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Sonora Pass - Mono Road, Clarks Fork Road History | High Sierra Backpacker

Sonora Pass - Mono Road, Clarks Fork Road History

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 06 March 2018

Below we have a chronology of the history of Western travel over the areas South, North, and that now crossed by Highway 108 through Sonora Pass.

Sonora-Mono Toll Road.

This history evolved in three parts as its route evolved.

The first part covers the original route up the West Walker River through Emigrant Pass across Emigrant Basin. The second covers the subsequent route over both Sonora and Saint Marys Passes into the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River. The third stage brings us the final and current route up Deadman Creek and over Sonora Pass.

These stages of route evolution parallel the social mood. The earliest reflects basic American Expansionism. The second stage of road development was supercharged by the gold and silver discoveries. The final stage was a hand in hand evolution of infrastructure with road development. Thus we have PG&E adding to the historical narrative.

The history of the Sonora Pass Road is a physical mirror of our social expansion and development.

This chronology is assembled from four accounts. The first is the chronology of exploration  from History of Toiyabe National Forest, "HTNF."  Our next resource is an article placed in the Lodi- Sentinel of May 10, 1975 by PG and E, "LNS." Our third resource is a more comprehensive account by the Tuolumne County Historical Society, "THS." I've recently found a fourth source, a geneological site named Sonora Pass Emigrants, that provided many historical details of interest. I've woven the best of all three together, trying to remove repitition and highlight contradictions.

Additional Sources

Cultural History of Sierra Nevada Mountains

Historical Use, Quote about California Indians from, "California, an Intrepretive History," Rawls and Bean, 1998. Referred to as CIH.

Two Years before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, 1860s? 

The area is covered by this map: 
Sonora Pass Trailheads and Trails

Click the black dots of the trail routes for highly detailed maps. Click the red dots for trail guide information.

The bold text indicates the source.


Historical Use
"...the aborginal population of California descended from ancient peoples who crossed into North America from Asia over the land bridge connecting the two continents during the glaciations of the late Pleistocene Epoch."

2017 Research Discovery

Tuolumne History Society 
Historical Use
"Native Americans both east and west of the Sierra Nevada crest had long crossed at and near Sonora Pass. It was an important route for trading goods such as obsidian, salt, soapstone and shell beads. Obsidian flakes, originally from the Mono Craters area east of the pass, can be found along Highway 108 west of the Sonora Pass."

 "7000 BC Earliest documented prehistoric archeological sites in the Central Sierra.

5000 BC to 1200 AD Archaic Prehistoric Cultures, Marits and Kings Beach.

1200 AD (?) Central Sierra occupied by the ancestors of the present day Washoe.

1830s First Euro-American exploration of the area."

 "What later became Nevada was a part of Spanish possessions until this year when Mexico revolted and became an independent republic."

 "Jedediah Smith: First white man to cross Sierra Nevada West to East, May 8, 1827. Route shown over Sonora Pass in Maule’s Atlas has not been accepted by some leading historians but claimed by some. Traversing West Walker District data very meager and possibly cannot be established."

 "According to EARLY NEVADA by F. N. Fletcher, Kit Carson was in California this year with Ewing Young’s party of trappers going north from the Colorado River into the Sacramento Valley. (See 1844 Fremont’s Log with mention of Carson’s recognition of the Coast Range."

 "Walker (Bonneville) party crossed Sierra Nevada via West Walker
(Ref. Harold’s Club map Route of Pioneers).

Game was reported scarce on Carson District. (See Appendix P, Volume I)

Excerpt from “Elk Below” by Orange Olsen, 1945, Stevens and Willis, Inc:
(Upon reaching the Sierra, Leonard, their historian, recorded the shooting of a deer beside the trail.
“That deer was dressed, cooked, and eaten in less time than it takes a wolf to devour a lamb. It was the first game larger than a rabbit we had killed since the 4th of August when we killed the last buffalo near the Great Salt Lake”.
Olsen added comment “This was probably the last bison hunt in the State, as the buffalo were extinct when the pioneers came in 1847.”

 Walker discovered pinion pine (single leaf). See 1845 and Appendix i, Vol. V"

 "Walker’s party battled the Indians in the vicinity of Carson Sink. See 1833 as same event occurred.
 In March Walker’s party, desperate for fresh water, came upon Walker River, north of Walker Lake, between Wabuska and the bend below."

Richand Henry Dana, Jr., cruising California coast on hide brig Pilgrim, see Two Years Before the Mast.

 "Commander Wilkes commanded a naval expedition to California and Oregon Coast."

"Bidwell Bartleson crossed Sierras via West Walker with first white woman and child to travel on route."

May 1841

 "John Bartleson, Captain
John Bidwell, Secretary.

Departed Missori May 1841.
Santa Fe Trail to Oregon Trail

South Pass over the Rockies

 Families to Oregon, 30 single men to California across Desert."

Sonora Pass Emigrants
"They began their journey in Missouri in the company of several Jesuit priests and their party bound for Oregon."

"Guiding the Jesuits was the experienced mountain man Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick. Near Fort Hall the two parties separated, with the Jesuits and Fitzpatrick continuing on to Oregon and the Bidwell-Bartleson Party striking out on their own. They had no maps or guides and were following only vague directions about steering west to California."

"Of the thirty-four emigrants the only woman was Nancy Kelsey. She traveled with her husband and their infant daughter."

 "8 wagons abandoned in desert.
Arrived at West Walker River with only mules, horses and oxen."

Oct 18 crossed Sierra Crest, “probably about eight miles South of the present Sonora Pass”

The Kennedy Canyon trail junction 7.97 miles South of Sonora Pass is the low point along the Sierra Crestlne laying between Leavitte Peak and Big Sam. This point is North of Emigrant Basin and South of Sonora Pass, and presents about the easiest way up to the Crest from the West West Walker River.
It also has a superior descent angle down to Summit Creek above Kennedy Meadows, while cutting out the very difficult segment of trail from below Sheep Camp, well honestly, all the way down to Kennedy Meadows. Nonetheless, the route past the present-day Kennedy Lake is much more logical than the way across Emigrant Basin.   

 "“Great hardship” down Middle Stanislaus.

Arrived destination, home of John Marsh at the base of Mt. Diablo.

Attempted by wagon in 1852 by
 76 member Clark-Skidmore party"


 "Fremont party crossed via Bridgeport, West Walker and Alpine Districts, 1/28/44. Abandoned howitzer at Deep Creek and reached Carson Pass, 2/13/44, via Carson Hot Springs, Charity Valley, where Kit Carson carved his name, February 1844. Some historians contend this pass was south near Elephant Back and question the Carson tree carved.
Freel Peak has been reported by some as the point from which Fremont discovered Lake Tahoe (Bigler). Others contend that Fremont was farther south on Red Lake Mt. (peak) when he first saw Tahoe. The latter seems more logical to the writer. Fremont named the lake, Bonpland.
Fremont party discovered pine nuts as a food given by Indians, January 24, 1844. Pine Grove hills of West Walker and Bridgeport Districts reported to be the source and so named. (see next page)
Stevens-Murphy-Towsand party crossed Carson District via Truckee River, naming the stream after Chief Truckee head of a band of Piutes.
 On May 3, Fremont’s party going east camped at Las Vegas arriving there from the Southwest. (1844). See Mane Atlas for annexed view and map."

Sonora Pass Emigrants
"In 1852 concerns about economic slumps and social conflict prompted the businessmen of Columbia to dispatch a delegation of men across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to convince emigrants to come to the Southern Mines by a new trail." 

"The small party sent into the mountains located what they hoped would be a feasible route and then encamped on the Carson River, talking to emigrants and telling them of the wonderful new trail that had just opened up to Tuolumne County. Leading the Columbia delegation was Joseph Morehead, a man of questionable credentials."

"The emigrants realized they would not make it to Sonora without help, so Morehead and several others set out on horseback to obtain supplies. While they were gone, the other emigrants struggled to bring the wagons as far into the mountains as they could, following a route several miles south of today's Sonora Pass highway. What the emigrants didn't know was that Morehead and his party had become lost. When the relief supplies didn't appear, some of the emigrants began to strike out on foot for the mines. Finally the last group was forced to abandon the wagons and follow the example of their colleagues."

"Nothing had been done to improve the trail since the Clark-Skidmore Party had come through the previous year." 

"Emigrants found the route crisscrossed with fallen logs, hidden by snow drifts, and littered with boulders. Many wagons were damaged or abandoned on the rugged climb up the eastern slope toward what was then called Sonora Pass (six miles south of today's Sonora Pass."

At Fremont Lake they found that the Clark-Skidmore Party had dug a trench at the lower end of the lake to drain it several feet so that their wagons could skirt the shallows along one edge."

"One of the most unusual persons to cross Sonora Pass in 1854 was the man known as Grizzly Adams. Adams, who was living in Tuolumne County at the time, decided to head to the Rocky Mountains on a hunting trip. He and a friend, along with a number of Mi-Wok Indians, ascended the west side of the pass in the spring when considerable snow was still on the ground. They had to chop channels for the wagon wheels and cover the ruts with pine boughs to keep the wagon from sinking into the snow."

"Adams brought a couple of tamed grizzly bears tagging along with him. It was his practice to kill adult grizzlies, take their cubs, and raise them as pets. The bears followed behind the wagon, led by tethers. In Adams' rather fanciful account he describes wild animals attacking their campsite and have to fight them off with rifles and knives."

"Among the emigrants to cross Sonora Pass that year was James Hamilton Brigss, a nephew of Kit Carson. During a hunting outing on the pass Briggs accidentally shot himself in the arm. It was two weeks before he reached Sonora and was able to obtain medical aid. By then doctors were forced to amputate his arm."

“...followed by two tame grizzly bears named Ben Franklin and Lady Washington, J.C. “Grizzly” Adams took the emigrant trail eastward over Sonora Pass in April, 1854, and reported:
 “On all sides lay old axle trees and wheels… melancholy evidence of the last season’s disasters. There were some complete wagons laying there abandoned. I wondered… what difficulties had induced the owners – on the very threshold of the promised land – to leave them to rot and ruin.”

“…not the present route of Highway 108 but a trail about eight miles south through Emigrant Basin.”
“The worst route that could possibly be found,” John Ebbetts said of it in 1853.”

“The Sonora route, also known as the Walker River Emigrant Road, was used by many pack trains during the gold rush…in 1857 and later.”

"Clark Fork route laid out over 76 days by two dudes in 1862."

" New route laid out over present route in 1863, completed in 1864 as toll road."

Editor's Note
The account of the Tuolumne Historical Society disputes this, claiming that the route to the South of the present route had been replaced by the Clarks Fork Route to its North by 1855.

Sonora Pass Emigrants
Post 1854
"After the initial excitement of the Gold Rush had subsided, overland migration fell off considerably. There are no accounts of emigrants using the Walker River Trail after 1854, but most likely a few took advantage of the direct route into the Southern Mines."

"At the same time several new trails opened up leading into California, among them the Big Trees Trail and an improved route over today's Echo Summit (Highway 50 by Lake Tahoe)."

Tuolumne History Society 
Clarks Fork Route: 1855 to 1864
 " In 1855, the Walker River Trail segments had been abandoned as a wagon route. A new route eliminated the old emigrant trail."

"The new trail led along the present route of Highway 108 from Strawberry to the junction of Clarks Fork and the Stanislaus River, then up Clarks Fork, crossing at Mary’s Pass and rejoining the route of modern Highway 108 just west of Sonora Pass. From there the road followed much the same route as today’s highway down to Bridgeport. Subsequently, the Clark Fork segment was also eliminated."

"In 1861, the U. S. Congress authorized construction of a road to run from the foot of what is now Twain Harte Grade over Sonora Pass. Credit for the discovery of today’s Sonora Pass route has gone to Andrew Flecher, the superintendent of Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Company, who discovered this route in 1862."

"Fine hotel and toll gate at Sugar Pine.

Marker there today says thee weeks for a six-horse team to make the round trip between Sonora and Bridgeport.

 Marker notes part of Sonora Road built as early as 1852 by the Tuolumne County Water Company."

Tuolumne History Society 
"An Ohioan named Alfred Fuller, who came to the area during the 1850s, took a Me-Wuk wife and lived on what was then the Calder Ranch. He was hired to operate the toll gate (near what is now Twain Harte) of the Sonora-Mono Road and continued until the 1890s when the government took over maintenance of the road."

 "Road from Sonora via Sonora Pass to Bridgeport was started." See 1868.

 "Sonora (Sonora Pass) road opened."
 "Road from Sonora via Sonora Pass to Bridgeport was completed."

"Bodie era, 1877: Sonora-Mono road “alive with stagecoaches and freight wagons.""

 "Road faded with decline of Bodie."

 "State road in 1901."

State engineer in 1901:
“simply a rutted gully, great stretches of boulders…bridges rotted out.”

Tuolumne History Society 
"In 1906, the contract for the Relief Dam on the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River resulted in improving the road between Sonora and Kennedy Meadows so heavy equipment could be moved on this route.
Today, Sonora-Mono Road has been replaced by State Highway 108; however, traces of the old road are still visible from the highway. The modern Sonora Pass Highway winds through some of the most historic and scenic spots in California."



Tuolumne History Society 

Lodi News-Sentinel, May 10, 1975 

Sonora Pass Emigrants

History of the Toiyabe National Forest (pdf)

"California, an Intrepretive History," Rawls and Bean, 1998. Referred to as CIH.

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