The present Highway 4 alignment follows the approximate route of an early emigrant trail over the Sierra Nevada that was improved in 1855-56 and known as the Big Tree Road and in the early 1860s as the Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike. Originally a free trail, it became a toll road from 1864 through 1910, and then a free county road in 1911. It was accepted into the state highway system in 1926 and portions were paved in the 1930s. The road was realigned in the mid-1960s when the Bear Valley Ski Resort was opened, making it an all-weather highway. Its history revolves around transportation, settlement, and agriculture.
The Sierra Nevada has been traversed by succeeding waves of humans for more than 12,000 years. Native American trails between watering places and hunting and gathering areas 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 road construction.
Calaveras and Alpine counties each incorporated some of the higher Sierra Nevada and were explored by scouts looking for a pass into California, or were traversed by some of the early emigrant parties. Jedediah Story 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 California 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 somewhere near present Lake Alpine and traveled down the Stanislaus River drainage in 1841 (Davis-King et al. 1992:4.3)
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, the annexation of the southwest and the discovery of gold, 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 in their diaries (Frances Bishop, personal papers).
In 1850, attempting to establish a trans-Sierran route in the central portion of the Sierra Nevada, Major John Ebbetts, the man for whom the Highway 4 pass is named, crossed over Border Ruffian Pass in April with a large group of prospectors. The name was not bestowed upon the pass until after the summer of 1853, however, when Ebbetts, then in the employ of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company, surveyed the route for a proposed trans-Sierra railroad. The pass was formally named in 1854 by George H. Goddard, a close friend and member of the 1853 exploration party, after Ebbetts’s death in a steamer explosion near San Francisco (Wood and Bishop 1968:33). It was not until 1893, however, that the U.S. Geological Survey team, in drafting the Markleeville Quadrangle, officially named the location for Ebbetts (Las Calaveras 1988:14).
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, who left behind a journal written about the building of the Big Tree Road, 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 (i.e. Silver, Indian, Faith, Hope, and Charity valleys and others).
Noyes described the work:
During the winter of 1855-56 a subscription was raised of $4000 for which I agreed to open a Wageon Road to Carson Valley sufficient for Emigrants to pass over in 60 days, in the spring as soon as fesable I started out with an Ox Team loaded with my Tools, Provisions and some 10 men. there was but little work excepting to turn over a stone and role it down hill out a fallen tree out of the road little or no grading and a fiew log bridges to build, at Bear Valley there being a most beautifull spring of cold water by it, we had considerable work on Carson Cannon where there was already a road. I never spent a pleasenter summer the Montain Air agreeing with me so well we all enjoyed it very much, but we rushed it through so that in 40 days there was an emigrant train passed over the Road…." [Noyes n.d.:92].
"The whole rout was plotted as if it had been surveyed by myself giving the names of the Valleys, locating grass and water, giving course & Altitudes, as best could be done considering we had no way of masuring distances, and but a very small pocket compass to get the courses from…." [Noyes n.d.:90].
In 1856 this route became known as the Big Tree and Carson Valley Road, 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 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 infrequently and became almost impassable (Wood and Bishop 1968:36, 48).
A branch of the road departed the old Big Tree Road at the “Forks of the Road” near Big Meadow and coursed westward to West Point along the ridge between the Middle and North Forks of the Mokelumne River. In 1857 an improved road was laid out along the route of the trail via the McNair Ranch, above Sheep Ranch, running to the Big Trees past San Antonio Falls and Sleeper’s Lumber Mill (Wood and Bishop 1968:36, 42). Also known as the “Big Tree Road,” this route followed approximately the present route of Armstrong Road and Summit Level Road to Manuel Mill and White Pines.
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 possessior of James Sperry at Murphys” (Roads According to Township Boundaries, 1850-1880:341). 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 lived in Diamond Valley (near Woodfords) and delivered mail from 1856 to 1876 along two routes. One of the routes was from Woodfords to Placerville, and a second from Woodfords to Murphys by way of Indian Valley. Thompson 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 Pacific 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. The company incorporated in 1862 for the purpose of constructing a toll road to the silver mines, with an eye to reaping the profits from the teamsters transporting supplies to the booming mining camps. 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. This route was another improvement on two earlier roads to the Carson Valley and reflected the importance of the silver discoveries in Alpine County and Nevada to trans-Sierra travel.
As a leader of the Whitney Geological Expedition of 1860-64, William H. Brewer visited the Silver Mountain region in July and August of 1863 and described the road thusly:
"Recent reputed discoveries of silver ore at Silver Mountain, just east of the crest, on the headwaters of the Carson River, near Ebbetts Pass on your maps, has caused much excitement. An old emigrant road over the mountains, via the Big Trees, runs within ten or twelve miles of it, and now, suddenly, travel is pouring over this route. A stage runs part of the way, until the road becomes very rough; then a 'saddle train,’ with a few pack animals, takes the passengers and their luggage to the promised land. So horses in these mountain valleys all at once become important, and at Silver Valley the stages stop and saddle trains start." [Farquhar 1930:431].
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. Blood and Curtis were to pay taxes due and repay the turnpike company with interest on the amount already expended on the road. 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 toll gate in Bear Valley (Las Calaveras 1988:17). A map of the Silver Mountain Mining District, completed in 1864, depicted the Big Tree Road as continuing through Silver Mountain City to Markleeville, so they must have completed the road in record time (Reed 1864).
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 contract was for twice-weekly delivery, via the Big Trees Road (Las Calaveras 1988:15-16). The road proved immensely popular and 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).
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 (Wood and Bishop 1968:45). In April of 1887 the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors granted Blood a franchise to collect tolls on the road through Calaveras County for the next ten years. Over the ensuing two decades, however, Blood had to fight several legal contests over his right to collect tolls, resulting in his right to operate the road until 1910 (Board of Supervisors Minute Book H:113, 140, 153, 251; Wood and Bishop 1968:44, 56-58).
In May of 1891, when Blood’s petition to operate the toll road for one year was granted, the tolls were set as follows:
- Horse and vehicle 40 cents
- Two horses and vehicle 50 cents
- Each additional animal 25 cents
- Loose horses and cattle 08 cents
- Goats, sheep, and swing 01 cents
- Horsemen 25 cents
- Pack animals 25 cents
In response to the petition of George A. Wood, George Avery, and others, provision was made for those traveling 10 miles or less on the road at a considerably reduced rate (Board of Supervisors Minute Book H:251).
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 regrading of the road in the 1960s. Realignments were constructed between Camp Connell and Bear Valley, and segments of the old route abandoned. Maintenance stations were built at Camp Connell and Cabbage Patch, Highway 4 was brought up to the required standards for winter maintenance, and snow removal equipment was made available; all at a total cost of about ten million dollars. The ski resort opened in the fall of 1967, with the new Highway 4 route completed that year (Wood and Bishop 1968:60-62).
The West Point Road branched northwesterly from the old Big Tree Road (SW ¼ of Section 36, T7N, R16E) in the 1850s. When the new Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike was constructed in the early 1860s, a connecting link was made to that route (NW ¼ of Section 11, T6N, R16E) (Ryan n.d.; Wheeler 1877).
In 1891 two connecting roads were made from the old Big Tree Road and West Point roads to the Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike, both located northwest of Big Meadow (Section 32, T6N, R16E), from the Guishetti Ranch to Cabbage Patch (Ryan n.d., USGS 1901). As the Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike was a private road, the only public records involve Harvey Blood’s petitions to the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors to collect tolls and to establish toll rates. In 1891 he was granted a franchise to collect tolls for another year, so evidently felt that construction to improve the connecting links between the two roads was warranted.
References Cited or Consulted
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Wood, R. Coke, with Frances E. Bishop
1968 Big Tree-Carson Valley Turnpike, Ebbetts Pass and Highway Four. Old timers Museum, Murphys, California.