Was there ever a toll road over Pacheco Pass?

By Jose TorresMay 10, 2013 

There was a toll road over Pacheco Pass. In 1856, Andrew Firebaugh began to build and later operated the toll road. Firebaugh, who has a town named after him south of Los Banos, was the originator of the Pacheco Pass grade. The labor for building the grade was provided by Chinese workers using picks and shovels; they finished the road in 1857.

The actual toll road went from the current Bell Station to about two miles west of the Pacheco Pass peak. The road went along a route parallel to the current State Route 152. At one point, the toll was 25 cents for horseback and $4 for horses and wagons.

According to Milliken Museum documents, Firebaugh did encounter some problems upon building the road. The pay for the workers was $1 per day plus room and board. When the project was finished, Firebaugh had run out of money to pay off his workers. Mr. Murphy, a friend, gave Firebaugh 67 young hackamore colts (gentle colts) to pay off the debt to his workers. Some laborers took one or even two colts, and some took none for their pay. Murphy, a cattleman, benefitted greatly from the road as it was the fastest way to move cattle. Before the road was put in, the only way to move cattle across the pass was by crossing mountains.

From an old interview with a C.H. Haun it is known that Murphy Bros. would move up to 4,000 cattle at a time all the way from San Jose to Tulare Lake in order to save money on feed. There would be 30 to 35 men in the groups that divided the cattle among themselves into about 5 groups. They would pick a long mountain ridge and follow it until they would reach a gulch or a new ridge and continue onward until they went through the pass. The road made it easier to move the cattle, although it was not very good for the road having large amounts of cattle. The same year the toll road was built, Firebaugh also built a tavern, which later became a Butterfield Transcontinental Stage stop. The Pacific and Atlantic Company built a telegraph line over the pass and a telegraph station was established there in 1859. Lafayette F. Bell purchased the toll road, stage stop, tavern and telegraph office for $4,000 in 1863. When a post office was added in 1873 the Tavern and Stage Stop became known as Bell Station. Bell Station is also the last remaining "station" on a California map that was a stagecoach station not a railroad station. Bell later sold the road to Henry Miller, who later sold the land to the state when tolls were abolished in the 1880s.

The fee for using the road in 1876 was 25 cents on horseback, a six horse team and two wagons was $4 and passage was "free" on foot.

One person who definitely took advantage of the free on foot use of the toll road was Italian immigrant Bernardo Negra. Negra was one of the first to immigrate from Saponario, Italy, in 1815. Negra, who arrived in the Badger Flat area in 1876, would buy vegetables in Gilroy and haul them over the pass and through the toll road and sell them to the sheepherders across the pass and in Los Banos. Negra did this for nine years. Firebaugh himself was born Sept. 29, 1823, in Rockridge County, Virginia. Firebaugh migrated to Texas, where he served in the Mexican American War. In 1849, Firebaugh came to Mariposa County in 1861. In 1864 he established a trading post and a ferry across the San Joaquin River about one quarter of a mile north of Firebaugh, which became known as Firebaugh's Ferry. It was also a station on the Great Butterfield Overland Stage Route.

Firebaugh was considered by many as one of the early entrepreneurs of the San Joaquin. When he died in 1875, he was buried on his land 10 miles above the tollhouse road.

"Ask Us" is produced by Tim McNally's Advanced Placement American government class at Los Banos High School. Do you have a question about the history of Los Banos? Submit it to Mr. McNally's class by email to tmcnally@losbanos usd.k12.ca.us, by phone to (209) 826-6033 or by mail to Los Banos High School, 1966 S. 11th St. Los Banos, CA 93635.

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