Monday, June 6, 2005

Skiing in the Sierra, 1866

This article from an 1868 issue of (East Coast) Putnam's Magazine may be of interest. A few notes in preface: "Fremont's Peak" is that which we now name Basin Peak, immediately north of Castle Peak. Fremont and Kit Carson came though here in the fall of 1845. Meadow Lake is a few miles north of I-80, best reached from farther north yet on the Henness Pass road. It is probably still snow-bound. Prospect Mountain is that unnamed peak between Meadow Lake and French Lake. The article describes skiing, away back when, in this part of the Sierra.

The author's mistaken notions about the Donner Party are a little puzzling. Of course they came across a few years before 1849. He implies they were lured by gold; that was not the case. Other bits and pieces of poetic license are not worth notice. It is a neat little essay.


Putnam's Magazine, 1868, pp. 360-364
J.H. Tredwell

The Pathway of a Great Enterprise

Early in the month of June, 1866, near the termination of a dreary and trying winter's sojourn, the writer of this article stood in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, on the route which was soon to be traversed by that great connecting chain of the two oceans-the Pacific Railroad. As yet there was no vestige of civilization observable, except here and there a few cross-sticks nailed together, to mark the "Dutch Flat wagon-road;" not a stone was turned nor a tree hewn for the purpose of forwarding the great work. I had come to a halt, after some fifteen miles of snow-shoe travel in a fierce, driving snow-storm. As I halted, the storm ceased, and the sun came out warm, bright, and refreshing, while from the great deep valleys about me rolled out the heavy clouds, revealing some of Nature's grandest handiwork, and opening out, as the misty curtain melted away, some of the sublime scenery of our own land which can only be found in the far Western borders. After a deal of surmising as to my precise locality, I found myself close at the foot of Red Mountain. Before me lay the yawning valley, to which I had just descended, hemmed in on either side by its thousands of feet of solid mountain-wall, whose ragged sides frowned darkly upon the little brook which struggled its way among the rocks and snow at their feet. Peering up in the distance, their snowy tops shining in the clear spring sunlight, stood, like two grand sentinels, Fremont's Peak and Castle Mountain, their steep sides mottled here and there with clumps of pine trees, like black patches on their surface. Over ten thousand feet these two magnificent peaks urged their heads toward heaven; and here, in this very valley, might be placed our boasted White Mountains of New England, and their presence would be as that of cobbles among great boulders. Mount Washington itself would scarcely fill one of these great valleys.

The point at which I then stood was about six thousand five hundred feet above the level of the sea, or seven hundred feet below the highest point to be reached by the railroad.

To gain some idea of the magnitude of this but partially known mountain-range, let us return to the point from which I set out-a place where for four dismal, homely months I had taken up my habitation-and there take a most extended and thorough observation; for in this stronghold of Nature there is much to be seen, and it seems as though all grandeur were here congregated.

With this intention we will take our position on the ledge of rocks which crowns Prospect Mountain-located in latitude 39รป 30' north, and about twenty miles to the westward of the heart of the Sierra.

We are now twelve miles from the nearest point of the railroad route-which lies to the south of us-but still have an extended view of the portion which it traverses, our elevation being nearly nine thousand feet above the sea-level. Looking southward, we see a grand conglomeration of small and great summits, whose bald tops tire the eye with their brilliant snowy whiteness. To the left stands out boldly Donner Peak, memorable in the history of these mountains as being the sad winter-home of those from whom it derives it name. At its foot rests one of the most beautiful of lakes, the shores of which are now associated with a tragic tale, almost too horrible for belief. In the winter of 1849 [sic], the Donner family, led thither by the tempting reports of fabulous fortunes to be won by little labor, encamped by the lake, and were there snow-bound by one of the fierce storms which frequent the region.

In a country of which they knew nothing, with a scanty supply of food, and no means by which they might obtain more, besides the prospect of a long and tedious winter, their situation was far from encouraging, and the tempting fortune, in full view before them, turned to a dreary, blank uncertainty.

There was no possibility of escape. The soft snow lay many feet deep, and was many miles in extent between them and their sunny land of promise. Day by day they saw their stock diminish, until at last there was nothing left; even the faithful beast, who had brought them this far on their journey, had gone to sustain the lives of those who remained. When hunger commenced its fearful cravings, and the hope of relief had entirely faded out, the youngest child, by mutual consent f the parents, was rudely torn from its mother's breast, and given up, a bloody horrible sacrifice to the fiendish hunger of the survivors. Want drove them to madness, and madness to desperation. Of the whole family-four in number, if I recall rightly-only one came forth alive from that fatal encampment. One after another they fell victims to the dread enemy, each time the stronger overpowering the weaker, until the last remaining one trod over the bones of his own murdered family.

For only a few weeks in midsummer is the lake free from ice. Then it is the sportsman's paradise; and Donner Lake trout are counted among the delicacies which the mountaineer's table affords, while the pretty California quail, pine-martens, and occasionally a shuffling grizzly, resort to its banks to quench their thirst or bathe in its cool waters. It will take first rank among the grandest and most attractive spots in the world; stark, rugged mountains enclose it and are reflected in its extraordinarily glassy surface, while the giant pines on its shores fringe it through the long winter with unfailing green.

To-day its natural beauties remain undisturbed; to-morrow its ages of solitude will be broken by the echoing howl of the locomotive whistle, as it hurries its onward way toward either ocean.

A little more to the left we see Castle Peak-which we have before noticed-crowned by turreted rocks, which, viewed from the distance, resemble a ruined castle, with its towers, battlements, and ivy-grown windows.

Upon this mountain, in the autumn of 1861, a hardy mountaineer and trapper-Harry Hartley by name-built himself a cabin wherein to winter and follow his adventurous occupation. Previous to Hartley's advent few, if any, white men had set foot upon this desolate spot; indeed, there was little to attract them to such a desolate place; but Hartley was of a solitary disposition: years of self-sacrifice had inured him to almost any deprivation. From a counting-house in the Empire City he had hurried away in search of that greatest boon of human life-good health; and the object of his search had become swallowed up, but not lost, in his ambition as a path-breaker for civilization. There is a peculiar fascination in pioneer life. It enslaves some men; not that they love it so well, but because of the perfect freedom which it grants to them-a freedom which can be found in no other occupation.

To be a pioneer in the Sierra Nevada is no menial service, nor is it without attendance of professional dignity, for it calls into play all the nobler instincts of true manliness. With energy, and patience, and confidence, the pioneer must be a man of nerve and decision, else his long and tedious labor will prove fruitless. Almost all pioneers possess strongly-developed reasoning powers; their mode of life renders logical conclusions almost imperative, and the care with which this faculty is exercised is particularly noticeable when they are journeying in rough, unknown places. In small things as well as great they carefully study cause and effect, where others would dash forward without a thought.

Hartley possess these endowments in a remarkable degree; and they ultimately proved his success. Fifteen lonely and unfrequented miles lay in one billowy and desolate stretch between his cabin and the nearest habitation of white men-impassable miles, withal; but in that lonely cabin he lived for four long months without seeing the face of a human being or holding converse with any one. This is but one of the many deprivations of frontier-life. It requires a stout heart to take that one step which carries a man beyond the assistance and association of his fellow-beings, and that, too, when the reward is comparatively small. Yet, this patient labor is, to the world at large, of inestimable value, for its hews the way for far more important projects which will surely follow.

Hartley, during his stay on Castle Mountain, discovered, on one of the valleys, several valuable gold-bearing quartz veins. Knowing their value, he claimed them, and five years later-in 1866-within sight of his isolated cabin, there sprung up the town of Meadow Lake; and his solitary four months in the Sierra paid him with a life-long competence.

Side by side with Castle Peak stands its compeer, Fremont's Peak, urging its proud, treeless top far among the clouds. Through all the balmy Sierra summer they bear aloft the relic of departed winter, and while the grass is rich and green in the deep-sheltered valleys which surround them, the snow flurries and wreaths about their tops, bidding defiance to the sunlight and awaiting another season of storms.

Looking to the north, the rugged mountains, with their pine-forests, again confront us-unnamed, unknown, vast recesses, which have never been explored by civilized eyes-broad arenas, where civilized man has never set foot; all waiting for the time when their centuries of silence shall be disturbed by the activity of a fast-advancing and busy population.

At last we turn our eyes to the west; and here our sight sweeps the mighty plain of the Sacramento, with its continuation to the south, the San Joaquin-so far off and far below us that objects are undiscernible. We are surrounded by snow, but in the valley upon which we look the golden grain and rich green grass flourish beneath the sun of early summer. With scarcely more than a leap we are transported from icy mid-winter to strawberries and cream.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys lie in a great bowl, as it were; for, if we urge our sight off in the distance, we find a distinct blue line, crowned with white, against the horizon, and losing itself on either hand. This is the coast-range, situated more than one hundred miles from the spot on which we stand, the snow still crowning their tops, though they be but playthings in comparison with the Sierra. Here our range of vision extends over a section of country exceeding in area the whole State of Connecticut. Of course, we cannot distinguish the fields and houses, but we can see the steamboat-smoke on the Sacramento River-some seventy miles away-and dark patches over the surface of the plain, which mark either the wooded or the tilled lands.

It is indeed a wonderful sight. The eye at a glance sweeps over one of the largest and most fertile valleys of our whole land, and a journey from our stand-point to the extreme limit of our observation would cost us at least thirty-six hours of travel.

As we stand, facing towards the west, a stone tossed from the hand will fall a distance of fifteen hundred feet, striking upon the ice-covered, snow-bound bosom of French Lake, which, in the course of a month or so from this time, will be transformed to a placid, dark, picturesque sheet of water some twenty acres in extent. The mountains seem to have split apart and formed the crevice in which it rests, for is other side is backed up by a correspondingly precipitous mountain-face.

We have taken a fair view of the country, as seen from Prospect Peak-a place which, I doubt not, will, in years to come, become famous as one of the sublimest points of observation which the world affords. From Meadow Lake, which lies a little to the eastward, the ascent is comparatively easy, and after reaching its top the traveller forgets his fatigue, and is lost in the grand scene before him.

* * * * *

Mounting our snow-shoes, a few moments of very rapid sliding brings us within the limits of the town of Meadow Lake.

This town, in point of elevation, ranks third or fourth among the permanent habitations of man in the known world. It rests on a sheltered plain, which caps a high ridge, and is surrounded by rolling hills on every side; its buildings are those rudely-fashioned structures which one so often meets with in these mountains-crazy affairs, whose thin boards prove scarcely a sufficient protection against the severe storms which assail them.

It may not be out of place here to mention the fact that during the long winters which prevail in this section, the chief and only method of locomotion, for pedestrians, is by snow-shoes; and as neither horses nor mules can be used, owing to the depth of the snow, all journeys in the unfrequented districts must be accomplished with their aid.

The unwieldy raw-hide network, known as the "Canadian shoe," is seldom used, the Norwegian pattern having proved more acceptable and less cumbersome. The latter are very simple in their construction, consisting of two long, narrow, and flat strips of wood slightly curved at the forwards ends, and confined to the feet by strips of leather, which are placed at their balancing point, and pass over the instep. The traveller is not to fatigue himself by raising them, but simply slides along over the surface of the snow. The shoes vary in length from nine to twelve feet, the longer shoes being preferable for swift running. The wearer must necessarily become skilled in their use before venturing into difficult or dangerous places, for the speed attained in descending the steep mountain-sides is fearful. In such places I have seen the measured mile accomplished in fifty seconds, and have myself slid, repeatedly, one mile in less than seventy seconds.

Snow-shoe racing is a favorite pastime among the mountain-people, both sexes participating in the sport, and many of the women challenging the best and most expert runners.* With their snow-shoes thoroughly "doped," the crowd resort to some suitable place for the contest, which begins with a grand dash, all participating. Woe to the inexperienced ones, for they are generally left sitting in the snow while they see their shoes shooting away in the exciting race, riderless, or else, owing to their uncertain footing, they are shot, arrow-like, head-first into the soft snow, from which they must extricate themselves and spend the rest of the day in hunting up their untrustworthy conveyance. Experts dash on regardless of circumstances, with the swiftness of the wind, until they come to a halt in the deep valley to which they have descended, which may be two or three miles from their starting-point.

The rider stands erect on the shoes, allowing them to slide, or rather plunge, in the direction intended, at the same time steadying himself with the stout snow-pole, which he grasps in his hands. The only mode by which he can retard his swift progress is by falling from the shoes, at the risk of a roll in the snow, and detaining them as he falls-a feat which requires some dexterity. To lose the shoes is a serious matter, for fatigue, exhaustion, and perhaps more serious mishaps, may overtake him ere he reaches his journey's end.

All through the long winter-season the snow upon the Sierra Nevada, at any elevation above five thousand feet, lies at a depth averaging from ten to twenty feet, while drifts pile themselves up to enormous and incredible proportions. Snow-slides are frequent, and vast areas of snow sometimes move down the mountain-sides, wrecking every thing in their way, and often proving fatal to the unfortunate living beings whom it may overtake. Scarcely a year passes that does not record a number of deaths from this cause.

I have seen the waters of Phoenix Lake rise six feet, and then rapidly subside, when one of these vast bodies of snow has plunged into it from the steep sides of Old-Man Mountain.

During the month of March, 1866, there was a snow-storm in the Sierra of seventeen days' duration. Day after day, for a week, I shovelled the snow from my doorway, in the vain hope that the storm would soon cease. When it did cease my cabin-the extreme height of which was twelve feet-was entirely covered with snow, in such a way that I was obliged to cut a hole in the roof, and shovel a passage through in order to obtain light, air, and an entrance-way.

The mountains were visited by a still severer storm in February, 1867. One of the county-papers, in speaking of it, stated: "The snow in some places lies thirty feet deep, and a two-story house on the Plaza of Meadow Lake is entirely out of sight. The average depth of the snow is twenty-one feet, and drifts form to a depth of twenty feet in a single night." This storm continued for thirty days.

The atmosphere of the mountains is dry, and seldom intensely cold, but the winters are very long, commencing in the latter part of November, and fairly terminating about the first of July. Be it in any season, I know of no climate so eminently calculated to benefit sufferers from bronchial or pulmonary difficulties; and of all climates which I have had the good fortune to visit, I know of none more beautiful than the Sierra Nevada spring and summer. In the former season, though the ground be covered with snow, the sun is warm and invigorating, while the great pine wilderness echoes with countless bird-songs.

Right through this temple of Nature, this region of grandeur and snow, the great enterprise pushes itself for a distance of sixty miles or more; now plunging into a ravine, shadowed and darkened by the rocky heaps which rise thousands of feet above it, now stretching off on the open plain, and guarded on either side by huge, gaunt pines, which stand stiff and listless by the way.

Lounging upon the steps of the rudely-finished but comfortable house known as Polley's Station, at Crystal Lake, we can hear the clear, ringing sound of hammer and drill; now and then a thundering blast rolls away, echoing up and down the great valleys. This is the steady, onward march of civilization, breaking the pathway through forests, and mountains, and solid granite, for the most magnificent enterprise which has prompted mankind for centuries past-the Pacific Railroad.

*I have known a party of ladies to start out in the morning, on their snow-shoes, travel eight miles to visit and spend the night with their friends, and return the following day.

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