The California Trail

The California Trail was a 2,000 mile emigrant route across the western half of the United States.

Discovery of South Pass

The South Pass is on the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Wyoming. The passes are located in a broad low region, 35 miles (56 km) wide, between the Wind River Range to the north and the Oregon Buttes and Great Divide Basin to the south, in southwestern Fremont County, approximately 35 miles (56 km) SSW of Lander. South Pass is the lowest point on the Continental Divide between the Central Rocky Mountains and the Southern Rocky Mountains. The passes furnish a natural crossing point of the Rockies. The historic pass became the route for emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails to the West during the 19th century.

First Wagon Train

The Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party consisted of ten families who migrated from Iowa to California prior to the Mexican-American War or the California Gold Rush. The Stephens Party is significant in California history because they were the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada during the expansion of the American West. They pioneered the first route at or near what was later named Donner Pass in 1844. The crossing was a year before Fremont, two years before the Donner Party and five years before the 1848-49 Gold Rush.

California Gold Rush

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall, a foreman working for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter, found shiny metal in the tailrace of a lumber mill Marshall was building for Sutter on the American River. Marshall brought what he found to John Sutter, and the two privately tested the metal. After the tests showed that it was gold, Sutter expressed dismay: he wanted to keep the news quiet because he feared what would happen to his plans for an agricultural empire if there were a mass search for gold.

Cholera on the Trail

The third cholera pandemic (1852–60) was considered to have the highest fatalities of the 19th-century epidemics. The preferred camping spots for travelers on the trails north and south of the muddy Platte River were along one of the many fresh water streams draining into the Platte or the occasional fresh water spring found along the way. These preferred camping spots became sources of cholera infections during the third cholera pandemic (1852–1860). Many thousands of people used the same camping spots whose water supplies became contaminated by human wastes.

The Railroad

The ultimate competitor to the California Trail showed up in 1869 when the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed. The combined Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad carried traffic from the East into California, and the Virginia and Truckee Railroad carried traffic from Reno to Virginia City. The trip from Omaha Nebraska to California became faster, cheaper, and safer, with a typical trip taking only seven days and a $65 (economy) fare. Even before completion, sections of the railroad were used to haul freight and people around Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. The price of many goods imported from the east dropped by 20–50% as the much cheaper transportation costs were mostly passed on to the consumers. The California trail was used after 1869 by a few intrepid travelers, but it mostly reverted to local traffic traveling to towns or locations along the trail.