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Style Magazine

Wagons to Rockcrawlers

Jun 30, 2010 12:15PM ● By Style

Photo by Bonnie Wurm, courtesy of the El Dorado County Photo Library

Long before the multitude of four-wheel enthusiasts trekked along the perilous trail into the Rubicon Valley, native people migrated there annually via the same route.

Each summer, the Maidu, Miwok and Washoe met to exchange trade goods. While camped in the lush meadow, the Indians fished, hunted and gathered nuts, berries and seeds. Ultimately, the discovery of gold in 1848, and the inevitable encroachment of white settlers, forever changed their lifestyle and the nature of the trail.

After several years of prospecting near Georgetown, miners George and John Humsucker made their way into the valley. They first staked their claim at Gray Horse, a narrow gorge on the lower Rubicon River. Eventually, their hunt for gold lost its appeal, but the lure of the mountains and the primitive wilderness persuaded them to stay.

The brothers built a pine-log cabin near the river and later added several outlying shacks and a corral for their growing number of livestock. They ran a lucrative business selling tanned deer hides and meat to merchants and residents in Georgetown. In 1880, they began bottling and distributing “magical” mineral water from Rubicon Springs, which they successfully marketed as a “health enhancing supplement.”

By 1881, “Rubicon Water” had become so popular, the Humsuckers found it difficult to meet the demand. Hard-pressed to bottle and deliver their product (which flowed only from a hole in the rocks the size of a pencil), they opened the Rubicon Springs Resort to accommodate those who would soon venture into the valley to drink directly from the source.

Meanwhile, John McKinney, a friend of the Humsuckers from the early mining days, also profited from the “magical” water. Besides guiding mule-drawn pack trains loaded with cases of “Rubicon Water” to Georgetown, the Humsuckers also initially shipped the praised tonic to McKinney’s Retreat at Lake Tahoe. Now, mining entrepreneurs from the Nevada Comstock were ferried across the lake aboard McKinney’s side-wheeler, the Governor Stanford, then by pack train to Humsuckers. Georgetown and El Dorado County friends came into the Rubicon Valley via the Georgetown-Lake Bigler Indian Trail. Passengers choosing to travel by stage jostled against the thick padded walls of a Concord coach as they traveled the entire route from Georgetown to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Wentworth and Rubicon Springs, to the shores of South Lake Tahoe.

In 1886, Sierra Nevada Phillips Clark bought out the Humsuckers. The enterprising new owner enlisted El Dorado County to assist her in pushing a one-way road to McKinney’s through to completion the following year. Shortly thereafter, Clark built a 16-room hotel which she operated successfully for nearly 15 years. Daily, her six-passenger, horse-drawn “Rubicon Flyer” left her renown wilderness resort to transport guests to and from McKinney’s Retreat.

In the early 1920s, highway Dodges, Pierce Arrows, Stars, and other cars began traveling the route from Georgetown to Rubicon Springs. However, their daring drivers needed to carry ropes and planks to make their way over the great granite sheaths of Devil’s Playground and other rough spots along the trail.