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The history of Day and Goddard's surveys excerpted from
From Trails to Freeways
California Highways and Public Works Centenial Edition, September 1950, Kenneth C. Adams, editor, Chapter XI; Crossing the Sierra, by Stewart Mitchell

Congress Orders Survey

The contending sections and proponents of various routes could, and did, agree on the need for better information on the country through which a railroad would have to be built. As a result, an act was passed by Congress in 1853 which provided for "A careful reconnaissance of the proposed routes for a railroad from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean."

Five routes were surveyed, only one of which crossed the mountains in Northern California. This one reached the eastern border of the State in the vicinity of Honey Lake and from there it was thought that a railroad could be built to reach the Sacramento Valley either along the location of Nobles Road or somewhat farther to the north via Madeline Plains and the Pit River. No consideration whatever was given to Donner Summit which was to be on the route of the first transcontinental railroad, the Central Pacific, or to Beckwourth Pass through which the Western Pacific Railroad was later built.

Californians Disappointed

The report on the explorations, signed by Jefferson Davis who was the Secretary of War, indicated that any I route across the Sierra was impractical chiefly because of the deep snows. Instead it recommended a route which swept in a great arc down to the Mexican border and back up to San Francisco which was hundreds of miles longer. It would be putting it mildly to say that the citizenry of the State, who favored a direct route from Salt Lake City as a means of speeding up the mail service and facilitating immigrant travel, were disappointed and dissatisfied with the decision of the Secretary of War. They soon realized that the political conditions preceding the Civil War had made immediate agreement on the route for a transcontinental railroad very unlikely. Therefore, they turned their energies toward the building of a transcontinental wagon road along the Salt Lake trail as a temporary measure.

Popular clamor, evidenced by petitions and recommendations from organized groups of citizens in San Francisco, Sacramento, Marysville, Placerville, and other cities and towns, caused the State Legislature to act. A bill was signed by the Governor on April 28, 1855, which provided for the construction of a wagon road from the Sacramento Valley to the eastern border of the State. The road over the Sierra to Carson Valley was to be let to contract at a cost not to exceed S105.000 including the cost of the survey. As to the survey the act stated: "The Surveyor-General of the State shall cause to be surveyed a good wagon road over the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an expense not to exceed five thousand dollars; and no further liability shall be incurred for this purpose." But the legislature failed to appropriate the $5000!

The Day Survey

The Surveyor-General, H. S. MarIette, undaunted by this negligence, appealed to local citizens and the supervisors of the counties interested in a road terminating in Carson Valley. Enough money was raised by June, 1855, so that a survey of practicable routes could be started by Sherman Day, civil and mining engineer and State Senator. Starting from Georgtown he followed the general route of the immigrant road to Lake Tahoe previously mentioned. Then Marlette and Day together made a reconnaissance of the Carson and Johnson Pass routes. Day reported that, as the result of his explorations, these two routes only were worthy of further consideration. He further intimated that if it were considered necessary to provide for winter as well as summer travel, then only one 'Johnsons' need be surveyed and route let to contract immediately thereafter.

It was evident to him that the high elevation of such a long portion If the Carson route, and the fact that deep rock cuts would be required and would fill with snow, made it an impractical one for winter travel, The highway maintenance forces who must dig their way through the snow each spring on the present road around the Carson Spur will appreciate the wisdom of his recommendations.

The Goddard Survey

At this time the Legislature of the Mormon territory of Utah wanted to set up a local government in Carson Valley and, in consequence, found it necessary to establish the easterly boundary of California. Orson Hyde to whom the task had been delegated called on Marlette for assistance and the latter employed George H. Goddard, artist and engineer. to make the survey-apparently at Hyde's expense.

This gave Marlette another opportunity to obtain information on the merits of the existing routes as indicated by his instructions to Goddard:

"From Placerville to Carson 'Valley, via Cold Spring Ranch and Carson Pass, you will take such barometrical observations as will enable you to construct a profile of the route. You will also take, so far as practicable, a somewhat accurate sketch of the country traversed, and collect such other data as in your opinion will be of service in comparing the merits of this with other routes, for the Immigrant Wagon Road, in respect to both practicability and economy of construction."

The route to be followed on the return trip was to be decided later. The Johnson Route being chosen, like information was obtained along it.

We are indebted to the reports of Day and Goddard for the most complete and trustworthy information regarding these two important immigrant roads. On the basis of their reports, local officials became convinced of the practicability of building a road over the Sierra via Johnson Pass but opposition by various interests prevented the appropriation of funds by the State Legislature. Furthermore, the constitutionality of the State Wagon Road Act was challenged and it was finally declared to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on December 8, 1856.


A wagon Road Act was passed by President Pierce in February, 1857, but because of the political situation, the act also provided for the improvement of the southern or border route. No help could be expected from the powerful California Stage Co. which had moved its headquarters to Marysville because of the extension of the railroad from Folsom toward that city. It naturally favored more northern passes leading toward Honey Lake. Representatives of several counties in the San Joaquin Valley held a meeting at which Surveyor-General Brewster and "Snowshoe" Thompson spoke of the superior advantages of the Big Trees Route. Proponents of other routes also held meetings, appointed committees, and talked of raising the all-important funds. But, they raised no funds and events began to shape themselves in favor of the Johnson Road.

The Counties of Yolo, Sacramento, and El Dorado subscribed a total of $50.000 for the construction of a wagon road on Sherman Day's survey and a Board of Wagon Roads was appointed. The noted stage driver, J. B. Crandall of the firm of Crandall and Sunderland, who operated the stage line between Placerville and the railroad at Folsom, offered to drive the members of the board over the route. The trip starting on June 11, 1857, was a rough and rugged one but it demonstrated to the Nation at large that a stage route across the terrible Sierra was quite practicable. The trip provided the board an opportunity to learn first-hand which sections of the route were most in need of improvement.

First Stage Trip

It is perhaps to be regretted that Crandall was not the first to drive a stage across the mountains. Only a few days previously, the California Stage Co. had taken a convivial party from Marysville to Honey Lake and back along the route proposed by Gamble and Taylor. Since the trip did not lead to the inauguration of any stage route, and apparently stimulated no road construction toward Honey Lake, it may be considered of relatively small importance.

A considerable amount of work was done on the road during the summer of 1857 by private subscription. By legislation passed in May, 1858, a Wagon Road Commission was appointed with power to award a contract for the construction of a road following Day's survey as closely as practicable. With the money raised by the interested counties a contract was let on June 29, 1858. The contractor was unable to complete his contract and the remaining work bad to be relet. There were arguments among the road officials as to whether the work, finally completed in November, 1858, fulfilled the contract; but differences were ultimately adjusted and the contract accepted. These events mark the beginning of wagon road construction across the Sierra which gradually replaced the pioneer wagon trail.

Crandall's stage followed the Johnson immigrant road until the county road on the Day survey was constructed. The immigrant road crossed the South Fork of the American at Brockless' Bridge (just north of Pacific House), and climbed to the top of Peavine Ridge to avoid the spurs and ravines of the canyon. The county road which also crossed the Brockless Bridge was cut into the north wall of the canyon opposite the modern highway and far below the immigrant road on the ridge. Near Silver Fork the county road descended to the bottom of the canyon and followed the line of the present highway past "Georgetown Junction," where the immigrant road joined it, to Strawberry some four miles further east. From that point the old and the new roads follow along the South Fork past Twin Bridges to Echo Summit.

Goddard often referred to the 1845 Fremont-Preuss map.

Carson Pass: This appears to be the pass by which Col. Frémont entered California on 20th February, 1844, but instead of keeping down to Clear Lake [Summit Lake, Twin lakes, Caples Lake] he continued to ascend the ridge to the head of the Truckee and thence continued along the [Little] Round Top Ridge."

Viewing Hope Valley from Red Lake Peak: "The appearance of Hope Valley indicates it to have been at one period a mountain lake...indeed in the map accompanying Col. Frémont's Report, a lake is represented in this place."
Fremont and Preuss saw it snow covered from Red Lake Peak.

[Little] Round Top Ridge: "The ridge was characterized by a fair growth of pine...This small ridge is shown very correctly on Col. Frémont's map."
"Here we again crossed Col. Frémont's trail."

I have added some information and photographs of some of the historic roads through the canyon of the South Fork of the American River along the route that the Frémont Expedition traveled between February 23rd and 26th in 1844. From 1852 until present, this has been an area of intense road building.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham