Times Past

Horace Greeley took his own advice to "go west," but as a not-so-young man

Horace Greeley's stagecoach stopped at the original Mormon Station that was built along the Carson River route, later Genoa, in 1850.
Horace Greeley's stagecoach stopped at the original Mormon Station that was built along the Carson River route, later Genoa, in 1850.

“Go West, young man.”

You may know that Horace Greeley didn’t come up with the phrase. Like a good newspaperman of his era, he “borrowed it” from John Soule’s Terre Haute (Indiana) Express in 1851. Folklore still gives the credit to Greeley.

Greeley did come west himself in 1859. He wrote about his journey, including an interview with Brigham Young, in “An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859.”

Greeley was literally knocked out of his stagecoach seat by the natural abundance of a Sierra crossing:

“We were in motion again at the earliest dawn, for we had still about seventy-five miles of rugged mountain road to traverse before reaching this place …

“For that slope is here composed of granite — simple, naked rock —with scarcely a fraction of its surface thinly covered by soil. Of course, no trees but evergreens can live — a very few small quaking aspens in the bottoms of the ravines scarcely form an exception. Almost every road is covered by giant, glorious pines. I saw sugar and yellow-pines at least eight feet in diameter and tall in proportion …

“There are giant cedars, balsam-firs, and some redwood. After we cross the summit, we found also oaks, which gradually increased in size and number as we descended. I think I saw oaks at least four feet through ...

I never saw anything like so much nor so good timber in the course of any seventy-five miles’ travel as I saw in crossing the Sierra Nevada. How greatly blest California is in this abundance …

“The road over this pass, claimed to be the lowest and most practicable of any over the Sierra Nevada, rises steadily for twelve or thirteen miles from our morning’s starting-point, then descends for two or three miles as abruptly to the valley of a brook which runs north into Lake Bigler, which in turn finds an outlet into Truckee River, whereby its waters are borne eastward into the desert and there dissipated. There is fine grass on Lake Bigler, and several hundred cows are kept there in summer, making butter for the California market.”

Lake Bigler is today Lake Tahoe, which is a loose translation of the Washoe dialect “da’wa” meaning “lake.” California surveyors renamed it to honor John Bigler, the third governor of our state. Mark Twain, in the Territorial Enterprise, in September 1863, made a jest of efforts to bring back the name “Tahoe.”

Nevada State Route 207 or the Kingsbury Grade is an 11.2-mile road in Nevada that connects U.S. Route 50 at Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nevada and State Route 206 in the Carson Valley. It’s been recently improved. The views of Lake Tahoe are as spectacular as at the time of Horace Greeley’s trip.

Despite the scenic wonders, Greeley wasn’t apparently always a “happy camper.” He doesn’t tell this part of the story in his 1860 book. But it’s “a legend of the Far West.”

Horace Greeley had taken the stage from Genoa, Nevada, for Sacramento. The Kingsbury grade out of Genoa is very steep and the progress of the four-horse stage was very slow ascending the summit.

Greeley would stand up from his seat and tap the driver on the back and ask him to put on more speed. This annoyed the driver. The horses were changed at the summit. The trip down into the Sacramento Valley was a steep descent. The horses raced around the corners. A nervous Horace Greeley was unable to keep in his seat.

The delighted driver, whose name may have been “Hank Monk” or “John W. Gilmore” according to different folklore sources, would turn his head around and yell, “Keep your seat, Mr. Greeley, I’ll get you there on time.”