Highway 50 an Essential Road in America's History
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Bridge photo by Craig Philpott
It bisects the county connecting Folsom to Lake Tahoe and the Nevada state line. But did you know that Highway 50 is one of the longest highways in the U.S.—connecting Sacramento to Ocean City, Maryland, and covering a distance of over 3,000 miles?
Highway 50 was established as part of the U.S. highway system in 1926 connecting Sacramento to Annapolis. In later years, the route was extended west to San Francisco and east to Ocean City, but in 1972 the route from Sacramento to San Francisco was replaced with interstate highways. It travels through 12 states (California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia) and is one of the last coast-to-coast roadways that remains intact; in fact, it’s the only U.S. highway that hasn’t been designated as an interstate.
East of Placerville, Highway 50 roughly follows the route of a wagon trail discovered by John C. Johnson in the 1840s (see the May issue). Known as Johnson’s Cutoff, the trail was used by emigrants traveling to Placerville and Sacramento but hadn’t been developed into anything more than a footpath for pack trains. In the late 1850s, the state conducted surveys looking for a location for an official improved wagon road, and Johnson’s Cutoff was the favored route. The legislature authorized construction of the road, but funding failed.
In 1857, J.B. Crandall, who owned the Pioneer Stage Line with service between Sacramento and Placerville, sent a stage loaded with seven state wagon road commissioners and a reporter eastbound over Johnson’s Cutoff. The stage reached Carson Valley in 27 hours; the following day Crandall started regular stage service between Placerville and Carson Valley. Private operators took it upon themselves to build the road, each improving a section and charging a toll to pass over it. By the 1860s, it was the favored route for travelers heading west.
When silver was discovered in the Comstock Lode, the road became the major thoroughfare for eastbound freight wagons delivering goods to the mines in Nevada. Hotels, lodges, roadhouses and stables lined the road. The route was also used by the riders of the Pony Express from 1860 to 1861, and by the transcontinental telegraph line.
In 1895, the State Bureau of Highways purchased the road designating it as Highway 1, the first state highway. The road was paved in 1923, and later became known as Highway 50. It served as an important part of the Lincoln Highway, which was established in 1913 to connect New York and San Francisco.Portions of the old road, bridges (visit bridgehunter.com/ca/el-dorado/bh49380) and roadside advertisements painted on rock faces can be found on back roads alongside Highway 50 east of Placerville.