Walker River Trail Emigrants, 1853
In 1853 Sonora merchants in Tuolumne County decided to follow the example of their neighbors in Columbia. The Sonora businessmen gathered money for trail improvements and authorized a party to cross the mountains to entice emigrants onto the Walker River Trail. Headed by Sonora Mayor George Washington Patrick, the party set up camp along the Carson River and was able to convince more than two thousand emigrants to use the Walker River Trail to Tuolumne County.
Most of the emigrants were family groups with children, coming from Missouri and Arkansas. They usually brought small herds of cattle with them. Other emigrants were strictly cattlemen or sheep men, driving large herds over the trail to Tuolumne County. With ample water and feed, the southern route through the Sierra Nevada was a favorite with herders.
The Walker River Trail began near the location of Fort Churchill on the Carson River in Nevada and angled south to intercept the Walker River. Emigrants then traced the West branch of the Walker River to Antelope Valley where they first confronted the mountains. The trail climbed up to Lost Cannon Canyon and then dropped into Pickel Meadow.
Nothing had been done to improve the trail since the Clark-Skidmore Party had come through the previous year. Emigrants found the route crisscrossed with fallen logs, hidden by snow drifts, and littered with boulders. Many wagons were damaged or abandoned on the rugged climb up the eastern slope toward what was then called Sonora Pass (six miles south of today's Sonora Pass). At Fremont Lake they found that the Clark-Skidmore Party had dug a trench at the lower end of the lake to drain it several feet so that their wagons could skirt the shallows along one edge.
An early snowfall caught some emigrants by surprise, but with support from traders and relief parties sent out from Sonora, most were able to make it through to Sonora without serious mishap. There were a few deaths recorded along the trail, but also a number of births. Stories of babies born in the lee of what most called Burst Rock (shown right) gave rise to the alternate name of Birth Rock. The granite peak is not far from today's Dodge Ridge and Pinecrest Lake.
Late in the season a railroad survey party set out to explore the route. Among the members of the party were John Ebbetts and George Goddard. Ebbetts' account of the Walker River Trail published in a San Francisco newspaper described the route as the worst he had ever seen and served to discourage others from using the trail the following season.
Many of the emigrants tried their hand at gold mining in Tuolumne County for a short time before realizing that the real money to be made in California would come from other enterprises. A large number of the Sonora Pass emigrants settled in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. A few headed south to Merced and some to Calaveras County. Others scattered across the state. The families of many of these early emigrants still reside in these areas, some working the same land their ancestors first settled during the Gold Rush years.
Frank Tortorich's new book about Snowshoe Thompson, who carried mail across the snowy Sierra during the Gold Rush years, is a fascinating read.