Cottrell’s political path |

Cottrell’s political path

A wrong turn in 1974 led Steve Cottrell to the place he would eventually call home for 27 years.

He was returning from a trip to Reno and knew he had to pass through “a place called Nevada City” to get to his home in Humboldt County. So when he saw the sign for Nevada City, Cottrell made a wrong turn – a right off Highway 49 at Coyote Street – and as he tells it, “It was love at first sight.”

Cottrell, then 32, had a cold beer at the downtown National Hotel and continued home.

But the baseball vagabond, who signed with the Boston Red Sox at 17 and trained with the Giants but never developed a professional career, was hooked on the town. He returned for weekend visits and three years later permanently moved to Nevada City.

Cottrell, 61, is seeking a fourth term to the Nevada City City Council. In the March 2 election, he will be one of four candidates trying for three seats. The other contenders are Ruth Poulter, Sally Harris and incumbent David McKay.

The three seats up for election are now held by Cottrell, McKay and Councilman Thomas Balch, who is not seeking a third term.

Cottrell, a recognized local historian, said his knowledge and background of Nevada City is befitting for the seat for which he seeks re-election.

It was in the late 1970s, when Cottrell worked as a night bartender at the National Hotel, that he began acquiring the stories that would later be subjects of his academic lectures. Cottrell said he met people who shared stories about living in Nevada City during the Depression and World War II.

“People who lived through the history would hang out at the hotel and tell me about the city and their life,” Cottrell said.

The story of how Nevada City became a historical district was one Cottrell learned behind the bar at the National Hotel.

Cottrell said the town had become bankrupt, though people were too proud to admit it. However, thanks to the vision of a few people, who didn’t want to see Broad Street boarded up as Commercial Street had been, Nevada City was spared, he said.

They knew the city’s greatest asset was its history, Cottrell said.

The historical district – or “hysterical district,” as cynics referred to it in the 1960s – divided the town, Cottrell said. It was tough on merchants who had to idly watch as streets were torn up and overhead utility wires were buried, but when it was over, Nevada City was prosperous, Cottrell said.

“Those folks had a vision, a vision that I inherited,” he said. “I am carrying on that legacy.”

Cottrell has become a gold nugget of information for Nevada City, having been called on by various groups, including the California Historical Societies and National Public Radio, to share his wisdom of the area.

He also teaches Gold Rush history and 19th century journalism at Sierra College.

In his research, Cottrell unearthed a bit of his own family history, learning he had family ties to the region dating to 1846. One ancestor, Mike Gray, was sheriff of Yuba County, which Nevada City was then a part of.

But it is the legacy of the people he met while working at the National Hotel that Cottrell wishes to continue – in his teachings and lectures about the area’s history, as well as in planning the future and preserving the history of Nevada City.

Cottrell said his role in Nevada City is an honor, something he inherited. After two ill-fated attempts at county supervisor in 1980 and 1984, Cottrell said he realized his political future rested in volunteerism, so he ran for and won a seat on the Nevada City City Council in 1992. He has served three consecutive terms.

But there is one thing missing from what Cottrell calls “the greatest town in the nation.”

“We don’t have the same sense of humor we had,” he said.

“We lost people like Bob Paine, Lon Cooper, Beryl Robinson … people who worked hard for the community and took responsibilities very seriously but did not take themselves seriously,” Cottrell said. “There was more laughter in Nevada City 27 years ago than now.”

It is their spirit Cottrell hopes to continue as councilman.



Steve Cottrell

Age: 61

Candidate for: Nevada City City Council

Occupation: Writer and history instructor

Major Issue: Maintaining services despite state budget cuts

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