Geographic and Historic Study of Ponderosa Way Firebreak and Transportation Route

Betty Elaine Smith, Ph.D.

Project Description

Located on the western slopes of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Ponderosa Way was an 800 mile long firebreak planned to protect the valuable timber at high elevations from naturally occurring brush fires spreading from the valley and hills below. Constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Depression years, the U.S. Army became interested in Ponderosa Way during World War II as an alternate north-south transportation route for tanks in the event of a west coast invasion by Japanese. The purpose of this research project is to clarify the present location and condition of the route and to understand the historic and current implications of its construction. A combination of archival research at county level historical societies, interviews, field work and use of air photos, global positioning systems (GPS), and geographic information systems (GIS) are being used to develop a geographic and historic understanding of Ponderosa Way.

The proposed activity will help separate fact from fiction regarding the history and present use of Ponderosa Way. There is a surprising lack of published information and local knowledge regarding this historic firebreak and transportation route. It seems that some segments of Ponderosa Way became dirt, gravel or paved roads while other sections are trails or simply do not exist. Some creeks are crossed by substantial steel bridges while the route simply stops at the brink of other creeks or canyons. This is an ideal project for geographers to map and conduct field work to find answers to these puzzling questions.

The proposed activity is part of a long term project involving students doing fieldwork and preparing maps in the Department of Geology and Geography GIScience Lab for various segments of the 800 mile long Ponderosa Way. In August 2010 two geography majors, Greg Weber and Craig Westendorf, accompanied Dr. Betty Smith for a week doing field work over a 57 mile stretch of Ponderosa Way. U.S. Geologic Society topographic maps and GPS were used to identify intersections of Ponderosa Way with five drainage basins from Plum Creek not far from the south entrance to Lassen National Park southward to the town of Cohasset located just north of Chico, California. The students were able to have an exceptional educational adventure and integrated learning experience for less than $500 each and the cost of a plane ticket from Midway Airport to Reno. The project lends itself to multiple future field experiences with students studying specific segments of the 800 mile long firebreak/ transportation route.

Meaningful integrated learning objectives of the Department, College and University will be met by involving geography and geology majors and future teachers with social science concentration in several levels of this project, e.g., field work in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, independent studies, supervised research, preparation of student posters for Sciencefest and papers for student sessions at conferences. Photos, maps, GIS, GPS and local knowledge will be integrated and analyzed in the GIScience Lab and future GIScience Center to help understand the historic significance of this rugged route that passes for 800 miles through private and public lands. The university and wider scholarly and professional community will benefit from the creation of new knowledge and the increased preparedness of EIU graduates doing applied geography in the workplace.

The proposed Ponderosa Way long term research objectives contribute to the university mission by providing an integrated learning framework in which students are empowered by learning and using appropriate GIS and GPS technological tools in the field and in the GIScience Lab and future GIScience Center. The project will bring together new information, create new knowledge, and make spatial connections through GIScience analysis to solve the mystery of Ponderosa Way.

Further Information

For further details regarding the Ponderosa Way project contact Dr. Betty Smith by email besmith@eiu.edu or phone 217-581-6340.

Geology Research Projects

Geography Research Projects