News: Historic emigrant trails, Nevada Guard intersect at Elko County Readiness Center
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka
CARLIN, Nev. – The course of the nation’s Manifest Destiny and the Nevada National Guard meet here at the Elko County Readiness Center.
Two major emigrant routes, the California Trail and one option of the Greenhorn Cutoff Trail, intersect near the entrance of the Nevada Guard’s 460-acre facility in this small city of 3,000 residents about 20 miles west of Elko, Nev.
The Greenhorn Cutoff bisects the Nevada Guard’s land vertically alongside Dry Susie Creek before it rejoins the California Trail just south of the readiness center.
“Reaching the intersection of the two trails would have marked a significant milestone for the emigrants – they had navigated the difficult Carlin Canyon area,” said Jan Petersen, a historian at the California Trail Interpretive Center. “But they still had the 40-mile desert and Sierra Nevada ahead of them.”
Obtained by the Nevada Army Guard in April 2013, the Elko County Readiness Center houses a detachment of the 593rd Transportation Company and is located just north of the Humboldt River, about two miles east of downtown Carlin. The 2,000-mile-long California Trail, which began at the Missouri River and terminated in northern California, followed the Humboldt River corridor for about 300 miles in Nevada. (Today, Interstate 80 roughly traces much of the emigrant route.)
Spurred by Manifest Destiny – a prevalent belief at the time that Americans were destined to settle throughout the continent – and dreams of striking it rich in the California Gold Rush, more than 200,000 emigrants headed west along the California Trail from 1849-1853, according to author Richard Brock. Thousands of travelers, including 39 in the infamous Donner Party, never reached their destination on the taxing trail.
The Greenhorn Cutoff was actually an alternate route around Carlin Canyon that allowed emigrants to bypass the four arduous crossings of the Humboldt River required on the main California Trail. The crossings were especially difficult and dangerous during high-water years. The cutoff began near Hunter Exit 292 on I-80 and wound north around Carlin Canyon before turning south alongside Dry Susie Creek to reconnect with the main California Trail.
Contrary to its derisive name, the Greenhorn Cutoff was actually several miles longer than the main trail and had its disadvantages, including the fact it was more mountainous and drier than the main trail.
“We had taken what is called the ‘Greenhorn Cut-off,’ which required 15 miles of travel to gain six miles on our journey,” wrote emigrant Margaret Fink in her diary on July 25, 1850, much to her chagrin.
The route alongside Dry Susie Creek on Nevada Guard property was just one of several Greenhorn Cutoff options emigrants had when traveling the California Trail.
Evidence of the California Trail near the Elko County Readiness Center main gate is either paved over or was graded away to level the ground for the eight buildings that stand on the south end of the property. From the mid-1990s to 2013, the facility served as the University of Nevada, Reno, Fire Science Academy. (The exact intersection of the two trails is likely under I-80.)
On the north side of the readiness center property, however, the swales created by wagons on the Greenhorn Cutoff are still visible. Not as well-defined as the parallel wagon ruts seen elsewhere on the California Trail, the swales are eroded routes of passage found in sandy soil.
“The bowed-depression appearance of the trails alongside Dry Susie Creek is a common feature of wagon swales,” Petersen said. “These swales have not been certified by the National Park Service, but it’s very likely these swales are visible remnants of the Greenhorn Trail.”
To view the swales, visitors should drive north on the main utility road on the readiness center until reaching the north perimeter fence. After parking, walk south with Dry Susie Creek on the right and the utility road on the left; the north-to-south swales will become apparent between the swaths of sagebrush. Carry proper identification to enter the readiness center property.
Traffic on the California Trail remained heavy through the 1860s and then decreased abruptly with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The final spike of the railroad was driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Overnight, the cross country travel time from coast to coast was reduced from months to just days.
Petersen said the majority of emigrants were lured to the Golden State in the late 1840s and early 1850s by the exaggerated stories that circulated in the eastern United States claiming one only had to reach California to become rich by bending over and scooping gold nuggets off the ground. Although many emigrants did enjoy success in California, few struck it rich prospecting for gold.
Ironically, Petersen noted, the emigrants were close to more gold than they could have imagined while traversing Carlin Canyon. According to the Northeastern Nevada Regional Development Authority, the area surrounding Carlin and Elko is now the largest gold-producing area in North America.
“Although no one realized it until the 1960s, the emigrants were walking across the region the most gold in the United States right here in northeastern Nevada while on their way to California,” Petersen said.
This work, Historic emigrant trails, Nevada Guard intersect at Elko County Readiness Center, by SFC Erick Studenicka, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.