Native American trails were undoubtedly used by European and American fur trappers and traders. Calaveras and Alpine counties were explored by scouts looking for a pass into California, or were traversed by some of the early emigrant parties.
Jedediah Strong Smith appears to have been the first Euro-American to enter the region. From his camp on the lower Stanislaus River, Smith and two companions traveled eastward, upstream, and crossed the Sierra Nevada in eight days during May of 1827. It is thought that the path traveled by Smith and his fellow trappers may have paralleled the present Highway 4. The Bidwell- Bartleson party, touted as the “First Immigrant Train to California,” although leaving their wagons behind on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, entered California and traveled down the Stanislaus River drainage in 1841.
The Sierra Nevada trails became popular after the discovery of gold at Coloma in 1848, precipitating a worldwide rush of peoples to the Sierra Nevada foothills. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848, brought the American southwest into the Union at almost the same time that gold was found at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in California. These two events provided the impetus for numerous forays into, and trips through California, as miners and settlers searched for the quickest routes to the gold fields.
Prospectors and emigrant parties quickly began using the route from Genoa, Nevada, to Murphys and the surrounding gold fields. Although the name of the first traveler over this route is unknown, by 1849 it was in use by several parties, many of whom gave descriptions of the Big Tree Grove (later Calaveras Big Trees State Park) in their diaries.
“Major” J.A.N. Ebbetts claimed to have led a group of miners and mules east over the Sierras in 1851, using a snow-free pass at the headwaters of the Mokelumne River. Later, in 1853, he led a railroad survey team across the Sonora Pass region. From a high peak just east of Sonora Pass he pointed north to the pass he thought he took in 1851 to George Goddard, a mapmaker. In 1854, Ebbetts died in a steamer explosion. In memoriam, Goddard placed the name Ebbetts Pass on the map he completed in 1856, approximately in the region he thought Ebbetts had pointed out. It was not until 1893, however, that the U.S. Geological Survey team, in drafting the Markleeville Quadrangle, officially named the location for Ebbetts.
The general route of present Highway 4 was certainly used by Leonard Withington Noyes, who, prospecting on the way, investigated the Calaveras Big Tree and traveled as far as Bear Valley by 1853. As part of the Murphys Expedition which traveled east over the crest and down into the Carson Valley in 1855-56, Noyes was investigating the route of a future wagon road. The contract for the Big Tree Road was awarded to Noyes and Dr. N. C. Congdon of Murphys in 1856. According to Noyes work began in July and by September he was escorting emigrants across the trail, which required the construction of eight bridges. Noyes and his party also gave names to the major valleys, lakes, and geographical features along the route (including Silver, Indian, Faith, Hope, and Charity valleys and others).
In 1856 this route became known as the Big Tree and Carson Valley Road (always singular Big Tree in early years), a simple clearing and straightening of the 1849 Emigrant Road. Near present Lake Alpine, this route passed by Dennis/Osborn’s Hotel and through the “Picken’s Bill Williamson’s Race Course,” both of which were later inundated by Lake Alpine when the Utica Mining Company constructed the dam in the late 1880s. This original branch of the road went north over Border Ruffian Pass (east end of Lower Blue Lake) and through Faith, Hope, and Charity valleys towards Carson Pass and ended at Genoa, leaving the main trail in Hermit Valley near the site of Holden’s Station. Much of the emigrant travel to California over the ensuing two years came over this road, but by the late 1850s, it was being used less frequently.
On April 15, 1857, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors established “a road from Murphys to Big Trees according to maps and survey now in possession of James Sperry at Murphys.” Sperry was then owner of both the Murphys Hotel and the Mammoth Tree Hotel at Big Trees.
One of the more interesting chapters in the history of the route involves the exploits of John A. “Snow-Shoe” Thompson, who delivered mail from 1856to 1876 along two routes. Johnson was famous for having made skis, like those from his native Norway, which he wore when delivering mail across 90 miles of snow-covered trails and passes.
It was the discovery of silver on Nevada’s Comstock Lode, however, that was to provide the impetus for the construction of a major road over Ebbetts Pass; the first to traverse the steep route into the rough country of the East Fork of the Carson River. Nearer by, rich strikes on Silver Mountain in the early 1860s created a need for a more direct route to supply the burgeoning mining camp with equipment, supplies, and foodstuffs from the western slope.
During the winter of 1861-62, a group of Murphys men organized the Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike Company and raised $4,000 to build a road from the Big Tree to the Silver Mountain and Monitor areas. Construction began in June of 1862, between Black Springs and Carson Valley. Oxen were first used, but were soon replaced by horses. Starting in the vicinity of the present Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the road followed the route of the earlier Emigrant Road to Hermit Valley, at which point it veered east to near Highland Lakes, then over the summit to Silver Creek. The route crossed the summit a bit east of the old Ebbetts Pass trail, at a slightly lower elevation. From Silver Mountain City to Markleeville, the road was maintained by the newly formed Alpine County.
Short on funds with which to complete the road, the Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike Company in 1864 entered into an agreement with early settlers Harvey S. Blood and Jonathan Curtis of Bear Valley to pay back taxes and complete unfinished portions. The road was to be kept in repair and tolls collected at Bear Valley for five years. Soon thereafter, Blood and Curtis began completion of the road and began construction of a residence and barn at the tollgate in Bear Valley.
Unfortunately, the anticipated profits never materialized; bogged down in debts, the company was deeded to Blood and Curtis in 1868. Their first construction project was to complete the new road between Bear Valley and Silver Valley. In 1861 T. J. Matteson of Murphys began the first mail delivery between Murphys and Genoa in the Carson Valley. The road proved to be immensely popular, and by 1869, stagecoaches were departing Murphys daily on Matteson and Garland’s stage line for Big Trees, Bear Valley, Hermit Valley, and Silver Mountain.
Blood’s toll station in Grizzly Bear Valley included a station house, barns, corrals, and a tollgate. Tollgates were also established at Cottage Springs, Hermit Valley, the Summit of Ebbetts Pass, and at Silver Mountain City.
In 1911, the year after the death of Harvey Blood, the road was accepted into the State Highway system and called the “Alpine Highway.” The state took over the road only as far as the Big Trees, however, with Calaveras County maintaining the remainder of the route. In 1919 the Board of Supervisors applied to the federal government for funds to grade the road from Murphys to the Big Trees. In June of 1923 Calaveras County entered into an agreement with the Secretary of Agriculture to construct the road, at a total cost of $212,000. Grading was completed in 1926, with all work done by mules and scrapers.
In December of 1926 the Big Tree(s) Road became a part of the state system. It was surfaced to the Big Trees in the early 1930s, with the road over the summit oiled gradually over a period of several years. The development of the Bear Valley Ski Area provided the impetus for the realignment and re-grading of the road in the 1960s. Realignments were completed between Camp Connell and Bear Valley, and segments of the old route abandoned. Maintenance stations were built at Camp Connell and Cabbage Patch, bringing Highway 4 up to the required standards for winter maintenance. The ski resort opened in the fall of 1967, with the new Highway 4 route completed that year.
Settlement and Agriculture
Although mining provided the impetus for settlement on both sides of the Ebbetts Pass route, no major mining regions were located on the west side of the pass above Murphys. With gold mining in Calaveras County and silver mining in Alpine County and the Nevada Comstock booming in the 1850s and 1860s, however, small agricultural settlements were established along the route of the Big Tree(s) Road. Second to mining in importance in the gold country, agriculture was always critical as a supporting service. With animals providing much of the labor, massive production of hay and grasses was necessary to feed the cattle, oxen, and horses for mining, agriculture, and transportation.
Additionally, fruits and vegetables produced in the foothills were transported across the pass to the mines on the eastern slope.
Upland grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats was an important historic land use in the Sierra Nevada. As early as 1850 there were accounts of stock grazing in the high country.
When the Murphys Exploring Party of 1855 visited Big Meadows, they stopped at what was probably the oldest cabin built along the route between Dorrington and Bloods. Known as Big Meadows Ranch in the 1870s, the site became a dairy ranch.
By the mid-1860s, virtually every lake, meadow, and open area had been appropriated by stockmen. This pattern of high country stock grazing has continued to the present.
Virtually all of the original stopping places along the Big Tree(s) route were established as ranching and grazing operations and provided sustenance to travelers and stockmen during the summer months.
Public lands that were not immediately suitable for agriculture and had no obvious mineral reserves were ignored for the first three decades after the gold discovery. On June 3, 1878, however, Congress passed the Timber and Stone Act, which allowed the individual acquisition of 160-acre parcels of timbered land for $2.50 per acre. Individuals with an eye to the future began to file claims.
In the higher elevations, vast tracts of land were acquired in this way, allowing the growth of a new industry in a region once dependent upon mining. Beginning in the 1890s and continuing through the 1940s, logging became a significant local industry with sawmills in many mid-elevation areas. Company towns such as Wilseyville and White Pines were established. Logging continues in the forests today, but as no industrial sawmills remain in Calaveras County, the timber is trucked to Tuolumne County or more distant locations for milling.
It wasn’t until the middle to late 1850s that disappointed placer miners from California began to find substantial amounts of gold in the region. The fabulous Comstock Lode, discovered in the spring of 1859 by two groups of poor placer miners at Gold Canon (Gold Hill), set off another worldwide rush as news of ever richer discoveries of gold and silver were reported in glowing newspaper accounts.
That same year California was in the midst of a depression; the rich placers were exhausted, many men departed for the Fraser River rush, and hard-rock mining had not come into its heyday. The discovery of gold and silver on the Comstock not only rejuvenated California, but led prospectors to search for ore bodies throughout the west.
Several claims were apparently located in Alpine County in the late 1850s, but no recorded locations were filed until 1861, when three prospectors named Johnson, Harris, and Perry located an outcropping of the Mountain Lode on Silver Creek in June of that year. The substantial mining activity that occurred in Alpine in the early years was directly related to the bonanza discovery at Virginia City and the fanning out of hopeful prospectors in search of precious metals in adjacent mountains and canyons.
Numerous strikes were made, and many hopeful miners were quick to establish claims. Mining districts were immediately organized, adopting rules and regulations for the filing and holding of claims. At least five mining districts had been established by September 1863: Mogul, Monitor, Silver Mountain, Raymond, and Alpine. By 1866 four new districts had been added or formed by altering boundaries: Excelsior, Faith, Red Mountain and Hope Valley, and Silver Valley.
Probably the most important mining district in Alpine County, in terms of ore recovery, economic return, and mining history, was the Monitor District, located in the steep canyon of Monitor Creek, on present Highway 89. Many toxic substances were used in mining, and current-day clean-up continues. Other districts, however, continued to boom throughout the 1860s. Although silver mining never amounted to much in the ensuing years, it did provide for the settlement of Markleeville and the more ephemeral communities of Silver Mountain City, Silver King, Monitor, Mogul, Mt. Bullion, Woodfords, and others.
Find additional information online at these pages: