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Murphys-Big Trees Road

Highway 4 is one of the overlays of the Murphys-Big Tree Road. This road follows the approximate route of an early immigrant trail over the Sierra Nevada that was improved in 1855-56 and known as the Big Tree Road or the Big Tree to Carson Valley Road. On 15 April 1857 the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors established a road from Murphys to Big Trees, according to a historic map (County of Calaveras 1850-1880:341). No doubt, James Sperry, owner of both the Murphys Hotel and the Mammoth Tree Hotel at Big Tree, was the main force behind the new road. This road linked up with other local routes (Psota and Marvin 2001:5).

Originally a free trail, a new alignment became a toll road from 1864 through 1910; it reverted to a free county road in 1911 and was called the Alpine State Highway. The transportation route was accepted into the state highway system in 1926 and portions were paved in the 1930s. The highway was realigned in the 1960s when the Bear Valley Ski Resort was opened, making it an all-weather highway (Psota and Marvin 2001:3).

Moran Road, named for the Moran family who homesteaded land that is now the location the Meadowmont Subdivision and Golf and Country Club, was one of the alternative routes along the Big Tree-Carson Valley Turnpike. Several alignments of the route were in use over the ensuing years, as weather, destination, and settlement dictated (Frances Bishop, personal communication 1985). By the 1860s, however, the two major routes between Murphys and the Big Trees followed the approximate alignments of present Highway 4 and Moran Road. Both were depicted as the “Murphys-Big Trees Road” in historic maps of the area (General Land Office 1871, 1879).

Although mining provided the impetus for settlement on the Ebbetts Pass route, no mining regions were located between Murphys and Big Trees. With gold mining in western Calaveras County, silver mining in Alpine County, and the Comstock booming in the late 1850s and 1860s, small agricultural settlements were established along the route of the Big Tree Road. Second to mining in importance in the gold country, agriculture was always critical as a supporting service.

Virtually all of the original stopping places along the Big Tree(s) route were established as ranching and grazing operations that provided sustenance to travelers and stockmen during the summer months. The exception to this settlement pattern was at the Big Tree Grove/Calaveras Big Trees. The discovery of the Sequoia gigantea grove created tremendous excitement throughout California, and many rushed to the area to view the mighty giants for themselves. A rough log cabin was built in the grove in 1852, followed by the Mammoth Tree Hotel in 1853, and the Mammoth Grove Hotel in 1861. That hotel, which could accommodate 60 lodgers, burned to the ground in 1943. The Big Tree Grove is now a unit of the California Department of Parks and Recreation (Costello, ed. 1988:7-14).

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. Then individuals with an eye to the future began to file claims to timberland. The procedure was easy and many patents were issued without the claimant ever setting foot upon the parcel involved. Speculators regularly made agreements with potential patentees and, under such arrangements, substantial adjacent blocks of prime, virgin groves of timber could be assembled and made available to sawmill interests.

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. Logging continues in the forests today, but as no sawmills remain in Calaveras County, the timber is trucked to Tuolumne County or more distant locations for milling (Psota and Marvin 2001:7-8).