How does one avoid employing sesquipedalian words when one describes marvelous sesquicentennial events like the upcoming wagon train? While such 'prairie schooners' are not totally new to this county, today or yesterday, sponsors say this group will be the largest since gold rush days!
Two trains, from north and south mother lode points, will soon wend their slow passages, with many stops, to a rendezvous at Camanche north shore. Ultimately, the wagons will roll into port of Stockton for culminating ceremonies with a tall ship. Note well that once promoters heralded tall ships, plural. Seems budget shortfalls and waning enthusiasm cut the fleet down. No matter. The wagon train is king and Amador will get to see all of it. But antiquarian columnists should let the news editors provide details, and concentrate on historical antecedents or precedents.
Thanks to the Kit Carson mounted men of Amador county, and associates, this county is no stranger to wagon trains. For years the mountain men led the annual highway 50 wagon train, and in more recent times the group has led wagon trains from high country to fair grounds. Not surprisingly they'll be essential to this train's progress, too. But when did Amador see its first emigrant wagons?
The covered wagon emigration westerly began in 1839-40 to Oregon, and in 1841 to California. Yes, not all overlanders came by wagon. Some - men mostly - chose to travel more swiftly if spartanly by pack train or packers afoot. But not until 1844 could the migration get wagons over California's rugged Sierra. Before, parties had to abandon them in desert or mountain or otherwise give up reaching settlements in California before starving. Anon we should consider some of those pre-gold rush treks to California, as future Amadorians were among the trekkers.
Helping transform a wagon train into a pack train in 1843 were William Hicks, a subject within, and Moses Childers, a longtime Amador settler. Later, in 1846 came Christina Patterson and her brood. And was "old man" Hitchcock who guided the Stevens party in 1844 any relation to the Hitchcock who first "owned" Jackson valley or Buena Vista rancho in '49?
A historical mystery to solve.
In 1848, rejoining brethren, the Mormons, shunning the then infamous Donner route, sweated a new trail from Pleasant valley in today's EI Dorado county, over Carson pass and canyon into today's Carson valley. Their wagons, however made or were the first to enter what is now Amador, and first to cross the Sierra west to east. In the Nevada desert, they met many emigrants heading west, who, once informed that another Sierra pass was open, forsook passes further north and chanced the new route.
So began about 15 years of covered wagons, pack trains, and solitary walkers coming west via Carson pass. Just 15? Probably. By 1863, when the Amador-Nevada wagon road opened, wagon trains took the easier way, even if they had to pay a toll.
The Nevada deserts and multiple crossings of Mary's or Humboldt's river were arduous enough. But those waggoners faced more dreadful gauntlets ahead. Read virtually any diary. Wagons, though a home on wheels, were also a hindrance. In pass or Carson canyon, through which the west fork of the Carson river roared or murmured, nature had sloughed off great boulders from high canyon walls. Space, sometimes, between them wasn't wide enough for man let alone wagon, and men had to unload each wagon, and with rope and tackle laboriously lift it and then reload.
Another Herculean labor loomed ahead called the devil's ladder. A seemingly perpendicular wall of granite just beyond Red lake. Even the mythical Babe, the blue ox, couldn't haven't pulled a wagon up that slope. Again, men became pack animals to carry the goods, and others with block and tackle and a Sierra tree, somehow pulled the wagons up to the top and the first pass. First? Yes, the Carson trail had two passes and the highest, if not the worst, was ahead.
After a downhill glide into lake valley - where sat two small lakes later made one by dams - the second summit loomed. A less steep climb, indeed, but equally formidable because of its length, its slope, and deep Sierra snow banks which made its higher reaches sidling ground. Though oxen or mules could make the pull, men had to underpin the down-slope side, or the wagon and all its contents would go catapulting or cart wheeling into the canyon below.
Such were the obstacles which covered wagons had to overcome, at least in the early days of the Carson trail. From the second summit onward emigrants were in what is now Amador county, and remained in it until about Tragedy Spring where the trail lay in El Dorado or was the actual boundary between counties. At today's Mormon emigrant road the original Mormon trail followed Iron Mountain ridge into El Dorado. Thus, if any wagons reached what became Amador before 1852, they came the long way through EI Dorado first.
In 1852, however, Stockton merchants and Volcano entrepreneurs jointly contructed a new "cutoff." Usually, in trail terms, a "cutoff' meant a shorter if not easier route. It saved time. But this "cut-off' didn't save emigrants time getting to EI Dorado. It lured or diverted them into Calaveras, deposited them directly into Volcano, the first village they had encountered since Mormon station or Genoa in Nevada to-be.
If emigrants didn't rest at Volcano, the wagons creaked and crept out of the deep bowl and headed down today's ridge road and on to Sacramento city or Stockton. A few, of course, forewarned that Volcano lay in a volcanic-like bowl, skipped the thrill and escaped down the rude stage road to Fiddletown and beyond. The cutoffs first users were Pennsylvanians.