End of the trail?
Historic Humboldt Wagon Trail threatened with obliteration by big residential development
After weeks of gray, wet weather, a sunny March morning drive on Humboldt Road, which runs along the old Humboldt Wagon Road, makes the world seem impossibly bright and promising—even with the graffiti, discarded furniture and broken glass.
Patches of yellow wildflowers fairly blaze among the new shoots of grass; thick stands of oak trees reach up from the rocky meadows. The old trail runs between the rough-paved road and a rock wall—most likely built not as a line of demarcation but rather as an orderly way to store the thousands of rocks cleared from the surrounding fields by laborers more than a century ago.
There is a considerable amount of traffic on the road at this hour, most heading west; a yellow pick-up screams past, followed by a small sedan. We encounter a middle-aged couple on bicycles, churning up the demanding grade of the old road. A look back down to the valley reveals an azure sky sparkling over Chico, which has turned into a landscape painting from this vantage.
Farther up we pass a man standing behind his homemade recreational vehicle, a gray-primered 1960s Chevy flatbed supporting a camper that has been painted over—windows, vents and all—with water-based white paint. Hooked behind is a rectangular trailer that looks to be constructed of aluminum siding. A TV satellite dish is attached to the front of the trailer.
The man sports a brown-suede wide-brimmed hat and looks straight out of Pennsylvania Amish country. He nods politely as we pass.
Then we spot a couch without its cushions and a stuffed recliner most likely stuck in its final reclined position. Broken bottles and spray-painted greetings litter the patchy paved road. The trail, what’s left of it, was once a vital link between a brand-new town and the valuable minerals extracted from the hillsides of what are now Nevada and Idaho.
The trail, or at least the road next to it, is still used—but today recreational or even nefarious purposes take precedence over commerce. The area has long been a popular gathering spot for local teens—amorous, intoxicated or both.
Blazed by the financial efforts of Chico founder John Bidwell, the old trail is still clearly marked by wagon wheel ruts left here nearly 150 years ago. The rock wall, though crumbling in spots, is mostly intact.
History-minded locals like Francis Farley have voiced concerns about protecting the trail from possible obliteration by the development of the large Oak Valley subdivision, which is about to get a final approval from the city.
The environmental-impact report for the project mentions the trail as a point of historic significance and provides some direction for protecting it. Plans call for the existing road to be repaved and widened, with a bicycle lane running adjacent to the road, ‘meandering” between it and the rock wall.
City Planning Director Kim Seidler is confident the trail will be protected as a required condition of the project’s approval.
‘As a part of the project description that we have, the road avoids the wagon ruts, so it is not raised as a potentially significant impact,” Seidler explained. ‘There is a condition of approval that will require that construction fencing be put up while the road is being worked on so the construction equipment doesn’t get in on the wagon ruts.”
The trail is not officially protected, Seidler said, beyond the fact that the EIR recognizes it as a ‘legitimate historic resource” that the developer was aware of and therefore designed the project to limit its impact.
But Farley doesn’t think the EIR is enough to properly protect the trail. Another huge development to the south of the trail would call for a number of roads that would have to be punched through the rock wall and across the old trail in order to connect to the repaved Humboldt Road. Farley would like to see the route turned into a historic park.
‘You can appeal to the [Chico] Chamber of Commerce to back it (tourist attraction—Chico’s Appian Way),” Farley has suggested in a letter to this paper. ‘Interest historical clubs, societies; organize groups to restore the ruts, the wall, with materials cleared from the developer’s property. Get the developer to do their part with expenses.”
Anita Chang, a former Chico State University post-grad student whose thesis is titled “The Historical Geography of Humboldt Wagon Road,” says the trail’s construction can be tied to the discovery in the early 1860s of silver in the West Humboldt Range of the Nevada Territory.
“Word of the Humboldt mining strikes made its way quickly to California and heightened concern once again for transportation linkages, i.e. trans-Sierra wagon roads, in the northern Sacramento Valley,” Chang writes in her work that was later published as a small paperback.
The potential commerce on a route connecting Chico to the Humboldt mines was obvious to Bidwell, who had purchased the property to establish Chico in 1860. Reports of similar silver strikes in the Idaho Territory in 1862 made the prospect of an eastern route that much more attractive.
According to Chang, Bidwell’s selection of the exact route out of Chico is unknown, but speculation exists that the route may have been a Maidu Indian footpath that was probably established based on the migratory path of local deer herds.
Bidwell enlisted local Indians to do the work, though there are (most likely) mythical accounts of Bidwell enjoying some of the strenuous road-building labor himself.
In 1864 Bidwell and four partners established the Chico and Humboldt Wagon Road Company and spent $40,000 to build a toll road between Chico and Susanville.
“Newspapers of the time were filled with reports on the condition of the road and accounts of the inferior nature of competing roads,” Chang’s account reads. “The issue of which town possessed the superior road was in fact hotly debated between the towns of Oroville, Chico and Red Bluff.”
Oddly, the use of the road to ship silver and mining supplies was made defunct within a few years by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Timber became the more valuable resource, and the route opened up access to stands of pine trees that had been inaccessible. Turpentine and resin, used to maintain the country’s naval fleet, was also in demand, and at one time the town of Magalia—formerly known as Dogtown—was the Turpentine Capital of California.
About this time sawmills were built along the wagon road, which was used to transport the timber down into the valley. At the same time the road became a popular route for tourists escaping the heat of the valley to visit resorts at Butte Meadows, Jonesville and Prattville.
Between the horse-led stagecoaches carrying tourists up from the valley and the timber-laden wagons heading down into the valley, the road became fairly congested, and in fact, Chang reports, there were “choke points” along the trail where traffic jams brought travel to a halt. The construction of flumes along Little and Big Chico creeks to move the timber eventually eased the congestion.
In the early 20th century the route was replaced by Highway 32, and the Humboldt Wagon Road was relegated to a footnote in history. Now we wait to see if its 19th-century wagon ruts can survive a 21st-century housing development.