George R. Stewart joins the Twenty-Mile Museum

In a recent post, I described the Twenty-Mile Museum – the interpretive signs that line the historic route of U.S. 40 over Donner Summit – placed by the Donner Summit Historical Society.  Next spring, a sign for George R. Stewart will join the Twenty-Mile Museum.

Looking over the various pages on the Historical Society’s website, a few weeks ago,  I found a link to their Newsletters.  Since there was none with an article about GRS, I contacted the Editor, Bill Oudegeest,to volunteer to write one.

After receiving the first draft, Bill suggested the Society would be interested in placing a GRS interpretive sign along the old highway, if financial sponsorship and help with the sign’s research and writing were available.  I sent in some photos and text, posted a message to the GRS group, and soon the design was underway, the cost fully sponsored.  Thanks to Brian and Beth, Steve and Carol, Bob and Sandra, Paul F., Denise and Barney, John and Angela, Willie, Joyce, and Alan, the sign will be installed next spring. Caltrans has approved the sign’s location; Bill has done a fine layout.   The sign will be installed very near the Historic U.S. 40 access point for the Pacific Crest Trail – which is also the closest access to George R. Stewart Peak.  This means that hundreds of hikers on the PCT, day hikers in the Donner Summit area, drivers sauntering over Historic U.S. 40 (the subject of a legendary book by GRS), or anyone who visits the Society’s small museum in Soda Springs will learn about George R. Stewart and his remarkable books.  Hopefully, many of those people will take the short side-trail and scramble to the top of George R. Stewart Peak (named in honor of GRS by the Board of Geographic Names).  The round trip from Historic U.S. 40 is only about 3 miles.

Those interested in George R. Stewart and the Donner Summit area owe thanks to all those involved in this successful project.  The Donner Summit Historical Society is always looking for members; one way to show your thanks is to join!

Below is the current draft of the GRS Interpretive Sign.  It will be placed next spring, after the old road reopens.  Some of us are already dreaming about a dedication celebration.  Stay tuned.


GRS sign latest


George R. Stewart’s forgotten biography of George Derby

After ORDEAL BY HUNGER, with its landmark Whole Earth vision, George R. Stewart wrote another biography.  The book, JOHN PHOENIX, ESQ, THE VERITABLE SQUIBOB:  A LIFE OF CAPTAIN GEORGE H. DERBY, U.S.A.,  forgotten by all but scholars, is about the first great American humorist.   Derby, A topographical engineer with the army, came from an urbane eastern background, but found himself posted to the far west.  There, he mapped the Central Valley of California and the lower Colorado River, among other places.  Posted to San Diego, and bored by the sleepy little town, Derby began writing humorous sketches about life in the west.

He fleshed out those stories by playing practical jokes on local folks.   For example, when a local Democratic editor asked Derby to take over his editorial duties for a time, Derby turned the newspaper into a voice for the Whig Party and won the election in the area for the Whigs — not for political reasons, but for fun.

Stewart believed  that Derby may have influenced Sam Clemens to take up humorous writing AND a pen name.  Derby often traveled on the Mississippi when young Sam was piloting steamboats, and could easily have encountered the future humorist.   If so – and it is often the case that when new ideas enter the world they begin with a pioneer like Derby (or Stewart) and are then refined and made famous by others mentored by the pioneers – Derby deserves great credit for his shaping of American humor.

For more on Derby, see this humorous biography of the writer published in the early twentieth century: