ECHOES FROM THE PAST: How the railroad helped build Truckee
The great California gold rush of 1849 brought an increasing progression of emigrants over Donner Summit but nobody stayed for long. People passing through the area remembered what had happened beside Donner Lake’s frozen shores only a few years before.
For many years the future site of Truckee remained a bleak and lonely mountain basin stretching for 20 miles between Donner Summit in the west and the rocky Truckee River canyon to the east.
The excitement of the Comstock Lode in 1859 brought thousands of prospectors through the area, headed east on their way to the rich mines of Virginia City. The continuous caravans of freight and passenger wagons was one of the factors that led to the construction of Henness Pass and Donner Lake Turnpike roads.
As the excited silver-seekers traveled along the shores of Donner Lake and gazed upon the ghostly ruins of the Donner cabins, they must have felt that the lake’s serenity and solitude masked a sinister deception or perhaps an invitation to doom.
During this time, railroad engineer Theodore Judah, guided by Dr. Daniel Strong, had surveyed the area and both men were convinced that the pass above Donner Lake would be the most suitable route for the transcontinental railroad crossing over the Sierra.
The railroad company, along with the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Toll Company, combined efforts and developed a number of road houses to cater to the advance teams of workers, stagecoach traffic and freight companies. These road houses included Cardwell Station, Prosser Creek Station, Fry’s Station, Tinker’s Station, Witherspoon’s Station, Gray’s Station and Coburn’s Station.
Joseph Gray had been the successful proprietor of what was known as the “Fourteen Mile House,” a station and inn located along Old Auburn Road in today’s Citrus Heights. It was there that he met Charles Crocker, one of the Central Pacific Railroad’s “Big Four” (Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford and Crocker).
Perhaps it was from Crocker that Gray learned the proposed route of the railroad line over Donner Pass and decided that better opportunities might await him in that area. He promptly sold his Fourteen Mile house, purchased 640 acres along the Truckee River and constructed a two-story log station which served as a home for his family and as a frontier hostelry from which he supplied provisions to teamsters hauling freight along the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road.
Gray’s Station, as it was known at the time, was located at today’s southwest corner of Jibboom and Bridge Streets. In 1907 the structure was moved to its present location on Church Street, west of the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District headquarters where it is preserved today as a place of local historic interest.
It wasn’t long before Gray met a successful lumberman named George Schaffer. The two men struck up an immediate friendship and became partners, establishing a sawmill across the river from Gray’s cabin. Their first project was the construction of a bridge across the Truckee River for which they charged a fee for travelers wishing to cross on their way to Lake Tahoe.
By 1864 the Central Pacific lines had already passed Clipper Gap and other enterprising individuals realized the opportunities which lied ahead. A man named J. McConnell settled on land a short distance southwest of Gray’s Station.
A short time later, another man named “Owens” appeared, claiming the same land for himself. A feud developed between the two men ending up in a gunfight in which McConnell was wounded. Owens was promptly arrested and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary.
McConnell recovered but decided that mountain life was a little too lively for his liking and promptly sold his land to a successful road contractor from Dutch Flat named Samuel S. Coburn.
Coburn himself was also a smith and an indispensable craftsman of the era who erected his own station in the area known today as “Brickelltown.” As he continued to add buildings to his property, his small station grew into a settlement aptly named “Coburn’s Station.”
As the railroad approached Colfax, Coburn’s Station was selected as the advance camp for the railroad construction crews. Workmen poured into the area and the settlement grew overnight into a bustling lumber town.
(To be continued)
“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner
Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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