Wednesday Aug 18 2010
Decent road over summit needed
By: Mike Maynard, Special to the Colfax Record
So you think you're a local
By Mike Maynard Special to the Colfax Record The section of Interstate 80 that crosses the Sierra Nevada was dedicated Nov. 1, 1964 in a snowstorm similar to the one that frustrated the Donner Party. The road was opened prematurely because of citizens’ demand for access to Reno and their favorite snowfields. Between 1844 and 1854, it has been estimated that 10,000 wagons used the same general route now followed by the freeway. The first group known to use the pass was a party under the leadership of Elisha Stevens. They set out from Council Bluffs, Iowa in May 1844. In spite of great hardships, the entire party, plus a baby born during the trip, reached Sacramento Valley alive. The Donner Party, whose tragic misadventures have stamped their name on everything from cocktail lounges and garden clubs to a lake, a peak and a pass, did not attempt their ill-fated journey until 1846. After the discovery of gold in California, the clamor for a decent road between the east and the gold fields increased. At that time, the route was merely a trail and a dangerous, makeshift one at that. Wagons had to be lowered by chains into Bear Valley. As early as 1857, a road committee was struggling to create a passable emigrant road. In fact, the subject of improvement of the route filled many an editorial column. In 1861 the Lake Pass Turnpike Company was contemplating construction of a road from Dutch Flat to Virginia City. By 1863 the building of a road by the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Valley Wagon Road Company became a reality. Construction of this early highway, like the freeway, was beset with labor problems. By July 16, 1863 the company had raised wages of laborers to $40 per month. The editor of the Dutch Flat Enquirer predicted that good help would then be available. But on July 30, men were still desperately needed. The Dutch Flat Enquirer stated “fair wages, wholesome board and good treatment” would be offered to workers. “Loungers now have no excuse for indulging in lazy habits. Go to work and earn an honest living, pay your bills and prepare yourselves to look honest men in the face.” In early May of 1864, the president of the California Stage Company was in the area scouting sites for stations on the new route. He expected the trip from Sacramento to Clipper Gap first on Central Pacific, then via stagecoach to Donner Lake would take 20 hours. The road was opened in mid-June of 1864. The June 25, 1864 issue of the Placer Herald reported, “A number of light teams have come westward over Donner Lake road and loaded teams have commenced return trips by the same route. Teamsters expressed themselves highly pleased with the light grades and good width of the road as enabling them to draw heavier loads and to pass abreast at almost any point.” The new route enjoyed a brisk popularity as the Central Pacific Railroad advanced. However, when the transcontinental line was completed, the road fell into disuse. Around 1912 as the auto industry was getting a good start, Carl G. Fisher of Indianapolis became interested in a transcontinental highway. He donated $1,000 of his own money, while other auto manufacturers donated $4,000. In1913 the Lincoln Highway Association was formed. As the route was selected, funds were gathered along the way. Building began in October 1914 and by 1925 the road was marked out as U.S. Highway 30. By 1927, however, the association had been dissolved. The road was usable throughout its entire length, although it was not paved the entire length. By the mid-30s the highway was considered good enough for the amount of traffic it carried. The highway came through the center of Colfax with a speed limit of 15 miles per hour. After World War II when trucking as well as auto traffic picked up sharply, the two-lane road became a death trap in places. As a solution, a four-lane freeway was proposed and Interstate 80 was built. Interstate 80 stretches from Jersey City, N. J. to San Francisco. It is known as the Main Street of U.S.A. The highway is still marked U.S. 30 on most of the route. At Salt Lake, 30 goes to Astoria, while 40 goes on to San Francisco. In looking at the freeway today and all the construction problems they continue to have, it’s hard to believe that the whole thing started with a trail and wagons being lowered by chains over the rocks. It all started with the pioneers who risked everything in hopes of a better life. Maybe that is why Colfax has lasted as long as it has.