Saturday, January 19, 2013

California Trail Interpretive Center Elko, Nevada October 13, 2012

      Pioneers used the term "Seeing the Elephant" to describe experiencing the hardships on the trail

General Information: The BLM recently opened the California Trail Interpretive Center in the spring of 2012. It is located off of Interstate 80  approximately 8 miles west of Elko, Nevada. Exhibits and informative displays tell the story of immigrants traveling west from St. Joseph, Missouri. Each diorama depicts hardships and life for the pioneers at various parts of the journey including the prairie, desert, and Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. There is no entrance fee to see the exhibits; however, it is advisable to leave a donation. The gift shop has a number of interesting books about the trail and westward expansion.On the outside grounds there are a number of short trails: the longest 4.500 feet long which takes hikers to a vantage point of the Humboldt River. An Indian Encampment as well as informative signs are also available outside.

History: The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California created gold fever. Hundreds of thousands of easterners braved the perilous journey to stake their claim in the gold fields. They heard stories of guys and gals finding gold nuggets and being set for life. The reality was a lot harsher. Many died along the journey to the west. Others became injured in the mines or didn't find any gold and lost all they had. From 1849-1854 about 165,000 emigrants a year traveled to California by what is known as the northern route. Thousands of other easterners traveled  to southern California by crossing the Colorado River at Yuma, Arizona.

The route: It is important to note that the California Trail in most spots was not one trail but multiple trails. In this blog I will describe the main route. The main route started at St. Joseph, Missouri. It followed the Platte River to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The Child's Cutoff took travelers to South Pass. From South Pass the Sublett Cutoff or Lander Road took travelers to Ft. Hall, Idaho. From Ft. Hall the trail ran through the City of Rocks to what is now present day Elko, Nevada. From Elko to Western Nevada it followed the Humboldt River. Present day Donner Pass was the main route over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to Sacremento.

Hastings Cutoff: The most famous cutoff of the California Trail was devised by Lansford Hastings in 1846. It was advertised in eastern newspapers as a way to drastically cut the time it took to travel to California. In reality the cutoff took wagon parties through some of the most isolated and barren desert in the west. Pioneers had long stretches with no water and during the summer temperatures routinely went well over 110 degrees fahrenheit. The route left the main trail at Fort Bridger. It went through Weber Canyon to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake it crossed the Great Salt Desert and it rejoined the main trail at Elko, Nevada. The Donner Party made the Hastings Cutoff famous in 1846 when they decided to take it. They lost time in the Prairie and desert and later became marooned in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Many in the party died from starvation or cold weather. (Information from: and A Guide to The California Trail by Richard Brock and Donald Brock).  

                              Wagon Wheel with brake pioneers used

                           Painting depicting the start of the trail: St. Josepth, Missouri

                                   Exhibit showing life for emigrants on the plains

                                    Exhibit showing harsh realities on 60 mile desert in western Nevada

              Beautiful etching showing wagons crossing mountains

                    A reproduction of a wagon that emigrants might have used

                                 The Indian encampment with the Center in the background

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