Several years ago, during Amador County searches for the site of Black Bart’s last successful stage robbery, Logan pondered the vexing question: where and what was Morrow’s grade? Because newspapers then reported that where Bart stepped athwart the down stage was near the start of Morrow’s grade. To be clear, we’re talking about predecessors of today’s Highway 88.
Topographically speaking, nature provided a broad, ridge-top boulevard for travel, if your motive power — legs, horseback or stage — could surmount steep grades at both ends.
Today, as we drive to and fro on Highway 88, from flatlands to hill country, one notes that about where the Amador Central railroad track crosses the highway, near Sunnybrook, the ridge is steeper, though modern highway grades and powerful autos make such grades hardly noticeable.
Likewise, at the easterly end of the ridge, about where the Sutter Creek cut-off joins Highway 88, there is also a grade, no doubt much more steep and difficult to climb in early days, but easily surmountable for travelers now.
Stage coaches carried the mail and passengers from flat valley spots — Sacramento or Stockton — from 1851, when our first post offices were established. Before ‘51, no doubt natives and early miners utilized that broad ridge; but those steep grades at both ends needed to be avoided.
That’s why Calaveras and, later, Amador County roadmasters, crews and, perhaps, stage operators looked for or fashioned routes or alignments of lesser grade. Thus, an easier route was pioneered on the flanks of the ridge at both ends to circumvent the steep parts.
Thus, at the westerly end of the ridge, the original route hit the Mountain Spring House and cut up the southerly side of the ridge, as the Amador Central, nee Ione & Eastern, would do 50 years later. At the easterly end, the route crossed the ridge, and cut along the northerly flank of the hill.
Circa 1861 — when the turnpike or toll road era began in California — the proprietors of the Ione-Jackson Turnpike (which started in mid-Ione Valley and ended on Sutter Street) utilized some of the old route and probably improved the less-steep stretches on the ridge’s flanks.
Yet, the conundrum Logan still faced: which approach — east or west — was Morrow’s Grade in 1883, when Bart celebrated his last successful holdup?
A confounding fact: the extensive Morrow family owned hundreds of acres on and abutting the ridge, and either end could have been a Morrow’s Grade. In fact, Bart, in casing his heist, purloined a few items from a Morrow and avoided their ranch/farm houses as best he could.
To solve the question, Logan, after walking stretches of the old roads on both flanks of the ridge and studying available facts, concluded that the Morrow’s Grade he sought, from Bart’s day, started even easterly of the connection with the Sutter Creek road on the ridge’s easterly end.
Observe the adjacent photo. This is a portion of the old Jackson-Ione highway alignment and Morrow’s Grade Road, dating back to the county’s earliest days. From the route, you can see far west into Sacramento valley. The route cuts the flank of the ridge for a half-mile or so, until it emerges on top, before, further on, descending to the northerly flank to reach Mountain Springs.
One can drive the easterly Morrow’s grade by turning off the highway just beyond the antique shop turnoff. The westerly flank route is no longer a through road, but can be accessed at its easterly end and driven westerly to a dead-end shy of the Mountain Spring(s) site.
Logan offers an incidental word about the Michael Tovey monument atop the ridge along today’s high-speed highway. Its location doesn’t mean that the killing was there. Surely, that vengeful deed happened on the old flank route nearby. Anyone lying in wait to assassinate Tovey wouldn’t do it in such open ground. But, amid trees and bushes on the ridge side, the assailant could attack unseen by anyone but those being attacked.
Though he could be wrong, Logan is no longer vexed by, “Where was Morrow’s grade?”