One of the Sierra’s first snow lovers chronicled
Like Tamsen Donner before her, Electa Louesa DeWolf was a teacher who felt the power of the Sierra. But unlike Tamsen, whose 1846 wagon train stalled in deep snow north of Donner Lake with tragic consequences, Electa reached Truckee in comfort by train in 1874.
The transcontinental railroad, completed in May 1869, opened the door to safe cross-country travel for westbound emigrants. The long ribbon of iron rail connected the Atlantic States with California, and removed most of the dangers faced by early pioneers.
Tamsen Donner was writing a book during her overland crossing of ’46. Unfortunately, the manuscript was lost during that historic winter. Fate was kinder to Electa DeWolf and the letters she wrote during her stay in the Sierra between 1874 and 1881 have been saved for posterity.
Electa began her education at a little country schoolhouse in Vernon, Ohio. In 1864, she graduated first in her class from the Western Reserve Seminary at West Farmington, Ohio, with the degree “Mistress of English Literature.” In Ohio she began her teaching career, but other dreams were still burning in her heart. In one letter, Electa wrote, “Three things I have always felt I could never be reconciled to have unseen the ocean, mountains and California.”
Electa got her wish for all three in 1873 when Nathan Parsons, an Ohio-born pioneer living in Sardine Valley north of Truckee, needed a teacher for his four children. Mr. Parsons had offered to pay Electa’s train fare to California and back, and would compensate her for the time spent teaching his children. Nathan Parsons and his wife owned the Sardine House, a station and lodging house on the Henness Pass Road, the most direct route between Reno and Sacramento. Just a few years before, Mrs. Parsons had help police capture the bandits who pulled off the Great Verdi Train Robbery.
Electa’s letters, later published in several Eastern papers, offer first-hand insight into her enthusiasm for riding the rails. She wrote, “Pullman, the man of palace car fame, has made traveling by steam in these latter days almost a luxury. The ride from Chicago to San Francisco can be accomplished now in six days, and with very little fatigue.” Just a few years before, the overland trek by wagon train would have taken from five to six months of strenuous physical effort. Once she arrived in Truckee, the young schoolteacher turned her attention to the beauty of the Sierra landscape. She wrote, “The mountains are glorious. The air up here is pure and bracing, the sky has an intensity of color never seen in low altitudes, and the sunsets often beggar description. Electa arrived at Sardine Valley around Thanksgiving, but she was astounded at the mild weather at such a high elevation. She noted, “Within the past two days we have been enjoying a pleasant season, warm in the sun, cool in the shade, the exact counterpart of that I’d expect here during the last two weeks in November.”
Winter weather wasn’t far behind, however. In her next missive, Electa wrote, “Our first snow fell on the last day of November. I shall always remember that winter with its snow, which was eight feet deep on a level, solidly packed snow. The road from Sierra Valley to Truckee was kept open all winter, but I well remember by what work and effort, so that we were not isolated.”
Despite the persistent snowstorms, Electa observed, “A man must be hard to please if he cannot be suited here.” She also mentions the dramatic contrast between the deep Sierra snowpack and the lush green of the lower valleys in California: “Today there will come into this mountain-hotel, a man on snow shoes, having come over snow thirty and forty feet deep; tomorrow a man from below, telling of green fields of grain almost ready for harvest, fresh vegetables, strawberries and flowers; another from a dozen miles away talking of dusty roads and gardening in progress; and we at the same time are looking out over a valley and hills covered with about two feet of snow. This valley (Sardine) has an elevation of over six thousand feet above sea level. Nothing but grass will grow here. Yet we have upon the table d’hôte all the early garden vegetables, and strawberries are in market.”
In today’s fast-paced world, visitors to the Sierra often fail to enjoy the subtle details, but in the 19th century, observing the intricacies of nature was a favorite pastime. Consider a day after school for Electa and her students; “Today, after lessons, my pupils and I went out on snowshoes in search of buttercups, real genuine buttercups and a little white flower resembling candy tuft, and found them growing cheerily not two feet from the snow. Nothing is strange nor improbable so far as climate is concerned.” She later wrote, “Probably not less than thirty-three feet of snow has fallen here during the winter. On the tenth of March there was eight feet of very solidly packed snow.”
After her first long winter in the Sierra, the glory of spring was something to be celebrated: “When I wrote you last, we were still rejoicing in about four feet of snow. May brought in her train a bevy of warm, sunny days; and, presto! the change. The snow, except upon the higher mountains and on the hills with a northern exposure, disappeared as if by magic, and the beautiful green of resurrected nature covered the valley. Probably not less than a hundred varieties of wild flowers, some of them exquisitely beautiful, could be gathered here.”
The following summer, Electa explored Independence Lake, so named by Gus Moore, who “discovered” it June 28, 1860. A week later the lake was christened by a party of ladies and gentlemen whom Moore took there. While Moore’s group celebrated Fourth of July at Independence Lake, Electa choose to climb Castle Peak with a group of friends led by Truckee patriarch Charles McGlashan. Although she complained about the riding attire women at the time were forced to wear, in a letter four days later, she exhilarated in the challenge: “The excursion was a trifle hazardous perhaps, but now that we are all safe at home without broken bones, the spice of danger only adds flavor to the occasion.”
Electa also admired the sublime beauty of Donner Lake; “The surrounding scenery is picturesque and grand, and the drives along its shore are exceedingly pleasant. Under the influence of a high wind the waters danced and the white caps of mimic waves chased each other to shore, dashing upon the beach in white wrath, and yet beneath this rough exterior you could look down into quiet depths.”
Special thanks to Mary Ann Kollenberg, great granddaughter of Electa Louesa DeWolf, for the use of these wonderful letters.
Mark McLaughlin’s award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.
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