Hidden history at Old Greenwood

The PGA Barracuda tournament is back for the second time at Truckee’s Old Greenwood golf course this year. Competitors at this full-on PGA tour stop are playing for points to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoff championship, and all proceeds are going to charity. This is the first year spectators will be allowed to visit the tournament as COVID-19 restrictions loosen, and it’s a great opportunity for audiences to acknowledge Old Greenwood’s entertaining backstory as a historic location while visiting.

Who traveled here?

Thousands and thousands of American pioneers. Today’s exit from Interstate 80 to Old Greenwood is named Overland Trail. This commemorates the original path pioneers traveled on the California/Emigrant Trail, which passed near the vicinity of the present location of the golf course as currently located.

Census data and traveler records tell that thousands of Americans traveling to California- including the 1846 Donner Party — followed this route on their way from the Midwest to the Sacramento Valley and coast beyond. The route was most popular after the 1844 Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party became the first group to successfully ride wagons across the Sierra until more convenient mountain passes gained popularity later in the decade.

Even after more efficient pioneer traveling routes like the Carson Trail were developed in following years, the Truckee route remained a go-to as the approximate route for the transcontinental railroad after 1867, and much later for the Lincoln Highway (Donner Pass Road) and eventually Interstate 80. There is no concrete archeological evidence that the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy party camped on land currently owned by today’s golf course but the former nearby Emigrant Trail Museum maintains that the historically relevant group absolutely did navigate in the vicinity.

Who was Caleb Greenwood?

Caleb Greenwood was an old man who navigated the mountains. The Stevens-Townsend-Murphy party which pioneered wagon travel through the Sierra in 1844 was partially guided by Caleb Greenwood.

A group of emigrants led by Captain Stevens, Dr. Townsend and Martin Murphy needed a guide who not only knew the route to California but also how to interact with native peoples they would encounter along the way. Greenwood had vast knowledge due to his background and marriage to a native woman. This was a capstone but nevertheless late event in Greenwood’s career. Greenwood claimed that for almost 40 years beforehand he had navigated the American West involved in fur trapping, trading and exploration.

Author Charles Kelly tells that Greenwood moved from Virginia to St. Louis in present day Missouri and entered the fur trading industry. This work led Greenwood to frequently travel from Missouri across modern Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and other frontier territories between the 1810s and 1840s. By the time he helped blaze the Steven-Townsend-Murphy party’s route which became the hazardous Truckee section of the California Trail, he was in very old age. His dramatic age difference with contemporary young explorers earned him the “Old” Greenwood nickname which today’s golf course commemorates.

What’s hidden behind Hole 12?

Decades after Caleb Greenwood navigated the vicinity, Chinese workers operated the land near today’s golf course. Archeologists who excavated Old Greenwood in 2002 speculate that charcoal for railroads, mines and local furnaces was manufactured at the site during the 1870s and 1880s. Beneath today’s golf course they uncovered rice bowls, opium, and Chinese coins which indicate coal was produced by Chinese laborers looking for work after gold mining and local railroad construction dwindled. A marker behind Old Greenwood’s hole 12 commemorates where almost 150 of these ovens were located and one still remains buried. The marker ironically indicates that fresh, green logs — or “green wood” — formed the base of the ovens because they resisted burning despite high temperatures from charcoal burning.

Two other nearby golf courses are named for early Truckee history. George Shaffer’s sawmill, located in the vicinity of today’s Schaffer’s Mill, Lahontan and Northstar golf courses, catalyzed Truckee’s early lumber economy and road access to Truckee in the 1860s. Joseph Gray opened a rest stop along the 1860s wagon trail near today’s downtown Truckee, which is reflected in nearby golf course Gray’s Crossing’s name. Both these early pioneers benefited from Caleb Greenwood’s early trailblazing and interacted with Truckee’s early Chinese labor force. Old Greenwood Golf Course’s name similarly connects it to a historic backstory worth appreciating at the Barracuda tournament this year.

Conor Villines is a volunteer for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He holds a BA in History and an MA in Journalism from the University of Arizona, and enjoys learning as much as possible about Truckee and California history

A plaque at Truckee’s Old Greenwood golf course indicates where the Chinese ovens once were.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Wagons over the Sierra.
Courtesy California State Library
A map of the area.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society


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