The county name, Alpine, was derived from its similarity to the alpine country in Europe, and named when it was created March 16, 1864, from parts of El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mono counties. The impetus for its creation was the discovery of silver ore at several locations in the late 1850s and early 1860s, when prospectors from the Comstock region of Nevada began fanning out in search of silver-bearing lodes (Jackson 1964:9-10). Major historic themes in Alpine County involve mining, transportation, communication, agriculture, and settlement.
The first recorded visit by non-natives to the area was a government exploring party led by John C. Frémont, with Kit Carson as the main guide, who accomplished the first passage over the Sierra in mid-winter. In February 1844, attempting to find a pass from the Great Basin through the Sierra into California, he encamped at a spot about one and one-half miles northeast of Markleeville. On their way to the Sacramento Valley the party crossed the divide between West Carson Canyon and the American River, a pass now named for famed guide Kit Carson (Hoover et al., 1966:24-25).
The discovery of gold in the American River in 1848 precipitated a worldwide rush of peoples to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Virtually overnight the land was populated with gold-seekers from almost every country on the globe; the movement that ensued has been called the greatest mass migration during peacetime in human history. That same year California was annexed to the United States, formalized by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, facilitating the arrival of hordes of argonauts to the Sierra foothills. One year later, when California was granted statehood, El Dorado, Calaveras, and Tuolumne were three of the original 27 counties.
Although a few “colors” had been discovered in the Nevada Territory in the early 1850s, 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 (Marvin 1997a:5).
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, with rich placers found in succession in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. Quartz mining followed soon thereafter (Smith 1961:1-11).
Although it is not known who first mined for gold in the Alpine County region, they were undoubtedly prospectors and miners who scoured every canyon and outcrop in the Sierra, spurred on by the recent discoveries. Several claims were apparently located 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 of the sixth decade of the nineteenth century 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 (Marvin 1997a:5-6).
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 (Jackson 1964:11; Reed 1864). 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 (Clark 1977:22). Other districts, however, continued to boom throughout the 1860s.
Eastern California has been traversed by succeeding waves of humans for more than 12,000 years. Native American trails between watering places and hunting and gathering places were undoubtedly used by those European and American fur trappers and traders who conducted the first reconnaissances into the Sierran regions. The locations of these earliest routes are almost impossible to find, however, for most of them have been obliterated by historic and recent mining activities, as well as modern road construction.
The Kit Carson Emigrant Trail, one of the most popular routes followed by early pioneers, crossed the Sierra Nevada at Carson Pass. Credit for the creation of the first wagon road over the Sierra, however, goes to the Mormon Battalion for establishing the first west-to-east route between Corral Flat and Tragedy Springs (the first Mormon name for the site), and between Summit (Caples), Twin Lake(s), and Carson Valley.
By 1852 the route of the present Highway 88 was established between Antelope Springs (Dewdrop) and Tragedy Springs, and between Carson Pass and Carson Valley. In August 1863, the Amador and Nevada wagon road was opened, built near the route of the old emigrant road. A great improvement over the emigrant trail, it was 16 feet wide and did not exceed an 8 percent grade (Cenotto 1988:205-206).
Another major road into the area was the old emigrant trail to Calaveras County. In 1856 it became known as the Big Tree and Carson Valley road, a simple clearing and straightening of the 1849 Emigrant Road. In 1862, a new Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike was constructed. This road was another improvement on the two earlier roads to the Carson Valley and reflected the importance of the silver discoveries in Alpine County to cross-Sierra travel. By 1869 stages were departing Murphys daily on Matteson and Garland’s Stage Line for Big Trees, Bear Valley, Hermit Valley, and Silver Mountain, with a return trip daily (Maule 1938:42).
Toll roads, whose authority was first delegated as a state function, were in the early 1860s given to local counties to issue. By the mid-1860s, several toll roads had been established in Alpine County, extending first from such central points as Genoa and the Carson Valley to the important mines in Silver Mountain, Monitor, Mount Bullion, and towns such as Markleeville and Cary’s Mills (Woodfords). Other pack and saddle train roads were established to connect with the major routes.
The newest highway in Alpine County, the old Carson Valley-Markleeville Road over Monitor Pass, was dedicated in 1954 by the California Department of Transportation. It followed the old Monitor road up Monitor Creek from Mount Bullion and over the old overland trail once known as “The Dump,” where camels were pulled by rope into Slinkard Canyon on their route into the Great Basin in 1864 (Centennial Book Committee 1987:44).
A mail route was established through Alpine County from Murphys, on the Big Tree Road to Genoa in 1865. The first transcontinental telegraph line, built by the Overland Telegraph Company, was established in 1859 from Placerville to Genoa. By 1861 it had been completed from Virginia City to Salt Lake City, there to connect with the Western Union line building westward to that place, allowing for the first transmission of telegrams from the Atlantic to the Pacific (Maule 1938:85). In 1863 a spur of this line, from Genoa to Markleeville, Monitor, and Silver Mountain, was constructed and financed by private capital (Maule 1938:88).
Newspapers were also established in Alpine County in the early years. They included the Alpine Chronicle, started in Markleeville in 1860, but soon moved to Silver Mountain, the Monitor Gazette, launched in Monitor in 1864; the Alpine Miner, published in Monitor in the 1870s; and the Alpine Signal, which operated in Markleeville from July 1878 to August 1879. By 1880 there were no longer any newspapers published within Alpine (Jackson 1964:6-7, 33-34, 37, 39).
Initially a support industry for the mining and teaming industries, agriculture never became established as an important local business until after the turn of the nineteenth century. Spurred by the mining booms, ranchers and farmers began taking up lands in the rich, fertile valleys of what is now Alpine County. They established dairies, cattle ranches, sheep farms, and truck gardens in the areas where feed and vegetables would grow. By the early 1860s virtually all the acreage considered suitable for farming purposes had been taken up by those seeking to make a living by providing hay, grain, and foodstuffs to the surrounding region (Marvin 1997b:4).
By 1880 agricultural industries had progressed to include ranchers, farmers, and “vaqueros,” with most of the production consisting of alfalfa, hay, and barley grown in the valleys and sold locally or transported to the Comstock. In the early years of mining and transportation in Alpine county, everything was done by horse power and horses were vast consumers of hay and grain, providing and incentive for local production.
Livestock raising was the second major agricultural industry in the area. Cattle and sheep roamed across vast acreages of public lands, settling in the valleys around drainages and watering holes where pasturage was abundant. Hogs were raised by ranchers and some townsfolk, and assessment rolls for the 1860s and 1870s note that several people kept poultry.
By the early 1900s sheep raising had become a major industry in Alpine County, with thousands of sheep pastured in the high mountain valleys in the summer seasons. Many of the sheep raisers were Basques from the Carson Valley of Nevada and the San Joaquin Valley of California, who owned vast acreages of dry lands unsuitable for summer pasturage.
Timber “ranches” were also located in the county, providing cordwood for the boilers of the mines and mills of the area, as well as the distant Comstock lode (Marvin 1997a:26-27).
The communities and supply centers in Alpine County developed around the mining strikes and the farming areas, with the county reaching the peak of its population and economic well-being in the year of its creation. Six townships were created, but reduced to four shortly thereafter. The first county seat was established in 1864 at Silver Mountain, which was selected over Markleeville by a small majority. With population declining in the silver camps, Markleeville became the county seat in 1875, a position it holds to this day (Jackson 1964:4-6). After the end of the mining boom, the town began to develop into a trade center for the ranching and lumbering businesses.
Markleeville was named for Jacob (or John) Marklee who settled there in September 1861 and commenced ranching operations, building a toll bridge across a tributary of the Carson River at the height of the mining boom. By 1863 the town had grown to a population of 2,620 residents and boasted 168 buildings and one of the first stamp mills in the mountains. In 1880 Markleeville had been incorporated as a town with a population of not over 250 (Alpine County Chamber of Commerce 2003; Jackson 1964:29-34).
The other community in eastern Alpine County that has survived is Woodfords, established as an outpost of Mormon Station (Genoa) by Samual Brannan in 1847 at a spring near the present Woodford’s Store. About 1851 a man named John Carey (or Cary) erected a sawmill a few yards north of the spring, an area referred to as Carey’s Mills. In 1869, Daniel Woodford, an early partner of Carey’s, acquired full possession of the post office and the small community that had sprung up became known officially as Woodford’s (Centennial Book Committee 1987:19; Maule 1938:72). Woodford’s also became a milling center when Cary erected a flour and grist mill in 1865. Its location also led to the establishment of Woodfords as a social center for the numerous surrounding ranchers, with a social hall erected in 1867 and a lyceum association and singing school contemplated (Jackson 1964:56-57).
The remaining towns and supply centers of Alpine County: Centreville, Fredericksburg, Harmonial City, Hermit Valley, Mogul, Monitor, Mount Bullion, Raymond, Silver King, Silver Mountain, Silver Valley, and Summit City, built predominately around the mining areas, have vanished from the landscape except for a few derelict buildings, foundations, and the remnants of mining and milling activities.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, with the development of ski resorts at Bear Valley and Kirkwood, that Alpine County’s population began to grown, reaching over 1200 in the 1990 Census. The county is still California’s least populated, with 96% of its land in public ownership. Most of its income is derived from visitors from the booming tourism communities of Lake Tahoe and western Nevada, and is based upon outdoor recreation: fishing, camping, hiking, rafting, skiing, and winter snow sports (Alpine County Chamber of Commerce 2003).
By Judith Marvin, 2011
1921 Official Map of Alpine County
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Hoover, Mildred Brooke, Hero Eugene Rensch, Ethel Grace Rensch, revised by Willian N. Abeloe
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1997a A Historic Context of the Zaca Mining District (Monitor and Mogul Districts), Alpine County, California. Prepared by Foothill Resources, Ltd., Murphys, California. Prepared for Western States Minerals Corporation, Zaca Mine, Reno, Nevada.
1997b A Historic Context of the Theodore Perry Hawkins Ranch, Near Woodfords, Alpine County, California. Prepared by Foothill Resources, Ltd., Murphys, California. Prepared for Pacific Legacy, Woodland, California.
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