October 25 (1976, 1984, 2000, 2002)
Dutch Flat Swindle
Lost Lava Flow on Sawtooth Ridge

10/25/76 ~ monday morning in wren shack. tim and i [...] returned yesterday via moody ridge, where we unloaded about a thousand board feet of 2x6 T&G doug fir. so. go to the lumberyard this morning, get the rough redwood 2x6 edge members, and swing by the store and the gas station ~ then back out to moody ridge, and start nailing it all on. gosh. i'd like to get that roof on fast.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/25/84   [...]

I may go skiing today. There have been some good storms, and I can see snow up there. How much, I can't be sure, but, if I can get the Toyota running halfway decent I'll probably take a cruise up there and skid around a bit.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Wed, 25 Oct 2000 07:47:25 -0800
To: [name]@aol.com
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Re: Truckee Trail
Cc: Rex_Bloomfield, Jerry Rouillard

>Thank you for the information. I have passed it on to a number of trail

You're quite welcome. A couple of additional points about the Old Emigrant Road from Emigrant Gap through Alta, Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Colfax and Auburn:

1. The trail, like the main Donner Trail, followed an existing Indian trail. The only reasonable trans-Sierran travel routes in the middle and lower elevations follow ridgetops. This trail follows the divide between the North Fork American and Bear rivers. Here and there in the heavy coniferous forest were more or less natural openings, where, as at Mule Springs on the main Donner Trail, there was too much groundwater to allow pines. So natural meadows arose. This Indian trail went from meadow to meadow, all of which have signs of Indian occupation. One of the meadows became known as Dutch Flat.

2. This "Old Emigrant Road" is mentioned by name in old newspapers and deeds. For instance, a record of sale of the Dutch Flat Sawmill in 1859 describes one of its boundary lines as "the Old Emigrant Road." A newspaper article {Placer Herald, 6/30/55) records a missing man as having been seen walking along the Old Emigrant Road; another refers to "a route through this county, by way of Dutch Flat, that has been used more or less every year since '49" (Placer Herald, 12/2/59). The diary of a Dutch Flat resident records his use of the Old Emigrant Road in 1863, and again in the 1870s. There is another diary, in the Bancroft, which likely records use of this Old Emigrant Road in 1852; but I have not seen this diary yet. Charles and Joseph Dornbach, who founded Dutch Flat in 1851, undoubtedly used this route.

3. The road passed through Illinoistown, a settlement which dates from 1849, near today's Colfax. A loaded freight wagon could be driven uphill from Sacramento as far as Illinoistown in 1849. But above that point the terrain was too rough and emigrant wagons could only make the downhill grade. It took years for a wagon road to be built above Illinoistown, so mule trains supplied all the mining camps above that point (Dutch Flat, Green Valley, Little York, Cold Springs, etc. etc.).

4. Strangely, no attempt has been made to designate it as a historical landmark or anything of the sort. Other counties in the Sierra are proud of their emigrant trails; why not Placer County? Moreover, unlike the Placer County Emigrant Road, which was constructed in the early 1850s to entice emigrants into Placer County, this road is the real thing.


Russell Towle

Date: Wed, 25 Oct 2000 20:12:27 -0800
To: Doug Noble
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Dutch Flat Swindle

Hi Doug,

I read your article (online) about the DF Swindle etc. I have lived in the DF area for 25 years and have studied its history; so I had encountered this so-called swindle.

The thing is, Doug, that this whole thing arose in the middle of the Civil War; and any Republican project (like the CPRR) was sure to be venomously opposed by the Democrats, who strongly tended to Copperhead, Southern-sympathizing views of things. Who can deny that Stanford and Crocker and the rest were capable of being ruthless? Nevertheless, I have little doubt but that the stagecoach race was won fairly and squarely by the Dutch Flat Donner Lake wagon road. Recall that this route foreshadowed the Lincoln Highway, Highway 40, and Highway 80. Not without reason.

No, the Copperheads were determined to drive the CPRR into the ground if at all possible. The leader of the Democratic newspapers of the day was the Alta California in San Francisco. It went on and on about the impossibility of building a railroad across the Sierra; rocks too hard, snow too deep, and so on. It went on and on about the Dutch Flat Swindle, how the railroad would never be built beyond Dutch Flat, that the RR was only a feeder to the DF Donner Lake wagon road, and that Crocker and the rest would wax fat and happy on the profits from the wagon road. Of course it was all nonsense, but the propaganda had its effect, and sober historians have asserted that construction of the CPRR was delayed by approximately one year by the scaring-away of investors.

So when in July of 1866 the rails did at last reach DF, which one might have supposed a sensible temporary terminus while work progressed upcountry, Leland Stanford took care to have the rails laid a couple of miles further, and the temporary terminus established there. This new terminus meant a new town and Leland Stanford himself named it for his nemesis, the Alta California. Hence the town of Alta. The first CPRR station past Dutch Flat.

The Southern-sympathizing Democrats of the day were also enraged by the CPRR's use of Chinese labor. In the Placer Herald of Auburn at this time one finds DF described as “that nigger-loving, Digger-loving, women-loving, China-loving Radical camp.” At any rate. In reading newspapers from those days one should always keep in mind political affiliation. In later days Dutch Flat lost a bit of its Lincoln-Republican luster and had a Workingmens' Party newspaper, the DF Forum. Anti-Chinese invective was incredible, And when the whites burned down DF Chinatown in Sept. 1877, the Forum had the gall to write that "a few people have suggested that the fire was purposely set, but there is no basis for this." This, at a time when Chinatowns were being torched from Reno to Grass Valley.

You write some good articles.

Blue Canyon panorama
October 25, 2000

Click to enlarge.

October 25, 2000

Date: Fri, 25 Oct 2002 14:27:41 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Lost Trail, Lost Lava Flow

Hi all,

This morning seemed the best time to do something long deferred, namely, to find the trail from Sawtooth Ridge to Italian Bar, and find a certain tiny remnant of a lava flow, also on Sawtooth Ridge.

Sawtooth Ridge forms the divide between the main North Fork American, to the east and south, and the North Fork of the North Fork American, to the west and north. One can reach it from Emigrant Gap exit on I-80 by taking Forest Service Road 19 out past the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork to Texas Hill, where the road forks, the right hand leading out to Sawtooth Ridge and Helester Point, the site of an old fire lookout tower. The left fork leads out to Big Valley Bluff, a 3500' cliff projecting boldly into the North Fork canyon.

I have quite a variety of old maps, dating back to the Gold Rush, of this area. One of the more interesting of these is a geologic map by one Waldermar Lindgren, based upon field mapping and survey work performed in the 1890s, and published around 1900. The map base is a contour map with intervals of 100 feet, covering the area from 120.5 to 121 degrees west longitude, and 39 to 39.5 degrees north latitude.

Lindgren's map shows quite number of the old trails, including one from Sawtooth Ridge down to Italian Bar, over a descent of 2500'. This does not show on the current USGS 7.5 minute Westville quadrangle, and no one seems to have ever heard of it. The Westville quad does show the trail from the south, Foresthill Divide side of the river, which descends to Italian Bar.

Also shown on Lindgren's map, a little ways west of this "lost" Italian Bar trail, is a tiny patch of Pliocene basalt. Such masses of basalt are passing common in the high country, but rare farther west. There is one, for instance, on Lowell Hill Ridge, the divide between Steephollow and Bear River. And there is another on Sawtooth Ridge. I have hiked and driven and explored around on Sawtooth Ridge for many years, but never saw any basalt.

It was time to act. Last night, with cold calculation, I fired up my GPS software on my Macintosh and opened the Westville quadrangle DRG map. I got out Lindgren's map and my magnifying glass. By careful comparison of the two maps I was able to establish the approximate positions of trailhead and lava flow. I set four waypoints for two alternate possible trailhead locations, and one waypoint for the probable location of the lava flow, and one for the southern terminus of the Burnett Canyon Trail, which lies half a mile due north of the lost Italian Bar trailhead. Without any hesitation I then uploaded these waypoints to my GPS unit.

Dropping the kids at school in Alta this morning, I drove up to Emigrant Gap and on out Forest Road 19 to Texas Hill, thence to Sawtooth Ridge. At a decent opening in the forest I whipped out the GPS unit and pointed it unflinchingly at the heavens. It duly found four satellites and without a backward glace I forged onward.

The trailhead appeared, on Lindgren's map, to be associated with one of the many saddles or passes along the length of Sawtooth Ridge. I reached this saddle with a distance of .25 miles showing on the GPS to my nearest trailhead possibility. There was a large bulldozed log deck on the edge of the canyon there. Scouting towards Possibility One, I encountered a burned area, from a fire some five years ago or so, when a logging helicopter crashed; the dread Sierra Pacific Lumber Company was harvesting the ancient old-growth trees down in the North Fork, near Italian Bar, as the Forest Service had been dilatory in finding the funds necessary to purchase these lands.

At any rate, the slopes near Possibility One seemed too steep, and were in any case choked with masses of Deerbrush, Ceanothus integerrimus, which had sprouted after the fire.

I wandered west towards Possibility Two. Logging operations complete with vicious bulldozers had thrashed the terrain on the canyon rim, but only a few yards down the slope the forest was untouched, and I scanned the area for signs of an old trail.

Suddenly a strikingly worn game trail appeared.. It descended quite steeply into a grove of Kellogg's Black Oak and Ponderosa Pine. The hoofprints of deer covered the trail, which not only had been worn into the ground, but had been used so much that almost every vestige of oak leaf and pine needle had been swept aside as though raked. Above me, a bulldozer skid trail led down past a large pine. I climbed up and checked the pine for old blazes; there were none visible.

Following the deer trail down, I noted that it was making a beeline, or a deer line I should say, for Italian Bar. Not only that, but occasionally the trail switched back and forth.

I am convinced that this is the historic trail from Sawtooth Ridge to Italian Bar. Having descended a few hundred feet, where slopes moderated and the old trail wound through a lovely grove of oaks, I retraced my steps, and followed the trail right back to where I had parked. The upper end is confused by logging slash, fallen trees, skid trails, and so on.

I set my GPS to "go to" my basalt waypoint, and drove west. The GPS showed me 1.25 miles from the presumed lava flow. I dropped into another saddle and climbed up out of it, as the distance diminished to a tenth of a mile and then little more than a hundred feet. I was on the highest past of this particular "sawtooth," and started scouting around. I saw nothing but the ordinary boulders of andesite from the Mehrten Formation volcanic mudflow, so common in this part of the Sierra.

Forcing my way through some small trees and brush, I got a little clear of the forest, on the rim of the canyon, and saw some rocky slopes to the east, nearby. Making for these, I felt sure I would find the lava flow. But, no. I found a slope of volcanic mudflow, with, puzzlingly, boulders of rather light-colored basalt scattered about, for all the world looking like glacial erratics. Nowhere was there an actual outcrop of the basalt, and the mudflow was visible to within a few feet of the top of the ridge. Yet, the basalt is younger than the mudflow, and must sit on top of it.

Yet there were large boulders of the basalt all over the place!!

It was maddening.

I followed along east until my little rounded sawtooth began to fall away into a saddle, but, no lava flow. So I got into the car, resigned to not having found the lava, and wondering whether the basaltoid boulders could somehow have been left there by the ice, and have fooled Lindgren.

Driving back east, in a third of a mile or so I noticed several large boulders of the basalt beside the road. I got out and examined them. They did not seem part of a true outcrop, but, on the other hand, there were many of them, some over ten feet across, and even more significantly, there was absolutely no admixture of andesitic mudflow. So I started straight up the hill. A climb of a hundred feet brought me to my lava flow, here in thin, vertical sheeted masses of exceptionally light-colored lava which no one in their right mind could ever call basalt. The rocks stood high and bold and I climbed them and enjoyed fine views of the canyon from Giant Gap Ridge on the west to Quartz Mountain and the tippy-top of Big Valley Bluff on the east. Italian Bar and the North Fork were visible far below, as well as the oak-clad ridge which the historic Lost Italian Bar trail followed, a mile east.

Russell Towle, perched on the highest outcrop
(Photo by Gay Wiseman)
From the highest crag of the lava I could see the full extent of what is left of this flow. As it happens I had just barely missed reaching it on my earlier search. It runs along the ridge crest for about a quarter mile, and looks to be around 100 feet thick. In the central part, where it appears to be thickest, there is some columnar jointing, and the lava is also somewhat darker. Where I initially found it and climbed it, it is almost white. There are faint indications of glacial striae on some surfaces; so the boulders I saw first, farther west, most likely are glacial erratics torn from the main mass.

California Nutmeg
(Torreya californica)
I explored a little more of the flow, and found a strange little copse of Torreya californica at about 5000' elevation, right on the canyon rim, amid manzanita and live oak. They were very stunted, scarcely 15 feet high, six inches in diameter, and who knows, perhaps a century old.

This lava flow undoubtedly came from a source near today's Sierra crest. It likely followed down a little valley incised into the andesitic mudflow plateau, before the North Fork American and other major canyons of today's Sierra existed.

Returning to the car, I set the GPS to the Burnett Canyon trail terminus and continued my eastward retreat. Passing around the head of Wilmont Ravine, I reached the devastated, bulldozed, clearcut area which marks the head of the Burnett Canyon Trail.

Don't ask me how it could be that historic trails are simply ruined by logging and road-building, as though they had never existed, but, well, they are. Good luck if you ever want to find the Burnett Canyon Trail. It's there; Dave Lawler and I hiked it, years ago, scouting along the edge of the clearcut until we saw the ghost of the ghost of an old trail.

I saw lots of flagging marking timber harvest boundaries out on Sawtooth Ridge. I would like to see Tahoe National Forest try to purchase the lands held by Sierra Pacific out there. I also think that a rather wonderful trail could be constructed on the North Fork side of the summit of Sawtooth Ridge.

At any rate, a lost trail and a lost lava flow were sought and found. The trailhead and lava flow are in sections 29 and 30, respectively of Township 16 North, Range 12 East. I would like to explore this old trail before the snow flies, if anyone else is interested, let me know.


Russell Towle

October 24 (1975, 1985, 1988, 1998, 2000)

10/24/75 [...] yesterday went out to canyonland and broke the chain right off the bat. i went ahead and worked on the trail, since the road is very nearly as long as it can be already—within twenty yards, anyway. a beautiful day, clear, cool, fresh snow on the peaks. not much accomplished but returned tired and sore, went to sleep early in the evening. i am tired of fighting brush.

saw porcupine damage to a young pine yesterday. large area of bark gnawed away. came upon some interesting rocks in elderberry meadow. should be nothing but volcanic mudflow boulders up there, but these were some kind of micaceous schist, probably Paleozoic in age. might have been picked up and carried along by the mudflow when it coursed down the valley of the tertiary Yuba. the bedrock beneath elderberry meadow is serpentine, probably fifty to a hundred feet down.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

October 24, 1985

[...]  today, I was burning out deerbrush stumps, as I have for several days. This, in 1985 terms, involves digging the duff and several inches of soil away from the basal burl and however much of the root can be exposed. If the root proves too large for cutting—as most did today—then it is a "burner" and flammable materials are cleared for a foot or so on all sides. Then, boulders are carried in, and assorted rocks, to make a circle, close in to the basal burl of the ceanothus, which serves to make the fire burn hotter—it does not lose heat so readily by radiation and air mixing from the sides if confined by warm boulders. One of the boulders today exploded repeatedly, spalling off exfoliation shells from the andesite bomb. I burned about ten stumps today. I recalled that it has been ten years since I began work on Moody Ridge. Drank the rest of my zinfandel in celebration. [...] It's been a great ten years.


I climbed an oak tree in the lower meadow today that I've always wanted to climb. Snapped off many dead branches, went up perhaps forty of its seventy feet height. A good climbing tree.

Yesterday [...] rolled big boulders down a slide area below the railroad tracks. They went about a thousand feet down a steep slope, perhaps five hundred feet vertical; some were in the thousand-pound range; some exploded into a dozen pieces on the way down. It was very satisfying. There was an acute finality about the way these heavy boulders reached their resting places; after leaping and bouncing all that way, they'd reach the zone of accumulation of heavy boulders and clunk into their niche. After all that lively leaping: clunk.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/24/88   Morning. [...]

A canyon wren pecks and scratches around the cabin as has been the case for weeks of this Indian Summer.

[Russell Towle's journal]

October 24, 1998

Today I showed Frank, Michael and Luc the Sugarpine Flat area. We were rained on and snowed on and got pretty soaked and wet, but built a bonfire in the rain for a lunch break, and had a pretty good time.

I have been out to Sugarpine Flat many times this summer, with Neil Gerjuoy, Bill Newsom and Ed Stadum. And so on; and also, hiked down the Little Granite Creek trail with Dave Lawler, a couple of weeks ago, a debacle, I mean, the canyon was wonderful, we went down to Big Valley creek, checked out the little inner gorge, came back up the American River trail, and had plenty of time as we began the climb out, but Dave's legs began cramping, we had to stop for him to rest frequently and we ended up hiking out through unfamiliar terrain in the dark.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2000 20:03:03 -0800
To: [...]@emigranttrailswest.org
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Truckee Trail


I visited your website about emigrant trails, and wish to add one further branch from what you call the Truckee Trail, but which is locally, in this part of the Sierra, known as the Donner Trail. You mentioned the Nevada City and Henness Pass and Beckwourth branches. There is another; it forked from the Donner Trail at Emigrant Gap (avoiding the descent to Bear Valley, and keeping to the ridge), was used beginning in 1849, and followed the divide between the North Fork American and Bear River down through what would in later years be the towns of Alta, Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Colfax, Auburn, terminating in Sacramento. This road is called The Old Emigrant Road in newspapers of the 19th century. Dutch Flat's Main and Sacramento streets are portions of the old road. Few people know about it. It appears on one or more of the ca. 1866 GLO maps of this area, marked as Old Emigrant Road.

Its route foreshadows the later construction of the CPRR and Dutch Flat Donner Lake wagon road.

Part of its exact route was taken over by the Pacific Turnpike, a toll road from Dutch Flat to Virginia City by way of Henness Pass.

Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2000 20:23:40 -0800
To: [...]@aol.com
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Donner


On your Donner web site you describe the snowshoe party of which Mr. Stanton was a member, and their progress west towards Sacramento. But I believe you must be mistaken about their route. I have no problem with it until they reach Emigrant Gap. But at that point you have them descending into the North Fork of the North Fork, then following Sawtooth Ridge, then descending into the bottom of the canyon, then following it down to Giant Gap, thence to Iowa Hill and on down.

It is extremely unlikely that they would have descended to and followed any portion of the North Fork of the north Fork, still less the main North Fork American. My opinion is based upon decades of hiking in the Sierra, often purposedly avoiding trails, and going cross country, and decades of exploration of the North Fork American canyon and that of the North Fork of the North Fork. To follow these streams is very very difficult. To follow them in snow is unthinkable. Especially if there were any in the party who had even a particle of good sense or woodsmanship about them. Say, an Indian. No Indian would be so utterly foolish as to use the lower (unglaciated) reaches of a Sierran canyon as a route to gain the Sacramento Valley. One would always stay on the ridgetops. Always.

It is instead very likely that the party, at Emigrant Gap, used an existing Indian trail which followed the ridgetop to the southwest through the vicinity of the Blue Canyon exit, and then on down through the vicinity of Dutch Flat. They might well have been forced off the ridgetop down into Canyon Creek—a shady little canyon where the snow lies deep—but it is so very unlikely that they would have been forced down to the main North Fork. If they followed Canyon Creek, at various points, near Alta and Gold Run, they would have been able to regain the ridgetops easily even in snow, and have obtained views down to the Sacramento Valley.

This route down the ridge from Emigrant Gap evolved into an emigrant road in its own right in 1849.

I am no expert on the Donners, but a descent to the North Fork American seems unthinkable (since the implication is that they followed along the river, a difficulty even in summer, a misery and even near impossible in the winter).


Russell Towle