By Kathy Brown
Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society
Well known to “locals”, and often awe-inspiring and a challenge to travelers, is “The Grade”, the steep 1600 foot ascent connecting Moccasin at the bottom of Priest Hill to Priest Station and the rolling terrain beyond at the top. Priest Grade boasts two different roads - “Old” and “New” - on opposite sides of Grizzly Gulch.
The first track up the hill was a steep trail on the south side. In the 1850s, it was used by early miners and pack animals heading to the gold camps of Big Oak Flat and Garrote (now Groveland). The trail traversed the hill between the current Old Priest Grade and the Hetch Hetchy penstocks that are so visible to today's traveler on the approach to “The Grade” from the west. The miners trail was so rugged that a replacement – the Grizzly Gulch Wagon Road (now the Old Priest Grade) – was built in 1859. Even in 1900 freight wagons could take two days to haul a heavy load from Chinese Camp to Big Oak Flat. Surrounding communities began advocating for an easier and faster road.
The need for a less steep road increased after 1901 when the first loco-mobiles (steam-powered cars) could barely make it to the top and the first gas-driven automobiles were unable to “make the grade”. With a can-do attitude and remarkable community spirit, local citizens banded together to build a new approach to the top without government assistance. In 1911 they surveyed a new route on the north side of the gulch. They donated labor, transport, and supplies and began construction, mostly by hand. They completed a rough 8 foot wide roadbed along most of the new route. Then the private project stopped due to problems in financing and gaining access from some landowners.
Watch for Part II of Making the Grade.