● By Wendy Sipple
Photo courtesy of the El Dorado County Photo Library.
When word of the Comstock Lode discovery reached the depleting gold fields of the Sierra Nevada Foothills in 1859, thousands rushed to stake their claims in the Nevada mines.
Many eastbound fortune seekers traveled along the same routes that led them into California a decade earlier. By then, however, these heavily traveled roads were deeply rutted trails from years of traffic. Five thousand teams plied the Sierra Wagon Road between Placerville and Virginia City during the early 1860s. The road resembled a busy city street over which 280,000 tons of freight and payloads of silver bullion and gold bars were transported over Echo Summit and Carson Pass.
Old Strawberry Resort on Highway 50 served as an important weigh station along the Sierra Wagon Road during the Nevada Silver Bonanza. The original inn, known as the Strawberry Valley House was built in 1856 and purchased by Pioneer Stage Line driver Charles Watson in 1865. In 1861, Ira F. Berry built Strawberry Station, located about a half-mile west of the Strawberry Valley House which served as a remount station for the famed Pony Express. The two inns operated concurrently for several years. When fire destroyed Watson’s Strawberry Valley House in 1868, Watson purchased Berry’s old station.
Strawberry soon gained fame as the “best stopping-place” on the road to Washoe, accommodating such notables as Horace Greeley, John Sutter, stage driver Hank Monk, and the legendary “Snowshoe” Thompson. In 1860, writer J. Ross Browne visited Strawberry where he found a barroom “packed as closely as it could be without bursting the walls.”
When the Central Pacific Railroad chose the route north of Placerville, El Dorado County’s rich freighting industry declined. Many weigh stations were abandoned but Strawberry Station remained. After Charles Watson’s death in 1891, his daughter Olive and her husband William Martin operated the resort. In 1939, Fred Baumhoff purchased the 160-acre property and created his “picture spot of the American River Canyon.”
The new Strawberry Resort, which now features a 14-unit motel, a nine-hole golf course, fish hatchery, fishing ponds and stables, reopened on Memorial Day in 1940. Subsequent owner Otto Schaefer added a swimming pool, tennis courts and a skating rink. Later popular attractions included skiing and sleighing. During summer and winter, the resort sold out two years in advance and boasted a guest list with Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, James Cagney, and Abbott and Costello. Like other patrons, they enjoyed gourmet meals served in the luxurious yet rustic Pioneer Room and dancing under the glowing chandeliers in the Gold Ballroom, which was added in 1952.
Future upgrades on Highway 50 and more efficient snow removal practices allowed traffic to better access the resorts of South Lake Tahoe. More recent owners of Strawberry Lodge have found it difficult to compete with the lure of Stateline casinos and modern ski resorts. However, Strawberry Lodge still warmly welcomes visitors to enjoy its historical comforts, take in the beautiful scenery of the Strawberry Valley, and walk or ski the trails of the early pioneers.