(InEDC) Cris Alacon, El Dorado County – After the unearthing of gold in 1848, hordes of people made their way to California through the Donner and Carson Passes. The Carson Pass was the preferred choice due to its fewer river crossings and the construction of a road by the Mormon Battalion in the same year, now recognized as the Mormon Emigrant Trail. However, a new route gained significance in 1859.
The Placerville to Lake Tahoe Wagon Road, also known as the “Old Wagon Road,” was established in the mid-1850s during the height of the California Gold Rush. Stretching approximately 60 miles, this rugged path connected the bustling mining town of Placerville (formerly known as Hangtown) to the pristine shores of Lake Tahoe.
Known as the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road (later becoming Highway 50), this route stretched from Placerville to Virginia City, providing essential supplies to sustain the silver mines in the region. Initially, the road was nothing more than dirt, consisting of various sections that required tolls for passage. Along the road, travelers could find way stations, yet those journeying towards the silver mines had to exercise caution while pulling off the road due to heavy traffic congestion. Once they veered off course, it could take hours, or even an entire day, to rejoin the procession. This wagon road played a pivotal role in the development of the region, facilitating trade, transportation, and communication between the gold-rich foothills and the emerging settlements around Lake Tahoe. Traversing the Placerville to Lake Tahoe Wagon Road was no easy feat. The path was fraught with treacherous terrain, steep ascents, and unpredictable weather conditions. Yet, the pioneers who braved this arduous journey demonstrated unwavering determination and resilience. Their stories of triumph over adversity continue to inspire generations.
Today, remnants of this once-thriving thoroughfare can still be seen, evoking a sense of nostalgia and admiration for those who traversed it in a bygone era. While modern transportation has largely replaced the wagon road, its legacy lives on, reminding us of the resilience and determination of those who came before us.
Although the current Highway 50 route partially overlaps with the original road, it takes a more daring path. Originally, the road veered left at Fresh Pond and descended to cross the South Fork of the American River before ascending along Peavine Ridge. It then descended between Silverfork and Kyburz, continuing along the present-day Hwy path until reaching Strawberry. At Strawberry, it passed directly beneath Lover’s Leap and crossed Slippery Ford — a treacherous crossing that was eventually replaced by two bridges, resulting in the area acquiring the name Twin Bridges. Travelers ascending to Echo Summit followed the current route until approaching the summit. Remnants of the old road can still be found today, known as Johnson Cutoff and Meyers Grade Road.
Currently, two segments of Highway 50 offer exceptional opportunities for hiking and recreation. The Swan-Henry Toll Road, discussed in a previous article found by clicking here, provides a detailed account of its history. Furthermore, the Meyers Grade Road, a beloved recreational trail among South Lake Tahoe residents, presents an opportunity for a cardio-intensive workout as hikers ascend a 700-foot elevation gain within a span of 1.5 miles.
While the wagon road has evolved over time, remnants of its rich history can still be found along the Hwy 50 route. From weathered stagecoach stops to faded trail markers.