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The Tioga Road; a History 1883-1961 (1961, 1980) by Keith A. Trexler


Before the Road

Trails have existed across the Sierra since the first large mammals came hundreds of thousands of years ago. Grazing animals — sheep, deer and even bear — move up the Sierran slopes to find tender young shoots as snowlines recede. Others travel over the passes seeking salt. John Muir noted that especially in rugged and inaccessible terrain the trails of “white men, Indians, bear, wild sheep, etc., be found converging in the best places.” (1)

Next to appear were the pedestrian Indians, whose midden piles near El Portal show evidences of transsierran trade from at least as early as 2,000 BC (2). Indians did not travel for pleasure; their purpose was trade. Acorns, berries, beads, paint ingredients, arrows and baskets were traded by the west slope Miwoks for the Eastern Mono’s pine nuts, pandora moth larvae, fly pupae, baskets, rabbit and buffalo robes, salt and obsidian. Finds of these materials, not native west of the Sierra, help us trace the early Indian paths. Numerous highways of today, and the Tioga Road, follow these aboriginal trade routes. (3)

The Mono Trail, an Indian footpath from Crane Flat, through Tamarack Flat via Tenaya Lake to Tuolumne Meadows, was used by the first party of non-Indians to pass through what is now Yosemite National Park. Joseph Reddeford Walker and his party trekking over the Sierra, probably used the Indian pathway, evident even though many parts were covered with snow. The group endured great hardships and took over a month to make the crossing from Bridgeport Valley to the San Joaquin. They were undoubtedly the first white men to see the Giant Sequoias. (4, 5) No records of man’s use of the trails exist for the next 19 years. In 1852 1st Lt. Tredwell Moore and his troopers of the 2nd Infantry, pursued a group of Indians wanted for the death of two prospectors in Yosemite Valley, to Tenaya Lake and from there over the Mono Trail to Bloody Canyon. During the trip Moore noticed rich-looking outcrops and brought back some samples of gold to Mariposa. Among those who saw Moore’s samples was Leroy Vining, of whom we shall hear more later. (5)

Moore’s expedition reports interested James M. Hutchings in bringing the first tourists into the Yosemite Valley, and, according to Brockman, “public interest in mining opportunities east of the Sierra was kindled, resulting in the development and use of a trail in 1857, from Big Oak Flat through the Tenaya Lake-Tuolumne Meadows region. This route approximated the old Mono Trail and was forrunner of the present Tioga Road.” (6)

In 1852 Leroy (or Lee) Vining led a group of prospectors over the Sierra via Bloody Canyon and generally explored the region. Although Vining settled in what is now Lee Vining Canyon he apparently did no mining. Instead he homesteaded about two miles up-canyon from the present power plant and built a sawmill, thus being the first to settle in the Mono area. For a time he supplied lumber to the eastside mining camps, but his career ended in an Aurora saloon where he accidentally shot and killed himself. (8)

Although no rush followed Lt. Moore’s discoveries, there was in 1857 an exodus from the Tuolumne mines to the Dogtown and Monoville settlements near Mono Lake. (5) Much of the old Mono Trail was used by the gold-seekers and the route was well blazed and cleared by Tom McGee “following very closely on the old foot trail’. Bunnell makes the point that Indian trails were unfit for pack animals. He felt they “had been purposely run over ground impassible to horses, . . .” (9)

The early 1860’s saw the coming of Josiah D. Whitney of the California Geological Survey. His description of the headwaters of the Tuolumne was published in 1865, with Tioga Pass (which he called MacLane’s) being noted as 600' lower than the present route (Mono Pass) and perhaps a better transcontinental route. (10)

In the summer of 1858 a party from Mono Lake, including a woman and baby, visited Yosemite Valley. This group, perhaps the first to use the Tioga route purely for pleasure, journeyed over the Sierra via Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake, taking the Coulterville Trail to Yosemite Valley. (11) Other evidence indicates that the Mono Trail was being used for tourist travel, especially by hikers from Yosemite Valley heading for Tuolumne Meadows. (12)

John Muir’s first visit to this spectacular country was in 1869 with a band of sheep. In traveling to the meadows, John and his charges followed the general course of the present Tioga Road. (13) In the same year J. H. Soper and E. G. Field with only blankets and a “supply of crackers and sardines” hiked over Mono Pass, met a sheepherder (Muir?) in the Meadows, and followed the trail out to Coulterville. (14)

By 1870 railroads had come to within a few miles of the west end of the Mono Trail. In 1871 Copperopolis was a terminus of the lines from San Francisco. Travel to Yosemite Valley was increasing. More than likely, visitors took side trips over the trail to Tuolumne but no records exist of their trials and tribulations. The Big Oak Flat Road reached Crocker’s in 1871 and Yosemite Valley in 1874, but still there was no road to Yosemite’s high country. (7) An economic boost was needed.



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