By Cory Peterman
The Lost Sierra
This week’s article comes at the request of B.J. Jordan of the Sierra County Arts Council, who wrote to me the following: “I thought you might be the person who could tell us the history of the term ‘Lost Sierra’ and what it actually refers to historically.” Thanks, B.J., for the excellent article suggestion!
The term “Lost Sierra” has been around for awhile, and has especially been used lately for marketing purposes around Sierra and Plumas Counties. Many residents of the area may be familiar with the public television program California’s Gold, hosted by Huell Howser, that ran from 1991 to 2012. An episode entitled “Lost Sierra” that aired on March 1, 1991 is described as follows:
“Huell traveled up to Downieville, nestled high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, to see what makes this little town so special. Explore a town that stood during the years of the California Gold Rush; meet the staff on the Mountain Messenger, the state’s oldest weekly newspaper; and watch a demonstration of the long, heavy wooden skis worn by the gold miners in the mid-1800s.” The episode can be watched online here: https://blogs.chapman.edu/huell-howser-archives/1991/03/01/lost-sierra-californias-gold-212/. In the episode, Huell states “Because of its rather isolated location and its history, this whole area is known as ‘The Lost Sierra.’”
However, the term “Lost Sierra” was used long before this episode of California’s Gold. The September 1973 issue of National Geographic had a feature written by Robert Laxalt called “Golden Ghosts of the Lost Sierra” which covered the northwestern part of Sierra County and the southwestern part of Plumas County, “an isolated, once all-but-forgotten corner of northeastern California that the forty-niners penetrated for gold.” The feature focused on the two counties’ inhabitants, which mostly included gold seekers, both new and old.
Laxalt had the grand opportunity to interview William Banks Berry (1903-1999 of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Laxalt states Berry “gave the name ‘Lost Sierra’ to this out-of-the-way region when he stumbled upon it 40 years ago… he is the official historian for the U.S. Ski Association, and among the first to prove that organized ski racing in the United States began with the forty-niners.” In regards to skiing, Berry is quoted in the article as stating “The long-boards are what opened up the Lost Sierra year round.” This was very much true in the past, as most mail was delivered around the area by men using “skis” or “snowshoes” when several feet of snow covered the ground. It was said some of these mailmen could reach speeds of over 60 miles-per-hour on their skis.
Most other sources, including the Lost Sierra Chamber of Commerce, state William Berry gave the “Lost Sierra” its name in the 1930s as well. Berry’s skiing experiences, paired with his excellent journalism and knack for writing culminated in his book “Lost Sierra: Gold Ghosts and Skis” published in 1991.
However, many modern sources have claimed the term “Lost Sierra” was “coined at the time the Pony Express riders galloped through Northern California to deliver the mail” and that “legend has it that the Lost Sierra got its nickname back in the 19th century.” I have not been able to find any verification on these claims. The Pony Express, a short-lasting mail service that operated from April 3, 1860 to October 16, 1861, used one route that went from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Upon reaching Carson City, the route dipped south, hitting South Lake Tahoe and continuing along the present-day South Fork American River onto Sacramento. I find it unlikely that the term “Lost Sierra” originated with the Pony Express, as that organization’s route was far away from the Lost Sierra region, and since more credible sources state William Berry came up with the term.
Whatever the case, the Lost Sierra isn’t so lost after all anymore – tourism has greatly picked up in the last few decades in the region, and the area is home to some of the world’s best-known mountain biking trails, thanks to the efforts of groups like the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, who aim to provide “quality outdoor experiences through trail construction and maintenance in the Lost Sierra.”