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Henness Pass and Meadow Lake
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:37:30 PM Views: 10270

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in September, 1995


   To the casual traveler, looking at a typical road map, one would think that only a couple of major highways cross the Sierra Nevada in Northern California. This may be true now, but back in the days of the 49ers, a traveler did not have the luxury of a superhighway, gently graded, banked, paved and relatively straight. There were many “roads“ over the Sierra even then. Men thought little of undertaking a trip of 100 miles, even if they had to walk. The paths they followed were sometimes Indian trails, and later, often not much more than that.

   The miners in the northern mines, just as their counterparts elsewhere, were quick to travel to a new location if news of a strike there came into their camp. The story of some of the roads they used is featured in this edition of the Short History of ECV.

   By 1854, only five years after James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, now Coloma, many of the cities and towns you now know in northern California had already been established. Transportation of freight and passengers was a large industry, employing many men. For example, freight from the East Coast came around South America by ship to San Francisco, then by river boat to Sacramento or Marysville, then by wagon to the mines. Passengers could do the same, or they could travel overland over the various trails, entering California at many places along its eastern border.

   Downieville was founded as “The Forks” in the summer and fall of 1849 by miners from established communities such as Grass Valley, Nevada (City), and Marysville. One of the first was Joe Zumwalt, who, if you remember, brought the Ritual of “Ecclampus Vitus” with him from the East when he traveled to California. They needed supplies and according to research by Al “Beady Eyes” Lewis, Zumwalt left his partner in Downieville (renamed after its founder in 1850) in late 1850 or early 1851 to get whatever he could trade or buy from emigrants, or salvage along the 40 Mile Desert trail. He probably went east south east to Truckee Meadows by going up the Galloway Ridge from Downieville and followed the Pliocene Ridge eastward. Within a week or two, he returned and he and his partner worked in the area for another year.

   As it so often happened, the miners often pioneered the roads to new areas and their crude trails used to find the gold became roads connecting with larger communities, which were then used by new arrivals from “the States.” Word was soon spread about another branch of the trail leading from Nevada Territory directly into the Northern mines, and the trail Zumwalt used in 1850-51 became heavily traveled by new arrivals.

   Heading west from Verdi, Nevada, the road went up Dog Valley road to Summit Valley and then across the north edge of Sardine Valley, then up the ridge along Davies Creek to Kyburz Flat, then west below Little Truckee Summit, then down to the Little Truckee River. Following the Little Truckee River, the road passed along the northern edge of Webber Lake, then went up to the pass about two miles west of Webber Lake. This is technically known as Henness Pass, but Clampers renamed the pass in honor of Joe Zumwalt in 1982. Zumwalt Pass is not the highest point on the road, which is to be found westerly, through Jackson Meadows and Milton Meadows, then up by way of switchbacks to the road summit on Keystone Mountain. Continuing down the dividing ridge between the Middle and North Forks of the Yuba, the road passed Cornish Ranch and then went down Galloway Ridge to Downieville.

   A short time later, another branch of the road began about 3 miles west of Cornish House. It continued along the top of Pliocene Ridge to Mountain House, Negro Tent and up the ridge to Sleighville House and met the roads leading to the mining and supply areas of Yuba and Nevada Counties. When Camptonville was founded a few months later, the roads intersected there. By the fall of 1852, connecting roads were built from the main road to the south down to Smith’s Flat (Alleghany), Chip’s Flat, Wet Ravine and the mines on Kanaka Creek.

   Another branch was built down the ridge to Goodyear’s Bar, and in the spring of 1853, another connecting branch was built to the north from the “Y” above Alleghany. By this time, the Henness/Zumwalt road was the principal route followed by emigrants from the east who wanted to go to the Yuba River’s North and Middle Forks mining regions.

   Ranches along the way supplied much of the food for the area, and grew hay for the cattle and large number of horses, mules and oxen used for transportation.

   People on the roads meant business for inns and hotels, and soon stagecoach services were established, though the elegant Concord coaches seen in other places were probably not seen in this area due to the roughness of the roads.

   In the fall of 1859, two stock companies (the Truckee Turnpike Company and the Henness Pass Turnpike Company) were formed to construct a “substantial” road from Grizzly Flat over Henness Pass to Truckee Meadow. By this time, the Sierra Turnpike had just been completed. It went from Garden Valley in Yuba County to Camptonville, Sleighville House, Mountain House, and Goodyear’s Bar and ended at Downieville. By 1861, the Nevada Turnpike from Nevada (City) to Jackson Meadows up the Cruzon Ridge through Eureka (Graniteville) was also completed.

   Look at your map now and notice the many little blue and black lines in this area. Many of these lines represent the roads we have just described. Some of the names are even still in place, although many of the places they were designed to serve no longer exist. Drive some of these roads and you will be amazed by the construction difficulties that had to be overcome.

   This series of roads became the preferred route to the Comstock Silver bonanza. By the fall of 1861 traffic over the Henness/Zumwalt Pass was nightmarish. In a single 10 mile section of road, one traveler counted twenty-six mule teams loaded with goods for delivery in Nevada. Traffic was so heavy, especially with heavy wagons drawn by long lines of horses, that it became necessary for passenger stages to use the roads at night, and the freight was hauled during the day.

   Accidental deaths were not uncommon, since then, as now, “time is money,” and the drivers were encouraged to make the best time they could. This sometimes led to careless, even reckless driving. To the uninitiated traveler riding atop a swaying, high-wheeled wagon behind a spirited team of horses at a gallop, only inches from drop-offs into canyons whose rocky bottoms could be 3000 feet below, life became even dearer when the wagon approached another coach going the other way, especially at night. All this thrilling activity would be amplified if it were raining or snowing.

   Meadow Lake, just east and south of Henness/Zumwalt Pass, was formed in 1857 by the construction of a granite dam, 42 feet high and 1150 feet wide, built by the South Yuba Water Company to supply water for downstream miners. Although about seven miles from the main road, Meadow Lake was to become the focal point for all passenger traffic and most of the freight lines for a short time, beginning in the mid 1860s.

   It was there that Henry Hartley, a reclusive and obviously hearty soul, a full-time trapper and a part-time miner, built a cabin at Meadow Lake and lived there year-round by trapping mink, coyote, martin, fox, otter and bear. He discovered gold in the dark-streaked granite by the dam and, with two partners, formed the Excelsior Company. The partners staked out claims on several mines about a mile south of the lake. Another group, the California Company, arrived in 1864 and staked at least four more claims in the immediate area.

   Soon, a “Meadow Lake Gold Rush” was underway. By late summer of 1865, there were 741 company locations and almost 11,000 individual claims. Two sawmills and a stamp mill began operations in October. The town which sprang up from nothing only a few years earlier was named Summit City. By Christmas of 1865, 250 “substantial” homes lined the spacious 80 foot wide streets on the 160 acre townsite.

   Stages and freight wagons came in on rough and rocky toll roads from Jackson’s Ranch (Meadows) and Webber Lake on the main road, and from Bowman’s Ranch and Polley’s Station on other roads. Hotels, restaurants, stores and of course the inevitable saloons and hurdy-gurdy houses, with their “ladies,” were soon doing a brisk business along with the miners and real estate salesmen. Summit City’s name was changed to Meadow Lake in 1866, during the period of its greatest success, with about 1000 homes and nearby “suburb” towns like Carlisle, Baltimore City, Ossaville, Hudsonville, Mendoza, and Atlanta. They even had a “Yatch” (Yacht) Club on Meadow Lake.

   But all this; the 5000 or so people (no one really knows the exact number), the seven stamp mills, the mining companies, the saloons and dance halls, the breweries, bakeries and banks, was to come to a quick end. The ore at Meadow Lake was of a particularly “rebellious nature,” and it was found to be extremely difficult and uneconomical to reduce from it the gold all sought.

   Especially during the winter, the saloons showed greater profits than the mines because of the miner’s problems with the extraction of gold, and, due to the 7500 foot elevation of Meadow Lake, it was not uncommon for snow to drift to depths of 25 to 30 feet, when life in town consisted of digging and maintaining tunnels in the snow, just to get around. At these times, no passengers or freight, no supply trains, nothing came in or out of Meadow Lake. Ore could not be transported or washed, and the saloons became the focal point of life in town.

   By 1867, many of the mines were closed. The ore resisted the efforts of any and all metallurgists. What had been one of the fastest growing towns became one which died nearly as quickly. By 1875, fewer than a dozen inhabitants remained, no passenger and freight wagons came, and the “substantial” houses began to decay and fall into unrecognizable heaps of lumber.

   Eventually only Henry Hartley, the town’s first citizen, remained. In fact, the “Hermit of Meadow Lake” lived by himself in his town until his death in October of 1892. He had survived nearly 30 years in this hostile land; had seen the boom and the bust, had riches and then none, and only he, it seems, knew the way to make a good living in Meadow Lake.

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