The Big Bonana
The Big Bonanza” by C.B. Glasscock
Mignon lent me an old (1931) book on the Comstock titled “The Big Bonanza” by C. B. Glasscock. It’s about the huge silver strikes beginning in the 1860’s in Virginia City, Nevada. What impressed me the most when reading this book was the fact that getting supplies to Virginia City from San Francisco at that time was a truly daunting task. Roads over the Sierras were primitive at best.
The two main routes were the old Emigrant Road from Carson City to Placerville and a longer northern route through Downieville and Nevada City. I believe the Emigrant Road followed Johnson’s Cutoff, a trail blazed by John C. Johnson in 1848 and used by Snowshoe Thompson in 1856 to deliver mail. Stagecoaches followed the route in 1857 though it was not yet ready for speed or heavy trafﬁc. According to Glasscock, in the Spring of 1860 it still took four days by stage or muleback and six days on foot to travel between Placerville and Virginia City. After the Comstock rush began the road was repaired enough in the summer of 1860 to accomodate four-horse teams. Places such as Pete’s, Dirty Mike’s, Strawberry Hotel and Woodford’s offered whiskey, food and shelter along the route. Other names that reading and research revealed include Genoa, Van Sickles Station, Daggett Pass, Spooner Summit, Kyburz, Silverfork, Twin Bridges and Williams Station. The Pioneer Stage Company, which was later absorbed by Wells Fargo, had a very proﬁtable run between Carson City and Placerville. Enterprising men built toll roads to improve the route and mined the freighters. Rufus Walton built the Clear Creek Toll Road in 1860 and on current Google Earth it appears to be passable, though I don’t believe Rufus is still around to collect.
Highway 50 is the modern version of Johnson’s Cutoff, but there are signiﬁcant portions of the original route that meander away from Highway 50 that would make good future Desert Explorer trips. For example, the 1857 Hawley Grade down Echo Summit to Luther Pass is now a hiking trail. For a short while it was even the Pony Express Route but it was bypassed by Meyers Grade in 1860. And, there is still a small portion of Meyers Grade existing that we can explore. Doing more research, I came up with some information on Van Sickles Station. It was a freight station in the Carson Valley operated by Henry Van Sickle. In 1857 he constructed a two-story hotel with a bar and store. It was even a way station for the Pony Express riders when they began operation in 1860. Glasscock tells of an incident when a mercenary and killer named Sam Brown tried to kill Van Sickle but Henry escaped and later tracked down and dispatched Brown. Unfortunately, Van Sickles’ hotel fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1909. However, in 1944 the remaining buildings were restored and the ranch now frequently serves as a movie location. It is very near the start of the Old Kingsbury Road.
I diverged. Getting back to “The Big Bonanza” one reads that the riches being produced in Virginia City created a huge demand for better roads across the Sierras. According to Glasscock, Swan & Company acquired the franchise for 20 miles in the mountains and went to work, mostly with Chinese labor. They cut through rock on precipitous slopes and paved their toll road with macadam and slabs.Soon there was almost a continuous line of freighters and Swan & Company was able to clear $50,000 per year, a fortune at that time. This caught the attention of Huntington, Stanford, Crocker and Hopkins who were contemplating the creation of the Central Paciﬁc Railroad, which became a reality and arrived in Reno in June of 1868.
Anyway, routes across the Sierras were only a fraction of what Glasscock covered in his book about the Comstock. It is an interesting 1931 perspective, a good read, and there appears to be copies available on the internet. ~ Joeso