Overland Trail by Rail

If Tahoe is near and dear to your heart, than you may be one of the many people who know Hwy 80 very well.  Perhaps very well, indeed!

I live in Tahoe and I use Hwy 80 to get out of town when the need arises, as it often does (although Tahoe is beautiful and the locals are gentle souls, small town life is limiting and one occasionally needs more worldly sights and experiences!)

So many Tahoe lovers live in the California Bay Area and must use Hwy 80 to get back and forth from their residences to their weekend and holiday passions.  Depending on the day and time, 80 can be grueling... either dense with traffic or nearly impenetrable with weather.

And thus we all get to know it well.

Look familiar?
As for this year, the winter sites have been extreme, even for 80!


The highway 80 Sierra corridor has a fascinating history, from early pioneers who followed this path in covered wagons, to gold mining in the foothills which sparked the California boom, the building of the railroads (nearly impossible to engineer through difficult mountain passes) and the Chinese that provided the railroad labor. And let's not forget the "ill-fated" Donner Party, perhaps the history we are most well known for.

Then there is the establishment of Tahoe as a National Forest as well as the creation of the Pacific Crest trail that crosses 80 at the top of Donner Pass.  Of course, the development of residential neighborhoods and tourism around Truckee, Lake Tahoe and the Gold Country are all parts of the area's history, too. The development of our local ski resorts (including Squaw's Olympic past) is full of good tales.

Let's also not forget that many native tribes lived happily in our beautiful forests and meadows during the summer months. Truly, the stories wind on and on, and they are fascinating.  It took a daring mentality and a physical endurance to be a part of Tahoe's history, just as it does today (and those of us who have been dealing with this winter can attest to that!)

One great way to learn about all of this is to take Amtrack's California Zephyr train from Truckee west.  Some of the cabins have prerecorded history scrips that play as the train winds its way down through the Sierra's and the story they tell is spell-binding.  I recommend it to anyone who loves Tahoe and California history.

So why all this talk about Highway 80 and the train? Well, last weekend a girlfriend and I did a little antiquing out and about and we came across a wonderful train souvenir booklet.  Although the book has no date, we think that it is probably from the 20's, based on the clothing and the plow horses being used in the orchards.  It's called "The Overland Trail, A Scenic Guide Book Through the Heart of the Sierras On the Line of the Southern Pacific".  

We couldn't resist buying this charming memento of train travel in the early 20th century.
Among the many photos are some that still look familiar, even today.  I thought I'd share some of my favorites.  Do you recognize any of these sights?

To me, Colfax seems more forested than this today, but over the weekend I saw areas from Loomis to Granite Bay that still look pretty much just like this. In fact, we visited a beautiful nursery set right into an old orange grove.

Dutch Flats.  Does anyone know if there is still any mining there today? 

I love this panoramic photo of the American River Canyon.  Above, I've shown the entire photo and below are the two scanned sections blown up.

Although Highway 80 has been modernized over the years, the view is still pretty much the same!

Although the view of Donner Lake is from a slightly different angle than the view seen from the top of 80, you do see this view from the train.
Of course, you can't really discover this part of the world without running across the story of the Donner Party!

The current train still uses similar protective sheds against the heavy snows. In fact, today's sheds don't look like they are in the best of shape--perhaps they are the very same sheds, just barely kept in ill-repair over the years.
One of my favorite things about driving on 80 between Truckee and Reno is the beautiful view of the Truckee River.  Whether the river is high or low, it is always a wonderful sight.  And if you're lucky, there will be a train passing through.
My favorite photo from the book...
Although Lake Tahoe cannot be seen from Highway 80 or from the train either for that matter, the authors of the booklet must have felt that a photo of the lake was an essential inclusion, and who can blame them!  Here the lake is seen from Watson Peak and it's a view I have enjoyed myself while hiking.  I love the hats and skirts the women are wearing here.  Aside from the clothing, though, the view is pretty much the same today, although on any beautiful summer day in Tahoe, you would see many pleasure boats on the lake.  
The fact that so many of these 100 year old photos are showing vistas that essentially remain the same today is a testimony to our great national park and forest service program.  I for one am grateful that this beautiful scenery remains protected and will be there for future generations to love and cherish just as we do today.

By the way, the Tahoe Donner Land Trust is busy buying up much of the old ranches and forested estates in the area.  They are acquiring land at an impressive rate and are doing important work.  I have hiked a number of their recent acquisitions and they are quietly preserving land that has historical significance; where you can touch grinding stones left from native tribes, walk on wagon train tracks that still exist in the meadows and appreciate beautiful sights that are now protected for the future. And it is all freely accessible to anyone.  Here is a link to their site if you are interested:  http://tdlandtrust.org/  


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