The Kingsbury Grade Story (Part 2)

Even before the Kingsbury & McDonald toll road was completed, the quasi-passable track began to attract attention. A telegraph line for the Humboldt & Salt Lake Telegraph Co. was strung along this route in late 1858, connecting Genoa with Placerville. And beginning in April or May, 1860, Pony Express riders began following the Kingsbury Grade trail, before completion of telegraph lines a few months later made their work obsolete.

When Kingsbury & McDonald’s new wagon road was officially completed in August, 1860, it was seven miles long but reportedly chopped the distance from Genoa to Placerville by some 15 miles, saving travelers a precious day’s travel.

Writer Richard Allen marveled at the workmanship of the new road, describing it as a “most excellent road” winding over “seemingly impassable heights.” A reporter for the Sacramento Daily Union similarly effused in June, 1860: “The road-building by McDonald & Kingsbury through Daggett’s Pass is pronounced by those we have seen who have passed over it, the best on the Pacific coast.”

The roadway of the new Kingsbury route averaged a luxurious sixteen feet in width — a vast improvement over portions of the Placerville road in El Dorado County, where sharp turns planked to a width of just eight feet made it difficult for six-mule teams to “keep the wheels on the timber.”

Kingsbury and McDonald received a Territorial franchise for their toll road in 1861. The initial toll for a wagon drawn by four horses making a round-trip from Shingle Springs to Van Sickle Station at the foot of old Kingsbury was $17.50. That hefty sum represented more than four days’ wages for a humble miner. Even so, writer Richard Allen dubbed the new toll rate “reasonable.”

The Kingsbury route soon drew away many of the westward-bound travelers who had previously crossed through Hope Valley and over Luther Pass. In addition, with Virginia City at its height, pack train operators bringing supplies eastward for the Comstock mines found the route profitable in the early 1860s. Some of those early packers settled in and became Nevada notables. Bob Fulstone, for example, a well-known dairy rancher near Carson City, recalled “packing mules” over Daggett Pass as a teenager. And A. Schwarz, cheerful proprietor of the popular Genoa Brewery, once ran a pack train from Sacramento to Virginia City in his younger days, also probably following the Kingsbury route over Daggett Pass.

Henry Van Sickle was the first toll-keeper on the Kingsbury & McDonald toll road.

At the very foot of the new Kingbsbury trail, Henry Van Sickle already had an existing station that he’d erected in 1857. This offered several amenities for emigrants and teamsters: a bar, a hotel, a blacksmith/wheelwright shop, and a store.  Van Sickle quickly embraced the new Kingsbury route as good for business. He not only helped finance the new road but also served as its first toll-master. Although we don’t know much about the original toll house, we do know it had a brick chimney, as that fell down during an earthquake in June, 1887.

About halfway up the grade, travelers could also find another way-station, called “Peters Station.” Here Richard Peters and his wife, Elizabeth, kept a three-story hotel where teamsters could enjoy a good, hot dinner and get a restful night’s sleep for themselves and their horses before attempting the rest of the climb.

The new Kingsbury toll road didn’t keep its competitive advantage for long, however. In November, 1863, the Lake Bigler Road was completed and began siphoning off traffic. This new road ran from Friday’s Station (then “Small & Burke’s”) on the south shore of the lake through Spooner’s Station and down Kings Canyon to Carson City. It not only crossed the Sierra some 200 feet lower than the Kingsbury-McDonald route but, more importantly, reportedly offered a slightly shorter trek to the Placerville road.

Some adventurous souls tried riding the flume.

That didn’t mean that all travelers abandoned the new Kingsbury route, of course. And in 1866, J.W. Haines found yet another helpful use for it, building a mile-long box-flume to channel water down Kingsbury Canyon, later upgrading its original overlapping joints to an “abutting joint” model in 1868.

All told, the new Kingsbury & McDonald toll road cost its founders an astonishing $585,000 to build. And in 1863, after the Kings Canyon route opened as competition, Kingsbury generated only $190,000 in tolls. Even so, the new Kingsbury toll road continued to operate. By 1881, the History of Nevada would grandly claim that the Kingsbury toll road had “annually returned double its cost.”

Perhaps this was pure puffery. Financial woes eventually forced Van Sickle, who had helped to finance the road, to foreclose on his mortgage and he wound up becoming its owner. For a time, it continued to operate as the Van Sickle Toll Road. But in 1889, Van Sickle sold the roadway to Douglas County for just $1,000. It now became a free road; the local newspaper happily advised readers that “no toll will be collected in the future.”

Genoa Weekly Courier, October 11, 1889.

The lack of tolls made a big difference for commerce over the Grade. In February, 1890, for example, ranchers in Carson Valley were able to supply Folsom’s logging camp at Lake Tahoe with beef, which they “hauled over the Kingsbury grade on hand-sleds.” And in 1894, a Sacramento hauler estimated the cost of delivery at a mere one cent per pound, compared with $1.25 per pound when the previous toll over Kingsbury was $22.

Given the road’s unpaved surface, maintenance needs were constant. In summer, horsedrawn carts would sprinkle water along the roadway to settle the dust. In winter, sleds were used to pack the snow down as a roadway.

Horrific accidents on the steep grade were also common. In June, 1890, a man named Green lost his brake while descending Kingsbury grade with a 6-horse team. Although the incident made the news, the Genoa Weekly Courier just calmly reported: “the wagon ran off the grade, causing quite a smash-up.” The following year, teamster Louis Lenwick was bringing a load of shingles down Kingsbury grade from Hobart with a 4-horse team when he hit an icy spot at the “first bridge above the Farmers’ Mill.” Luckily Louis got off with just a broken rib and a dunking in the creek.

Albert Bohlman grading Kingsbury’s dirt roadway in the 1930s, using an official Douglas County grader. (Photo courtesy of Dale Bohlman)

Then in May, 1892, someone made the bad decision to continue tugging an engine up Kingsbury Grade with a 12-horse team during a heavy snowstorm. The engine was destined for use at a logging camp near Meyers, but wound up being dumped off onto its side when the wagon’s wheels “dropped into a hole that was covered with snow.” The team and driver came out alright, but the engine later had to be rescued.

*Hope you enjoyed the story so far…  To read Part 1, click here. We plan to add Part 3 to the story later!

Header photo (used courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society – thank you!) is Old Kingsbury Grade, circa 1895. Note what appears to be a flume at right center of that photo. 

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Here are a few great personal memories of old Kingsbury Grade “back in the day,” from our readers

“My mom said they made movies on that road. I remember the hairpin turn punctuated by the lone pine tree.”

“I can remember traveling up the grade, scared to death that my father would get close to the edge on a sharp turn with a corduroy surface, and we’d all go over the edge! And I remember how relieved we were to make it to the ‘piped’ spring [where we could] refill the boiled-out radiator.”

“Many of the young men (my brother and my husband among them) who belonged to Carson Valley’s 20-30 Club would go up to the Lake after their meeting, and they’d talk about coming home in the early morning via Kingsbury with the sun in their eyes.”

“The lookout point was constructed by the local Kiwanis Club, I think. It became more of a ‘necking stop’ than an actual scenic look-out.”

“When I was in high school, the road was still dirt and people from California driving Kingsbury Grade would hug the side that is against the mountain and you would have to go around them on the wrong side because they were scared to go near the edge.”

“I remember in winter they would close the road with just a couple of saw horses and a board. If the snow was not too deep we would just move the saw horses aside and just use it anyway.”

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Mental Yoga

Starting to write can feel like this. Awkward. Uncomfortable. Totally unfamiliar. And like everyone else is better at this than you.

Just close your eyes and dive in. Remember any words you write can be fixed up, corrected, and changed later. But a blank page can’t be edited.

So pull out a pen. Top off your coffee. Take a deep breath. And begin.

Maybe you already know where you want to start. Maybe you have no idea — you just know you want to write. Start somewhere. Write about how not-knowing feels, if that’s where you are.

Think of facing that blank page as a form of mental yoga. It’s a discipline. It’s a spiritual practice.

And you get better at it as you go along.

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The Story of Kingsbury Grade (Part 1)

Few people ever stop to read the Historic Marker for Kingsbury Grade. Perhaps that’s because the marker isn’t actually on today’s Kingsbury road at all, but rather on Foothill, tucked between Mottsville and Muller Lanes. But this small sign marks a fascinating and important early site: the original jumping-off spot for emigrants bent on taking the Daggett Pass route to the goldfields of California.

It wasn’t everyone’s first choice as a route, though.

The Nevada historic marker at the foot of the original Kingsbury Grade.

Long before white men arrived, this trail began as a simple Washoe footpath up to the lake. At the height of the Gold Rush, Georgetown (Calif.) boosters began working to press the track into service to draw emigrants to their community. These enterprising townsfolk sent “salesmen” over to the Eastern slope to divert would-be miners to Georgetown, instead of the usual Placerville route. Hired hawkers vigorously promoted what soon became known as the “Georgetown Cutoff,” assuring emigrants (falsely) that it would slash their trek to the goldfields by 50 miles or more.

But the Georgetown Trail or Cut-off (as it then was known) remained a barely-improved footpath. In July, 1850, emigrant Edmund Hinde took one look at the steep, rough climb and decided to stick with his original plan to follow the more-established Carson Canyon route. “On looking at the [Georgetown] road, we concluded to keep to the old one,” he sighed.

The flat at the base of the trail did make a fine place for a party, however. Many eager gold-seekers who opted for the difficult Georgetown route simply abandoned their wagons, guns, and other personal possessions at the foot of the trail and forged ahead as “packers.” Those piles of discarded belongings became a temptation to mischief. In his 1850 diary, Abner Blackburn recounts how the boys of Mormon Station would go on a “spree,” setting fire to piles of abandoned wagons, cutting up discarded harnesses, bending guns around trees, and “run[ning] amuck generally.”

Kingsbury Grade historic marker.

In 1852, J.H. Scott and his brothers settled at the foot of the trail, building a small log cabin there. The location was a good one: it had a spring, and was only a few miles south of Mormon Station. The following year, the Scotts sold out to Dr. Charles Daggett. Born in Vermont in 1806, Dr. Charles Daggett had come west in 1851. According to local lore, Daggett brought two African-American slaves with him to Carson Valley, a woman and her little boy, thus becoming one of the very few early slave-holders in the valley.

Daggett and his companions settled into the log cabin at the base of the mountain. His land claim, filed May 12, 1853 for 640 acres, was among the earliest in the “First Records.” In 1854, Daggett solidified his claim by having a survey made of his property. A graduate of Berkshire Medical College in Massachusetts, Daggett was the first doctor in the region and, by some accounts, the first in all of future Nevada. He also held public posts in 1855 as Carson County Assessor/Tax Collector as well as its prosecuting attorney. Not surprisingly,  the trail up the mountain near his home, the creek that flowed down the mountain, and the pass above all soon took his name.

The very fortunate traveler, Orson Hyde.

And a lucky thing Dr. Daggett’s presence was for Judge Orson Hyde, who arrived at Daggett’s cabin with frostbitten feet and legs in December, 1855, after crossing the mountains in the snow. Aware of the dangers of rapid-thawing, Daggett chopped a hole in the ice on a nearby stream and told Hyde to soak his legs. He then rubbed Hyde’s frozen legs with turpentine and bandaged them in soft cotton.

For several more years, Daggett Trail remained practical only for travelers on foot or with pack-horses or mules. Surveyor George Goddard, visiting in 1855, noted that although the trail from top to bottom was just under four miles, the drop-off was steep and “a false step would precipitate one into the rocky canyon 500 feet below.”

Then about 1856, a Genoa merchant named William Nixon took an interest in improving the Daggett route. A Mormon from St. Louis, Nixon had arrived in Genoa that year from Salt Lake with a load of goods with which he opened a store at Mormon Station. Before returning to Salt Lake in ’57, Nixon had the trail over Daggett Pass improved so that wagons carrying goods had an easier time of it.

But “easier” was a relative term. In 1859, Capt. J.H. Simpson gave his own skeptical opinion that a great deal of work would be necessary to make the route truly passable by wagons.

The town of Genoa, as it appeared to Capt. J.H. Simpson and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1859. (National Archives).

For the most part, the Daggett route remained essentially a pack-mule or horse trail. But the Comstock Lode would soon change all that.

Two ambitious businessmen (D.D. Kingsbury and John M. McDonald) saw huge profit potential in improving the road (and, of course, charging a hefty toll) to serve wagons laden with goods for the mines of Virginia City. They constructed the “Kingsbury & McDonald Toll Road” over Daggett Pass, beginning in the winter of 1859 and finishing in August, 1860.

It was an important step not only for Kingsbury and McDonald, but for Carson Valley itself. Writing in November, 1859, Richard Allen predicted the road project would “facilitate communication, reduce freight, and add materially to the advancement of Carson Valley.” And right he was.

Stay tuned for “Part 2” of the Kingsbury Grade story!

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Many thanks to the Douglas County Historical Society for permission to use the wonderful image at the top of this post. It’s of Kingsbury Grade circa 1885-1895 taken with an early model Kodak camera, which produced these circular images.

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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