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Lincoln Highway: California May 6, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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We at last complete our cross-continental journey!

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. This is the final installment. Go here for an introduction.

I was in my late thirties before I ever visited the “Left Coast.” Since that time, I’ve been out to California a few times, mainly for hiking in the eastern Sierra. It seems to me that California has the most interesting geographical extremes: the obvious example being the vertical difference between minus 282′ at Badwater in Death Valley and the summit of Mt. Whitney not that far away, at 14,494′. The Lincoln Highway goes through incredibly varied landscapes as it crosses the state—the Sierra Nevada, the gold-mining foothills of the western Sierra, the enormous Central Valley, and the San Francisco Bay area.

The route of the Lincoln Highway crosses the Sierra Nevada either by the Donner route or by the Pioneer route further south. The routes join in Sacramento, where there is another split. The 1913 route followed what is now Highway 99 to Stockton. It was realigned in 1927, following close to the course now taken by I-80.

Donner Pass is of course famous for the terrible fate of the pioneers who became trapped by deep snow and resorted to cannibalism. The photo below indicates the depth of the snow by the tree stumps cut off at snow level.

The depth of the snow is apparent by the stumps

The three rescue parties who came out to help the Donner party in February and March 1847 were greeted by terrible sights: dismembered bodies, emaciated, haggard survivors. The pioneers had tried to find nourishment in old ox hides and leather shoelaces, but they had taken to eating the bodies of those who didn’t survive.

But now the trip over the pass is accomplished easily by I-80, except when it is briefly closed by snow.

Donner Pass

In snow-free months, it’s possible to exit the interstate at Truckee and follow the original route of the highway.

Both of the eastern branches of the route go through gold mining towns such as Placerville. Before it got its current name, Placerville was known as “Dry Diggins” and “Hangtown.”” In Placerville, the miners were fond of drinking soda water, and one of the former soda factories is now the Fountain & Tallman Museum.

Fountain & Tallman Museum

State capital Sacramento is the next major stop. It originated as Sutter’s Fort and experienced a boom with the gold mining years. Early Lincoln Highway traveler Effie Gladding thought that Sacramento still felt like a frontier town in 1914. “Judging by appearances, there are more saloons in proportion to the other shops of Sacramento than in any other town in California, unless it be San Francisco.” But she admired the “Sacramento Bee” building and the well-tended park around the State House.

Sutter’s Fort

Here the splitting routes lead either through Vacaville or through Stockton. I stumbled across an odd geography factoid about Vacaville: it supposedly has the highest per capita concentration of electric cars in the world and is sometimes called “Voltageville.” I could find no particular explanation for this phenomenon.

Vaca Hills

Effie Gladding attended a rodeo in Stockton on her trip. Nowadays the city hosts an annual Asparagus Festival and has a decidedly less “frontier” feel to it.

Stockton sits at the head of the San Joaquin waterway, which connects with San Francisco Bay

Stockton as Effie Gladding saw it. 1. Roof garden of the Stockton Hotel; 2. At the head of the San Joaquin.

We are fast approaching the western terminus. Lincoln Highway travelers in 1928 crossed San Francisco Bay via a ferry from the Berkeley Pier to the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco; drivers now travel via I-80 to approach the Bay. From the Hyde Street Pier, today’s travelers follow a complicated sequence of streets to reach Lincoln Park and the Lincoln Highway Western Terminus Plaza. Our journey is done! Thank you for traveling with me.

California Street, one of the streets between Hyde Street Pier and the Lincoln Highway Western Terminus Plaza



1. J. G. Burdette - May 7, 2012

The Donner Party is a sad tale.

Jenny - May 7, 2012

It’s hard to imagine a story of greater hardship and disaster, especially when you read about the details of the group’s interactions. I’d originally meant to go into greater detail, but I found that I couldn’t write about it at all without writing at length. It deserves a separate post.

J. G. Burdette - May 7, 2012

If you do a post on it you can count on me reading it.

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