CHAPTER XIII. THE WISHBONE AUTOMOBILE ROUTE TO AND AROUND LAKE TAHOE
This is the name given to the 260-mile automobile route to and from Lake Tahoe, going in from Sacramento over the world-famed Emigrant Gap and Donner Lake road, around the western shore of Lake Tahoe, from Tahoe Tavern to Tallac, and thence back to Sacramento over the historic and picturesque Placerville road. While both of the two main arms of the "wishbone" carry the traveler over the Sierras, the roads are wonderfully different. On the Emigrant Gap arm the road seems to have been engineered somewhat after the Indian fashion, viz., to allow the wildest and most expansive outlooks, while the Placerville route is largely confined to the picturesque and beautiful canyon of the South Fork of the American River. Both have honored histories and both are fascinating from the scenic standpoint and the difference in the two routes merely accentuates the charm of the trip, when compared with the new portion of the road, the connecting link that binds them together and now makes possible the ride around the lake shore. Experience has demonstrated, however, that it is better to make the circuit as herein outlined.
A brief sketch of the history of the building of the Emigrant Gap portion of this road cannot fail to be of interest.
It was practically followed by a host of the emigrants who sought California during the great gold excitement of 1848-9. It was also one of the earliest routes used between Sacramento and the mines of the High Sierras. In 1849 it was established from Sacramento to Auburn, Grass Valley and Nevada City and to-day there is practically little deviation from the original route. In 1850 the mines on the Forest Hill Divide were discovered and a branch road from Auburn was built to that section. At Illinoistown (now Colfax) the road branched, one arm crossing the North Fork of the American River to Iowa Hill and other camps on that divide, while the main road continued up the Sierras to Gold Run, Dutch Flat and other points higher up.
Until the Central Pacific Railway was built in the 'sixties Illinoistown was the junction for the different Camps in Nevada County and the Bear River and Iowa Hill Divides. The population of these regions in those early days was much greater than at the present time, yet the demands of the modern automobile have so improved the roads that they are much superior to what the large population of those days enjoyed.
In 1862 the California legislature authorized the supervisors of certain counties to call special elections to vote upon the question as to whether those counties should subscribe towards the building of the Central Pacific Railway, and to authorize them to issue bonds for the amounts they decided to expend. San Francisco county subscribed $1,000,000, Sacramento county $300,000 and Placer county $250,000.
In 1863 the Railroad Company began its work of grading the road bed at Sacramento, and yet, in 1865 it was only completed to Alta, a distance of 68 miles. At the same time it was making strenuous efforts to divert passenger and freight traffic for Virginia City and other Nevada points from the Placerville route. This had become possible because of the fact that when the railway line was actually built as far as Newcastle the engineers realized that before they could build the rest of their railroad they would need to construct a highway of easy grade, which would enable them to haul the necessary supplies for constructing the tunnels, cuts and bridges. Accordingly a survey was made up to Truckee, over the Nevada line into Reno and Virginia City, securing the best possible grade for a wagon road, and this was rushed to a hasty completion.
Naturally, they were anxious to gain all the paying traffic possible, and especially under the adverse conditions under which they were laboring. But, needless to say, this caused the fiercest hostility on the part of their competitors, laid them open to serious charges, which, later, were made, and that for a time threatened desperate consequences, as I will now proceed to relate.
In the late fall of 1864 the Sacramento Valley Railroad (the rival of the Central Pacific) arranged to make a record trip from Freeport to Virginia City by the Placerville route. Though the officials endeavored to keep the matter secret, it leaked out and immediately the Central Pacific planned to circumvent their aim. They stationed relays along their own line to compete, and Nature and Fate seemed to come to their aid. A fierce storm arose the day before the start was to be made, and it fell heavier on the Placerville than on the other route. Though the drivers of each line did their utmost, feeling their own personal honor, as well as that of their company at stake, the heavy rains at Strawberry arrested the Placerville stage and made further progress impossible, while the other route was enabled to complete its trip on record time. Mr. L.L. Robinson, the Superintendent of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, who himself accompanied the stage, wired from Strawberry, "Heavy rains, heavy roads, slow time" - reluctant to own a possible defeat. But the Sacramento Union, the organ of the Central Pacific, came out the next morning with glowing accounts of the successful run of the stages over the Emigrant Gap route and ridiculed Mr. Robinson's telegram, ironically comparing it with Caesar's classic message to the Roman Senate: "Veni, Vidi, Vici."