Stories on the road: Mile markers
The 1849 gold rush brought many wagon trains across the Sierra Nevada. Most of the overland trail wagons moved south of Tahoe originally known as the Mormon Emigrant Trail (route of today’s Highway 88) up Woodfords’ Canyon, through Hope Valley and over Kit Carson Pass. The Carson Pass elevation is high and winter created severe traveling problems due to the heavy wind and snow storms.
Built from 1850 to 1851, Johnson’s cut off shortened the Mormon Emigrant Trail route by several miles. At “Pickets Junction” (named after way station owner Edward M. Pickett where Highway 89 and Highway 88 meet in Hope Valley) the emigrants had to choose to either continue on the longer and higher elevation Carson Pass route to Placerville, Calif., or turn toward Tahoe and go over Luther’s Pass to Johnson’s Pass, (current Highway 50 over Echo Summit). The shorter Johnson’s Pass was less exposed to the harsh Sierra Nevada weather patterns by being protected by the south fork of the American River canyon. With the addition of Hawley’s Grade (the south route from the top of Echo Summit), Johnson’s cut off quickly became the preferred and most-used route. Road improvements included leveling the ground, widening the path and adding mile markers.
It is reported that Folsom State prisoners constructed most of the mile markers. The start for the mile markers is the Court House in Placerville and Mile 1 is the eastern border of Placerville. The 30, 40, 50 and 60 mile markers have the name Placerville engraved on the fronts. Mile Markers 10 and 20 have not been found.
There are two other numbered signs and call boxes between Placerville and Tahoe recording distances. The El Dorado County little mile signs match numbers with the blue El Dorado call boxes to mark the number of miles from the El Dorado County line. The larger green signs with white lettering exit numbers are miles from downtown Sacramento.
Knowing the number of miles to a particular location is very helpful in knowing how much time it will be to arrive at your destination (prior to using a GPS). If you know the distance you need to travel and divide it by the rate in miles per hour you will have the amount of time it will take to reach your destination. Some algebraic reasoning is required for those so inclined. The equation is: Rate in miles per hour multiplied by the time is equal to the distance or the time is equal to the distance divided by the rate. For example, if you are traveling 60 miles per hour you are traveling one mile per minute. If you know Riverton Bridge is at mile marker 23 (which means you are 23 miles from Placerville) and if you average 60 miles per hour from that point to Placerville you are about 23 minutes from Placerville.
Now you know the history of the mile makers go find as many as you can or play with the distance from Placerville and estimate the time you will arrive.
The third (and final) article in the mile marker series will be locating some way stations between Placerville and Tahoe. Go enjoy the mile markers and, if convenient and safe, please take photos of the ones not listed and add to http://www.tahoedailytribune.com /milemarkerphotos.
– David Borges, D.C., is a local chiropractic doctor and a Tahoe historian.