Already by 1846, the friendly relations that had developed between early white explorers and the Native Americans in the great Basin began to fray. Even the relatively small numbers of emigrants and their livestock put a strain on the very fragile ecosystems that the Paiute and Washoe depended on for survival. But as the number of whiter emigrants turned from a trickle to a flood, the Native tribes found their way of life decimated: emigrants wiped out the game, polluted water sources, stripped the vegetation for cattle feed and firewood, and brought disease like cholera. By 1852, when California Trail use peaked, Native Americans often raided wagon trains, not out of innate hostility but rather out a desperate attempt to feed themselves in a and stripped of resources by a vast crowd of humanity. The following numbers of trail users tells a lot:
1847 450 (Mexican-American War and news of the Donner Party’s fate)
1849 25,000 (the Gold Rush!)
All told, about 250,000 settlers crossed the California Trail from 1841 until 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad mad it obsolete. native Americans were stunned to see annual traffic go from zero in 1840 to 25,000 nine years later!
It was not an easy road. Here is how one traveler described Nevada in 1857, after the road had become clear, well-marked, and mapped:
We were now in the heart of the arid wastes of the Great Basin; a region seven to eight hundred miles in width by twice that distance in length and its waters having no visible outlet to the ocean. In general feature this strange country is a high, irregular plateau/ liberally studded with bleak and barren mountain peaks and fragmentary ranges, which, in a few instances, approach the dignity and magnitude of systems. Not indeed from the time we entered the Black Hills till we looked upon the blue expanse of the Pacific, did the eye any- where or for an instant rest upon a spot not hemmed in by mountain barriers. From the Bear River to the Sierra Nevadas, the prospect, as I now look back upon it, was dreary, monotonous, and irksome in the extreme.
It struck me as if the Creator, disgusted with His efforts here at world-making, had abandoned His job half finished. Through this region, for about three hundred miles, as we then reckoned the distance, our route lay along the Humboldt River, whose banks from source to mouth were unrelieved by a single tree or even a shrub larger than a stunted willow or sage-brush; and which, finally, as if wearied of its own being, buried itself in the thirsty desert.
The Forty Mile Desert Today Between Fernley and the Humboldt Sink
It still looks pretty bleak, and we can cross it by car in a few minutes: it took days in 1857
James Beckwourth and Later Development of the Trail
The California Trail grew and became easier to follow and more sophisticated as time went by. People tried several alternate routes over the Sierra Nevada. One route followed Sonora Pass, but soon fell out of favor as it was steep up and down the other side. (Drive Highway 108 over Sonora Pass sometime if you want an idea!) Another route bypassed Donner Pass to the South and went over Roller Pass: so named because the slope was so steep that the pioneers had to use logs cut into rollers to haul their wagons up one at a time using chains hooked to all their oxen. That too soon fell into disuse.
The Trail Marker at Roller Pass, on the Pacific Crest Trail South of I-80
But, in 1850, an ex-slave named James Beckwourth (Beckworth) discovered a much easier route across the Sierra Nevada just north of the main trail. The Beckwourth Trail left the Truckee River in today’s Sparks, ran past the Sparks City Hall (trail marker B-2), went through the pass that US-395 now uses to go past TMCC and into Lemon Valley, then followed a route slightly north and east of 395 through Cold Springs and up to Hallelujah Junction, where it turned east, crossed the easy and low Beckworth Pass (2000 feet lower than Donner Pass), then followed the Feather River Canyon down to Marysville. It was a brilliant route, since it avoided steep slopes, and kept at a much lower altitude, meaning there was less snow and cold to deal with. Today this is still a viable route between California and Nevada when snow closes the higher passes further south. The Beckwourth Museum in Portola, CA is also worth a visit: https://www.ci.portola.ca.us/jim-beckwourth-museum.html
Henness Pass Road
In 1852, a wagon road from Nevada City to Lake Crossing, Nevada (later Reno) opened. The Henness Pass Road followed the original Donner Party route from Verdi up to the pass above Dog Valley, then turned west and bypassed Donner Pass entirely to the north and descended into Nevada City. This road began to carry stagecoach traffic, and eventually became a major supply route to the Comstock silver mines around Virginia City. You can still drive the route today, and there are California Trail Markers and other historical sites all along its run from Verdi, Nevada to Nevada City, California.
After 1852, travel on the California ironically decreased, even as it was becoming much easier. The Henness Pass Road in its heyday saw so much traffic from 1852 to 1868 that it developed serious traffic jams. So, the owners set up rules requiring wagons hauling freight to travel only in the daytime, and stagcoaches carrying passengers to travel only at night.
Arrival of the Railroad
By 1869, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad made the California Trail obsolete, as people could just save up for a train ticket and ride to California in comfort and safety. But for a quarter million people, the California Trail was the path to their new dreams, while for the Paiute and Washoe people, it was the instrument of the destruction of their way of life.
The Henness Pass Road saw its traffic drop off sharply after 1869 as well, though the road continued to see use right into the 20th century for freight and lumber, and in 1913 it became part of the cross-country Lincoln Highway (it was still a dirt road). After 1921, the Victory Highway and US 40 took the Truckee River Canyon route and bypassed the Henness Pass Road. Today, it is mostly used for off-road vehicles, campers, hunters, and other outdoors enthusiasts. In the winter when I-80 is closed by snowstorms, some people actually try to follow their GPS onto Henness Pass Road to bypass the I-80 closures. Don’t do this! The road is steep, unpaved, and unplowed, and you will get stuck, possibly with fatal consequences. Use this road only during good weather and safe conditions, and keep in mind the total length is 107 miles.