Johnson’s Cutoff, a shorter route across the Sierra

By 1849 John Calhoun Johnson established a ranch six miles east of Hangtown. Here he ran a hotel, general store, timber mill and several mines. During the El Dorado Indian Wars of 1850-51 the militia camped there. Later the ranch would become a haven for travelers arriving in the gold country along the new route he pioneered across the Sierra Nevada. Details of Johnson’s past are murky. How and when he came to the gold country is unclear, but he seems to have been from Ohio and must have arrived before the rush of gold seekers in 1849. He was the first to carry mail across the Sierra Nevada using both Donner Pass and the Mormon trail pioneered in 1848, but became convinced there must be a shorter more direct way. Working with an Indian guide named Falling Leaf, who may have been with Fremont when he crossed the Sierra, Johnson soon discovered his cutoff.

Fallen Leaf Lake

The new route followed the Carson River south to Eagle Valley, where, by at least 1851, a trading post that would grow into Carson City was located. Then the trail followed Cold Creek to the 7,150-foot Spooner Summit, skirted the southeastern end of Lake Tahoe, then called Lake Bigler by Johnson. South of Tahoe it turned west and climbed to the 7,400 Johnson’s Pass, or Echo Summit, before descending sharply to Slippery Ford across the South Fork of the American River. It crossed to the north side of the river near Kyburz, followed Peavine ridge to Pacific House, forded the river again then ran west along the ridge line between the American and the North Fork of the Consumnes River from Pollack Pines to Hangtown.

Carson City, 1877 Harpers Monthly

The new cutoff saved nearly 60 miles to Placerville and the two passes over the Sierra Nevada were much lower than those along the Mormon route thus leaving the trail open from snow more often in the winter.

Sierra Summit on Johnson Cutoff

Still, it remained nothing more than a pathway in spite of growing pressure for an all weather route across the Sierra. After a funding bill for the road failed in the legislature, J. B. Crandell of the Pioneer Stage Line crammed seven officials and a reporter into a coach and raced across the mountains to Carson Valley in 27 hours. The importance of the Johnson Cutoff was now established. It became a major artery and was the road used by the Pony Express in 1860 and is the route that Highway 50 follows today.


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