Two recent columns have been about the Butterfield Mail Stage Line that went through this area before Denison was even thought about. After the second one ran, I received an email from Jack E. Ridgeway, who lives in Pottsboro, telling me about an adventure that included the Butterfield Mail Route that he had in California while he was on assignment in Sacramento from 2008 to 2012.
Jack said the Sierra Mountains between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe were his playground. Reading that peaked my interest because a number of years ago, when my husband and I met some friends in Reno, Nevada, and attended the Sacramento Jazz Festival in California, we took a different route home after leaving the festival and went from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe, possibly on that route.
Jack took U.S. Highway 50, where it winds down from the Sierra Divide westward toward Sacramento. It was along here that he crossed remnants of an old roadbed, where he could tell that at one time it was an important area and was well maintained with a gravel and dirt surface.
Jack speculated who and what had traveled the road. He wondered if it may have been prospectors or horse and mule drawn freighters carrying goods to the saw mill towns that had surrounded Lake Tahoe.
While exploring a road behind Strawberry Lodge, Jack came across three markers all in a row dedicated to the Pony Express. He found some electronic photos taken of the markers and decided to verify the actual route taken by the Butterfield Stage in California. Historic plaques related to the Pony Express were found in 10 locations from east to west along Hwy. 50.
Both the Pony Express and Butterfield Stage were important during their day. Jack said he remembers when his father told him about the Butterfield Stage after they drove through a small town on the old highway between Hot Springs and Malvern, Arkansas. He said he asked his dad where they were at the time and his dad said “Butterfield.” At that time, he said his dad seemed to think about the answer and gave him the history of the location being a stop on the Butterfield Stage.
Where the old road in California finally began coming out of the Sierra toward the Sacramento Valley was the turnoff to the historic gold fields along Highway 49. He said he could only imagine how many excited, but tired, prospectors left the stage on foot to walk to the riches they never found and had reason to think about what they had left behind in Texas when they got aboard the stage
The Butterfield Stage ended in San Francisco, but the route was not over the Sierra Nevada Range near Lake Tahoe. Snowfall along the Sierra Divide in that area of California can be as deep as 18 feet. Stage and freighter travel during the winter across the Sierra Divide was all but impossible and Butterfield Stage operators recognized the perils of winter operations there and found the solution was to create a Los Angeles to San Francisco leg in an area of less winter dangers from the snow.
The Donner Party found that winter in the Sierras just northwest of Lake Tahoe was more than they could navigate with horses and wagons, Jack said his investigation revealed. Had the wagons been able to travel just about another three miles further west to the summit, they would have crossed the divide and found the western face of the Sierras much easier to travel in the winter. Today, that point where they needed to be is called Donner Pass. When our foursome was traveling that route between Reno and Sacramento and reached Donner Pass, we found snow still there on Memorial Day at the end of May.
Jack said he assumes the news of the Donner Party’s perils reached back east to the Butterfield Stage operators who elected to cross into California in the south where winter can be cold, but snow is rare in the desert.
The bronze plaque behind Strawberry Lodge and others were provided by the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the heritage of the American West, especially the Mother Lode and gold mining regions in the area.
Many thanks to Jack for sharing his adventure and adding another area to the story of the Butterfield Stage between Indian Territory in Oklahoma and our part of North Texas. There are several books about the route including Glen Ely’s book, “The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail 1858-1861.” That’s the one I participated in.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her column. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.