April 3, 2008

Old wagon roads of Sherwin Grade

Along the Trail

By David McNeill
Mammoth Times

These deep ruts in the solid Bishop Tuff rock were formed by the braking action of heavy freight wagons. Photo by David McNeill

To stand down at the bottom of Sherwin Grade on U.S. 395, some 10 miles north of Bishop, Calif., and look up is impressive. Cars and trucks zoom by at high speeds and accomplish in 10 minutes, what it took pioneers in wagons an entire day to negotiate. Huge wagons weighing tons ground their way up and down the volcanic Tuff rock leaving a permanent mark in history with their deeps ruts.

There has been a progression of about five or six different roads up the grade to get to where we are today. One of the first roads was for logging made by James L.C. Sherwin in 1870. The logs for lumber were cut at Swall Meadows, known formerly as Sherwin Meadows, and hauled down to a sawmill at Rock Creek Canyon. They dammed up the creek and made a large pond in which to float the logs. In 1879 Sherwin built what was called the High Road through Rock Creek Canyon, Long Valley and Mammoth City. This toll route ran by the old ranger station at Witcher Spring to Rock Creek Station, Little Round Valley, Whiskey Creek, McGee Meadows, Laurel and Sherwin creeks, and Mammoth City.

Sherwin's grandson Fred Brooks used to recall, "My grandfather, James L.C. Sherwin, came to Round Valley in 1866. I used to go with my grandfather on his trips to Mono Mills and Bodie when I was a boy, that is, when we could get through." Sherwin brought his wife, Nancy, and two daughters, May and Nannie, from Virginia City, Nev., where they had arrived from back east in 1859. He chose to build a home on beautiful Rock Creek, bordering the Inyo-Mono county line, and grew wonderful produce and fruit.

When deep snow closed the "High Road," Sherwin built another road to the east called the "Dry Road" that started at the old Roberts Creamery just below the county line. Sherwin employed a lot of the local Paiute Indians to help with all kinds of labor from digging irrigation ditches to building roads and farming. There was never a shortage of labor or a means to make a living for anyone at that time.

I have walked all the old wagon roads in their entirety from the bottom of Sherwin Grade to Sherwin Summit and Tom's Place. The roads are about 10 miles long and average 3,000 vertical feet.

The Dry Road is the most outstanding example of a historic wagon road to be found anywhere in the West. It remains so because nobody has traveled on it since the 1970s, when the four-lane highway was built and freeway fences closed off all access.

At the top of the grade where it comes out on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Gorge Road, rock slides have closed it off, and very few people know where it is anymore. It crosses the new highway at the bottom and midway up. Most people drive right by a short section that runs through the median and never see it. Yet, there it is after 138 years. The road parallels the new highway to the west for about five miles and goes through a half mile stretch of solid Tuff rock with deep ruts. This is very noticeable from the air. The ruts were formed when the heavy wagons braked and ground their wheels into the rock. Some of the ruts are up to two-feet deep, and the wagons could not get out to pass another oncoming wagon. They had to look ahead, listen for the bells and try to find a place to turn out with the big teams. As you can imagine, it took a lot of cussin' on the part of the muleskinners to get those animals to respond.

They were out there in all the elements of extreme heat, cold, snow and blow with nowhere to hide. They had to put their head and hat into the wind and take the brunt of it. It was a tough business to be a teamster in those days. It was hard on the animals and the men, but the goods had to get through to the mines and towns along the way.

The High Road was the route used most often and also has many deep rutted sections in the solid rock. Near the turnoff to Swall Meadows the road is visible right off the highway. It actually crosses the old Rock Creek Road in two places before dropping down into the Gorge. Mountain bikers now use the old wagon road as a trail that starts at Swall Meadows and goes down to Paradise.

It is really hard for us to conceive today what the experience of traveling the old wagon roads was like. From the idyllic ranches and stage stops of Round Valley to the lush meadows of Long Valley and Sherwin Creek, the buggies, small wagons and large freight teams of 18 mules labored along. All that is left now is a few historic buildings and the ruts in the road. They will tell a story for centuries to come of a unique time in our western history along the old wagon roads of Sherwin Grade.

David McNeill has lived in Bishop since 1974, working for the Water District and the Forest Service for most of that time. At home in the wilderness, he does a lot of hiking with Windy, his Springer spaniel. With a taste for writing he explored during stints at Mammoth's Channel 5 and the Mono Herald, he has a drawer full of stories.