Following in the footsteps of the pioneers |

Following in the footsteps of the pioneers

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau

We ran to keep up with him, though he was nearly 50 years our senior. He came to an abrupt halt at what I thought was a thoroughly unremarkable spot. It was a small opening in a section of the woods, and Frank Tortorich grinned and told our little group that you could see this was part of the Gold Rush Trail, and that oxen and wagons had passed over this very land. Looking around, I could see nothing at that point revealing any clue about this history.

Tortorich pointed out a depression in the earth toward the right: Like a swale, but not as deep. The depression was evidence that the land had been rutted away by hand-hewn metal wagon wheels. He knelt down to show us the rock that had rust stains, grooves, and polish from so many pioneer wagons passing this way. Suddenly this was a remarkable place! Up ahead we saw the names of some of the pioneers, along with a date, written on the boulders with axel grease. Tortorich had opened our eyes to a part of the legacy of this land, and transformed our view of it.

Frank Tortorich and his wife Mary Ann have been volunteer historians on the Carson Pass segment of the Carson River Route since 1978. The Carson Pass segment originally opened in 1848. Frank leads tours and writes articles and books while Mary Ann acts as his business partner, editor and publisher. It is a real pleasure to watch the two of them interact. They both have a passion for the history of this land and are truly devoted to each other.

Born in Jackson, California, Frank Tortorich detested history classes when he was in school. His view of the subject changed as he spent more and more time hiking in the mountains surrounding Carson Pass. History began to come alive right beneath his feet as he visualized the people and events that made our community what it is today. There are so many stories from the past to tell and he has made it part of his own journey to pass them on.

Tortorich is one of the most noted researchers and authorities on the Carson River Route, the Mormon migration history and the Mormon Battalion. His years working as a school administrator, his position as a Carson Pass ranger, park interpretive specialist at Sutter’s Fort, instructor for the Elderhostel program and tour guide for Sorenson’s Resort have all combined to make him a compelling speaker and presenter.

Two of his books, “Gold Rush Trail: A Guide to the Carson River Route of the Emigrant Trail” and “Hiking the Gold Rush Trail” are an excellent place to start your own adventures searching for some remnants of history. Based on first-source material study, they include snippets of diary entries illuminating the history of this special passage. Following the trail that was first used as a Native American trade and travel route, it begins at the Woodfords Pony Express marker, leading the traveler up past Crystal Springs, by Horse Thief Canyon and Snowshoe Thompson’s Cave, by Burnside Lake and into Hope Valley.

The Tortorich guidebook continues into Blue Lakes Road and guides you through the unbelievable spectacle of Devil’s Ladder. You can stop there to view the scars on the tree where the wagons were hauled up the steep side of the mountain. From Carson Pass, by Caples Lake and Silver Lake, the book includes the sad tales of Tragedy Spring and Maiden’s Grave.

Tortorich is available to lead group or private tours and for speaking engagements. He can be reached at If we do not tell these narratives, write them down and pass them on, it is like they never happened. Frank and Mary Ann have devoted their lives to making sure that some of the stories of this land and the people who have helped to shape it are not lost to the past.