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


Travel Prior to 1915

But was it ever used for the purpose for which it was built? Probably not. No records survive to prove the point, but it is known that no ore was ever shipped out of the mines and special equipment purchased for use in the Sheepherder tunnel never got beyond San Francisco where it was sold at auction after the mines had closed.

Priest’s report of August 4, 1884, “all clear from snow and being repaired” leads us to believe at least some of the Great Sierra Silver Company’s business was conducted over the route. (43) The last mention of the road in company records is dated 19 October 1884, more than three months after cessation of operations at the mines. “The road is in very good condition and will probably remain so during the winter and spring. Cross ditches have been put in all the way from Bennettville to Crockers, and I think $1,000 expended next year after the snow is gone will put it in as good a shape as ever.” (44)

Although technically a toll route, no collection gates ever were set up and the road was used frequently by tourists, army troopers and stockmen. Little mention is made of the physical condition of the road until 1894 when the Homer Mining Index informed its readers, “A man who recently came over the Great Sierra wagon road reports it to be in execrable condition. It should be kept in tolerable condition if the company wishes to hold it; but, as a matter of real fact, it should belong to the Government and be kept in prime order, as an eastern outlet to Yosemite Park.” (45)

However poor its surface, the Great Sierra Wagon Road was being used. One party remarked, “The road is very rough in places, but is not impassable.” They recommended a light wagon be used in attempting the route. (46) Another group reported “fallen trees and washed-out roads had bothered us many times . . . but in no case had done more damage to us than to shorten our day’s journey by five or ten miles.” Their method of travel included unhitching the horses and transporting the wagon across “difficult” stretches with block and tackle attached to convenient trees. (47)

Official reports decried the condition of the road, intimating it was something less than a footpath, and a difficult one at that. (32, 52, 56) Replies from the attorneys of the owners, though admitting the road had not been kept in excellent condition, maintained that it was passable for its entire length by wagons and horse travelers. (33) This war of worth continued for more than a quarter century.

The army superintendents were especially vocal. Captain A. E. Wood started the ball rolling in his first report (1891) saying that although trees were down across the road and that it was badly washed in places it made “a good mounted trail, and as such is of much importance.” (48) Later reports reiterate and expand upon Captain Wood’s observations, and, in addition, urge the Interior Department to purchase the rights to the route. (49, 50, 51) It was noted that “The foundation shows excellent work, intended to be permanent.” (50)

In 1896 a bill authorizing purchase of toll roads within the park was considered by the House but did not get to the floor for a vote. (58) The next year the cost of repairing the “extremely out of repair” road was estimated at $10,000. (51) Two years later a bill was introduced in Congress to authorize surveys for a new road from Yosemite Valley to Mono Lake which apparently duplicated the Tioga Road which was then considered impassible. (60) The Acting Superintendent in 1898 was of the opinion that the road was government property by default. This is not a toll road and never has been; it has been abandoned by the builders for more than twenty years; if they ever had any rights they lost them by abandonment. The eastern half of the road is in such bad condition as to be hardly a good trail. I consider the Tioga Road the most important highway in the Park.” (56)

By 1899 enough interest had been generated that the army was directd to clear the road for a Congressional commission inspection. Their report contains an excellent description of the road at the turn of the century. “The grades vary from 0 to 10 percent and the width from 10 to 20 feet. The road, however, was skillfully laid out and it may safely be said that most of it has a grade of only about 3 percent . . .” It was “exceedingly well built, the bridges having fine stone abutments, and there is a particularly well-built section of sea wall along the shore of Lake Tenaiya.” Most of the original surfacing was gone and the road was obstructed in numerous places by fallen trees. “It appears that no work in the way of maintenance has been done by the owner of the road for a number of years, though some slight work has been done by campers traveling over it.” The commissioners estimated the cost of constructing a similar road to be $58,000, though the original outlay was found to be $61,095.22 Their final assessment was that the road was in fair condition, that its value was $57,095, that $2,000 would suffice to put the road in original condition and that the Federal Government should purchase the road as soon as practicable. (59)

Fate, most likely in the form of the sinking of the battleship Maine, interceded and though the bill was read in the House, it was never passed. (54) A second bill was proposed in 1901 to purchase all toll roads within the Park for $208,000, and it too failed of passage. (57)

In 1902 the Secretary of the Interior appointed a second committee to survey the park’s toll roads. They, like their predecessors, urged immediate government control of all park roads. (61) Superintendents’ reports for the years following upheld the committee’s views, with one exception — Major W. T. Littebrant in 1913, in a notable example of short-sightedness, felt that trails and mules would be sufficient for park administration for the foreseeable future! (62)

Army cavalry patrolled the Tioga Road for 25 years
[click to enlarge]
Army cavalry patrolled the Tioga Road for 25 years

In 1911 the Sierra Club Bulletin under the heading “Old Tioga Road to be Acquired,” noted that “The Government brought suit . . . to condemn an unused toll road . . . to make it part of the new system of roads through Yosemite National Park. W. C. N. Swift . . . is named as defendant.” (63)

One of the most telling comments on the condition of the road is contained in a 1912 letter from Major W. T. Forsythe, Acting Superintendent of the park, to the Secretary of the Interior. “Several wagons passed over the road last summer, . . . but also last summer I had to order a gratuitous issue of rations to a destitute family who were moving by wagon across the park from the east side by the Tioga Road because their team became exhausted on account of the difficult road and their food supply gave out before they could get through. (64) What of the owner’s side of the story? Before answering we might well ask, as did Yosemite’s acting superintendent in 1913, “who were the owners?” (65) At a Mono County sheriff’s sale in 1888 W. C. N. Swift, as trustee, purchased the entire properties of the Great Sierra Consolidated Silver Company for $167,050. (15) For an additional $10, Swift obtained the Tioga Road toll franchise from W. C. Priest, (31) who remained in charge of the road. (66) The mine properties and road were sold for taxes in 1895 to Rudolphus N. Swift, and remained the property of his heirs until 1915. (67) All during this period the firm of Wilson and Wilson handled the affairs of the road’s owners. Through them we hear the “owner’s side of the story.”

Immediately after Captain A. E. Wood’s initial blast, Wilson and Wilson offered to the Secretary of the Interior an affidavit from Road Superintendent Priest. “That said road is about 20 feet wide on an average and that teams may pass with convenience, with few exceptions, throughout the entire length of said road, and that in the opinion of this deponent said road is the best road that has ever been built on the Western Slope of the Sierra Nevada . . .” (68) The battle is joined!

Wilson and Wilson’s tenor was not so positive some four years later. They noted that the road had not been abandoned, but “we confess that they (the owners) have been somewhat neglectful by reason of the slight travel . . . upon the road.” (66) It was the attorney’s opinion that the road would have been kept in repair had a road been completed down the eastern side of the Sierra. (59) “If and when that eastern portion is completed the owners intend to resume the collection of tolls.” The law firm urged the United States to purchase all the toll roads in the park and was of the opinion that this would have already been done “but for the extreme difficulty of inducing Congress to spend money on any new project, especially one which necessitates a regular annual expenditure for maintenance.” (69)

In answer to charges that since tolls were not being collected the road belonged to the government by default, Allen Webster pointed out that the owners had spent thousands of dollars in repairs and that toll gates were not erected because of light travel. (70)

As the debate progressed others were brought in to testify on behalf of the road. Mrs. H. R. Crocker, whose home and place of business was Crocker’s Station, the western terminus of the road, commented in 1907 that there was considerable travel over the road this season and “all are unanimous in its priase . . . Travelers had no trouble in getting over the entire length with team and heavy wagon.” She reported some repairs to the road, including replacement of the Yosemite Creek bridge which had been out for eight years, by persons in her hire. (71)

Later correspondence from Mrs. Crocker repeats her original points, with the added suggestion that “something should materialize towards its (the road’s) permanent repair.” (72, 73) In 1908 Andrew P. Dron found the road to Soda Springs in “excellent condition.” He noted that two or three bridges were out over small streams, “but their want is not at all felt.” All of the fallen trees are out of the road and . . . taken as a whole I consider it a better road as it is today without any work on it, than the Ward’s Ferry road . . . to Groveland . . .” He made 38 miles in one day over the Tioga Road. (74)

With the suit of 1911 in progress further depositions were made. Mrs. Crocker was in the fore stating that “repair work (was done) in 1912 and the road opened as usual to travel. It has been opened and traveled by teams (both heavy and light wagons), people on horse back and pedestrians every year since its construction. It has never been closed to travel, except . . . when . . . blocked by snow. It is still in fair condition with the exception of two or three places at Lake Tenaya and Yosemite Creek . . .” (75)

Swift’s attorneys proclaimed that considerable sums had been expended on upkeep of the roads (though no documentation of the expenditures was presently available) and that the franchise standards, i.e. a 100 foot wide roadway, had been lawfully maintained. They cited the fact that the counties through which the road passed had always accepted the Company’s tax offerings, implying that all the franchise conditions were being met. The reason advanced for non-collection of tolls was that the Company did not receive enough in returns to keep a man on as tollmaster. Their final opinion was that the United States had no claim to the road except by lawful and fair purchase. (33) The suit was never pressed to completion and the debate remained unresolved until 1915.



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