Update On a Second Fernley Swale



By Jon Nowlin


California-Nevada Chapter, Oregon-California Trails Association


In the Summer 2019 edition of OCTA’s Trail Talk newsletter, David Fullerton reported on a second “alternate” route of emigrants from the Fernley Swales northwest to the lower Truckee River, about 3½ miles downstream from the usual ford of the Truckee River at the end of the Fernley Swales.[1]  David first noticed the trace of this route on Google Earth in 2017, and then hiked most of the trace over several weekends in 2017.  Curious about David’s work, I investigated the early General Land Office (GLO) maps and surveys and found references in the 1865, 1866, and 1879 survey maps of an “Old Emigrant Road” near the start, middle, and end of the swale hiked by David.  In the Trail Talk article David’s summary of this alternate route to the Truckee River included mentions of this route in three trail diaries from 1849 and 1853.  So, David concluded that there was compelling evidence that emigrant wagons had used this previously undocumented route from the main Fernley Swale to the lower Truckee River.


Thus far five relevant trail diaries have been found:


August 10, 1846, Edwin Bryant noted a prominent Indian trail that may have been followed by the emigrant wagons:

“The distance across the ridge, or rather elevated plain of sandy undulations, is about ten miles.  Over this plain the travelling is very laborious.  We were compelled to dismount from our animals, weakened as they were by thirst and hunger, in order to get them through the deep sand. … We crossed an Indian foot-trail, very deep, wide, and fresh showing that Indians to the number of several hundred must have passed along within a short time.  This trail leads to the Pyramid Lake into which the waters of the Truckee river debouch …” [2]


August 29, 1849, Edward Jackson mentions information from other emigrants that recommended the alternate route:

“We came to some oxteams at 12 oclock & they informed us of a cut by which we may save 5 miles & after 2 miles more we came to the river …” [3]


August 21, 1853, Joel Miller suggests that the alternate route was a developed “road”:

“About two miles after we arrived at the deep sand, we took a right hand road and arrived at the Truckee river an hour after dark.” [4]


September 5, 1853, James Woodworth took the alternate trail based on advice that preceding parties had significantly impacted the water and forage at the traditional crossing near today’s Wadsworth.

Upon the deep sands at noon:  “In about 12 miles we came to where the road forks where we were told that by taking the right road we would strike the river a mile or two below the crossing but that we would find better grass there as most of the emigration took the other road.  We acted in accordance with this information and about 4 came to the Truckee where we watered and then drove about 1½ miles further where we encamped under some tall cottonwood trees and picketed the stock on the grass near by. [5].


October 2, 1853, Robert Eccleston again suggests the alternate route led to better forage than the main crossing:

The road forks 3 miles after starting the heavy sand the right one we took, striking the river below 5 miles & nearer grass – not much grass where the road strikes the river. [6]



The diaries suggest that the alternate route may have been a major Indian trail, perhaps between the lower Truckee River and Pyramid Lake and resources to the southeast in the Humboldt and Carson Sinks.  This would not have been a “short cut” for wagons—the distance to the river was about the same as the main route and another 2 to 3 miles of additional travel was required south along the river to rejoin the main route.  However, for wagons arriving towards the end of the summer and early fall, the grass forage at and near the main river crossing would have been consumed by the hundreds of previous emigrant parties and news of “good grass and water” at the end of the alternate trail would have been an incentive to take the “right hand road.”


The alternate route to the Truckee River diverts from the main emigrant trail around the prominent “Gooseneck” basalt ridge just north of the I-80 Exit 50 interchange and extends about 4¾ miles northwest to the Truckee River (Figure 1).  The first 2 miles are on private land (sections 5 & 6, T20N, R25E).  About 1¾ miles are on BLM land (sections 25, 26, & 36, T21N, R 24E).  The last ¾ mile is within the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation.


Dave Fullerton walked the route in 2017 and provided GPS coordinates for 26 points on the alternate route.  In 2019 I mapped another four points and an additional 19 in April 2021 (Figure 1).


Much of the route is a Class 1 swale, undisturbed by modern vehicles (solid blue line in Figure 1), although in the east-west trending sand dunes in the southeast quarter of section 26, blowing sands have obscured the route between noticeable swales across the dune crests.  The visible traces of the trail disappear approaching the border of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation.  Except for about 0.1 mile of Class 1 swale (NE quarter Section 26), the trail within the Reservation would be a more probable Class 4 – the obvious route down the steep edge of the sand terrace into the Truckee River valley, but over-ridden by modern ranch roads.


There is no direct sign of the trail through the alkali flat in section 31 – the flat has been over-run by off-road vehicles.  However, towards the center of the alkali flat and in a rough line between the GLO survey points at the south and north sides of the flat, I found a large basalt boulder (Figure 1), unique in that other scattered tufa and basalt stones across the flat were no larger than a few inches.  Perhaps a marker of the route for Indian or wagon traffic across the flat?


The only old artifact that I found on the surface was a rusted wagon box tie rod in the Class 1 swale in the NE corner of section 6 (Figure 1).  Except for the alkali flat, all the route is over deep dry sands, providing no better travel to the Truckee River for wagons than the main emigrant road.  Currently this alternate route appears to become more challenging for wagons as it crosses the series of east-west sand dunes in the last mile before the boundary of the Reservation.


As my wife and I were hiking the route in April 2021 towards the western end over the east-west trending sand dunes, we started to question whether wagons would have chosen to take this more difficult route at the end of the terrible journey across the 40-Mile Desert, even with the promise of better grass and water than the main crossing.  We did a quick surficial metal-detecting survey in a few hundred feet of the route at two locations in section 36.  Nothing was detected in the first segment we checked, but in a 150-foot segment near the north edge of section 36, essentially on the surface in the sand we found an ox shoe with what appear to be hand forged shoe nails (Figure 1).  We photographed the ox shoe, noted the GPS location, and replaced it on site.


So, with the wagon box tie rod and the ox shoe, there is evidence that some emigrant wagons did indeed take this route to the Truckee River.


We suspect that the route followed by the wagons was an established Indian trail between settlements along the lower Truckee River/Pyramid Lake delta and the Humboldt and Carson Sinks to the southeast.  Later in the 1800s it may also have been an east-bound route from early ranches along the lower Truckee River to connect with the main wagon road east to Lovelock.


There is sufficient evidence that this was an established side trail from the main California Trail that it warrants confirmation metal detecting and mapping.  Hopefully the necessary land-access and Nevada SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) permits can be obtained to conduct such a joint BLM/OCTA/Trails West survey in the spring of 2022.




[1]  Fullerton, D., 2019, A Second Fernley Swale, Trail Talk, Summer 2019, California Nevada Chapter, Oregon-California Trails Assoc., http://canvocta.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Summer2019-Trail-Talk8_8_19.pdf


[2]  Bryant, Edwin, 1985, CHAPTER XVII, What I Saw in California, Introduction by Thomas D. Clark, Univ. Nebraska Press, 455 pages.


[3]  Jackson, Edward, 1855, Diary and typewritten transcript by Marion Jackson Gilbert, Electronic reproduction, Utah Academic Library Consortium, Salt Lake, https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/Diaries/id/7658/


[4]  Miller Joel, 1853, Journal, Transcription by Richard L. Rieck, Bancroft Library, Univ. Calif., Berkeley, CF-F 220.


[5]  Woodsworth, James, 1853, Diary of James Woodworth:  Across the Plains to California in 1853, https://www.woodworth-ancestors.com/resources/JamesWDiary.


[6]  Eccleston, Robert, 1853 Diary, Univ. Calif., Berkeley, BANC MSS C-F 47 Transcription by Rose Ann Tompkins and Donald Buck.