Gold Rush 49ers, the Truckee River

After the Humboldt Sink the gold rush emigrants could head south along the trail the Mormons had pioneered in 1848 or they could continue west to the Truckee River and cross the Sierra at Donner Pass. Either way they had to cross the dreaded 40-mile Desert. This was the worst stretch of road yet faced, without grass or water for most of the way and blisteringly hot during the days, but there was a hot water spring about half way to the Truckee.

Sunrise looking east from Reno

They traveled at night and by morning came to the hot springs, which boiled and bubbled in rock lined pools and had to be cooled before it could be drunk. Bacon would cook in only a few minutes in the hottest pool. Men brewed coffee without a fire. By the next morning most arrived at the Truckee but the 40-mile Desert had been hard. One man said that in the last 30 miles he had seen at least 200 horses and oxen dead from bad water, poor food and exhaustion.

Upper Truckee by Tom Hilton

The emigrants hit the Truckee where it turned to flow into Pyramid Lake about 10 miles further north. The water, flowing from the Sierra, was cool and welcome. Cottonwood trees, the first trees seen in 100s of miles, grew along its shore and provided shade to the weary travelers and their animals. About 60 feet wide and two feet deep and called the Salmon Trout by Fremont, the river got its name from Tru-ki-zo, a Piute Chief earlier emigrants had simply called Chief Truckee. Many parties stayed here a few days to recuperate, then continued west across Big Meadows, where Reno sits today, until they came to the narrow, rugged Truckee Canyon where the river cut through the mountains.

It would take up to 27 crossings of the rock-strewn Truckee to continue along the canyon but in 1845 Caleb Greenwood had discovered a bypass. The wagons followed a ravine that led to a 6,200 pass across the Carson Range then descended to Dog Valley before rejoining the river near the present day town of Truckee. This added about ten miles to the journey but avoided the harrowing river crossings. The emigrants were now in California but they still had to face Donner Pass where a party of travelers had become snowed in three years before and lost nearly half their party.

Sierra Nevada from the Carson River, Albert Bierstadt



  1. Interesting stuff, and nice use of photos to illustrate (including my Upper Truckee photo).

    I’m doing a California history blog myself, as it happens–Up and Down California–posting excerpts from William H. Brewer’s letters (from 1860-1864) in real time +150 years, accompanied by (mostly) present-day photos of the places he describes. A little after your historical period (more “Gold Bust” than “Gold Rush”), but I thought you might be interested anyway.

    • Great site, Tom! It’s the personal observations you give that appeal to me, things like how many people lived in Monterey and how few protestant churches there were along their journey. The little details of life in that era are special. Thanks for writing.

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