A Journey Through the Sierras From Wagon Roads to All-Weather Highways

Jumping into a car and heading down the open highway on a summer road trip is an iconic part of American culture.

In Placer County, many historic resorts and rest stops are situated near what is known today as Highway 80. Before 80, it was Highway 40 (also known as the "Victory Highway"), and before that it was the Lincoln Highway, which carried tourists on their adventures here.

Lincoln Highway near Donner Summit. 1915.

Before that, wagon roads and trails were used to transport passengers and freight around the region.

Lincoln Highway following the route of the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road. 1915.

The routes for all of these significant highways in Placer County follow a similar course and take the traveler from Truckee all the way to Roseville and the county line, where they continue on to San Francisco.

The invention of the automobile is a key piece of this journey but the local scenic travel tourism industry began even earlier. Nearly as soon as the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, tourists were purchasing tickets.

Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. May 10, 1869.

They yearned for an opportunity to “see the sights” across the United States and experience the landmarks and geography for themselves.

In Placer County, the famed engineering feat known as Cape Horn drew large crowds of rail tourists.

For many, wrapped into this journey, however, were tight schedules, an abundance of strangers, and a sooty coal-fed steam engine barreling down the tracks.

When consumers were able to purchase automobiles, the allure of travel beckoned and the possibilities only limited by the existence of a passable road.

Placer Herald November 17, 1906

In Auburn, Judge Prewett, who had been previously seriously injured by a kick from his horse, was reportedly the first to purchase a horseless carriage in 1906.

Many others followed suit and they took advantage of the historic toll roads, turnpikes, and wagon roads. The same was taking place throughout the United States and within ten years, the automobile was becoming prolific.

Automobile tourists exploring the Lincoln Highway near Colfax. 1916.

However, most roads in the country were made of dirt which made automobile travel difficult to impossible in rain and snow.

The Lincoln Highway

In 1912, Carl G. Fischer, the builder of the Indianapolis Speedway, ambitiously pursued making a coast-to-coast gravel highway that would open the United States to automobile travel.

Carl G. Fischer

He won easy support from proponents of the Good-Roads movement and secured investors, many from the automobile industry. Together these invesors formed the Lincoln Highway Association who promised to provide road building supplies to any city, town, or county who would provide the labor to build the Lincoln Highway through their territory.

Lincoln Highway Construction Crew in Placer County. 1914-1915.

The ultimate goal was to complete this massive undertaking in time for travelers to journey from New York to San Francisco to attend the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The ideal route would be direct, and carry travelers through population centers and points of scenic interest. Those who signed on would benefit from the increased tourism through their communities and many local boosters quickly petitioned to have the route travel through the length of Placer County.

Placer Herald November 8, 1913

This incredible project captured the American imagination and would allow ordinary citizens to create their own journey and an opportunity to travel across the continent.

Placer Herald July 24, 1915

With the route selected, workers began in Placer County where they used horse-drawn road graders, wagons, and rollers and began constructing the Lincoln Highway, largely by overtaking and improving established routes.

In Auburn, the route took travelers through the heart of the city where East Street and Railroad Avenue became a part of the Lincoln Highway.

By ordinance passed in 1919, the name Lincoln Way was officially adopted.

Although the Lincoln Highway would not be completed for four more years, travelers were able to embark on a somewhat rugged journey from New York to San Francisco in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. However, the route was still unpassable in rain and unreachable in the heavy winter snows of the Sierra summit.

The Victory Highway and U.S. 40

After World War I, the "Victory Highway" was planned as a national memorial transcontinental motor road that would honor those who fought in the war as well as feature American engineering might and scenic beauty. It would also strategically connect the nation with a hard-surfaced transportation route.

In California, the State Highway Commission developed the project which overtook much of the Lincoln Highway. The Rainbow Bridge overlooking Donner Lake is an example of the key infrastructure and architectural beauty incorporated into the new highway.

Meanwhile, the federal government realized a need for improved roads throughout the United States and began planning for a system of numbered highways. In Placer County, the Victory Highway was simultaneously planned to become Highway 40.

Highway 40 construction through Colfax. Circa 1935.

The California Department of Highways provided for snow removal during the winter and, throughout the 1930s, this all-weather highway was improved which finally opened an opportunity for regular winter travel over the Sierra.

Gas stations, rest stops, and tourist attractions were established to cater to the traveling tourist community and gave the boost necessary for winter sports to attract new enthusiasts.

As a result of all of these infrastructure improvements, the snow-packed Sierra, which had previously impeded tourism, has since become a huge draw for the region.

Today, Highway 80 is the main route through the region and in many places, encompasses the original Route 40. However, travelers interested in a more scenic drive can still plan a leisurely journey along this historic route and visit the sights tourists have been enjoying for over 100 years.