During this last weekend in June, elite international ultra-marathon runners are converging on Olympic Valley for the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race. This grueling footrace is promoted as “one of the undisputed crown jewels of human endurance” and few would argue.
The Western States 100 starts near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, where runners test themselves against a steep climb to Emigrant Pass on the Sierra Crest. And, that’s just the beginning. Following the historic Western States Trail, athletes climb and descend more than 40,000’ at high altitude before they reach the finish line at Placer High School in Auburn.
This world class 100-mile-long foot race is conducted along the California portion of a 19th Century trail that stretched from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Sacramento.
Considered the most demanding one-day event in the world, the Sierra portion is a grueling trek over rugged mountainous topography. First used by the Paiute and Washoe Indians, it became popular with the emigrants and miners heading west to California’s Mother Lode. Most of the trail passes through remote territory that even today is accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters.
From Emigrant Pass at Squaw Valley, the route followed a primitive trail down to Yankee Jims on the Foresthill Divide near Auburn. Improved in the early 1850s, it was called the Placer County Emigrant Road. Primarily built as a conduit for westbound pioneer families with wagons and carts pulled by mules and oxen heading for the gold diggings, it later became a vital artery for commercial freight traffic between west slope communities and the Comstock boomtowns in Nevada Territory.
On July 4, 1863, a bunch of patriotic miners digging for gold near the entrance to Squaw Valley ascended the road to a large volcanic outcropping on the ridge between Squaw Peak and Granite Chief. That night they torched a fiery bonfire atop the block-like rock to celebrate Independence Day. They also commemorated the start of the Civil War by christening the outcrop “Fort Sumter.” The popularity of the Emigrant Road would not last long, however, as the completion of the first transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass meant the demise of the rugged trail and it slowly weathered away.
But in 1931, six members of the Native Sons of the Golden West, Parlor 59 from Auburn, took on the 100-mile challenge of the historic trail to prove that horses could still cover such a distance in one day. Trail riders included Dr. Conrad Briner, former mayor of Auburn and the father of longtime Tahoe City community leader Bill Briner. Dr. Briner packed a 16mm film camera and documented the expedition. Wendell T. Robie also was there, a prominent businessman, leading figure in regional history and founder of the influential Auburn Ski Club. Ultimately, Wendell Robie’s robust energy and vision would lead to the establishment of the Western States Trail Foundation formed to preserve the historic route.
Among the group of history buffs from Auburn was Robert Montgomery Watson, a noted horseman, conservationist and Tahoe City’s first constable. Over the last years of his life, Constable Watson had located traces of the old Emigrant Road and re-blazed it for others to follow. In 1931, less than one year before he died, Watson constructed a granite monument near Emigrant Pass, a piece of history that still stands tall today. Incredibly, Watson’s homemade commemorative marker at an elevation of 8,774’ has withstood 83 winters at the top of Squaw Valley.
Bob Watson was an important and influential early settler at Lake Tahoe. He and his wife Sarah Cunningham moved to Tahoe City in 1875 and later leased the Tahoe House, which they operated as a popular inn for about a decade. The couple had five children during this period, but in 1897 news reached the United States that gold had been discovered in Yukon Territory, Canada. Bob Watson and his oldest son Frank joined in the great rush to the Klondike to secure their fortune in the gold fields.
Watson senior returned to Lake Tahoe in 1900, while son Frank remained in the Yukon to work their mining claim. In 1904, Watson as appointed as Tahoe City’s first constable, a position he held for 28 years. Besides being the local cop, he also worked as a mountain guide, mill operator and trail-finder. Watson built a small house near the Tahoe Dam, which became the abode of the gatekeepers who controlled the flow of water down the Truckee River. He also constructed the first school in Tahoe City and built the picturesque log cabin (Watson Cabin Museum) on the bluff overlooking Tahoe Commons as a wedding gift for his youngest son, Robert H. Watson and his bride, Stella Tong.
Robert Watson died in April 1932 and is buried in the Tahoe City Cemetery. On the afternoon of his funeral, all businesses and schools closed to honor this beloved leader. For the final ride to the cemetery, the casket was transferred from a hearse to a toboggan. The casket was followed by three other toboggans filled with flowers. The funeral procession passed between two lines of schoolchildren saluting and holding wreaths of flowers. Nearby, Watson Lake and Mount Watson are named in honor of this revered pioneer who did so much for his community.
The Western States race started as an equestrian event with riders on horseback making the long trek across the mountains. But in 1974, the horse of Gordy Ainsleigh went lame before the start of the race, so he decided to run the race on foot. Ainsleigh not only completed the course to the amazement of everyone, but he finished it in less than 24 hours, the official time limit set for the horseback riders. On that day, Gordy established the sport of ultra marathon trail running.
In 1976, Ken “Cowman” Shirk took on the challenge, also running solo behind the horse riders. Cowman was a legendary athlete and a well-known personality around Truckee in the 1970s and early 80s, acclaimed for his tremendous endurance, and for wearing a pair of buffalo horns on his head during various competitions. Shirk constantly bellowed like a bull as he ran through the Sierra canyons and completed the race. The following year, Wendell Robie made the decision that it was time to separate the horseback riders and the foot runners, giving each their own 100-mile, one-day contest.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog tahoenuggets.com.