Spring is near and a brutal winter has passed –– we hope –– to be remembered by many as the Great Storm of 2017.
Of all the storms to hit this region, however, the worst was a 43-day mega-storm that began in early December 1861. Floods ripped out bridges, homes and businesses throughout the foothills, including in Nevada City, and an inland sea at least 300 miles long and 20 miles wide formed in the valley.
That December, during the height of the storm, Bill Stewart, a pioneer Nevada City miner and attorney, performed a physical feat ideally suited for a Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
Stewart, then 34, owned a half-interest in a very productive gold mine on the Carson River in the Nevada Territory. But when snow in the mountains melted from a sudden warm rain, the Carson River flooded and his mine site was destroyed. Nothing remained but a barren gravel bar.
Faced with costly reconstruction and the need for new stamp mills, he decided to venture west with the aim of catching a steamer in Sacramento so he could go to San Francisco to borrow money from a friend there. With the loan, he knew he could get the rich mine back in operation.
The snow was too deep for a horse, so he packed a knapsack, grabbed his snowshoes and set out on foot.
The Great Storm of 1861-62 was in full force as Stewart trudged through miles of snow from his mine below Gold Hill in Storey County to Yanks Station at Meyers, south of Lake Tahoe. He camped at Yanks overnight and the next day followed the snow-covered trans-Sierra wagon trail up to Strawberry Ranch, where he found shelter to sleep.
On the third day of his odyssey, he continued following the El Dorado County wagon trail above the South Fork of the American River and made it to Placerville, a distance of nearly 50 miles. Heavy rain was falling there, but no snow.
Once in Placerville, he bought a horse, intending to ride it to Sacramento then catch a steamer to San Francisco. Just beyond Folsom, however, the water became too deep to continue, so he found a man willing to take the horse in trade for a rowboat ride to Sacramento.
The boatman got them to Sacramento that evening, where the two of them slept in the second story of a flooded house.
The following morning, Stewart paid the boatman to row around the Sacramento waterfront until they found a steamer headed west. And before the sun set that evening, he was at his friend’s house in San Francisco.
Stewart’s friend loaned the former Nevada City attorney $32,000 –– a huge sum in 1861 –– secured by his share of the demolished, flooded mine on the Carson River. And with that, Stewart began retracing his steps.
He took a steamer from San Francisco to Sacramento, hired a boatman to row him to Folsom, then bought a horse and rode 20 miles to Placerville. Once there, he sold the horse and began on foot, walking toward Johnson Pass (now Echo Summit), eventually reaching his home in Gold Hill.
On foot, on snowshoes, on horseback and in rowboats, the route Bill Stewart followed to and from Sacramento was essentially the route of present-day U.S. Highway 50. The 440-mile roundtrip during the worst storm in recorded California history, (including 130 nautical miles), took Stewart only ten days.
With the $32,000 loan, he soon had the mine back in operation. And in March, he sold his share for $60,000 and repaid the loan. Three years later, he became a U. S. senator from the new state of Nevada, serving a total of 28 years (1865-1875 and 1887-1905)
In 1909, the 81-year-old former Nevada County District Attorney died while visiting Washington, D.C. on business.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.