Although mining provided the impetus for settlement on both sides of the Ebbetts Pass route, no major mining regions were located on the Big Tree(s) Road between Murphys and Ebbetts Pass. With gold mining in Calaveras County and silver mining in Alpine County and the Nevada Comstock booming in the 1850s and 1860s, however, small agricultural settlements were established along the route of the Big Tree(s) Road. Second to mining in importance in the gold country, agriculture was always critical as a supporting service. With animals providing much of the labor, massive production of hay and grasses was necessary to feed the cattle, oxen, and horses for mining, agriculture, and transportation. Additionally, fruits and vegetables produced in the foothills were transported across the pass to the mines on the eastern slope.
As there was no method for obtaining legal title to agricultural or residential parcels in the earliest years of the Gold Rush, many settlers simply filed claims under the mining claim laws, stating that they were using their lands for agricultural purposes. When a local government was established, however, claimants were able to obtain title to their land under the Public Land Act of April 24, 1820, and most did so. The Homestead Act of 1862 also allowed settlers title to their lands, although both laws required specific periods of residence and the making of improvements of a specified value prior to the issuance of a patent.
Upland grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats was an important historic land use in the Sierra Nevada. As early as 1850 there were accounts of stock grazing in the high country. A newspaper account in September of that year mentioned that a man (unnamed) was herding cattle in the Silver Lake Valley area (present Lake Alpine) (San Andreas Independent, September 17, 1850). William Dennis, owner of the Willow Creek Sawmill near San Andreas and a ranch near Jenny Lind, was the first to claim land in the Silver Lake Valley area. According to the San Andreas Independent (July 2, 1859), Dennis claimed the valley and commenced fencing in the summer of 1859 on 160 acres of land in Silver Valley, “near the Union Water Co.’s Reservoir.” Dennis brought 300 head of half-breed and American cattle to his range that summer. By 1860 he had also obtained title to a ranch in Grizzly Bear Valley (present Bear Valley), selling to Harvey Blood in the spring of 1864 and moving to the booming mining community of Silver City where he erected a steam sawmill (Stockton Independent, March 29, 1864).
When the Murphys Exploring Party of 1855 visited Big Meadows they stopped at what was probably the oldest cabin built along the route between Dorrington and Blood's Station. There they found “the meadow taken up and claimed by Smith and four others, who are cutting grass and hauling hay to the sawmill (Union Water Company’s steam sawmill on Mill Creek, two miles above present Dorrington) and the Big Tree, hunting, etc.” They also found a good wagon road up to this point. Known as Big Meadows Ranch in the 1870s, the site became a dairy ranch and known as Guishetti’s in the 1890s and early 1900s (Wood and Bishop 1968:42).
By the mid-1860s, virtually every lake, meadow, and open area had been appropriated by stockmen. Pasturing stock on their foothill ranches during the winter and spring months, they made the annual trek to the high country every June or July so that the animals could partake of the verdant mountain pastures. This cycle was extremely important since the green grass of the lower elevations would have been eaten and the stock ponds would be dry by mid-summer. Worry about water and food for the animals was not a concern in the high country. This pattern of high country stock grazing has continued to the present, although the Stanislaus National Forest now issues only six leases in the Calaveras District, compared to more than 600 issued in the early 1900s when the Forest Preserve was established and stockmen were first obliged to obtain leases.
Virtually all of the original stopping places along the Big Tree(s) route were established as ranching and grazing operations and provided sustenance to travelers and stockmen during the summer months. These included: Stickles Half-Way House/Avery, Flanders, Morans, Fourteen Mile House, Cold Spring Ranch/Gardner’s Station/Dorrington, Hinkleman Meadow, Mill Creek Station, Cottage Springs, Mud Springs, Black Springs, Big Springs, Ganns, Cabbage Patch, Big Meadows/Register Flat, Onion Valley/ Tamarack, Grizzly Bear Valley/Blood’s Station, Stanislaus Meadow, Pacific Valley, Holden’s Station/Hermit Valley, and undoubtedly others lost to history (Bishop Notes, n.d., various). These were rude establishments at best; travelers were often forced to bed down on dirt or wood floors or on rough cots, usually sharing a room with a dozen or more people. The names of these stopping places, however, have remained on the land as geographical locations on historic and current maps.
The exception to this settlement pattern was at the Big Tree Grove/Calaveras Big Trees, ostensibly discovered by Augustus T. Dowd, an employee of the Union Water Company of Murphys, who came upon the grove while on a hunting expedition in 1852. Other Americans who had claimed discovery earlier included John T. Bidwell, who asserted that he traveled through the grove in 1841 on his way over the Sierra Nevada. Several emigrants, including the William B. Prince party, the Flanders party, and a Missouri doctor, recorded their impressions of the North Grove as they traveled westward in 1849 (Bishop, personal papers, no date).
The discovery created tremendous excitement throughout California and many rushed to the area to view the mighty giants for themselves. A rough log cabin was built in the grove in 1852, followed by the Mammoth Tree Hotel in 1853, and the Mammoth Grove Hotel in 1861. That hotel, which could accommodate 60 lodgers, burned to the ground in 1943. The Big Tree Grove is now a unit of the California Department of Parks and Recreation (Costello et al. 1988:7-14).
Public lands that were not immediately suitable for agriculture and had no obvious mineral reserves were ignored for the first three decades after the gold discovery. On June 3, 1878, however, Congress passed the Timber and Stone Act. This law allowed the individual acquisition of 160-acre parcels of timbered land for $2.50 per acre. Individuals with an eye to the future began to file claims to timber land. The procedure was easy and many patents were issued without the claimant ever setting foot upon the parcel involved. Frequently, claims were transferred to other people as soon as the filing was recorded, or upon issuance of the patent. Speculators regularly made agreements with potential patentees and, under such arrangements, substantial adjacent blocks of prime, virgin groves of timber could be assembled and made available to sawmill interests.
In the higher elevations, vast tracts of land were acquired in this way, allowing the growth of a new industry in a region once dependent upon mining. Beginning in the 1890s and continuing through the 1940s, logging became a significant local industry with sawmills in many mid-elevation areas. Company towns such as Wilseyville and White Pines were established, while West Point, Railroad Flat, and Avery expanded with the increased population and prosperity. Logging continues in the forests today, but as no sawmills remain in Calaveras County, the timber is trucked to Tuolumne County or more distant locations for milling.