The Nelsons - Hwy 50 History

Always an Adventure

A History of Highway 50

Most of this material was extracted from "Tamarack Flat 1844-1996" Albert Babayco, June 1996.
Original copies are still available to purchase. Please send requests to

Al grew up in Sacramento & Tamarack Flat. His father built the Babayco family cabin at the confluence of Ralston Creek and the South Fork of the American river in 1934. Al was a teacher with the Sacramento school district and has served many years as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Tamarack Flat Homeowners Association.
His passion for history and education started him collecting postcards, pictures, and history of Highway 50 from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. His image collection is one of the most complete in the Nation and his images have been used in many written histories by other authors.

Highway 50’s Beginnings

The Wagon Road

Highway 50 has its historical beginnings April 28, 1855 when the California State Legislature passed the Wagon Road Act authorizing the construction of a wagon road from Sacramento east to the Nevada border.
The first use of the Wagon road appears to have been a party of 7 men who left Placerville on Thursday June 11, 1857 by “coach and four” destined for Carson Valley.  They arrived in Genoa, Nevada Saturday June 13, 1857 the 65 mile trip had taken 28 hours but the Wagon Road was now an established fact.

SILVER! The Comstock Load

The “rich beyond dreams” wealth of Virginia City’s Comstock Load triggered a decade of unparalleled activity and development all along the wagon road. By August of 1859 any flat area alongside the road large enough for a tent or crude shack became a wayside stop for the sale of food and liquor. The larger areas soon were crowded with one and two story “stations” with food, liquor and sleeping quarters for the teamsters and stagecoach passengers. Barns and corrals provided straw and oats, shelter and resting areas for the many mules and horses needed n putting the ever-increasing wagon traffic to and from the Comstock. Requests for toll road franchises flooded government offices by the hundreds. The Tamarack Flat area was no exception to the commercial frenzy developing on the wagon road.

Swan’s Upper Toll House at Tamarack Flat

George W. Swan was a prominent figure in the early history of El Dorado County. He was a major stockholder and director of the Placerville and Sacramento Railroad Co., a county supervisor, the owner of numerous properties in the county and land holdings in the Big Sur area of the Central Coast. His two brothers, William and John, were also active in land deals along the wagon road - sometimes as partners with him.
Swan's business sense convinced him there was profit to be made from the ever-increasing traffic along the wagon road. Late in 1859 he filed a request of preemption to acquire from the U.S. Government a one-quarter section of land along the wagon road in the Tamarack Flat area. Ultimately he was awarded the toll road franchise which extended from Strawberry east up Slippery Ford and through Sayles and Tamarack Flat.
Swan received the land patent (title) for his Tamarack Flat property in late 1861. Swan’s Upper Toll House was built in 1859-60. It was a large two story, rough-hewn log building of about twelve rooms with a single story “annex”. Several outbuildings and corrals completed the complex. It was one of the larger and better-planned way stations along the road to the Comstock. (The toll house was located in the general area of Tamarack Park’s well and pump house.)
With his toll road franchise and “elegant” toll house established Swan was in a good position to “tap” the now almost continuous traffic on the road. Swan himself estimated that 250 tons of freight plus 200 stage passengers and 1,000 horses, mules and oxen passed through Tamarack Flat every twenty-four hours. His El Dorado County tax in 1862 was $14,000, but he collected $75,000 in tolls. Receipts from the toll house operation added to his profit for the year. The $5,000 average yearly cost to maintain the road was offset almost ten times by the profit made on food, liquor, Lodging, hay and grain sales and general supplies.
As long as silver flowed in the Comstock everything the 25,000 to 40,000 population of the Virginia City area needed came over the California State Wagon Road and through Tamarack Flat.
It has been estimated that between 1859 and 1868 the amount of money made on the road in freight and toll charges alone equaled the value of silver ore mined in several of the more successful Comstock properties. With drinks at twenty-five cents, meals and lodging at $1.00 and tolls nearing $100,000 per year the “Big Bonanza” for George Swan was his toll road and toll house in Tamarack Flat.
In 1863 Swan’s brothers, William and Joseph, joined him as partners. The toll house and toll road would remain under the Swan name until 1869.

End of the Comstock and the Wagon Road Boom

The end of the great rush to the Comstock along the Wagon Road came in 1868. Completion of the Central Pacific Railroad to Reno drew off the once lucrative freight and passenger traffic. Years of unchecked silver mining had created a surplus of the precious metal. Gold was becoming the money standard throughout the world. There was little demand for the ore that had caused the birth and growth of toll roads and “houses” like Swan’s. Traffic along the Wagon Road was reduced to a “trickle.”  Peace and quiet returned again to Tamarack Flat.
On October 27, 1869 the Swan property in Tamarack Flat was sold to Charles Watson a stagecoach driver for the Pioneer Stage Line and co-owner of Strawberry Station.  Charles Watson became an unwilling foot note in U.S. and California history when his coach was stopped at gun point on June 30, 1 864 fourteen miles east of its Placerville destination. Six sacks of bullion were taken by the road agents. It was later learned that the “gang” was led by Confederate Captain R. Henry Ingram. The “Bullion Bend” holdup had been staged to obtain gold to recruit Californians as soldiers for the South.
Seldom was there enough traffic on the road to maintain both the road and way station and show a profit. Watson used the Flat to graze cattle and timber contracts were let, on occasion fishing and hunting parties stayed at the toll house.  On January 17, 1880 Charles Watson transferred the 160 acre Tamarack Park property to his wife, Delia.  The parcel of land is shown deeded by the State of California Patent Office to Mrs. Delia Watson for $200.00, Register's Certificate #4876.
The toll road era ended in 1886 when the franchised sections were purchased by El Dorado County and declared a public highway. At this same time Swan’s Upper Toll House was torn down and the lumber salvaged to construct buildings up the road at Phillips.  At the end of the 1880’s Swan’s Toll House was gone, the wagon road was a county road and the Flat was void of manmade structures except the two log bridges built twenty years earlier.  Charles Watson died in 1891. 

Tamarack Flat Development

The Dreher Era

For his Tamarack Park property Dreher developed a water system, subdivided south of the highway and by the late 1920’s was selling lots at $600 to $700. Water to the lot was free with the cabin owner paying only six dollars yearly for pipeline maintenance!  Sierra Pines Road was at that time the main highway to Lake Tahoe. By the end of the 1930’s six cabins had been built south of the highway. Cabins had water spring through fall, but no electricity. Toward the end of the 1930’s Pacific Gas & Electric was “bringing the line up” and Aladdin, Coleman, coal oil lamps and candles provided just a “hint” of illumination. Most of the cabins still had a smaller structure outback! The cabins were primitive by today’s standards, but grand in the ‘30’s especially when valley temperatures climbed in the summer.

Sierra Pines and Mt. Ralston Roads

On December 2, 1946 Vern Sprock and Ernie Richardson purchased most of Dreher’s property north of the highway, subdivided and started selling lots along Sierra Pines and Mt. Ralston Roads. As partners they built Tamarack Pines Lodge - just west of the present-day telephone building and on the north side of the highway. The-two-story lodge had hotel rooms, a restaurant, bar, grocery store, mail boxes and an Associated “Flying A” gas station.
Sprock left the partnership in 1953 to manage the first Sierra Ski Ranch that had been built by the Barrett Brothers in 1 946-47. He purchased the facility in 1955 and thirteen years later moved the operation to south and west of Phillips. Sierra Ski Ranch was enlarged and developed into a major family ski center-now Sierra-At-Tahoe.
Richardson kept the Tamarack Flat property north of the highway and continued selling lots. Today, there are approximately eighty cabins in the Mt. Ralston Homeowners’ Association development.
In April of 1967 the cabin owners south of the highway formed the Tamarack Park Homeowners’ Association. Its primary purpose was (and is) to maintain and upgrade the water system serving its members.
The old Tamarack Pines Lodge was torn-down in 1969.  During the 1970’s construction was “booming” in Tamarack Flat. More cabins were built - mainly north of the highway. A dam and improved water-collection facility was built above the church camp (Adventist then, now Baptist) to provide an increased supply of pure water for both homeowners’ associations. It was soon evident that this “improved” system was not adequate as a water source for both Associations.

Tamarack Park Homeowners’ Association

The Tamarack Park Homeowners’ Association decided that an independent water source was needed.  In 1986-87 the Tamarack Park Homeowners’ Association dug a well and constructed a pump house in the general area where Swan’s Upper Toll House had been located. The system went on line in the summer of 1987 drawing its water from over four hundred feet below ground. Upgrades have been made to the system to increase water storage capacity.

Mt. Ralston Homeowners’ Association

Mt. Ralston Homeowners’ Association water development 1989.