August 19, 1863: Kyburz
I resolved not to go directly to Lake Tahoe, but to cross the summit and climb Pyramid Peak, which had been in plain view for a long time—a very high and conspicuous point, which had never been measured. So we packed off, crossed a hill, sank into Lake Valley and out of it again, crossed the summit and struck the Placerville road, the grand artery of travel to Washoe. Over it pass the Overland telegraph and the Overland mail. It is stated that five thousand teams are steadily employed in the Washoe trade and other commerce east of the Sierra—not little teams of two horses, but generally of six horses or mules, often as many as eight or ten, carrying loads of three to eight tons, on huge cumbrous wagons. We descended about eight miles and camped at Slippery Ford.
This great road deserves some notice. It cost an immense sum, perhaps near half a million, possibly more. A history of this road would make a good Californian story. First an Indian trail, then an old emigrant road crossed the mountains; when, seeing its importance, the state and two counties, by acts of legislature and appropriations, at a cost of over $100,000 (I think), made a free road over on this general line. But the engineers, honest men, had neither the time nor means given them to do their part of the work well—as a consequence, it was not laid out in the best way. The mines of Washoe were discovered, and an immense tide of travel turned over the road. Men got franchises to “improve” portions of the road and collect tolls for their remuneration. Grades were made easier, bridges built, the road widened at the expense of private companies, who thus got control of the whole route. In other words, the state built a road that these private companies could transport their materials free over to build their toll road. Now, the tolls on a six-mule team and loaded wagon over the road amount to thirty-two dollars, or thirty-six dollars, I am not certain which sum, and it has paid immensely. In some places the profits during a single year would twice pay the expense of building, repairs, and collection of tolls! With such strong inducements men could afford to “lobby” in the legislature and get the franchises. A portion of the road, which is assessed as worth $14,000, last year collected over $75,000 in tolls! It takes a legislature elected for political services to grant such franchises.
The trade to Washoe, being so enormous, other roads are being built across the mountains. The Amador road, described in the first part of this letter, will be to some extent a rival road, but their pass is higher and all the passes south are higher. This pass is less than eight thousand feet.
Clouds of dust arose, filling the air, as we met long trains of ponderous wagons, loaded with merchandise, hay, grain—in fact everything that man or beast uses. We stopped at the Slippery Ford House. Twenty wagons stopped there, driving over a hundred horses or mules—heavy wagons, enormous loads, scarcely any less than three tons. The harness is heavy, often with a steel bow over the hames, in the form of an arch over each horse, and supporting four or five bells, whose chime can be heard at all hours of the day. The wagons drew up on a small level place, the animals were chained to the tongue of the wagon, neighing or braying for their grain. They are well fed, although hay costs four to five cents per pound, and barley accordingly—no oats are raised in this state, barley is fed instead.
We are at an altitude of over six thousand feet, the nights are cold, and the dirty, dusty teamsters sit about the fire in the barroom and tell tales—of how this man carried so many hundredweight with so many horses, a story which the rest disbelieve—tell stories of marvelous mules, and bad roads, and dull drivers, of fights at this bad place, where someone would not turn out, etc.—until nine o’clock, when they crawl under their blankets and sleep, to be up at early dawn to attend to their teams.