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Stories from the valley

Traveling Historic Highway 50: the Tahoe Wagon Road

Contributed by Carl Gwyn

The 69th annual Highway 50 Wagon Train just completed its trans-Sierra trek, arriving for a joyous culmination celebration in Placerville. Those who ride with the wagon train get a taste of what traveling over Echo Summit was like in the mid-1800’s. Although the participants’ journey represents the historic trek, the actual experience was different.

After the discovery of gold in 1848, people flocked to California over the Donner and Carson Passes. Carson Pass was preferred because of the smaller number of river crossings and the road built by the Mormon Battalion in 1848, known today as Mormon Emigrant Trail.

A new route gained importance in 1859 with the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. The Lake Tahoe Wagon Road (future Highway 50) went from Placerville to Virginia City, supplying the hungry area with the necessities needed to support the silver mines.

The first road was dirt and consisted of several sections that were toll roads. Way stations were sprinkled along the road, but settlers and teamsters heading to the silver mines had to be careful about pulling off because the traffic was “nose-to-tail.” Wagons that pulled off could not get back in line for several hours—or in some instances a whole day.

The current route follows some sections of the original road, but it took a more adventurous path. Originally the road turned left at Fresh Pond and dropped down to cross the South Fork of the American River and run up and along Peavine Ridge. It then came down between Silverfork and Kyburz and ran along the current route to Strawberry, where it went directly under Lover’s Leap and across Slippery Ford.

This dangerous crossing was later replaced by two bridges, and the area became known as Twin Bridges. Those climbing to Echo Summit followed the current route until near the summit. Portions of the old road is still there as Johnson Cutoff and Meyers Grade Road.

Nowadays, two sections of Highway 50 offer great hiking and recreational opportunities. The Swan-Henry Toll Road was covered in a prior post, which can be viewed by clicking here. The Meyers Grade Road, a favorite recreational trail for South Lake Tahoe residents, offers a cardio workout as hikers climb 700 ft in 1.5 miles. For more information on that trail, click here.