One couldn’t have asked for a prettier day for an outing to find a pioneer wagon trail: Puffy clouds and streaks of white in a blue blue sky, ground newly damp from a rainstorm the previous night and the sweet, tangy smell of sage in the air.
Organized by the Modoc County Historical Society, the tour on June 18 consisted of its own modern wagon train pulled by a John Deere tractor: two carts with hay bales for seats and about three dozen eager history buffs perched on top. The wagon master driving this train was second generation Alturas rancher Willy Hagge, with his son, Bryce, riding shotgun at the rear.
They all were on a hunt to see traces of the Lassen Trail, etched into the landscape by the metal rims of covered wagons 167 years ago—a swarm of 15,000 people seeking a “short cut” into California. Willy Hagge has spent years looking for the exact path the wagons took locally overland. Overgrowth and erosion have gradually erased the road, but thanks to the drought of the last few years, thinning grasses have exposed the route to the rancher’s eagle eye. And aboard a rocking hay wagon, what better way to touch history.
The three-hour tour began on Hagge’s 3,000 acre ranch. The Hagge place sits at the end of a gravel road in the center of the Warm Springs Valley that connects county seat Alturas and wide-spot-in-the-road Canby, a shuttered logging town. After a short ride on a relatively smooth gravel road, the group had moved onto a neighbor’s spread and then into the weeds. As the wagon train of history seekers snaked through grasses, sage and junipers and climbed to higher ground, the going became progressively rockier, the ride rougher and some folks did what the pioneers did, too, hopped off and walked.
“And we are on pneumatic tires,” noted Bryce Hagge. “Imagine being on metal rims and wood.”
Near Alturas, the Lassen Trail follows the meandering Pit River as it flows westward. At one point, the river enters a treacherous rocky canyon, so the pioneer wagons had to turn south and climb to high flat lava beds—and it’s this portion of the trail that rancher Hagge has been on the search for over the years.
“It took me many years to find the trail through this county,” Hagge explained. “We had the drought the last couple of years” and when the weeds thinned out, the faint traces reappeared.
Stopping at a groove in the ground covered with weeds, spikey with yellow flours, Hagge said, “This is the first little depression of the trail. This year was the first spring I was able to get the last quarter mile. Then I found more traces to the east.”
At another stop, historical society president Janice Savage handed out a map of the trail and a collection of excerpts from the pioneers’ diaries that cover passage from Fandango Pass near the Oregon border to Canby. The history and route of the Lassen Trail are well documented. Most recently published is “A Guide to the Lassen Trail and Burnett Cutoff,” by Trails West, Inc. of Reno, Nevada. This guide co-relates to 63 iron markers erected by organization volunteers that dot the landscape where the trail is near or crosses public roads.
Numbered with waypoints, one can follow the route promoted by Peter Lassen as that “short cut” to the gold fields. The trail, which first crossed Nevada’s Blackrock Desert, ended conveniently at Lassen’s rancho in Tehama County; it was a scam to funnel travelers to his land, and historical sources note that many travelers regretted taking the trail. It was called The Death Route of 1849, and the U.S. Army rode to the rescue with food and supplies.
The diarists recorded their reaction to the deception: “Today many of the company are uneasy on account of the intelligence we have received from the government folks who inform us that we are yet 380 miles from Sutter’s Fort. To Lassen’s location will be 219 miles over considerable bad roads and one desert of forty miles.”
But the journals also spoke of the abundant fish and wildlife that helped keep the wagoneers alive, the landscape—“Encamped for the night on a fine clear brook of pure water”—and the scenery: “Far in the west of us, solitary, rises to an immense height a gigantic mountain…covered with snow; a magnificent sight.”
That was Mt. Shasta that dominated the pioneer’s horizon. And for modern Modoc residents—including those not born in the county—it’s the high desert vistas and clear air that are still so alluring.
“It’s a subtle, severe, strong beauty,” offered Nick Menkee.
As the tour moved onto the last portion of the trail to be viewed for the day, it came to a draw rising from the Pit River, where the road makes a sweeping bend from south to west, up a hill.
“They forged the river in front of us and came out of the canyon,” said Hagge. “This is the best place trail is visible.”
Tour members inspecting the trail scuffed their shoes over the ground. It is littered with obsidian—a lot of it broken open, exposing shiny interiors: Work of cattle hooves or wagon wheels? Someone finds a small, diamond-shaped arrowhead—touchstone to another history.
Climbing back onto the tractor after one stop, rancher Hagge—who has lived under the broad skies his entire life—was impressed with the morning too, “What a fine day!”
Photos by H.A. Silliman.
© 2016 H.A. SILLIMAN ALL RIGHTS RESERVED