Welcome! Today we’ll follow the Nobles Emigrant Trail west out of Susanville. If you haven’t read the post about the history of the trail yet, click here to check that out. It will give you an overview of who Nobles was, when he pioneered the trail, and what life was like in northern California just before and after the Gold Rush.
I explored this section of trail in April 2021. I had a work project in Anderson and in the foothills that took me on back roads close to where the trail ran. I got to spend an evening after work exploring Shasta City, the western terminus of the trail. After I finished my work project, I took the long way home and explored all the way to Susanville. That covered about half the length of the trail.
Black Rock to Honey Lake
What I didn’t have the chance to cover was the eastern half of the Nobles Emigrant Trail. That begins in the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada, near the annual Burning Man Festival. There, Nobles branched off from the existing Applegate Trail (1843) which headed into southern Oregon. From that trail junction, Nobles bounced from spring to spring across the north side of the Black Rock Desert.
The trail then followed Smoke Creek and Rush Creek over the mountains on the edge of the Great Basin. It crossed into California near the ominously named Robbers Roost and headed southwest between Five Springs Mountain and Hot Springs Peak. Then, it dropped into the Honey Lake Valley, which must have been a glorious sight after days or weeks in the desert. I was impressed when I first saw it, and I was in a comfortable modern SUV, fresh off vistas of Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak.
Once on the valley floor, the Nobles Trail headed west, into present-day Susanville at the head of the valley. When the trail first came through here, there was no Euro-American civilization – no town of Susanville, no ranches, no roadhouses. The first to settle in the area was Isaac Roop, one of the merchants who chipped in to “buy” the route from Nobles. When examining the trail in 1852, Roop saw the potential of the Honey Lake Valley area.
After Roop’s business in Shasta City burned down in 1853, he decided to try his luck at the head of Honey Lake Valley. He built a log cabin there in the spring of 1853, which expanded into a trading post the next year, known as Roop’s Fort. The area became known as Rooptown but was changed to Susanville in 1857 in honor of Isaac Roop’s daughter. Likewise, the Susan River, which flows through the south side of town to feed Honey Lake.
If you’re visiting in person, instead of just vicariously through these posts, start at Memorial Park in the center of town. There’s free street parking on the west side of the park on N Weatherlow St, in front of the Lassen Historical Museum. There are several things to check out while you’re here. From the parking area, the log cabin on the left is the still-standing Roop’s Fort, the oldest structure in Susanville, looking not much different than it must have a century-and-a-half ago.
Affixed to a block of granite in the walkway is an information plaque for Roop’s Fort placed by the Native Daughters of the Golden West. The other log cabin and the converted residence next to the parking area house the Lassen Historical Museum. This was closed due to Covid regulations when I came through here in April 2021 but is normally open 10am-2pm Tuesday through Saturday. It definitely looks worth a visit, with exhibits on the Nobles Emigrant Trail and early pioneers of Lassen County.
In front of the fort, you’ll see a marker constructed of old train rail, faced with a pioneer quote related to the area. This marker, and scores more in the series, were installed by Trails West, “a non-profit organization of emigrant trail enthusiasts who research, locate and mark emigrant trails, and then publish guides to interpret them.” They’ve placed over 700 markers like this on more than a dozen trails leading into northern California and Oregon. If you’re interested in exploring these northern routes, the Trails West guides will direct you to every marker they’ve placed.
The Trails West maker for Rooptown is from a journal entry by Allen J. Tyrell from September 8, 1860: “This is a village of about 20 houses nearly all of which were built this summer. [It] is situated at the head of the valley… There is a hotel store, blacksmith shop and… a saw-mill not far away.” This describes the early growth of the town of Susanville.
The Sagebrush War
As mentioned on the Roop’s Fort plaque, Susanville was the site of the Sagebrush War in 1863. I was completely unaware of this fascinating story until visiting the area. Peter Lassen, pioneer of the Lassen Trail, discovered gold in the Honey Lake Valley in 1855 and a small rush resulted, with miners coming from the Feather River camps. With the resulting growth, about 20 families banded together in 1856 and formed the “Territory of Nataqua.” Since they were so remote, and California’s eastern boundary had not yet been definitively established, they thought they were outside of California (Nevada having not been formed yet).
The whole area was so lightly settled that not much happened for the next several years, and Nataqua existed mostly in the minds of its founders. In 1861, Isaac Roop was chosen as the first provisional governor of the newly established Nevada Territory. About the same time, the California boundary was firmly drawn, placing the Nataquans not in Nevada but in Plumas County, California. When the Plumas sheriff tried to assert his authority and collect taxes in 1863, the Sagebrush War was the result. About forty or fifty of the original settlers holed up in Roop’s Fort, renamed Fort Defiance. Two men were injured during the two-day skirmish before a truce was declared. However, tensions remained high until the formation of Lassen County on April 1, 1864, with Susanville as the County Seat and the settlers again in charge of their own affairs.
If you’re looking to explore the region and have a bit more time, consider doing it by bike. The Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail starts on the south side of town at the Historic Railroad Depot. The Bizz Johnson is a multi-use rail trail, popular with mountain bikers, that runs for just over 25 miles along the former track bed of the Fernley and Lassen Branch Line of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Much of it runs along the Susan River, crossing it on a dozen bridges and trestles. If possible, visit in October, when Susanville puts on the annual Rails to Trails Festival and Susanville Indian Rancheria hosts Public Archaeology Day at nearby Hobo Camp. It looks like this year’s Rails to Trails may be cancelled due to Covid but check their website for updates.
If you want more information on the topics discussed in this post, check out the following books:
The Nobles Emigrant Trail by Ken Johnston – Johnston follows the entire trail from the Black Rock Desert to Shasta City. Before retiring, he was a ranger at Lassen Volcanic National Park and used to conduct living history programs about the trail, leading an ox-drawn wagon through the Park and teaching visitors about trail life. Covers a lot of “trail-adjacent” history as well. This would make a fantastic companion to the Western Trails Association guidebook that lists all the markers along the route.
Historic Spots in California by Douglas Kyle – this updated reference book lists hundreds of historic markers in California. It’s organized by County, includes capsule histories of each area, and is intended to be brought on a road trip to learn as you go. Includes National Register properties, State Registered Landmarks, and markers placed by groups such as E. Clampus Vitus and the Native Daughters of the Golden West.
Historical Atlas of California by Derek Hayes – I love old maps, and this coffee table book is packed with hundreds of reproductions or portions of them. The chapter “West to California” is fascinating – you can trace the contribution of each of the major explorations into the Great American Desert – Ogden in the 1820s, Bonneville in the 1830s, Frémont in the 1840s – and watch as the blank spots are filled in. Other maps detail the emigrant roads and the gold fields.
Join me next post as we head west out of Susanville towards Mount Lassen and William Nobles’ greatest contribution – the grade up to Nobles Pass that was so gentle you couldn’t even really tell where the summit was. See you next time. Thanks for coming along!