For a few weeks or so now I have been pleasantly engaged in renewed efforts to learn the history of trails in and around the North Fork American. So many of these old trails have been ruined by logging, or in some cases, blocked by gates.
It is an interest I have pursued since 1972, when I moved to this area and began hiking every which way. I love history in any case, and California history has always fascinated me. The past couple of years have brought the story into better focus, thanks to Ron Gould, who took the time to seek out old Tahoe National Forest (TNF) maps, and shared digital copies with me.
Ron and I now have TNF maps dating from 1901 (which actually precedes the creation of TNF), 1928, 1939, 1947, 1962-66, 1995, up to the current edition of the TNF "big" map, available at any TNF ranger station. In some cases we have transferred the courses of trails as shown on one of these old maps, to digital versions of the modern USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps, and then uploaded coordinates to our GPS units, and gone out and found and followed the trail in question, on the ground.
We also have a stock of old General Land Office maps, and still other old maps.
Several things led to my renewed effort: last fall, Tom Martin discovered that the Big Granite Trail had been badly damaged by logging; the BGT originally led from Cisco, south and east to a ford (and ephemerally, a bridge) on the North Fork American, thence climbing into Sailor Canyon and the La Trinidad Mine, and on up to the Foresthill Divide. That is, a part of it forms what we now call the Sailor Flat Trail.
This spring, Catherine O'Riley and I finally got up to see the new damage to the good old BGT. It was shocking; the line of the trail was completely obliterated in a couple areas. This 2004 damage followed earlier, more severe damage in 1990. Conversations with Rich Johnson, TNF District Ranger for the Foresthill Ranger District (now retired), suggested that TNF has an easement on the BGT.
So damage to the BGT led to one line of inquiry. Does an easement exist, and if so, how is it worded? Ron and I began trying to find out.
A few weeks ago, exploring lovely Four Horse Flat, Catherine and I found huge old Aspen trees with names and dates carved into their trunks, dating back to the 1940s. These carvings opened another line of inquiry: we saw, among many others, the name of Lee DeBusk. I was able to find Mr. DeBusk right here in Alta, and had a long conversation with him about the old trails.
Simultaneously, out of the blue, I received an email from one Mike ----, whose great-grand-aunt Josephine had kept a diary, during her summers at the Old Soda Springs, on the upper North Fork, near Mark Hopkins' log cabin. Mike was kind enough to send me his transcription of the diaries, from 1899 to 1916, and suddenly a window opened into the history of one of my favorite areas. Aunt Josie's Diary provides a pleasant puzzle, for she mentions many trails in the upper North Fork which do not appear on the old maps. Aunt Josie would sometimes ride right over the Sierra crest to Squaw Valley and thence to Tahoe, and to help fill in the blanks I used Google to discover what I could about the resorts where she would stay.
Of course Google can turn up amazing things. For instance, I determined that the Indian baskets Aunt Josie purchased at Tahoe City in 1910 were made by a Washoe woman named Dat-So-La-Lee. Those remarkable baskets would be worth thousands of dollars nowadays.
And I found the text of a 1915 book about Tahoe titled "The Lake of the Sky," by George Wharton James (Lake Tahoe, In The High Sierras Of California And Nevada. Its History, Indians, Discovery by Fremont, Legendary Lore, Various Namings, Physical Characteristics, Glacial Phenomena, Geology, Single Outlet, Automobile Routes, Historic Towns, Early Mining Excitements, Steamer Ride, Mineral Springs, Mountain and Lake Resorts, Trail and Camping Out Trips, Summer Residences, Fishing, Hunting, Flowers, Birds, Animals, Trees, and Chaparral, with a Full Account of the Tahoe National Forest, the Public Use of the Water).
The book is dedicated
"TO ROBERT M. WATSON
(--To his friends "Bob"--)
Fearless Explorer, Expert Mountaineer, Peerless Guide, Truthful Fisherman, Humane Hunter, Delightful Raconteur, True-hearted Gentleman, Generous Communicator of a large and varied Knowledge, Brother to Man and Beast and Devoted Friend,
AND TO ANOTHER,
though younger brother of the same craft
Of course California has long been celebrated for its incomparable beauty. George Wharton James begins "The Lake of the Sky" with these words: "California is proving itself more and more the wonderland of the United States. Its hosts of annual visitors are increasing with marvelous rapidity; its population is growing by accretions from the other states faster than any other section in the civilized world."
In the course of decades of research into local history, I had of course encountered the name of Bob Watson, mountain guide extraordinaire. On the crest above Squaw Valley is the Watson Emigrant Monument; and there is Watson Lake, and Watson Peak, north of Tahoe; and on some maps we see, just upstream from Mumford Bar on the North Fork, Watson Crossing, which can only hark back to this same man, tho I have not yet been able to discover the story of this ford.
At any rate. California is a wonderland, yes, and Placer County is a wondrous part of that wonderland, and if we were to conjure up a recipe for the ruination of wonderlands generally, we would say, "open the wonderland up to mining claims; open it up to timber claims; build a railroad to let the world rush in, and give the proprietors every other square mile for twenty miles to either side of the tracks; then add one million, two million, ten million, twenty million, forty million people."
Well; that is a big part of the story of our old trails: the Central Pacific Railroad, later absorbed into the Southern Pacific, was given every other square mile of land in this part of the Sierra. The enabling legislation, the Pacific Railroad Act, was signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, and then amended in 1864 and 1866. The actual transfer of title was not completed for some years.
In the olden days, it was clear as could be that the trails which cross from public lands into railroad lands were public trails, since in most all cases they pre-dated the CPRR.
This business of deeding every other square mile of land to railroads happened all over California and the United States, so many other areas struggle with similar issues.
Of course the railroad began harvesting timber from the more accessible sections a century ago or more. But the trails persisted, and the areas untouched by logging remained vast, and many many people hiked and rode horses on these old trails, and camped out everywhere; add to that, the Sierra was grazed heavily by herds of sheep and cattle, which herds were often driven right along the old trails.
George Wharton James, in discussing early efforts at fire suppression by TNF, remarks that the shepherds, when confronted by a large fallen tree blocking a trail, would simply set it afire, and continue on their way. This would burn the log off the trail, yes, but it also sometimes started a forest fire.
In 1953 Placer County enacted a Trails Ordinance to protect these historic trails; within minutes, a lawsuit was filed by private landowners, seeking an injunction to prevent enforcement of the Ordinance. In 1954 the Ordinance was rescinded and replaced by a much weaker law.
The Big Granite Trail was one of the sixty-odd trails specifically described in the 1953 Ordinance. None of these sixty are mentioned in the 1954 Ordinance.
Fast forward to 1985: the old railroad lands are suddenly sold to High Sierra Properties, who in turn sold these odd-numbered sections to Sierra Pacific Industries, among others.
SPI is a lumber company, and High Sierra Properties themselves harvested timber on the old railroad lands, so in the late 1980s and through the 1990s and now in the 2000s, very much logging has occurred on lands which had remained pristine and untouched. No care was taken to preserve the old trails: I remember one of the first instances of this new round of logging damage I observed, around 1987, when I tried to find the northern trail to the Lola Montez Lakes.
I am a good map reader. I put myself right where the trailhead should have been, and found a Lodgepole-Fir forest torn up every which way by bulldozers, stumps and slash everywhere, monstrous skid trails, and not one shred of trail intact.
SPI logging in 1990 brought roads into Four Horse Flat and ruined a good part of the Big Granite Trail. The lower portion of the Cherry Point Trail, which drops south from Middle Loch Leven Lake to meet the BGT at Four Horse Flat, had been made into a logging road.
I had only hiked that part of the Cherry Point Trail once before it was logged, around 1983, when I made a circuit from west of Salmon Lake, past the lake, cross-country east to the CPT, down the CPT to Four Horse Flat, thence up the BGT to its current trailhead, in a pass on the divide between Big Valley and Little Granite Creek, thence north to a log deck on TNF lands, where I had parked.
Well, to make a long story short, Ron and I finally obtained a copy of the deed recording the easement on the Big Granite Trail.
It turns out to be somewhat older than I had expected: it is dated to June, 1950, and the TNF surveys and field work which prepared the way dated from 1946. The Southern Pacific Land Company is Grantor, the United States of America is Grantee.
The deed actually describes easements on a number of trails; in fact, we are still missing some pages from the deed, so just how many different trails, and which, remains unknown. These easements cost TNF exactly one dollar. They are described in very general terms, in what are called "aliquot parts" of various sections.
For instance, the Big Granite Trail through Four Horse Flat is described as the "West Half of the West Half of Section 9, ..., Township 16 North, Range 13 East."
The deed concludes, in part, "The width of said right-of-way shall be Twenty feet. ... The Grantor reserves the right to remove all timber from the right-of-way herein described. ... The Grantee shall at all times have the right to enter for the purpose of construction, repair, patrolling, ... ."
Thus at least some of the old railroad sections which passed to SPI were encumbered with trail easements. Yet the Grantor, hence SPI, was specifically permitted to harvest *all* timber from these right-of-ways.
So, there seems to be little legal basis to complain about the damage to the various trails, from logging.
On the other hand, these are trails which Tahoe National Forest ought to maintain; if a trail is damaged, TNF should repair the damage in a timely manner; for, one last note from the language of the deed, "The right of way or easement herein granted shall terminate upon abandonment. Discontinuance of use of said easement for the purpose herein specified for a period of five years or more shall be deemed to be an abandonment."
Of course, if a trail is obliterated by logging, if the old TNF signs marking it are torn down and not replaced, if even the trailhead has no sign marking the trail, it becomes all too likely that a "discontinuance of use" will take place.
Fortunately, there has not been a five-year discontinuance of use on the BGT.
I cannot yet know the particulars, but it seems to me that this 1946-1950 easement acquisition represents an effort by TNF to protect the historic trails and preserve public access. It seems likely that some kind of public outcry led to the TNF efforts, just as, but a couple of years later, public outcry led to the 1953 Trails Ordinance.
It also seems to me that We the Public are doing a bad job, nowadays. When our numbers were far fewer, in 1946, 1950, 1953, we didn't sit around waiting for the Sierra Club to do the job for us, we went to TNF and to the County Supervisors and demanded action; and we succeeded. A little, anyway.
Now, when there are probably fifty people living in the general area, for every one here in 1950, we seem to be dropping the ball.
I will be visiting the BGT with Ed Moore of TNF next week. Perhaps a TNF trail crew can get in there to repair some of the damage.
I myself hope that TNF will be able to purchase Section 9 and Four Horse Flat, the sooner the better, and I believe TNF should be trying to acquire many many of the old railroad sections. I do not accept defeat, tho to be sure I feel defeated, when I see logging roads running right through Four Horse Flat and up Little Granite Creek, roads which did not exist prior to 1990.
It will require efforts by our representatives in Congress to effect these purchases (purchases which can only be made if SPI et. al. are willing sellers).
Such are some recent new findings with regard to the history of our old trails.