Journey on the Roaring Road: Highway 50’s historic legacy

John “Cock Eye” Johnson. | Sutter’s Fort Archives.

Modern Highway 50 that runs through South Lake Tahoe closely follows the original Carson Trail over Echo Summit, a route that was so congested with emigrant wagons during the California Gold Rush it was called the Roaring Road. Later, during the Comstock Lode mining boom in the 1860s and 70s, it became known as the Great Bonanza Road when it was crammed with cursing drivers cracking whips over their mule- or oxen-powered freight wagons from dawn to dusk.

The nonprofit Highway 50 Association is holding its 74th annual reenactment of the Great Western Migration through June 10.

Gold spurs pioneers west
After the January 1848 discovery of gold in California and before Chinese railroad workers completed the final tunnel work that conquered Donner Pass in the spring of 1868, the legendary Truckee River Trail was effectively abandoned. Utilized by notable pioneer emigrants such as the 1844 Stephens Party and 1846 Donner Party, it faded out under competition from the development of other trans-Sierra roads.

Like most 49ers, Johnson yearned for wealth … He established a 320-acre land claim in the Sierra foothills … built a home and sawmill and started a ranch to raise food to sell to hungry pioneers and miners and grazing for depleted livestock.

It flickered to life again in 1864 when the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road opened as a toll turnpike to serve Central Pacific Railroad supply demands, as well as freight-wagon traffic for the booming Comstock Lode in Nevada. But the mass migration into California had slowed considerably since the end of the historic Gold Rush era.

By 1849 the preferred pathway for overland 49ers and emigrant wagons was the Carson River route through Carson City, Nev., to Placerville via South Lake Tahoe. It was the most direct to Sutter’s Fort (future Sacramento) and the lucrative mining districts. Narrow, steep and boulder-strewn, the Carson Trail challenged those who slogged over it, but it appealed to many travelers because other roads were worse, like the difficult Truckee River route that crossed the rocky streambed nearly 30 times or led to destinations with less monetary appeal such as the ranch country of the northern Sacramento Valley.

During the early years of the Gold Rush, there was a dire need for well-maintained roads that crossed the Sierra into California. Since neither the state nor federal government stepped up in a timely manner to build one, local communities or entrepreneurs raised money to make a trail sufficiently passable to steer migration to that town or region; they often charged a toll for the privilege of using it.

To induce wagon traffic to Auburn, the gnarly Placer County Emigrant Road was built over the Sierra Crest at today’s Palisades Tahoe resort (much of that route is now the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run). To the north, the Henness Pass Road led to Downieville, Marysville or Nevada City. Paid shills were sent east back along the California Trail to persuade westbound traffic to follow the new routes. In this era of go-for-broke free enterprise, a patchwork of crude trans-Sierra wagon roads had been constructed by dogged visionaries who hoped to get rich charging money to access their turnpikes and bridges.

Carson Pass Trail blazed
The Carson Pass Trail was first blazed in July 1848 by remnants of the disbanded Mormon Battalion — 45 men, one woman, 17 wagons and several hundred cattle and horses — when they crossed the Sierra to return to their homes and families at the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Three Mormon scouts were killed by Native Americans, but the group persevered in opening the first crude road eastbound over ridgelines southwest of the Tahoe Basin. Despite summer heat, they encountered snow drifts 15 feet deep while breaking down some of the huge boulders blocking the route. They lowered wagons and sometimes cattle over cliffs with block and tackle.

Read more about Tahoe’s historic toll roads at

As they descended east toward the headwaters of the Carson River, south of Lake Tahoe, they christened a verdant swale of land Hope Valley. Modern-day Highways 88 and 50 closely follow this original Mormon trail. As they headed east along the California Trail, the Latter-Day Saints encountered renowned frontiersmen James Clyman and Joseph Chiles leading emigrant wagon trains west. The news of their accomplishment persuaded Clyman and Chiles to change course for the newly discovered route over Carson Pass.

Famed scout Christopher “Kit” Carson was not involved in this effort, although he did herd 6,500 sheep over the pass into California in 1853. The Carson nomenclature resulted from Kit’s essential contributions as guide and interpreter to Lt. John Frémont’s 1843-44 exploratory expedition that circumnavigated the endorheic Great Basin and crossed Carson Pass westbound in deep snow that winter. During that epic endeavor, Frémont and cartographer Charles Preuss became the first Euro-Americans to see Lake Tahoe.

Business opportunities abound
John Calhoun Johnson arrived in August 1849 from Deersville, Ohio. Like most adventurous 49ers, Johnson yearned for wealth, but he wasn’t going to dig for gold to get it. He retraced his journey back up the Carson wagon road and established a 320-acre land claim in the Sierra foothills about halfway between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe in what would become El Dorado County. Johnson built a home and sawmill and started a ranch to raise food to sell to hungry pioneers and miners and grazing for depleted livestock.

Johnson quickly recognized the strong demand for shelter and sustenance from travelers and miners, so he partnered with John and Sophronia Phillips to develop his private residence into a hotel called the Six Mile House, located about 6 miles above Placerville. In addition to the boarding lodge, Johnson opened a general store and campground on his property, where it was estimated that sometimes as many as 1,000 people paid to camp on his ranch on any given day.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition and at