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Old Sonora-Mono Road – Highway 108

 

Old Highway 108

 

 The oldest trans-Sierra emigrant trail to California crossed over the spectacular Sonora Pass.  Today’s Highway 108 is much the same route as the Old Sonora-Mono Toll Road.  Completed in 1864, it was finally constructed to increase the flow of supplies from Tuolumne County to new gold camps on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.  When the easy gold was exhausted, the area’s forest and grazing land resources became important to the economy.            

History and Background

            Native Americans both east and west of the Sierra Nevada crest had long crossed at and near Sonora Pass.  It was an important route for trading goods such as obsidian, salt, soapstone and shell beads.  Obsidian flakes, originally from the Mono Craters area east of the pass, can be found along Highway 108 west of the Sonora Pass. 

            In May 1841, near the banks of the Missouri River a group set out with wagons for California.  John Bartleson was elected captain of the party and 20-year old John Bidwell was secretary.  On October 18, 1841, they crossed the summit of the Sierra, a difficult segment about eight miles south of the present Sonora Pass. The route over the Sierra, pioneered by the Bartleson-Bidwell Party was not attempted by wagons again until 1852.  That year the Clark-Skidmore Party made it to Columbia, Tuolumne County.  Their crossing prompted citizens of Sonora to send a delegation in 1853 to divert emigrants from the more northerly routes leading to Sacramento.  The wagon train of William Duckwall and George Trahern were persuaded to follow this route, struggling over boulders and precipices.  They lost cattle and some wagons but reached Relief Camp.  Sonorans had provisions for sale at Relief Camp for the many pioneer parties that were soon winding down the mountains. By 1853, several thousand emigrants had followed the route. 

            In 1855, the Walker River Trail segments had been abandoned as a wagon route.  A new route eliminated the old emigrant trail.  The new trail led along the present route of Highway 108 from Strawberry to the junction of Clarks Fork and the Stanislaus River, then up Clarks Fork, crossing at Mary’s Pass and rejoining the route of modern Highway 108 just west of Sonora Pass.  From there the road followed much the same route as today’s highway down to Bridgeport.  Subsequently, the Clark Fork segment was also eliminated. 

            During the late 1850s, ranchers, farmers, business owners, and teamsters were eager to revitalize Tuolumne County’s sagging economy by establishing trade between the County and the growing commercial regions east of Sonora Pass, such as Bodie and Aurora.  In 1861, the U. S. Congress authorized construction of a road to run from the foot of what is now Twain Harte Grade over Sonora Pass.  Credit for the discovery of today’s Sonora Pass route has gone to Andrew Flecher, the superintendent of Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Company, who discovered this route in 1862. 

            A contractor named J. B. Carter was paid $400,000 to build the road, but that sum proved inadequate so another company completed the construction with private financing.  Toll gates at what is now Twain Harte and Sugar Pine were implemented to defray the expenses of construction.  An Ohioan named Alfred Fuller, who came to the area during the 1850s, took a Me-Wuk wife and lived on what was then the Calder Ranch.  He was hired to operate the toll gate (near what is now Twain Harte) of the Sonora-Mono Road and continued until the 1890s when the government took over maintenance of the road. 

            When Bodie was booming in 1877, the road was filled with stage coaches and freight wagons.  There were stops along the way at Sugar Pine, Strawberry, Baker’s Station, Leavitt’s Station, and Big Meadows.  As the fortunes of Bodie faded, so did travel over Sonora Pass. 

            In 1923, Alonzo and Keturah Wood bought 640 acres of land from John Williams.  The Woods subdivided the area in 1924 and named it Twain Harte after their two favorite Mother Lode authors.  It is believed to be the first private recreational subdivision in the Sierra Nevada.  Other areas developed over time along the Sonora-Mono Road include Confidence, Mi-Wuk Village, Sugar Pine, Long Barn, and Strawberry.  In 1951, Dodge Ridge opened as a snow ski recreation area. 

Current Features

            In March 1901, California Governor Henry Gage signed legislation which made Sonora-Mono Road part of the state highway system.  In 1906, the contract for the Relief Dam on the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River resulted in improving the road between Sonora and Kennedy Meadows so heavy equipment could be moved on this route.  Today, Sonora-Mono Road has been replaced by State Highway 108; however, traces of the old road are still visible from the highway.  The modern Sonora Pass Highway winds through some of the most historic and scenic spots in California.

 How to Get There

            Head east on Highway 108 and continue past Kennedy Meadows about ten miles, where you encounter Sonora Pass.

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