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US 50

The black and white image is a postcard from the early 1900s of the "American River & Placerville-Lake Tahoe Road." Note the rockwork supporting the unpaved road. This lower route on the north side of the canyon of the South Fork of the American River began as the Pearson McDonald Stage Road (1865) and is today US 50. The first paving of the highway above Placerville was in the early 1930s. The elevation here is about 3250'.
800' up the canyon wall to the north (left) ran the 1858 Counties Road, and above that, at about 5200', is the 1852 Johnson Cutoff road along Peavine Ridge. On the south side of the canyon (right) at about 3400' ran the Oglesby Grade Toll Road which operated 1860-64.
The first routes were built high along ridges, as little actual road building was necessary. Routes were gradually lowered as the cost of making cuts and fills was warranted by increased traffic and commerce.



The highway has been widened considerably, and the rounded hill was burned over in the Cleveland Fire of 1992.Climbing down below the present highway, I was able to view some of the original road construction. The early rock work is still part of the modern highway roadbed!
Right next to a modern reflector paddle is one of the old granite milestones--the 24 Milestone (twenty four miles above Placerville).

A mile below this place, at Riverton, on February 25, 1844, John Charles Frémont wrote:

Continuing down the river, which pursued a very direct westerly course through a narrow valley, with only very slight and narrow bottom land we made twelve miles, and encamped at some old Indian huts, apparently a fishing place on the river.

The bottom was covered with trees of deciduous foliage, and overgrown with vines and rushes. On a bench of a hill nearby, was a field of fresh green grass, six inches long in some of the tufts which I had the curiosity to measure. The animals were driven here; and I spent part of the afternoon in sitting on a large rock among them, enjoying the pauseless rapidity with which they luxuriated in the unaccustomed food.

And, on the same day, his cartographer Charles Preuss wrote:

Eight of us have separated from the others with the best of our miserable beasts in order to get ahead faster. There is not enough grass in one place to keep them together. We made about twelve miles and are camping at a little place where there is good grass, kept green from last year under the snow. Instead of snow we are having a heavy rainstorm, which is not very agreeable either. I was glad to find an old Indian hut, in which I have made my bed. I am afraid that the rain will drive me into the accursed lodge again for some time.

Magnificent trees grow here. We have measured the circumference of cedars at twenty-eight and one-half feet, four feet from the ground. In my own botany I call this tree "pencil tree" because almost all pencils are encased with this timber. The live oak occurs here frequently, not a beautiful, but a very useful tree for lumber, especially for boatmaking. The leaves are entirely different, not at all like other oaks.

Nearby is another interesting view of the highway in 1915. Note, as in the above pictures, the hand-placed rock revetment. This is a the Inyo Good Road Club: five Studebakers promoting a scenic highway loop as part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The scene is of Bridal Veil (or Esmerelda) Falls, between Riverton and Pacific House. The modern view is in the fall of the year, when the flow is much diminished. The pavement where my car is parked is just the modern pullout--today there are four lanes of pavement beyond the border of the picture. Before the current 4-lane highway, I remember an elaborate rock wall in front of the fall. A bench. And a horse trough. Overheated cars used to stop for water on hot summer days--before pressurized radiators.

Studebaker had started business just 20 miles down this road in Placerville in 1849, building wheelbarrows for gold miners.



more old roads

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham