The history of transportation in western Nevada County is, as with any other aspect of the beginning stages of regional development by European settlements, inextricably linked with mining.
The reason for existence, the magnet that brought the adventurers coursing through the hills and the gold-rich valleys of the watershed, mining also sparked the advent of a sophisticated transportation network.
What began as a few hearty prospectors carrying their burdens on their backs, or the more well-capitalized versions with pack mules or other beasts of burdens bearing their equipment, slowly gave way to stagecoaches.
Entrepreneurs such as James Birch began to operate a stagecoach line that connected Nevada City and Grass Valley to Sacramento, with the coach towed by a team of steeds crossing the Bear River at Johnson’s Crossing and through Rose Bar, Rough and Ready and Grass Valley up into Nevada City.
As early as 1849, Wells, Fargo & Co. began delivering letters from the East to miners tucked in the foothills who were ravenously eager for news from their distant hometowns. The express lines would then convey letters bearing news of fortuitous strikes or hard luck toil back over the steep crest of the Sierra Nevada and across the trackless expanse of desert.
In 1850, the discovery of gold-bearing quartz veins in the earth beneath Grass Valley precipitated an explosion of hard-rock mining. The enterprise, far different from the hands-and-pans self-sufficiency of most of the gold hunters in the region, required extraordinary manpower and large amounts of heavy equipment.
About two years before James Marshall discovered a nugget of gold in a tributary of the South Fork of the American River, Asa Whitney, a merchant from New York, began pushing the idea of creating a transcontinental railroad.
With a clear economic incentive to do so, namely the Gold Rush, the United States Congress introduced a bill in February 1849 attempting to raise capital for the creation of the Pacific Railroad.
In California, a consortium of businessmen from Sacramento, Nevada and Placer counties attempted to build a railroad that went through Grass Valley, Nevada City and Auburn and over the crest at Henness Pass.
The plan was abandoned due to logistical difficulties, but once the federal government provided funds in 1853, Theodore Judah, an engineer from Connecticut who had built the first railroad in California in the Sacramento Valley, was hired to survey the mountains to determine whether a pass was possible.
He found it was possible, and after being rebuffed by capitalists in San Francisco, he took his mad vision to Sacramento, where a group of prominent wealthy citizens including Leland Stanford would form the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California.
Central Pacific would coordinate with two other railroad companies, Western Pacific Railroad (Oakland to Sacramento) and Union Pacific Railroad Company to build the Overland Route that essentially connected San Francisco to the extensive railroad network that previously had a terminus in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the Missouri River.
The “Last Spike” was driven on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit about 60 miles northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah, opening railroad traffic coast to coast and bringing to fruition all the dreams of Americans when they first envisioned the tenets of “Manifest Destiny.”
Closer to home
In Nevada City and Grass Valley, the barons presiding over a burgeoning economy based in gold mining had attempted to convince Judah and Stanford that bringing the railroad though western Nevada County was both logistically practical and economically advantageous for the entire region.
Their entreaties were to no avail.
Nevertheless, a group of 20 or so prominent citizens of the twin cities convened soon after the Overland Route was completed and surveyed and selected a route that wound from Nevada City through Grass Valley, along much of the current Route 174.
Congress granted the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Company the right of way that wound through Nevada and Placer counties’ public lands on June 20, 1874, nearly three months after the California State Legislature granted permission to construct the 3-foot-wide railway.
A construction company, Turton & Knox, was commissioned to perform the earthwork while John Flint Kidder presided over the project as the chief engineer.
Work began in January 1875. Construction included two bridges, two tunnels and five trestles. It cost $500,000.
The route left from the Colfax depot, crossed Bear River into Nevada County, stopped at the town of You Bet, proceeded through Chicago Park and continued to Grass Valley.
Construction was completed in the spring of 1876 and the inaugural locomotive voyage left Colfax and headed into Grass Valley on April 11. By May, the railway had been extended to service Nevada City.
John Coleman, the president of the North Star Mine, who also ran a timber company in the Greenhorn area (which is why the railroad ran to Colfax as opposed to Auburn), was the first president of the NCNGRR.
April 11, 1876, is a day that remains indelibly etched into the lore of western Nevada County as the community en masse gathered for a jubilee. When the railroad was truly completed in May, an old cannon was hauled to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain on the outskirts of Nevada City and lit afire repeatedly as the gathered throng of denizens cheered heartily below.
A parade ensued, and Judge Niles Searls addressed the congregation from the engine and dismissed the citizens to persist with celebrations in the homes and watering holes of the twin cities.
John Kidder, who surveyed and presided over the construction of the railway, became so enamored of Grass Valley that he and his wife, Sarah, took a house in the area.
Kidder became the superintendent, and then later, in 1884, became the president of NCNGRR. When he died in 1901, his widow, Sarah Kidder, became the first female railroad president in the world.
The railroad operated for 66 years, conveying nearly a quarter-billion dollars of gold without ever experiencing so much as a single robbery.
Local NCNGRR expert Tim O’Brien speculates that the practice of consolidating gold into large, heavy ingots that were too bulky and heavy to be secreted away with any semblance of efficiency accounts for the lack of criminal enterprise along the route.
For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroad featured first-class passenger trains intermingled with some freight trains and a few lines that were mixtures of the two.
The company had 19 locomotives, one of which, Engine 5 (nicknamed Tahoe), was loaned to Hollywood and used in many Westerns, including “The Spoilers” — a 1942 film starring Randolph Scott, Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne.
By 1912, there were four mixed trains running daily, each way, between the twin cities and Colfax, but the development of the private automobile would begin to encroach upon the passenger receipts of railroad companies throughout the United States.
The prominence of the NCNGRR in the region’s transportation portfolio declined consistently until 1942, when the mines closed at the behest of the United States, which wanted all nonessential industries to be shuttered as a means of concentrating on the war effort.
After the United States’ entrance into World War II, the tracks of the narrow gauge railroad became more valuable as scrap metal. Earl Taylor, who had purchased the NCNGRR in 1926 for $1, sold the company to Dulian Steel Products Company.
The last train ran on May 29, 1942.
Matthew Renda is a former reporter for The Union and a freelance writer.
Special thanks to Tim O’Brien, who is on the board of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.
History of Nevada County by Thompson and West
The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum website (ncngrrmuseum..org)
Bonanza Railroads by Gilbert Kneiss
Transportation in Nevada County by Nevada County Gold
Gold Rush Towns of Nevada County by Maria Brower
Nevada County Narrow Gauge by Gerald Best
— Matthew Renda
The railroad operated for 66 years, conveying nearly a quarter billion dollars of gold without ever experiencing so much as a single robbery.