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Fire story gets national coverage

Eileen JoyceFire investigators requested that barriers be placed in front of the burned historical building Thursday.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

It wasn’t Paris burning, but Nevada City’s downtown fire Wednesday morning gained more notice than your usual one-structure-in-a-mountain-town fire.

The loss of the town’s live music hub commanded three columns across the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and a respectable amount of space on the front page of Sacramento Bee’s Metro section. The New York Times called the Nevada City Fire Department Wednesday, reaching an out-of-town firefighter left behind in the empty station.



What makes a fire in a 3,001-population mountain town interesting to big-city readers?




Thanks to an early morning CNN satellite feed, reporters from large news gathering organizations were unleashed on the “Carmel of the Sierra.”

“The initial thought was that the whole town was going up,” said Robert Salladay, a Chronicle staff reporter who covered the story. He recalled the July 1999 controlled burn that scorched 2,000 acres and destroyed 23 homes near Lewiston in Trinity County.

“The very fact that it was on CNN connotes catastrophe, and that started everyone’s wheels spinning,” Salladay said from the Chronicle’s Sacramento bureau. “With a fire that has the potential to get out of control, you just send everyone whether or not you know it’s a big deal.”

Nevada City Mayor Kerry Arnett said he heard the news about the fire not far from his home when his TV-watching cousin in Phoenix called.

The “if it bleeds, it leads” theory of news management aside, Nevada City’s reputation probably helped propel the one-structure fire to prominent places in big-city dailies.

“A lot of Bay Area people like to come to Nevada City,” Salladay said. “It’s a perfect kind of getaway place. There’s genuine interest in this great little town.”

Enough interest that Sunset Magazine’s fact-checker Margaret Sloan called The Union to find out how much of the town burned down after reading about the fire in the San Jose Mercury-News.

The magazine plans to run a story in its May issue about a Gold Country drive from the South Yuba River to Malakoff Diggins with a stop in Nevada City, she said. She had to find out if there was still enough of a town to visit.

Arnett called the destroyed building an important part of what constitutes the character of the city, but said it was only one piece of the total puzzle.

“We’ve still got a town full of great buildings,” Arnett said.

Ed Tyson, Nevada County historian, said Nevada City is known beyond the county because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Nevada City is in the center of California Gold Country that everyone knows about,” he noted. “It’s mentioned in every book written about the Gold Rush. It is rather a unique place. It’s the way it was over a hundred years ago.”

Arnett pointed out that the town has been the subject of numerous articles, including Forbes, the New York Times even before the fire, USA Today and Time.

“It’s not just a sleepy little ‘burb no one’s ever heard of,” Arnett said. “It’s a well-known place with well-known people in it.”

One of the reasons for that are early efforts to preserve the historic downtown, said Bob Wyckoff, Nevada City’s historic-preservation officer.

“We’ve fought for 40 years to keep the town as part of the living history of the world’s greatest human migration, the Gold Rush,” Wyckoff said.

People like Nevada City’s city manager Beryl Robinson, former Nevada City Mayors Bob Paine and Arch McPherson, David Osborn, Charles Woods, Sacramento Bee correspondent Al Trivelpiece, Alf Heller, Stan Halls and Downey Clinch worked hard in the early ’60s to preserve the town’s architectural heritage.

New York would know about Nevada City because it’s “the best landmark town in the Gold Country that’s not a Disney restoration, but the real McCoy,” Wyckoff said.

When an architectural treasure anywhere burns down, the rest of the country reads about it, said Arnett, who recalled reading about a building on the University of Michigan campus that met a similar fate.

Salladay noted that even though more than 90 historic buildings still stand, there were “still great newspaper stories in the little fire, from the theater company people who immediately got offered a carriage house up the street to put on a production, to the 4,000 wine bottles that kind of melted and were floating in the street.

“There was drama in everything, drama and pathos,” he said.

Now there’s new history, with the loss of Friar Tuck’s Restaurant & Bar’s daily dose of live music.

“George Souza is going to be one of those names in history, town folklore,” said Jeff Jones, a Nevada City musician, about the bistro’s regular Tuesday night act. “The last guy to play at old Tuck’s.”


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