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Final stretch of narrow gauge bridge placed

Bob Wyckoff
The Associated PressThe construction of the Bear River wood trestle was supervised by Tom Nolan in 1895. It was replaced in 1908 by a high steel trestle. This view is east.
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Part 1 of 2

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad’s glorious history is told in both song and story. On Aug. 23, 1963, the final chapter of the story was written. On that day, crews set explosive charges on the high railroad trestle across the Bear River at the Nevada-Placer county line as a crowd of about 200 waited. I was in that crowd. The 55-year-old structure was exactly where the new Rollins Dam was to be built; it was scheduled for demolition. Before we recount the story of that fateful day let’s return to 1908, the year the trestle was built, and tell of the events leading up to its building, its dedication, and some of the people who were part of the drama.

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad was 32 years old in 1908 – 34 if you count the two years it took to build it. John F. Kidder, builder, general superintendent and finally president of the little railroad, had died seven years before.

His widow, Sarah, succeeded him and became the first woman railroad president in the nation (if not the world). Under her capable leadership, the railroad grew and prospered.

Automobiles and motor trucks were just coming into their own. Road-building programs to accommodate the gas burners were in full swing.

Sarah was facing competition and embarked on a road-building program of her own.

Stretches of track were rerouted. On Sept. 1, 1907, ground was broken for construction of a gigantic steel bridge that would rise 190 feet above the Bear River on the new Colfax cutoff.

The bridge was the work of engineer C.H. Utley, who designed it to handle standard gauge rolling stock in the event the Narrow Gauge decided to add a third rail to the line. It would be the highest railroad bridge in the state and would rank among the highest in the nation.

It took 14 months to bring the bridge to the point where the railroad could advertise: “An excursion train will leave Nevada City at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8th, 1908 – also a train will leave Grass Valley at the same hour to accommodate those wishing to see the completion of the new steel bridge on cut-off. Fare 50 cents round trip.”

Sunday dawned clear and warm. More than 500 Twin City residents boarded the shiny new excursion cars for the ride to the Bear River. Many more drove in their horse and buggies, and some even came in automobiles! Some took picnic lunches and at least 100 came by train from Colfax.

At exactly 2:59 p.m., a six-ton section was locked into position and the gap closed; the trestle was complete except for the final ties and rails. The Union reported its dimensions: “The overall length is 810 feet … height, 190 feet at the highest point (above the Bear River) … Cost … $65,000 … Total weight 956,801 pounds. Its … concrete piers rest 12 feet on solid rock with large anchor bolts five feet in bedrock.”

(Gerald Best in his “Nevada County Narrow Gauge,” 1965, lists the trestle’s height at 179 feet 9 inches above the river.)

Among the spectators that afternoon were Mr. And Mrs. Thomas J. Nolan and their son, John. Mrs. Nolan had been a passenger on the first through train from Nevada City to Colfax in May 1876, and on July 25, 1942, she would be a passenger on the last train to make that run. What history Margaret Kelly Nolan witnessed during those tumultuous 66 intervening years!

Their son, John, was 17 at the time of the dedication. He was serving his mechanic’s apprenticeship with the George brothers in their Grass Valley machine shop on East Main Street just behind the future location of the George Brothers Motors automobile dealership. The George boys’ father, Johnny, had for years been a blacksmith in the Narrow Gauge shops.

Young Nolan finished his apprenticeship in 1913 and went to work for the NCNGRR. The United States entered the Great War (World War I) and Nolan served with the U. S. Army in France. After the war he went back to the railroad and eventually rose to the position of master mechanic/shop superintendent, positions he held until the end came in 1942. John Nolan holds the distinction of having designed and built the first and only caboose ever to roll over the rails of the Narrow Gauge.

— In Part II, “The Day the Trestle Came Down: August 1963.” John Nolan and his wife were there. John was present at both the dedication and destruction of the Bear River high trestle.


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