Trails West members and their families make work seem like play and it’s all for a good cause—emigrant trail location, marking and interpretation.
Our primary activity is installing, and maintaining, distinctive steel-rail “T” markers along the many emigrant trails leading to California and publishing guide books to enable anyone to follow these trails from beginning to end. So far we have placed over 600 markers on trails beginning in southeastern Idaho on the California Trail, extending across northern Nevada on the Humboldt River route and the Hastings Cutoff, and continuing into southern Oregon on the Applegate and northern California on the Nobles, Lasen, Beckwourth, Truckee, Yreka and Carson Trails.
Usually, two field trips are scheduled each summer for placing and/ or maintaining these markers. Here’s where the work and fun begins. In order to install each marker, we have to dig a hole 24”-30” deep in ground that can be compacted and rocky. Then we anchor the marker with gathered rocks and two bags of concrete. All of this work requires digging bars, shovels, heavy lifting and lots of sweat.
Don’t forget the maintenance field trips. With hundreds of markers in three States, keeping tabs on their condition is an ongoing process. Unfortunately, every year a few markers are vandalized, either from someone trying to pry off the aluminum inscription plate or by using them for target practice. When this happens, we have to replace those plates. This is a labor intensive process. Also, we occasionally have to relocate an existing marker to get it out of the way of new developments or get it closer to the trail.
At the end of the day’s work, we drive to our campsite which is often located in a remote area where there are no camping facilities. After setting up our camp, we gather around for libations, relaxation, and story telling. We usually have a potluck dinner, always a highlight, on the first evening of these three-day field trips.
Hold on, there’s more to the making of a Trails West field trip. Before any marker can be installed in the field, planning, research, scouting marker locations, and getting permission from land owners or government agencies must all take place. Also, the markers must be fabricated, the inscription plates must be engraved and then the plates must be riveted to the cross bar of the marker.
Trails West volunteers fabricate each marker from the hundreds of feet of raw, rusted rail stored at one of our members back acres. Each year we organize work parties to cut, weld, and drill the two-hundred pound, five foot long, steel-rail markers needed for the coming field season. It’s dirty work for the guys and gals but the camaraderie, and sometimes a barbeque, turn it into an enjoyable event.
While the markers are being fabricated, the inscription plate preparation process is taking place. This process begins with doing the research in emigrant diaries to locate the inscriptions that are to be engraved on the plates. This is a tedious and time consuming process. Then the dirty work begins with the plates being drilled and counter sunk with four holes for mounting to the horizontal rail. The plates are then engraved with the emigrant accounts relating to the trail location of the marker. After engraving, the next step in the process is filling in the engraved letters with black paint to make them more legible. As you can see, it takes a lot of steps to bring the plates to the finished stage.
The last phase of getting a marker ready to go in the ground is to rivet the finished inscription plate to the crossbar of the newly fabricated “T” rail marker. This is done, whenever possible, before the marker is transported to the field. This process entails inserting the four stainless steel rivets through the plate and the web of the marker, clamping on a steel backing plate, and then flattening the protruding end of each rivet by hammering it flat. This process really secures the plate to the marker.
Not all of Trails West activities involve preparing and placing markers. Because there are so many markers in our inventory, we have begun a new type of field trip that combines the enjoyment of a trail tour with monitoring marker conditions. These trips are led by a knowledgeable leader using one of the Trails West guidebooks to tour a trail we have marked. Depending on the trail toured, sometimes 4WD vehicles are required and other times only high-clearance vehicles are needed. For communication and safety, we always use CB radios.
Another and very important activity of Trails West is producing trail guidebooks to our many markers. Currently we have ten of them with another one in progress. A number of Trails Westers are involved in all aspects of these guidebooks—writing, photography, cartography, computer formatting, editing and proofing.
Come join us in the passion we have to preserve emigrant trails and introduce others to this genuine western heritage. It’s work but it is also rewarding and fun.
Trails West has three main types of activities during the year. First is the Annual Banquet and General Membership Meeting. The second is our two or three trail marking and marker maintenance outings. The third type is “fun trips” where we follow a paticular trail without performing any work activities. This outing is led by someone familiar with that trail and we stop at historic spots and learn about what went on there and hike significant sections of the trail.
In addition to these main activities, Trails West volunteers also occasionally engage in other activities such as:
- Driving the various segments of the trail to inspect markers already installed.
- Fabrication of new markers. This requires cutting the rail and welding the pieces together to form a marker. The finished marker consists of a top bar, a stem and a bottom bar. It is about 6 feet in length and weighs about 250 pounds.
- Engraving of inscription plates.
- Experimentation with new methods of attaching inscription plates to the rail markers.
- Researching the many emigrant diaries and journals to locate material relevant to the various locations that we envision installing markers.
- Writing Guides to the various segments of the trail. These Guides are designed to allow the modern traveler to drive the historic trails from their beginning to the various ends in northern California and southern Oregon. In addition, these Guides give the traveler information about the country he or she is traveling through.
BOARD MEETINGS – We have three Board meeting a year which all Trails West members are invited to attend. One meeting is held in the Sacramento, California area, one meeting is held in the Reno, Nevada area, and the third meeting is held the morning of the annual Banquet in Reno.
ANNUAL BANQUET AND GENERAL MEMBERSHIP MEETINGS – There is an annual banquet, including assorted activities, held each year in Reno, Nevada. Dates, location and agenda are announced well in advance.
SUMMER SEASON FIELD TRIPS – There are at least two work field trips and one fun trip held each year. The trips are discussed at the Annual Banquet and the specific trip information is posted on the Trails West website well in advance of each trip. The Trip Leader contact information is shown in case anyone needs additional information.
THINGS TO REMEMBER – Since we often travel on rough roads during our field trips, all participants must have a vehicle with high clearance and a CB radio. Safety and sharing vital information while driving the back country make the CB radio necessary. Most of our field trips are multiple days and it will be necessary to either camp with us or plan motel stays in the nearest town.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST – As we have mentioned, we are a totally volunteer, non-profit organization and we rely on our dues and guide book sales to fund all of the work we do. If you would like to make a donation to help us in our endeavors in marking the various emigrant trails we have included a donation button below. This will allow you to make a tax deductible donation in any amount you desire. If you would like a letter from us for tax purposes, please request one and include your mailing address on the PayPal site when you make your donation.