Andy Mark spent two decades as a brakeman and conductor with the Western Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, and as a brakeman he spent his coldest night ever in Gerlach, in the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada, the mid-winter temperature below zero, the wind "howling like a pack of wolves." The Black Rock area was the scene of the great "silver rush" in the 1860s, and opening the way for miners was what was then called the Chico and Humboldt Wagon Road.
Later he graduated from Chico State and worked as a data analyst and statistical consultant; yet even before his 2013 retirement was bitten by the local history bug. Could he tell the story of Black Rock from a Chico perspective?
He eventually focused on the first hundred miles, from Chico to Susanville, and the result is a captivating foray into bygone times, accompanied by historical photographs as well as contemporary pictures taken by the author.
"Stories Of The Humboldt Wagon Road" ($21.99 in paperback from The History Press, historypress.com; also for Amazon Kindle) traces the road's fate decade-by-decade from its beginning in the 1860s on through the 1890s to today, where remnants of the original still exist.
Its development was spearheaded by John Bidwell who dreamed of Chico "being part of a major supply route from California to Nevada and Idaho" mining sites. That didn't pan out, but "regular stage traffic to points from Chico to Susanville continued, and the road opened the foothills and mountains to stands of virgin timber to supply an expanding logging industry." Little towns along the way helped Chicoans get out of the valley heat. (Jonesville seemed to be party central.)
Mark includes dozens of stories, culled from local papers, of stagecoach robberies, murders, shootouts, snowstorms, encounters with grizzly bears, and family tragedies.
In 1888 the five-year-old daughter of lumberman Barney Cussick died; the Chico Daily Enterprise published a poem sent in by a Butte Meadows reader: "We are waiting, Maggie, waiting,/ For the hours to pass away,/ When we'll meet to part, no, never,/ On the resurrection day."
The road goes ever on, as Tolkien said, and Mark ably shows the way.