Bedwells drove Alleghany Star Route tirelessly for decades
Pony Express riders packed the United States mail over the Sierra Nevada summit a scant 18 months. John A. “Snowshoe” Thomson skied with the mail 90 miles from Placerville on the California side to Genoa, Nev., for 20 winters, but Sam Bedwell was on his Sierra mail run, from Nevada City to Alleghany and return, summer and winter, for 41 years! When Sam retired, he turned the route over to his daughter, Sue, who had been his regular relief driver. The run was then known as the Alleghany Star Route.
Bedwell’s route was not as long as the overland express riders’ nor as spectacular as Thomson’s, but he drove it six days a week, all year long, holidays excepted.
The route covered some 45 miles from Nevada City to Alleghany “up the mountain,” through Yuba and on to Sierra County. Normally the round trip took five hours, but heavy snow and rock slides sometimes more than doubled the time.
When Bedwell began his job in 1938, he lived in Forest City in Sierra County, where there was a post office. A number of gold mines were operating there and in nearby Alleghany at the time. Part of Bedwell’s job required him to haul their gold out and their payroll in, and he was never robbed!
The Forest City post office closed in 1942 and Bedwell moved his family to Nevada City. In that area today, only Alleghany’s Original Sixteen-to-One Mine maintains an operating schedule.
In the winter of 1969, State Highway 49 was closed a week to all traffic north of Nevada City by a slide, requiring Bedwell to detour some 20 miles over a little-used, steep, four-wheel-drive dirt road. It added hours to Bedwell’s schedule.
Each winter, the elements seemed to bedevil him. Heavy snow, washouts, trees toppled across the road were some of the hazards he routinely encountered.
In a 1969 interview, Bedwell said, “The snow really got the better of me only once. That was in January 1952, the year the City of San Francisco (train) was stuck for many days near Yuba Gap (Nevada County) and nothing moved over the Donner Summer for more than a week.” He added that the Alleghany mail was tied up for some seven days.
The winter of 1952 was one of the worst on record in the Sierra Nevada. On Sunday, Jan. 13, the westbound Southern Pacific luxury streamliner City of San Francisco, carrying 226 passengers, was almost completely buried by heavy snow drifts.
To make matters worse, it was reported by the first evacuees that gas from an emergency heating apparatus was escaping into the coach and sleeping cars. The 15-car train ran out of both food and heat.
There were no serious injuries or fatalities. The passengers were all rescued and arrived in Oakland aboard a relief train at 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 17.
The $3 million train remained stranded, as did four rotary rescue snow plows. It took a crew of 350 men working round the clock to finally free the train and the plows!
To many residents on his mail route, Bedwell was more than just the mailman; he was a regular link with the “outside world.” He routinely performed a wide variety of favors for his friends, as he liked to call his postal patrons: picking up a hardware item, doing someone’s banking, shopping for a grocery item for a housebound elderly gentleman were all in a day’s work for Bedwell.
The Alleghany Star Route was carried on contract with the U.S. Postal Service. Both Sam and Sue bought and maintained their own vehicles. Bedwell figured the life expectancy of his commercial van-type vehicles at two years and kept four ready for any emergency.
HIs 1952 Dodge Power Wagon’s equipment included a heavy duty winch. He kept it stored halfway to Alleghany for winter use. It was always ready, though it was little used. In 17 years, he drove it only 19,000 miles.
He said that when necessary, he removed fallen trees from the road with the winch. Bedwell said also that he had pulled the truck through snow drifts using the truck’s own power cable.
Sam Bedwell died in April 1988 at the age of 81. His daughter carried the route for some 10 years. About eight years ago, the Alleghany Star Route was moved to the North San Juan post office, where it is serviced today.
Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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