Growing Up in Alta, California

Alta, CA is located on Interstate 80 about halfway between Sacramento, CA and Reno, NV. It's a small town of perhaps 500, though the surrounding communities have several hundred more residents.

Alta was founded in 1866 as a railroad town along the transcontinental Central Pacific rail line. Completed in 1869, the town had a a hotel, among other amenities. Its neighbors, Dutch Flat and Gold Run, were mining communities. Yet the history of small towns in the Sierra were shaped almost as much by the railroad as they were by discovery of the Mother Lode. It's a beautiful place, with mixed conifer and oak forest and four clearly defined seasons.

Like much of California, this community has changed greatly since I was a child. The population has more than doubled, with many new residents moving up from the Bay Area and the Sacramento Valley. While this population growth doesn't mean much in absolute numbers, it does mean a change in the character of the area.

My parents moved to Alta in 1957. I was nearly eight years old, entering third grade. At that point, my family of six represented 3% of the town's population. I've always loved that particular statistic. Now, many of the dirt roads we investigated with the other children in town lead to a series of houses. Today's children have to range further afield to discover uninhabited territory.

Without video games and chased outside by parents who wouldn't let us watch TV all day, we spent our time in the surrounding woods. We climbed trees, clambered up rock outcroppings, hunted for frogs and pollywogs, and built forts out of huge piles of pine needles.

Alta's elevation is about 3,500 ft. in the Sierra Nevada, and each year it gets a reasonable snowfall. Of course, I remember the snow was deeper when I was younger (and shorter). We'd play Fox and Geese at school, and build snowmen. At home, my brothers and I built tunnels and snow forts, shaping the blocks in cardboard boxes. In winter, the house always smelled slightly of damp wool, and wet sweaters and jackets hung over the railing on the back porch. After the spring thaw and freeze, we'd "skate" on the snow crust in our tennis shoes, trying not to break through.

In the late 1950s, Alta was an hour's drive on what was then Highway 40 from the nearest supermarket, in Auburn, a thriving town of about 5,000. Once a month after school, Mom would load my 3 brothers and me in our Ford station wagon (it was always a Ford - my father was the Ford dealer in Colfax). We'd spend an hour or so buying groceries for the next month, loading the wagon with brown bags. On the way home, we invariably got caught behind one or more large trucks and breathed diesel fumes until we reached a passing lane. At home, we'd restock the freezer and the pantry. During the winter, I imagine Mom would try to fit in a few more bags of groceries on each trip, to avoid the long drive down and up the hill during the snowy weather.


One of my best memories is the winter of the bread truck strike. Though we got most of our groceries in Auburn to save money, we would buy bread and milk from the Murrays' local store. During that winter, though, Mom made 4 loaves of bread every other day. We'd come home from school to the smell of fresh-baked bread...heaven! We would eat a loaf a day, and Mom would freeze the extra loaves to tide us over on the weekend.

In the winter when Highway 40 was closed a mile up the road at Baxter, due to heavy snow, cars would back up along the highway and along the back road, in front of our house. One Friday night during a road closure, two couples from Berkeley on their way to the ski slopes knocked on our door asking if we might have some rooms where they might stay. The alternative was to spend the night in their car, waiting for the road to reopen. As it happened, we did have a couple of small apartments above our garage/barn, in back. The next morning, they continued on their ski trip. My parents' kindness was returned, however, because she stayed with them occasionally in Berkeley as she was finishing her teaching credential, in the early 1960s. It was a fine time, when we'd open our home to strangers stuck in a snowstorm.

In the late fall of 1959, thanks to Federal funding, California state road crews completed Interstate 80, just in time for the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, in Squaw Valley. While I remember our trip to the Olympics to watch the ice skating competition, I have far more vivid memories of the forest fire which broke out in late October of 1959, started by one of the road crews and fueled partly by the slash from the road construction. It was dry - it's always dry in October - and there are always winds in the fall. We talked with neighbors, packed a few favorite possessions, and watched the flames climb over the small ridge a quarter of a mile away. We were ready to go in a minute. Luckily, we didn't have to leave. I-80 acted as a firebreak in spots, and hard work by California Department of Forestry, the road crews, and local volunteer firefighters stopped the fire short of our small towns of Alta and Dutch Flat. The damage from the fire is still slightly visible, south of I-80 between Dutch Flat and Alta.


Summers in Alta were wonderful for children. We could go anywhere we could walk. The weather was almost always perfect. I can remember most summers where months stretched without rain. There were one or two summers with thunderstorms with purple branch lightening and lots of rain. My brothers and I would sleep outside on the lawn for months, on a set of four camp cots. Maybe there were mosquitoes, but I don't recall them. I do remember the stars, the sky was filled with them. I was always so tired from the busy days, I couldn't stay awake to watch for long.

Mom would pack a lunch each day and we'd trek down to the local swimming pool, a mile or so away. Located about halfway between Alta and Dutch Flat, the pool is a local treasure and a community institution. It started life as a muddy swimming hole, and got a layer of gunnite (concrete) perhaps 50 years ago. Over the years, embellishments like concrete decks and benches and steps were added, but the pool shows its roots with its unusual squared-oval shape. It's surrounded by tall pines, and there's usually shade to be found even on the hottest day. Young children learn to swim, older children learn to flirt, and adults swap stories, relax and read at the pool.

Raising the money to hire a lifeguard and buy the supplies to run and improve the pool took a community effort. Each year, the third weekend in July, we'd hold a big barbeque. The adults organized the food, barbequing a side of beef in a big pit. The women would coordinate committees to make huge amounts of potato salad, green salad, beans, and garlic bread to feed the throngs. We children would sometimes help with the food. We'd also help by performing an aquacade, with synchronized-swimming presentations at different levels of complexity, for swimmers of varying skill levels. Preparing for the aquacade helped us kids put our swimming lessons to good use. By the last barbeque, in the early 1970s, there were 2,000 people attending. That's a lot of potato salad, beans & beef!