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The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann

Chapter XII

Beyond Crane Flat, and from 1856 to 1874, the rival communities of Tuolumne County and Mariposa County used a common terminus to their thoroughfares to Yosemite Valley. It followed more or less along the old Mono Trail and led through Gin and Tamarack Flats, Gentry’s (in later years) and down the cliff to the floor of Yosemite Valley. A peculiarity which did not interfere with practical usage was that one contingent called the entire length the “Big Oak Flat Trail,” while the other group spoke of it as the “Coulterville Free Trail.” About the middle sixties the normal course of progress spelled the end of this amicable agreement. There were now hotels in Yosemite depending on tourist trade. They needed stage roads in order to promote custom. J. M. Hutchings, the main hotel owner, decided to make an appeal. He put the proposition first to his friends in Mariposa without result; he then proposed the matter to the citizens of Coulterville who also were uninterested. As a last resort Mr. Hutchings approached the settlers between Chinese Camp and the Garrotes and was met with cooperation.1

A group of local men of influence in Tuolumne County caused a declaration of intention to be placed in the newspapers of both counties as a preliminary to a business meeting to be held September 19, 1868. On that date they met according to plan and organized a road company. Surprisingly George W. Coulter of Mariposa County was elected president. Charles B. Cutting and Martin Bacon, merchants of Chinese Camp, Tuolumne County, were secretary and treasurer respectively. In the Declaration of Intention it was outlined clearly that the route was to extend from the east end of Washington Street, Chinese Camp, “running south easterly to Jacksonville Hill, thence to the Tuolumne River south of Woods Creek to a point known as the canyon, thence by Bridge to south side of said river thence up said river to Moccasin Creek, thence up Moccasin Creek to Newhall and Culbertson’s Ranch, thence up Big Oak Flat Hill through Big Oak Flat, First Garrote and Second Garrote to Big Gap. Thence up the ridge to Pilot Peak Ridge, thence through Hazel Green to Crain (sic) Flat, thence on South side of the ridge to Tamarac (sic) Flat, thence to head of the YoSemite Trail.”2

A franchise was granted the company by the State of California on February 20, 1869, to run for fifty years.

Not quite a month later, on March 19, 1869, the group met again “for the purpose of organizing permanently” and reŽlected the same officers, with the notable difference that Coulter was replaced as president by Abraham Halsey of Chinese Camp, Tuolumne County, and that Mariposa County was not represented among them.3 They then moved ahead with their project, beginning work on that portion of the road immediately above Sprague’s Ranch.

On September 3, 1869, George Sprague, L. E. Stuart and J. B. Smith, all living above the settlements, wrote to the Commissioners of Yosemite Valley requesting exclusive permission for this company to build a road into the Yosemite Park grant entering the valley from the north side.4 Permission was granted provided that they would undertake to complete the project by July 1, 1871. They went at it doggedly and by June of 1870 the road had reached Crane Flat.

On January 20, 1871, the company incorporated under the title of Yosemite Turnpike Road Company,5 thus changing their status to that of a stock company.

The people of Coulterville had by this time begun to realize that they, themselves, would be compelled to have a road reaching into the valley or lose the patronage of staging tourists. They held a meeting. A document was filed,6 almost the duplicate of that of the Tuolumne County group, Dr. John T. McLean being listed as president. They began extending the road up toward Crane Flat in 1870. Apparently they intended to connect with the Big Oak Flat Road at Crane Flat and use its facilities on into the valley. Later the Yosemite Commissioners stated that they had so understood.7

It is true that J. M. Hutchings, on page 287 of his In the Heart of the Sierras, states that “. . . ‘the Coulterville and Yosemite Turnpike Company’ was formed in 1859, and the road extended, by this company, to Crane Flat, some eighteen miles distant, at a cost of about $ 15,000.” But facts to fit in with this have not come to hand. The earliest road company, which constructed a rude passageway for wagons as far as Bull Creek, was in existence prior to 1856 when the Coulterville Trail was blazed. It is possible that this early organization was incorporated in 1859 but it certainly did not spend $15,000 extending a road to Crane Flat for, as late as 1870, a usable road did not exist beyond Bower Cave, many miles short of that objective. Later in the same volume, on page 335, Hutchings writes, “. . . it becomes my pleasant duty to chronicle the historical fact, that the Big Oak Flat and Yosemite Turnpike Road Company was the first ever organized for the purpose of extending wagon road facilities beyond the settlements in the direction of the Yo Semite Valley.” The last-named company was organized on September 19, 1868, and incorporated January 20, 1871. The Coulterville and Yosemite Turnpike Company was incorporated in June, 1871.8

Whatever their reason or objective the Coulterville crew went to work, hammer and tongs, determined not to be left out of the picture.

Meanwhile the Tuolumne group was having trouble. In July, 1871, the time limit specified in the franchise arrived and the Big Oak Flat Road had only reached Gentry’s at the edge of the Park grant and at the top of the stupendous cliff. Money and time ran out. The Park Commissioners extended the time six months but this only gave them five, or more likely four months during which, at this elevation, they could work. They were faced with building three miles of zigzag switch-backs down cliffs so precipitous that they must be walled up with masonry—and without the necessary money. On January 1, 1872, they unavoidably forfeited their franchise and apparently did not immediately ask to have it renewed.

The Commissioners then stated that, as the Tuolumne group had not carried the Big Oak Flat Road into the park boundaries, which was the portion specified in the permit issued to them, they felt themselves justified in giving said franchise for an exclusive entrance on the north side of the Merced River, to the rival Coulterville Road group. When this franchise was granted, July 16, 1872, their thoroughfare had already been completed almost to Crane Flat. A proviso stated that the work must commence at once and that a right of way suitable for a stage and four horses must be completed to the floor of the valley within the year 1873.9

This put a different face on the situation. It would be the Mariposa County group who were to operate the profitable toll gate. Coulterville would be the over-night stop for tourists. The Tuolumne communities were left with a stage road that ended at the end of a cliff and nothing but a saddle train to take the tourists down. It was probable that very few travelers would come their way.

While surveying their road thus far the Coulterville men had rediscovered and named the Merced Grove of Big Trees.10 In the wave of excitement that followed acquisition of the new franchise they abandoned six miles of roadway between Hazel Green and Crane Flat and made an expensive detour to include the new-found attraction which they felt would equal or excel Tuolumne Grove. At this time they gave up any plan to join the Big Oak Flat Road, leaving that frustrated organization with no possibility of a staging entrance for tourists into the valley.

The Big Oak Flat Road group were badly upset. Through their secretary, C. W. H. Solinsky, they asked, on August 29, 1872, for a franchise to be allowed to build a road—not an exclusive right of way—but just another road into the valley. The following month they were officially refused because the Commissioners had given the exclusive privilege to their rivals from Mariposa County.11

In the spring of ’73 weather conditions in the mountains were so unfavorable that the Coulterville contingent, in its turn, was unable to begin work until July. Lack of money further handicapped their efforts, making it impossible to meet their deadline. An appeal was made and granted for an extension of time to December 31, 1874.12

Along in the fall the Tuolumne group shot another bolt. On November 17, 1873, at a meeting of the Commissioners which the Governor attended, they again requested a franchise permitting them to build a road connecting their district with the valley and were refused. The Commissioners explained reasonably that the road from Mariposa County would cost a large sum and that its supporters were counting on having the exclusive rights in order to pay for it. As a last resort C. B. Cutting of Chinese Camp presented the Executive Committee of the Commissioners a petition asking for the right to construct a wagon road “from Gentry’s Station to the Yosemite Valley, which shall be forever free of tolls.” The reply sent read in part: “Owing to the peculiar conformation of the Valley, the Commissioners have thought that one road on the north and another on the south side of the Merced would be amply sufficient for the requirements of the public during several years to come. . . .” Among the eight Commissioners were three whose names are familiar to us: J. D. Whitney, the famous geologist; Galen Clark, Guardian of the Valley, and G. W. Coulter, of Coulterville, who at this meeting was suitably excused from voting.13 In spite of this correct gesture the Tuolumne people, having no one from their county on the Board, were sure that the Commissioners were biassed in favor of the rival road; assured them that they had spent just as much money as had the Coulterville contingent; and accused them of partiality which, in the light cast by future events may have been true. Seven weeks after the last application for permission to extend a toll-free road to the floor of the valley the secretary of the Board of Commissioners wrote a letter to John T. McLean,14 reading in part: “. . . Mr. Sprague and his associates accomplished nothing, and the Commissioners, hearing nothing from the Yosemite Turnpike Road Company, from the time Sprague and others appealed to us in 1869, until the application of the Coulterville and Yosemite Turnpike Company came, in the Summer of 1872; and being thus ignorant of any intention on the part of the first-named Company to continue their road from Gentry’s into the Valley, but supposing they were content to have passengers over their road use the Coulterville trail to enter the Valley, as they had been doing since the completion of their road to Gentry’s in 1871, the Commissioners, in accordance with their policy to improve the means of access to the Valley were ready to make and did make the agreement under which the Coulterville and Yosemite Turnpike Company is now constructing its road to and upon the level of the Valley.”

Sprague and his faction still contended strongly that the Commissioners knew perfectly well that they wanted to build that road and reminded them that the extension of time was given them in July of 1871 proving that their intentions were a matter of public record. But they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on—or did they?

Sprague, Newhall and the other Tuolumne directors were desperate. They had backed the venture strongly, urging their neighbors to put money and time into the project. The impending fiasco was crushing. They began to reason that, as Governor Booth had been elected as a “non-monopoly” man, there might be a chance to appeal to the Legislature for an equal opportunity. But that body did not meet until spring. Meanwhile they had to prove that their projected route from Gentry’s down into the valley was feasible.

They appealed to Galen Clark, Guardian of Yosemite Valley, for permission to build a new and improved saddle trail down the cliff. Clark, intensely independent and an individualist, gave the requested permit.15 They commenced work in earnest on the lower stretches and wherever the snow allowed access. Coulterville had twelve miles to build. They had only three—but such miles! On a two thousand foot precipitous mountain side covered with scrub and loose rock and unprotected from sun or storm. The horse trail was supposed to be only four feet wide but they were allowed passing places and, as the Sonora paper remarked sagely, no one could help it if a pick slipped now and then and made the footway a little more ample.16 There surely had never been such a saddle trail constructed in the state—graded and smoothed and with strangely wide and flowing curves.

It must have been a fairly mild winter and snow did not cling to the steep mountain side down which the trail zigzagged. It was a big improvement on the previous terminus to the combined Big Oak Flat and Coulterville Trails which had been in its beginnings greatly modified from the original Mono Trail to the valley. Each had used the track of its predecessor where practical and digressed where necessary. The builders needed to take every slight advantage for the grade was so uncompromising that the chainman of the survey crew had to be suspended over the edge of the cliff on ropes. The workmen made the passageway through the loose and rolling rocks as nearly like a road as they dared.

As soon as practical the legislators from Tuolumne County were invited to inspect the horse trail and to pass on the feasibility of widening it to a stage road. Every nerve was strained to make this a successful occasion and the men went back to Sacramento pleased and approving.17

At the opening of the Legislature in 1874 a measure was introduced to grant to the Tuolumne group the permission requested and in effect, to overrule the Commission decision. The measure was hotly contested before the committee, the Coulterville group contending that the act was unconstitutional whereas the proponents insisted that the Commissioners had illegally created a monopoly.

On February 17, 1874, the Legislature issued the ultimatum that the Yosemite Commissioners had made an error in granting an exclusive privilege to any road company and that both thoroughfares might enter the valley on equal terms.18

Andrew Rocca of Big Oak Flat came forward with a $16,000 loan; men were hired and the work, under the enthusiastic leadership of Daniel Newhall, began to show form. George Sprague called into consultation five Italians among the road crew who were adept at rock work. It was amicably agreed among them (with apparently no attempt on either side to get the better of the bargain) that the road company should put up $5000; the Italians should supply a sufficient number of trained men and should finish the cliff-side stretch as expeditiously as possible for a total of $16,000 to be paid later out of tolls collected. In five months of working time and under the supervision of Surveyor Beauvais and Mr. J. Conway the “Zigzag” was completed by these skilled artisans.19

Using the beautiful technique learned in their mother country the Italians cribbed up the steep side of the twisting roadbed with solid rock walls, for a stone unseated on one portion of the road might roll down on the switch-back immediately below it or an unusually heavy storm might start a landslide that would wipe out enough of the thoroughfare to make it impassable. No mortar was used. The rocks were simply cut and fitted—a Herculean undertaking.

It was a jubilant crew that wielded ringing picks and shovels on the Zigzag. It was a disappointed but dogged Coulterville group that swung axes against timber between Hazel Green and the valley floor. Determined (and pardonably so) to finish first, the men from Mariposa County rushed their twelve miles of twisting roadway through the forests; the last portion, almost within sight of the valley, at “the Cascades,” being considered a worse grade than Priest’s Hill and without any saving curves or turns—a straight, steep stretch that frightened women travelers and caused various accidents.20

Spring came in 1874 and the switch-backs were not quite finished. The Coulterville roadmakers were victorious by a month and, in June, the first wheeled vehicles came into the valley by way of that route. It was a disappointment to the Tuolumne people but they had given up hoping to be first. All they desired was the equal chance for tourist travel into the valley. Whenever their long-anticipated road should be completed they intended to have a festivity and a parade unequalled by anything yet celebrated in the mountains. That it should be built at all was a triumph. John W. Bookwalter who traveled the route when its wagon terminus was Tamarack Flat had written: “I doubt if the engineering skill of this or any other age will be equal to the task of constructing a road from the last-mentioned point into the valley.” His opinion was shared by J. D. Whitney, State Geologist, but its promoters and backers were ethically obligated to face the problem of finishing it. They were now certain of success.

Choral societies and the Sonora band practiced for weeks. Ladies had new dresses made and rushed the final fittings. Men polished their boots until they were like black glass and emptied the stores of shirts, silken ties, pomade, cologne and gloves. As a final gesture many went to the barber, each selected his own shaving mug from the row prominently displayed on the shelf and indulged in a two-bit shave—a comparatively recent luxury as during early mining days only the man with plenty of dust could afford to have his whiskers removed. Both men and women owned voluminous dusters to cover their new haberdashery.

Blacksmiths all through the county were busy setting brakes and putting various conveyances in perfect order. Horses were curried and many a plump work animal had her tail braided to produce the wave that was just that added touch of elegance.

Much thought was given to precedence and Andrew Rocca who had loaned the money to bring the project to completion was given a seat in the first stage driven by Rice Markley and carrying the Sonora band.

July 17th dawned, a fine blue-eyed morning with promise of aoonday heat. A caravan assembled, beginning at Gentry’s and trailing a mile back along the road.

Mr. C. H. Burden of Sonora who had traveled two days by stage to attend the celebration gave an eye-witness account of the excitement: “We reach Gentry’s and halt for dinner and to decorate our horses. In my mind I see the six-horse team decorated with flags, rosettes and ribbons, and Rice Markley proudly viewing the artistic work. Dan Newhall and George Sprague gave the command, ‘Forward march!’ and those 52 teams commenced to descend the grade. The writer will never forget the sight.”21 One by one the wagons lowered themselves over the shoulder and down onto the breast of the great uncaring mountain.

Across from them and beyond the small blue ribbon of the Merced River were the cliffs of the south wall a mile or so west of Bridal Veil Fall—raw and seamed and fissured. Before them thousands of wild pigeons wheeled in vacant miles of sun-washed emptiness.

Within a few yards of Gentry’s this first breath-taking view from the cliff was entitled “Prospect Point”22 but when the general public began to travel this way and to express their surprise the early stage drivers soon dubbed it “Oh My! Point.” From it the descending parade could see the final miles of the Coulterville Road and, far to the Southwest, the hazy top of Mount Bullion on the edge of the old Fremont Grant.

Most of the occupants of the parading wagons had never been confronted with this startling view. Practically none of them had any idea of the stark steepness of the cliff.

The heat increased. The Zigzag was obscured by a cloud of dust. But nothing could daunt the wildly happy crowd who sang, sweat, flirted and admired the horsemanship of the selected men who spaced the procession to give instant help if a team should become frightened or if a brake should fail.

The fine, energetic girls and women of the mountain country, capable of an enormous amount of either work or enjoyment, were all there, basking in the holiday gallantry of the opposite sex, preening in pride of the new clothes that were rapidly becoming too warm beneath their dusters. It was an age when the much touted womanhood of America kept itself covered with yards of unnecessary cloth from neck to heels. Even the few who dared the descent on horseback rode side saddles and wore immensely long full skirts made heavy to prevent a possible breeze lifting them above the ankle.

A fashion note in the Sonora Union Democrat described the ladies so carefully tucked into the polished but already dust-covered buggies: “Between her ruff and the white frill inside her hat, the fashionable belle peeps out like a chicken coming out of the shell.”23

At the foot of El Capitan and in the welcome shade of the timber on the valley floor the triumphant procession was met by James Mason Hutchings in the capacity of host. Hutchings was one of the first to settle in Yosemite; to build a home and raise a family.

Among the residents of the Big Oak Flat Road the valley was most frequently referred to as “Hutchings’ Place.” Mr. Hutchings was exuberant that his dream of a practical stage road to the Yosemite Valley hotels had been twice fulfilled within the month.

The caravan proceeded, led by him. Mr. Burden continued: “As we reached the floor of the great wonderland we were met by a procession of campers and residents of the valley. Such cheering, shouting and singing! It was deafening, but the music of it all was even as pleasing as that rendered by our band. The great throng, with continuous cheering, moved on, and 512 persons passed over the Ira Folsom bridge that evening. Our first stop was at Black’s Hotel, where the band was most royally entertained.” They then started a round of the hotels which were all on the south side. Feasting, dancing and entertainment by the amazingly costumed Indians completed a notable day.

The Sonora papers proclaimed that the festivities were an immense success; (quoting the same authority) “the road as a success is still ‘immenser’.” All the Tuolumne people were positive that between their new entrance and Mr. McLean’s there could be no parallel. We beg to quote again: “McLane’s road as compared with it, is the sinuous winding of a broken-back eel, to the gentle curves of a majestic boa.”24

In spite of the fact that the trail was quoted as being “. . . as steep as it is possible for your animal to keep his feet, where a single false step would hurl both horse and rider on the jagged rocks a thousand feet below. . . .”25 there were no untoward events during the procession. In fact, there were but few accidents on the Zigzag, for its very nature counciled caution and one could see a long distance over the empty slope. Before a control was established any encounter between vehicles, however, meant time wasted and usually plenty of hard work. Charles Schmidt, who freighted to the valley, said: “In the ’70s there was no control system and many a carriage I helped to lift off the Zigzag so that we could pass. Bells on the leaders helped a lot. They could be heard a long way and gave a chance to stop where there was room to pass.” In the case of light buggies they sometimes tied ropes to them and dangled them over the edge but Mrs. Case and her party recorded that (even though the control was supposed to be functioning) they suddenly came face to face with a de luxe camping wagon belonging to the Charles Crocker family of San Francisco and were obliged to dissect their own small vehicle and pass it by hand over the top of the big van.

The only notable casualty was in 1902 when J. M. Hutchings was the victim of a run-away team and was thrown from his buggy almost at the foot of the grade. He and Mrs. Hutchings had visited the Crocker family where they posed for a photograph before leaving. He never reached his valley home. Before Mrs. Hutchings could return with help her husband was dead.

On July 19, 1915, Tuolumne County bought the Big Oak Flat and Yosemite Toll Road for $10,000 and shortly after deeded it to the State of California which proceeded to improve it as far as the boundary of the National Park. Here, of course, the state’s jurisdiction ended.

After the Zigzag became a control road the checking station was at Gentry’s. There was a similar station on the valley floor. Down traffic was allowed to proceed at stated hours. Up traffic was checked out of the valley in the intervals. For forty years, from 1874 to 1914, only horse-drawn vehicles traveled this stretch and two miles an hour was a fair average speed. Nor, especially on the up grade, was there much one could do about hurrying it. It was, we have been told, about 1905 or ‘o6 that a professor of the University of California was part way down the descent when he and his party were held up by a masked bandit. They were told to get out of the vehicle and hand over their valuables which they wisely did, being all the while enlivened by the unhelpful sight of a troop of cavalry riding slowly up the steep, short turns below ‘,them. When the road agent had obtained what he wanted he scrambled up the mountain side to where, doubtless, he had a horse waiting. The victims were free to do anything they wished which amounted to nothing. It wasn’t safe and would have been ineffectual to follow him on foot. A horse could not get up the boulder-studded mountainside. They could not turn the vehicle around to return to Gentry’s. And it would take half an hour at the best for the cavalry to arrive. They simply continued their journey.

In 1913 automobiles were permitted to enter the park via the Coulterville Road; a year later by way of Big Oak Flat. This was in a great measure due to the efforts of Senator John B. Curtin. Apprehensive motorists zoomed down or chugged up the Zigzag at a maximum allowed speed of six miles per hour; experience in the previous year having proved that ten miles was too fast. This could not be called mercurial but was faster than the two miles per hour of private horse-drawn vehicles. The stages, of course, made better time. One of the three spans of stage-horses was usually taken off going down grade as there were no uphill stretches and the turns were short.

The new highway from Crane Flat to the valley superceded the Zigzag in 1940. Very few then used the old route but it was kept open, for down traffic only, until 1943 when a major rock slide obliterated a portion and rendered it impassable. It was not considered worth while to clear it.

The difficulty between the Big Oak Flat and Coulterville Road Companies was never overcome. Each one felt, with some justice, that the other had taken advantage of a period of low ebb but that only the future could decide which one would reap the most benefit. Meanwhile the rivalry was keen and sometimes bitter. After completion the two turnpikes were always competitors.

As time passed it became evident that the Coulterville Road, although courageously managed by its owner, Mr. McLean, was not getting enough travel to prosper. It became deserted and lonely but is still a notable landmark, and, with its attendant town of Coulterville, is well worth the time and attention of any visitor in the Southern Mines who is thoroughly accustomed to rough mountain roads.

The Big Oak Flat Road had better luck. For forty years horse-drawn vehicles and, later, automobiles by the hundred ventured over the edge of the cliff at Gentry’s and crept down the one-way road that followed in the main a pathway worn by the padding feet of long-dead Indians—the unbelievable Zigzag that, until 1940, was the shortest route between Stockton and Yosemite.

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