The men in the prompt picture appear to be ‘discussing’ which of them has the right-of-way, and which of them needs to back up?  Too bad they didn’t know, yet, about . . .

. . . a handy way (‘scuse the pun) to make important decisions.  Unfortunately, while the original version of the game dates back to the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and a more modern version was known in Japan in the 17th century, the current version of Rock-Paper-Scissors did not appear in the Western World until the early 20th century so our conflicted wagoneers would not have been able to make use of it to solve their problem.


Hopefully, it didn't come to something like this?


Roadways back in the days of horses and wagons were not the best – especially out west.  They were narrow dusty dirt trails.  When my great grandfather made his trip to Yo-Semite in 1874 in a coach-&-four this is probably a good representation of what he faced.

This is a section of Old Priest Grade – or Rattlesnake Hill as my great grandfather knew it, so named for Rattlesnake Creek flowing down the center of Grizzly Gulch in Tuolumne County, CA.  It’s a shorter, narrower, steeper (15-17% grade) route up one side of the gulch.  It rises 1700 ft. in elevation in 2 miles.  The main highway on the opposite side of the gulch known as New Priest Grade (built in 1915) takes over 6 miles to climb the same rise in elevation at a 6% grade with countless switchbacks. 

 This is an original section of Rattlesnake Hill/Old Priest Grade left after the rest was improved by blasting through a hill, and widening and paving it. (see photo above.) You can see how little room there was for 2 wagons to pass except for turnouts.

Priest Grade took its eventual name from Priest’s Station situated at the top of the grade.  It acquired the “Old” part when the “New” grade was built.

Current Priest Station

The original Priest’s Station burned down twice and was rebuilt – the most recent rebuilding consisting of a café, store, and rental cabins.

I’ve used the foregoing photos and descriptions to set the stage for my great grandfather’s accounting of his and his companions’ experiences along the trail to Yo-Semite.  Here, then, is an entry from his journal regarding Rattlesnake Hill and Priest’s Station in late May of 1874: 

“Crossed the Tuolumne (River) at 9PM. (on Hoswell’s Ferry).  Arrived at the foot of Rattlesnake Hill (Old Priest Grade) at 10PM. Then it was our turn to walk. (horses had enough trouble pulling an empty coach up the steep grade – especially during the heat of the day.  Lucky for great grandfather they were climbing the grade at night when it was cooler.)

Just think of a hill two miles long and rising 1700 feet.  We all got out to walk but Sutton who was the smallest of the party.  Up, up, up we went and I thought we had walked five miles when Chase (their guide and driver) said "This is halfway."  Oh goodness.  Only a mile, and up, up another.  Then we began to change riding as some had done the first quarter mile.  Around and around, thinking every turn would be the last. Coats and hats off, and 11PM.  By this time, we had all climbed in the carriage.

Finally, we heard the bark of a dog, knowing a house was near.  In a few minutes we reached Priest's, the best place and table in the whole land, and a pretty girl to attend to the table.  They were all snug in bed, but when we called they got up, and in 20 minutes, had a steaming hot dinner of fricasseed chicken, fried ham, beefsteak, good coffee and tea and milk, pie and cake and strawberries.  Such a luscious supper!  May Priest's shadow never grow less!

We enjoyed our supper and did not tarry long before retiring where we had good beds and slept sounder than ever.  In the morning, Saturday the 23rd, the sun was shining beautifully and when I got up and went down, I saw we were really above the clouds and to look down that awful long hill I could only laugh and think we would have the best of Old Hill when we returned.  Sure did!”

This is a current version of the view he would have had looking down “Old Hill”.  That’s New Priest on the other side of the gulch across the way, there. Though the two grades separate at the same spot at the top, as you can see, Old Priest is already several hundred feet lower.  This is the route I use driving to and from Groveland and Yosemite, by the way.

These are the signs greeting today’s drivers intent on going down Old Priest Grade.  You’d think the one on the left would certainly deter over-sized trucks, RVs, and such, but you’d be wrong!  Back in the days when it was called Rattlesnake Hill, stage drivers and etc. would drag large logs behind their coaches and wagons as a way to help slow their descent.

Rattlesnake Gulch and Old Priest Grade after a wild fire in 1992, caused by an escaped campfire, turned it into a moonscape.  Fortunately the wind shifted at the top of the grade and kept the fire from burning into the community of Big Oak Flat.  Unfortunately, the fire found its way into the Tuolumne River Canyon and kept going for a few more days before being stopped completely.

I had been shopping in Sonora when the fire broke out.  Determined to get home, I drove 59 miles out of my way to skirt the fire and come into Groveland (just over the hill from Big Oak Flat) from another direction - fibbing a bit to the Highway Patrol by telling them I was heading elsewhere.  When I got home we had no power, so went down to one of the local hotels which we knew operated on auxilary power when the main power source was out, and had a nice dinner at a table by the window, watching all the firetrucks going up and down the highway. :)

In more modern times, this looks a lot like a road we drove going into Fern Canyon near the town of Orick in N. Calif. several years ago.  I don’t know if it’s been improved since?  One might hope so!  Back then it was a half-paved, half-dirt affair and mostly one-way with wider spots here and there for two cars to pass.  On this one particular trip, we were at a spot with a significant drop-off on one side and a big ditch on the other when we saw a car coming toward us at a fast clip and were astonished when the driver failed to slow down, barreling on and forcing us into the ditch to get out of its way!  Unfortunately we couldn’t drive out of the ditch, but as luck would have it, a stake truck was coming the other way.  The driver managed somehow to turn around and backed down to try to help pull us out, but the back of the truck was empty and without extra weight, its rear wheels kept slipping on the uneven roadway which was also wet from recent rains.

Meanwhile, a whole line of cars was stuck behind us. Luckily no one blamed us for the delay since the other car had sped past them too, causing them anxious moments as well.

The stake truck tried several times unsuccessfully to pull us out of the ditch before the driver had an idea.

Calling out to all the folks stuck behind us, we asked if some of them could come jump up in the back of the truck to add some weight.  Many were eager to help, and that did the trick.  Our car was out of the ditch in a jiffy.

The neatest part of it was all the strangers laughing and joking as they exchanged names and home town locations while helping each other down out of the truck, and since we were all heading to the same place, the friendliness continued as we wandered through beautiful Fern Canyon together.  What could have been a crummy incident was, instead, a  delightful experience.  You just never know how things are going to turn out!


La Nightingail

Write a new comment: (Click here)
Characters left: 160
DONE Sending...

ScotSue | Reply 12.10.2014 10.22

Stunning photographs and I enjoyed reading the extracts from your great grandfather's journal.

Nightingail 15.10.2014 09.45

I still marvel over how much my grandmother thought irrelevant & left out of her copying of her father's journal. So glad I have the original!

Karen S. | Reply 12.10.2014 06.27

Put your hands in view! Hehehe! What fun photos.

Nightingail 12.10.2014 10.28

Glad you enjoyed the pix. I'm assuming "Put your hands in view" has to do with the pic' of Big Bad Granny pointing a rifle at her victims?

Dara | Reply 12.10.2014 00.44

Great post - sounds like a jaunt down that hill is what nightmares are made of, especially with a team of horses, unable to slow their pace.

Nightingail 12.10.2014 10.29

Thank heavens for modern vehicles with low gears & good brakes! :)

Mike Brubaker | Reply 11.10.2014 19.08

A super post! But I think "Rattlesnake" was a name used to discourage people from trespassing or taking a road less suitable for fast travel.

Nightingail 12.10.2014 10.31

Rattlesnake Creek was aptly named as rattlesnakes are quite common in the area. But the less 'flatlander' traffic on Old Priest Grade, the better!

Alex | Reply 11.10.2014 17.40

I'm impressed with the supper that those people were able to whip up at midnight!!

Nightingail 12.10.2014 10.36

Can you think of any place doing that in this day & age?! G-Grandfather had heard of Priest's excellence & was determined to reach them no matter the hour!

See all comments

| Reply

Latest comments

Today | 15:03

A very comprehensive display.

Yesterday | 10:40

I almost didn't remember the Wash. D.C. tree until I went searching for pix of Sonora's Roundup parade & saw the one of the tree going thru town. Ohhh yeah...

Yesterday | 04:00

A great celebration of local community events. My favourite photograph the Cow Girls Guard plus the story of the Washington DC Christmas Tree.

25.11 | 12:37

There were about 18,000 items altogether, but many were photogra[hed in groups. Yes I was paid, it's all in storage now until they sort out new premises.

You liked this page