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Fire jumps Mormon Emigrant Trail, the Mormon Battalion’s contribution to the 1849 California Gold Rush

SHARE Fire jumps Mormon Emigrant Trail, the Mormon Battalion’s contribution to the 1849 California Gold Rush
The Caldor Fire in California has jumped the road known as Mormon Emigrant Trail, a key part of the 1849 California gold rush.

The Caldor Fire in northeastern California has engulfed the road known as Mormon Emigrant Trail, the white line that crosses through the northern section of the fire. The trail, carved out by a segment of the Mormon Battalion in 1848, helped fuel the 1849 California gold rush.

Deseret News

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Last week, it was renovations on Mormon Row in Wyoming. Now the seasonal road officially named Mormon Emigrant Trail is in the news.

The smoke from California wildfires is choking much of the United States. The plumes now stretch more than halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. Some of that smoke comes from the Caldor Fire east of Sacramento, California.

On Tuesday, the fire jumped Mormon Emigrant Trail, now a paved road with an incredible history of fueling the 1849 gold rush and the future of California.

The trail was blazed through the wilderness by members of the Mormon Battalion. In the spring of 1848 they were building John Sutter’s sawmill and mining for gold in what today is Sacramento when Brigham Young called them home. With Sutter’s Mill complete but the snow too deep for passage through the Sierra Nevada, the Latter-day Saint group carved a new, 170-mile road out of the wilderness in 30 days.

The trail became a summer thoroughfare for forty-niners rushing to the gold fields. The road was snow-free just 90 days a year because it passed through elevations as high as 9,550 feet. In fact, the paved Mormon Emigrant Trail still closes annually during the winter.

The original trail choked with traffic every year during those 90 summer days.

More than 50,000 wagons and 200,000 forty-niners used the trail from 1849-1854, traveling with tens of thousands of head of cattle, horses and sheep, according to CaliforniaPioneer.com.

Two notes from journal entries shared by the website describe the traffic:

  • Some said the wagon trains stretched so long that a person could wait hours before a break wide enough to cross the trail.
  • Others reported that up to 250 wagons would line up waiting to be lowered by block and tackle and rope down the steep slope called Devil’s Ladder.

One other interesting note ties the trail to Latter-day Saint history. For years, it was known as “Mormon Carson Emigrant Trail,” because it passed through (Kit) Carson Pass. Four years before the Mormon Battalion used the pass, the famous frontiersman had used it with the explorer John C. Frémont.

Frémont’s narratives and maps about that trip and one the following year each included parts of modern-day Utah which “had a profound impact” on Latter-day Saint leaders in Nauvoo, Illinois, according to a BYU Religious Studies Center article by Alexander Baugh.

Of course, the first Latter-day Saint pioneers set out for the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

Today, people living near the paved road known as Mormon Emigrant Trail, which in some areas takes a different course than the original trail blazed by the Mormon Battalion party, are under evacuation orders due to the Caldor Fire.

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