Kirkwood History – The Opening of the Kit Carson Pass
© 2004 by Anthony M. Belli
Kirkwood Mountain Resort today is California’s premier world-class ski resort and summer vacation destination with few rivals in the west. Although a magical place Kirkwood is steeped in rich California history centered on the opening of the Kit Carson Pass during the Mexican period (1822-1847). Carson Pass would become the most significant route for the overland 49ers during the American period that came by the tens of thousands to man the California Gold Rush. It is the same pass used by one man on his way to Hangtown in 1852 to try his luck at mining… His name is Zacharias S. Kirkwood, one day he would own this land and go on to become a legend on this mountain.
By using journal entries penned by 2 nd Lieutenant John C. Fremont, of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers along with those of his cartographer, Charles Preuss we will follow their mid-winter passage of the Sierra Nevada range. According to Fremont’s report when his second expedition was encamped at Carson Valley, Utah Territory (Nevada) on January 31, 1844 their condition was desperate. It was snowing steadily, provisions are nearly depleted, and the stock was weak and unfit for travel. Regardless Fremont decided to cross the snowbound Sierras and forge their way some 70 miles west to Sutter’s Fort where the expedition could obtain food and supplies.
“The people received this decision with the cheerful obedience which had always characterized them,” wrote Fremont. Their trail would follow the East Fork of the Carson River as they ascended the mountain. On February 1 st at the base of the eastern Sierras Carson wrote… “Provisions very low; we had neither tallow nor grease of any kind remaining, and salt became one of our greatest privations. The poor dog, the mess requested permission to kill it. Leave was granted. Spread out on the snow, the meat looked very good; and it made a strengthen meal.”
“February 2, 1844- Crossing the river on ice, we commenced the ascent of the mountain. The people were unusually silent; for every man knew that our enterprise was hazardous, and the tissue doubtful.” Following this route the party passed through today’s Markleeville at an elevation of 5,867.’ The following day deep snowdrifts forced the party to break a road. A group of ten men would labor until to fatigued to continue. They literally stomped the snow down by foot to compact it enough for the animals to pass over.
Expedition cartographer, Charles Preuss on February 3 rd wrote… “We are getting deeper and deeper into the mountains and snow. We pay one roving Indian after another to guide us across. They march with us a few miles and leave us as soon as they have a chance.”
February 4, 1844 – Camp at Faith Valley (7800’)
On February 4 th Fremont with 2 or 3 others set off on horseback to break the path while looking for an Indian trail, which was to take them on to Charity Valley. “Melo” a Washoe guide pointed west to a break in the mountains (Carson Pass) and indicated that crossing here would take them to the Sacramento River valley. That afternoon Fremont was able to look down upon today’s Charity and Faith valleys. He made several entries in his journal on this day… “We cut footing as we advanced, and trampled a road through for the animals; but occasionally one plunged outside the trail.” The guide informed us that we were entering the deep snow, and here began the difficulties of the mountain; and to him, (Melo) and almost to all our enterprise seemed hopeless…”
The gap in the ridge lay just 4.5 miles ahead and Fremont had desired to make that distance by “force” in a single day. But in this uncharted Sierra ice wilderness they wouldn’t make the pass for another 16 days! That evening Fremont receives two visitors in camp who vehemently protested his intention to cross…
“Two Indians (Washoe) joined our party here, and one of them, an old man, immediately began to harangue us, saying that ourselves and animals would perish in the snow; and if we would go back he would show us a better way across the mountains. We had now begun to understand some words, and with the aid of signs, easily comprehend the old man’s simple ideas. ‘Rock upon rock---rock upon rock---snow upon snow---snow upon snow, even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down from the mountain.”
John C. Fremont Feb. 4, 1844
Ignoring the elder Washoe mans offer two days later, on February 6th a reconnoitering party consisting of Fremont, Kit Carson and the legendary Mountain man and guide, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick break camp and proceed alone on snowshoes. They march to a peak where Kit Carson can see Mt. Diablo in the distance along with the coastal range. Carson recognized Mt. Diablo from his earlier California expedition with Ewing Young. Between them and the coast range sat the Sacramento valley and Sutter’s Fort.
By February 10the the expedition was strung out over an icy trail for more then 20 miles from today’s Markleeville to the camp at Grovers to the next camp at Charity Valley to the camp at Faith Valley to Long Camp within view of the summit. Fremont orders five men to return to Grovers and slaughterseveral horses and to deliver the meat to the various camps and near starved men.
to be continued in Part 2
Kirkwood History Stories