cities, Placerville and Genoa, when Genoa was not yet located, not located until Chorpenning located in 1851 as a mail station. To whom, and to where was Johnson delivering mail before there was a contract to carry mail overland between Sacramento and Salt Lake City? In fact, there is absolutely no reliable indication that Johnson ever carried the mail as far as I am aware. I would be most interested to know the source of your claims. Best, Dana

    • Doug Noble
      November 20, 2016 at 8:52 pm

      Hi Dana…

      As I am sure you noted, I hedged on several of the “facts” by including alternate dates, etc. Also, Genoa was Mormon Station at that time, as I also noted.
      There is a relatively new book by Ellen Osborn, called “A Lovely and Comfortable Heritage”. She is a descendant of Cockeye Johnson (and lives on or near his ranch in Camino — now the Apple Mountain golf course). She has done extensive research on Johnson and should probably be the most likely to be able to provide more information. I have heard her talk, but have not gone through her book as of yet.


  2. Miles Johnson
    October 2, 2017 at 4:21 pm


    I am Johnson’s GG Grandson and Ellen Osborn’s cousin. John was the first to carry the mail from Placerville to Genoa Nevada before Snowshoe.

    In reference to the pending allowance by congress to Snowshoe Thompson for carrying the mails across the Sierra Nevada, some of our exchanges speak of Thompson as the pioneer in the business for which the allowance is proposed. While we do not wish to depreciate Thompson’s service, and feel gratified that he will be paid liberally, it is due to truth and justice to state that one of our own citizens — J.C. Johnson of Johnson’s Ranch — preceded Thompson as a transmontane mail carrier opening up, marking out and traversing the route subsequently traveled by Thompson, known as ” Johnson’s cut-off ” and crossing the range laid down on all maps as ” Johnson’s Pass “. By this route and through this pass Johnson carried the mail from the present site of Genoa to Placerville in 26« hours, previous to Thompson’s first trip. Pay Thompson what you will, but let truth of history be vindicated. Jack Johnson claims the nestorship of transmontane mail carrying on foot by the Placerville route.
    Mountain Democrat, January 4, 1873 pg. 3 col. 1

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