A bridge into the past – South Yuba River Park Association cares for treasures
Bridgeport, one of our county’s historical treasures, isn’t exactly on the beaten path. But it didn’t start out that way. Once upon a time, 100 wagons a day passed over this bridge.
In the earliest days of the California Gold Rush, the 1850s and 1860s, roads from Marysville and Sacramento to mining camps in Nevada, Yuba and Sierra counties needed to be rebuilt and improved to accommodate heavier traffic. To compound that, in the summer of 1859, rich veins of silver ore in the Comstock Lode of Virginia City and Gold Canyon set off a rush of thousands of men to the so-called “Washoe Diggings.”
All food, liquor, housing materials, machinery and general merchandise had to be hauled at great expense over the mountains from California into what was then called Utah Territory. Several enterprising men set out “with a view of ascertaining the most direct practicable route for a road connecting Marysville, North San Juan, and other towns in Yuba, Nevada, and Sierra counties with the important regions on the Eastern borders of our state.” Thus read a report of the North San Juan Hydraulic Press in its Oct. 22, 1859 issue.
Two companies, the Truckee Turnpike Company and the Henness Pass Turnpike Company, agreed to cooperate and share costs and revenues connected with the portion of the Henness Pass road that lay between a place called Jackson Ranch and the present-day community of Verdi, Nev.
Henness Pass had two important advantages over other Sierra passes – moderate grades and a lower summit. Also, it was the shortest and most direct route for merchants and foundries in Nevada, Sierra and Yuba counties to the Virginia City market. It allowed them to compete on an equal basis with businessmen in Sacramento who were using the Placerville road to the Comstock Lode.
The bridge at Bridgeport became a part of this all-important Virginia City Turnpike Company.
The bridge is one of only nine historic covered bridges left in California. It’s thought to be the longest single span arch-truss covered bridge in the United States. The original bridge, designed by David I. Wood and completed in the summer of 1862, was 249 feet long, including a 10-foot weather wing on each end. The weather wings were removed in a 1971 restoration. Another restoration occurred in 1997 after it was heavily damaged by high water in the storms of El Niño.
The bridge is now 229 feet long. The outside is covered with 27,000 sugar pine shingles. It is both a state and national historic landmark.
Back in 1863 it would have cost a “footman” 25 cents to cross the bridge. For eight horses, mules or ox team, the charge was a steep $6. Today you can walk on it for free (but no horses, mules or oxen, please). As a matter of fact, many things are free at Bridgeport now because of the South Yuba River Park Association. These friendly, enthusiastic people keep Bridgeport alive and well so that we can enjoy its pleasures.
The mission statement of the South Yuba River State Park volunteers says that the program seeks to develop the best quality volunteer program “to enhance the visitor’s educational and interpretive experience, with the objective being to inspire the public to a better understanding of the natural and cultural history of the South Yuba River Canyon.”
Park Ranger Jeremy Alling says the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation deeply appreciates what SYRPA does. He said, “The association really keeps the park running, especially when the state is so short on money. Their programs educate and entertain the park visitors as well as raise money to fund park projects. Their contribution to the state park is invaluable.”
Docent Barbara Pixley says, “There are about 80 volunteers who assist the state park rangers. One-third of the volunteers lives in nearby Lake Wildwood.”
What do the volunteers do? Many things, according to docent and association president Diane Marten. For one thing, Living History re-enactments are a special treat at Bridgeport. Mark your calendars – the next one is scheduled for the last Sunday in April.
Docents don period costumes and become historic dwellers from bygone days during the “Ghosts of Bridgeport” pageant on the last Sunday of October. Howard Voshell, who takes on the character of 1920s’ Alfred Alexander Kneebone, can be found working at the gas station/grocery store a few steps from the bridge. His mother, Victoria, portrayed by Pixley, is also on hand. Visitors can later visit their actual graves in the Kneebone cemetery just a short distance from the Visitor Center.
You’re probably thinking that in order to be a docent, you have to memorize a bunch of dates and names from 100 years ago. If that sounds difficult for you, then assisting in the Visitor Center is for you. The center is a fun place to work. There are exquisite murals by Phil Brown depicting life near Bridgeport 600 years ago when Maidu Indians ground acorns and wove baskets. A touch table is available for children. Videos tell about life at Bridgeport in the late 1800s.
What else happens at Bridgeport? Wildflower walks, bird walks, pine needle basket making classes, and last but not least, gold panning demonstrations. Docent George Tilley was on hand to show me how to swish the water of the South Yuba looking for specks of gold, just like the old- timers did it. He’s also treasurer of the association.
Why do these people spend hours volunteering their time at Bridgeport? “It’s fun!” is generally the refrain. Pixley leads wildflower walks and is chair of the wildflower committee. Marten is a bird expert and loves to lead nature walks for children.
If you like old barns, there’s a beauty at Bridgeport. It’s recently been reroofed. Two old wagons rest inside, waiting to make a trip across country to be refurbished by Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania.
If you’re into bridge engineering, go to Bridgeport. According to experts, this unique covered bridge relies on a type of construction known as “a Warren Truss with an elaborate auxiliary Burr Arch.” For those of us who don’t have a clue as to what that means, it looks like something off an old Courier and Ives print.
Would you like to drive on the historic Virginia Turnpike? Go to Bridgeport. Tours are given to groups of five or more at a cost of $5 per vehicle, with a $25 nonrefundable deposit.
Do you love the beauty of spring wildflowers popping up everywhere? Go to Bridgeport now. Wildflower walks are scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays from mid-March through mid-May.
School teachers, do you need an informative but fun daytime outing for your class? Go to Bridgeport. School tours are by arrangement at no charge.
My question was, “Why is the bridge covered?” It doesn’t snow here like back east. The answer is because the designer of the bridge just wanted the building materials to last longer. It was for protection from the elements.
However, the docents all agree that their No. 1 question of visitors usually is, “Where am I?” Lost travelers obviously think they’ve taken a wrong turn. Little do they know they’ve found one of the most peaceful places on earth.
Pam Fortner writes a weekly nonprofits column for The Union.
How to get there
From Highway 20, turn north on Pleasant Valley Road toward Lake Wildwood and drive about eight miles to Bridgeport.
From Highway 49 near North San Juan, turn south on Pleasant Valley Road at Peterson’s Corners, go to French Corral and continue to the bottom of the canyon.
South Yuba River Park Association
17660 Pleasant Valley Road
Penn Valley 95946
Web site: http://www.ncgold.com/Museums_Parks/syrp
• Yearly $20
• Family $25
• Lifetime $150
• Lifetime Family $200
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