Truckee Pioneer Albert Johnson

Albert Johnson dies. | Courtesy Truckee Republican newspaper, circa 1911

The names are common in California and reflect the rich ethnic and cultural diversity of immigrants beginning with the state’s Gold Rush era: China Cove on Donner Lake and Chinese Camp in Tuolumne County, Negro Bar (to be renamed Black Miners’ Bar) on the American River and Negro Run Ravine in Plumas County, Chino Creek (mixed race Amerindian and African ancestry) in Butte County.

These topographic appellations are based on race and nationality, but rarely do we know the stories behind the individual people who played a role in their origin. In 19th Century California, non-Anglos were marginalized in many ways, their history ignored and subsequently much of it lost. But when it comes to Negro Canyon near Donner Pass, we have a story to tell about its likely namesake Albert Johnson. Truckee Donner Land Trust acquired the 280-acre parcel in 2012 and after research into Johnson’s personal history, the trust determined to use “Johnson Canyon” on maps and in publications. Currently it is working with state and federal officials to formerly change the name.

Albert Johnson crossed Donner Pass and on seeing Donner Lake knew that he had found paradise. He built a small cabin at the mouth of Gregory Creek at the northwest corner of the lake, chopped firewood, caught trout and then looked for work in Truckee.

Albert Johnson, an African American born into slavery in either Tennessee or Kentucky in about 1817, reached the Truckee area in 1871, shortly after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Truckee was a rowdy town with a large population of Chinese nationals, most of them immigrants who had built the western portion of the railroad over the Sierra and across Nevada and Utah. There were few black residents. Johnson was 54 years old when he arrived and in contrast to his imposing presence, he projected a peaceful countenance.

A former night watchman for the Truckee Lumber Company, William Kennedy, published a letter in an Iowa newspaper. He described Johnson as “more than six feet in height, straight as an arrow, and with broad, square shoulders. He is, to all outward appearances, a perfect specimen of physical manhood.” Imposing as he may have been, Johnson always had a beaming smile for anyone he met. It became his trademark.

During the Civil War, Johnson was emancipated by the Union Army, after which he joined in the fight against the Confederacy. On the South’s surrender in April 1865, Johnson relished his newfound freedom and seemingly chose to lay aside any bitterness. Kennedy observed that Albert Johnson “seemed to cherish only the happiest memories of his old master and mistress, who, in addition to taking good care of him, seems to have imparted to him the very best precept.” A man of strong faith, Johnson “expressed the belief that no one had ever lived a happier life than he, and he looked it.”

Johnson trekked across the Isthmus of Panama where he boarded a passenger vessel sailing north to California. He reached San Francisco and headed inland hoping to make a home for himself in Gold Country, but instead found himself climbing higher into the mountains. Johnson crossed Donner Pass and on seeing Donner Lake knew that he had found paradise. He built a small cabin at the mouth of Gregory Creek (which flows from Negro Canyon) at the northwest corner of the lake, chopped firewood, caught trout and then looked for work in Truckee. He was hired as a cook by Stewart McKay who owned the Truckee Hotel. Later, Johnson found a job in the kitchen galley on one of the steamers plying Lake Tahoe’s waters.

He became acquainted with the early pioneers and over the decades recounted their colorful stories as the old trailblazers died off. Johnson eventually established a saloon at Donner Lake where he gained a reputation as an excellent chef and fishing guide. He was also a cordial landlord to summer tourists who rented his cabins. The Truckee Republican newspaper stated: “No individual is more widely known by residents of Nevada County than Albert Johnson on account of his generosity and hospitality.”

In the winter months Johnson, lived a hermit’s life, rarely leaving Donner Lake for supplies or companionship. Due to his reclusive lifestyle, especially as he grew older, outsiders may have considered Old Albert a man banished from local society or a melancholy loner. Kennedy, however, found Johnson to be “both the moral and intellectual equal to the average man, white or colored, who has had the advantages of the schools and long association with his fellow men in enlightened communities.”

Johnson suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a painful affliction of muscles, joints and bones. The disease nearly killed him in February 1910 and if it wasn’t for Truckee resident William Johnson (no relation), Albert would have died. William snowshoed out to Albert’s cabin that month concerned about the old man’s health. He found that Albert had been bedridden for several days in severe pain: “Johnson thought that death would relieve him of his sufferings. He had fuel and grub, but rheumatic grip held him in bed until starvation urged him to use every effort to keep life in his body. Suffering untold agony, he managed to start a fire and prepare something to eat. But then he was again compelled to lay there several days without food and water.”

In February 1911, during one of the worst winters on record, bitter cold temperatures and snow 10 feet deep took its toll on the reclusive old war veteran. Indicative of the respect and concern people had for him, citizens used a telescope to spy on “Old Albert’s” distant cabin looking for smoke from his fireplace. None was seen over several days, so several men went out to check on the ailing Johnson and he was taken to the county hospital in Nevada City where he died six weeks later at age 94. The day after Johnson was rescued, his 20-year-old cabin collapsed into a pile of lumber, probably due to heavy snow load. But for the residents of Truckee, it implied that the buoyant spirit of Johnson was dwindling with age and illness.

Johnson lived at Donner Lake for 40 years. Kennedy wrote that Johnson had found “God’s richest blessings” in the Tahoe Sierra; “health, freedom, contentment, an abundance of fresh fish and wild fowl, and above all, an abiding faith that when called to leave his earthly habitation it will be to take up residence in ‘a mansion in the sky.’” Due to a lack of official records, we may never know the true origin for the name Negro Canyon, but it’s a tribute to Johnson and thus appropriate for the name change to Johnson Canyon.

Special thanks for Gordon Richards for sharing his research into this topic.