By: Richard Hughey
April 29, 1999
The wagon road that would eventually become the most heavily traveled route across the Sierra Nevada was not available to the '49ers nor to those prospectors who came after them through most of the 1850s. Though developed late in the decade, the route became the most important of the trans-Sierran passages until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. It was the first link in California's state highway system, and as a federal highway it was the principal route for motor vehicle traffic into and out of Northern California until the opening of Interstate 80 along the old Truckee River route. It went by various names, such as the Placerville Carson Valley Road, the Placerville Road, Emigrant Ravine Road, and the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road. It began simply as "Johnson's Cut-Off," however.
John Calhoun Johnson, called "Colonel Johnson" by some pioneers and "Cock- Eye Johnson" by others, was born in Ohio in 1822 and came to California with the '49ers. Among other things, he operated a ranch about six miles north of Placerville, and he was a member of the California Legislature in 1856. He was killed by Apache Indians in Arizona in 1876.
Johnson was the first of the trans-Sierran mail carriers, an accomplishment frequently, though, erroneously given to John "Snowshoe" Thompson. As such Johnson was acutely aware of the need for a better route in and out of central California than the Truckee River route, which was too arduous because of its many river crossings, and the Carson Emigrant route with its high snowbound elevations. Johnson was thinking "cutoff."
The Carson Emigrant Trail proceeded though the entire Carson Valley before it began its ascent in the eastern Sierra Nevada. If a trail could be blazed from the north end of the Carson Valley and then driven due west across the mountains to Placerville, a sizable portion of the Carson route would be "cut off." Johnson blazed such a trail, and as a reward it bore his name for most of its existence.
Johnson's Cutoff turned out to be about 2,000 feet lower than the route through the Carson Emigrant Trail's two passes. The two summits on Johnson's Cutoff were at 7,400 feet and 7,200 feet elevation compared to the emigrant trail's Carson Pass at 8,500 feet and the West Summit at 9,300 feet. As a direct result of the lower elevations, only seven miles of Johnson's Cutoff were located above a 7,000 foot elevation as opposed to the 50 or so miles of the Carson Emigrant Trail that were above that mark, including about 15 miles above 8,000 feet elevation. That meant Johnson's Cutoff was much freer of snowbound conditions during the year than the older trail.
Johnson's Cutoff was also a shortcut. From the Carson Valley to Placerville via the Carson Emigrant Trail it was 155 miles. The distance between the same two points on Johnson's Cutoff was less than 100 miles. To get to Sacramento the savings were even greater. Over the Truckee River route from Truckee Meadows it was about 240 miles to Sacramento, and from the Carson Valley via the Carson Emigrant Trial it was 210 miles to Sacramento. By taking Johnson's Cutoff emigrants could cover the distance in about 140 miles.
Starting from the Carson Valley Johnson blazed his trail over the Carson range at Spooner's Summit and kept to the ridge that skirted the east shore and south end of Lake Tahoe, thereby avoiding wet, marshy conditions along the lake in the valley. His trail led to a site that is now Meyers and then up the steep grade to what became known as Johnson Pass, which was located about a mile north of today's Echo Summit. Johnson's trail then led down the South Fork canyon and up to Peavine Ridge. It followed Peavine Ridge to its western end to descend again to the South Fork of the American River. It then diverged from the river to descend on the ridge between the South Fork and the North Fork of the Consumes River that led more or less directly to old Hangtown (Placerville).
From a west-to-east perspective, which is how most envision it, Johnson's Cutoff began at Hangtown and proceeded east along the Placerville ridge between the South Fork American and the North Fork Consumnes rivers to Riverton where it crossed the South Fork and rose to Peavine Ridge. It followed Peavine Ridge to its east end, descending to the South Fork about four miles west of Strawberry. The trail followed the South Fork for about 12 miles to its head before making the steep ascent to Johnson Pass, at about 7,400 feet elevation. Echo Summit, about two hundred feel lower in elevation, was not part of the route until the 1940s when U.S. Highway 50 underwent a relocation in that area.
From Johnson Pass the trail descends about 1,000 feet in eight miles to Lake Valley, where it maneuvers around the south end of Lake Tahoe and heads east over Spooner Summit to the narrow north end of Carson Valley.
Except for the deviation up and over Peavine Ridge, the route of Johnson's Cutoff is generally the same as today's U.S. 50. The deviation to Peavine Ridge was necessary at the time to avoid the narrow, rocky, and treacherous route along the South Fork from Strawberry to Riverton. As road building skills and equipment improved during the 1850s, however, the Peavine Ridge deviation was itself "cutoff' by a direct extension of the route along the South Fork between those two points. From Riverton west the route diverges from the South Fork to extend along the Placerville ridge. By doing so Johnson's Cutoff avoids a route Fremont took, which led him through the difficult lower South Fork canyon to Folsom north around Coloma.
Despite its advantages Johnson's Cutoff was not heavily used by wagon traffic during the early 1850s. For several years after its development it was little more than an improved footpath suitable only for pack trains. It wasn't until 1854 when a wooden bridge was built across the South Fork at Riverton that it became at all suitable for wagons. The bridge was destroyed by fire the following year, however, though it was then replaced by the historical Brockless stone bridge.
Road improvements to the Carson Emigrant Trail kept that route competitive with Johnson's Cutoff and prevented it from diverting most of the eastbound traffic. It became easier for eastward travelers to come down from Johnson Pass by traveling southeast to Hope Valley via Luther Pass and follow the Carson Emigrant Trail through Carson Valley.
As pressures mounted for an improved all-year wagon road through the Sierra Nevada during the 1850s, more and more attention was given to Johnson's Cutoff; and a number of official explorations and surveys favored it as the location for the state's official wagon road. The Legislature finally adopted the recommendations and authorized construction of a wagon road over the route of Johnson's Cutoff, without the Peavine Ridge deviation. The funding bill failed on state constitutional grounds, however, and plans for the wagon road languished while Sacramento and El Dorado counties worked to acquire funds to rebuild the road.
The logjam over the Johnson's Cutoff wagon road was broken in 1857 when J.B. Crandall, who had built the Pioneer Stage Line between Sacramento and Placerville, loaded seven state wagon road commissioners and a reporter from the Sacramento Daily Union into a Concord coach; and with a team of four horses he drove them pell-mell over Johnson's Cutoff to the Carson Valley in only 27 hours, including rest and meal stops.
Crandall drove the coach east from Placerville to Brockless Bridge, then ascended the grade to Peavine Ridge, descending from thd ridge in the vicinity of Slippery Ford. He then drove the team up the South Fork to Johnson Pass and down to Lake Valley, then up again through Luther Pass to descend to Hope Valley, which he traversed and then entered and drove through Carson Valley. The Sacramento Daily Union report gushed exuberant praise for the stunning accomplishment and the coachman became an instant local hero.
The next day Crandall announced regular stage service between Placerville and Carson Valley and the rush over Johnson's Cutoff was on. While the state dilly-dallied over maintaining the route, it was greatly improved over its most difficult stretches by toll-road operators and soon became the route of choice for travelers both in and out of California as the Placerville Carson Valley Road. As the decade moved into the 1860s and gold and silver were stuck in the Comstock Lode, eastbound traffic on the road, especially large commercial freight wagons, became as common as westbound pioneer traffic. The road was lined with dozens of hotels, lodges, roadhouses, and stables; and it was said that if a teamster pulled off the road during the day, he would not be able to resume traveling on the road until evening when the traffic thinned out. It was also said that stagecoaches and pioneer wagons preferred to travel the road at night because of the crowded conditions caused by freight wagons during the day, especially on the eastbound route.
Despite its rather prosaic beginnings, the Placerville Carson Valley Road became one of the state's most historical roadways. It provided the route not only for the frantic cowboy riders of the Pony Express, but also the transcontinental telegraph line that quickly put them out of business. It was over the Placerville Road that stagecoach driver Hank Monk propelled the nervous publisher and presidential candidate Horace Greeley on a ride that would become one of Mark Twain's most famous anecdotes. It was on the Placerville Road near Union Hill at a place called Bullion Bend that the most daring and spectacular stagecoach robbery in staging history took place in 1864.
In the 20th century the Placerville Road became California State Highway 1 before that honor was transferred to the Coast Highway. It later became U.S. Highway 50, and it was also a famous link in the celebrated Lincoln Highway that stretched between New York and San Francisco.