Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road

From: "Warren Awtrey" young.house@verizon.net

I’m trying to understand differing opinions I’ve read regarding the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road.

Everyone agrees that the DFDLWR was essential to the building of CPRR, and that the DFDLWR was the one route between Sacramento and the Washoe district unencumbered by a state-franchised toll road.

And most of the literature I’ve read agrees that the DFDLWR was highly profitable, as Jack Duncan writes in To Donner Pass from the Pacific: “As the railhead moved higher in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Sacramento, transfer facilities and warehouses were built at several railheads, such as Newcastle, Clipper Gap and Cisco, reducing the distance that wagons had to haul between the railhead and Washoe. Shorter road travel to the silver mines encouraged use of the DFDLWR in preference to other roads. The combined rail/wagon travel between Sacramento and Washoe soon allowed the DFDLWR to offer more comfortable service than the Pacific Turnpike, Henness Pass and the Placerville roads. As a result the DFDLWR captured most of the tolls.”

But as Wendell Huffman writes, “Despite their expectations, the Huntington-Stanford-Hopkins-Crocker brothers-controlled Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road attracted very little business and the connecting/parallel Central Pacific carried very little of the San Francisco-Virginia City commerce. The business they did secure was bound for Idaho.”

Can these two statements be reconciled?

The second statement above is especially intriguing. It was 1860 when Huntington, Stanford, et al, subscribed to Judah’s Central Pacific Railroad scheme. The riches promised by the Pacific Railroad Acts were still in the future. It would seem that the immediate motivation for these Sacramento merchants, all wanting to sell more goods in the burgeoning Nevada trade, was to have Judah survey a new, profitable wagon road for them. Were they completely wrong in judging the money to be made from the DFDLWR?

And then J. David Rogers writes in his paper "Theodore Judah and the Blazing of the First Transcontinental Railroad over the Sierra Nevadas," about the Placerville Road: “Among those speculators involved in the freight wagon route from Folsom to Carson City via Placerville were Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington, sponsors of the newly formed “Wagon Road Company.” Stanford, Huntington and eight other directors met in Placerville in June 1857 to discuss improvements to the road to Slippery Ford.  After the meeting convened these same individuals traveled the Johnson cut-off route over to Carson City.”

It seems odd that Huntington and Stanford, both already invested in (and Directors of?) the most popular wagon toll road to Nevada, would also put money in a competing wagon road going over Donner Pass.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

—Warren Awtrey