American River Canyon, Part 2 – Early Improvements to the Road

Feeding the Teams Along the Road c: 1865

Feeding the Teams Along the Road c: 1865

Due to its extreme steepness, the eastern portion of Johnson’s Cut-off from Echo Summit to lower Lake Valley was not suitable for most uses. Asa H. Hawley solved this problem in 1855 by constructing a new road – Hawley’s Grade – from Echo Summit to upper Lake Valley, which then continued south along the same route taken by Charpenning and Woodward.

On June 11, 1857, J. B. Crandall climbed aboard a stage coach owned by the Pioneer Stage Line and hauled seven passengers from John Blair’s Sportsman’s Hall over the Brockless Grade. There, two additional passengers were picked up: William D. Keyser and Theodore F. Tracy. The coach then continued to Genoa by way of Johnson’s Cut-off Grade and Luther Pass, then through Hope Valley and Hawley’s Grade.

Thus was established the first passenger service over the summit of the Sierra Nevada, which caused the citizens of Placerville to celebrate loudly with a one-hundred gun salute.

One month later a connection was established at Genoa with a stage line to and from Salt Lake City. What this trip did show that due to its extreme steepness the eastern portion of Johnson’s Cut-off from Johnson’s Summit to lower Lake Valley was not suitable for most uses.

In 1857, using money allocated by Sacramento, Yolo and El Dorado Counties, a new “two mile road not to exceed five percent grade” was constructed from Johnson’s Cut-off into Lake Valley. Because Asa H. Hawley had a roadhouse nearby, this bypass of Johnson’s Grade became known as Hawley’s Grade.

By 1859 the highway had been improved enough to allow for regular coach and mail service over its entire length. With the discovery of silver at Virginia City, traffic along this route would rapidly increase and by 1860 there would be a toll house, stable, way station, roadhouse or inn every mile between Placerville and Johnson’s Summit. These provided the badly needed services for the hundreds of freight wagons, or Mountain Schooners as they were called, that formed two continuous streams of traffic, one in each direction, over what had become known as the Bonanza Road or Bonanza Turnpike.

For a while it was not uncommon for each toll road owner to take in a thousand dollars a day for the use of his portion of the road, while saloons and inns often took in three times that much. But this would all come to an immediate end in 1868 when the Central Pacific Railroad completed its route from Sacramento to Reno, and the freight traffic along the road dried up.

The toll houses would disappear when the road became a public highway in the late 1880s. But, many of the inns and hostelries would continue to serve the minimal traffic along this route. Soon, in the early 1900s with the arrival of the private automobile, their business would again boom.

Early travel by automobile between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, even without the expected equipment failures, was a multi-day trip requiring stops at several locations for supplies, rest, and overnight accommodations. Historic inns and hotels, now in need of serious repair, would be rebuilt or replaced with new, more modern facilities as the need increased. Around some of the old communities would soon rise summer cabins, built by those who visited the area and found the need to return often.

By 1914 it became important to the U.S. Government that there be an all-weather road from coast-to coast. Called the Lincoln Highway, this road crossed the nation and then followed two routes into California, one along what is now Highway 80, through Truckee and Auburn to Sacramento, and the other along Highway 50. By 1928 nearly all of this road had been completed, at a cost of more than $100,000,000.

Over the next half-century Highway 50 would continue to be improved from Sacramento to Echo Summit, with a multi-lane highway as far as Riverton. This, along with alignment and surface improvements to the remaining two lane portion of road, would allow automobiles to make the trip to Tahoe in a matter of hours rather than days.

The need for overnight accommodations and services would again decline and those places that could not adapt to being tourist stops or destination resorts, would soon disappear.

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); “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).

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