504. Greenhorn Cutoff

“T” Marker and industrial facility at stop #1.

Directions from the California Trail Interpretive Center to Stop #504 Greenhorn Cutoff

Drive westbound on I-80 for 10 miles. Take Exit 282. Turn left at the stop sign and drive over the interstate. Drive until you arrive at the “T” intersection. Turn left onto Chestnut Street. Drive for 1/4 mile to the second driveway on your right, just after the end of the guardrails. Pull into the gravel surface lot that leads to a fenced-in industrial site with large tanks and a singlewide trailer (If you drive past 10 school bus sized white tanks you missed the gravel lot) The “T” marker will be on the right hand side of the gravel surface lot near the RR tracks. Do not block the gate to the industrial facility.

Site History

Many of the emigrants headed west on the California Trail fit the definition of a greenhorn perfectly. A greenhorn is a person who is new to or inexperienced at a particular activity. Many of the men and women who decided to risk everything and head west did not have much experience living outdoors and traveling by wagon for months. Coming from the east, they had even less experience with the climate and terrain they encountered across Nevada. The Greenhorn cutoff began about 2 miles west of where the California Trail Center is located today. Heading into the mountains north of I-80, the Greenhorn Cutoff was used by the emigrants to bypass Carlin Canyon (more about this on the next page) and several crossings of the Humboldt River, especially during high water years like 1850. However, the Greenhorn Cutoff was not a real cutoff. It would more accurately be called an alternate route as it added 3 miles to the journey. The Greenhorn Cutoff left the Humboldt River, leaving the emigrants with a hot and dry route through the mountains before arriving at the river again.

Their lack of knowledge about the route and terrain and their nerves about dangerous river crossings in the canyon, however misplaced, provided the route with its name. Except in very high water years, the river crossings were not all that difficult. In 1849, Alonzo Delano wrote, “There was a good deal of vexation among the emigrants who took the mountain road, on learning the character of the lower one, and they immediately called the long, hard, mountain trail the Greenhorn Cut-off.”

The emigrants had a love-hate relationship with the Humboldt River. They depended on grass and water to keep their oxen alive which they needed to pull their covered wagons full of necessary supplies. The Humboldt River, unfortunately, did not provide good water or adequate amounts of grass for the emigrants. It is the only major water source that flows west across Nevada, so they had little choice but to follow it. The water quality of the river was commented on by many of the emigrants. The further west they traveled the more bitter and full of alkali the river became. With as many as 40,000 or more people and twice as many oxen traveling along the river every summer the water quality deteriorated even further. Dr. Horace Belknap wrote a poem expressing the emigrants’ feelings about the river. It began, “Meanest and muddiest filthiest stream, most cordially I hate you…” Despite their sour feelings towards the Humboldt River, the emigrants were grateful for what little relief it provided along its three hundred mile course.

The emigrants dreaded sections of the trail, like the Greenhorn Cutoff and Emigrant Pass (site #3), where they would be compelled to leave the river. There is very little water along the long and difficult route of the cutoff. On the descent back to the original trail the emigrants encountered a tributary of the Humboldt River called Susie Creek which provided a small reprieve for themselves and their parched oxen.