The tale of a freeway that divided two cities
No event during the second half of the 20th century was as divisive to western Nevada County as was the proposed freeway between Grass Valley and Nevada City. When the California Division of Highways proposed a limited access route between the two cities, reaction, both pro and con, was immediate, passionate and ongoing.
Meeting after meeting was held, special committees were formed, mountains of testimony recorded, city councils argued various points ad infinitum and acres of trees gave themselves up to the uncountable reams of paperwork generated.
When the dust finally settled in 1967, the 3.5-mile Nevada City to Brunswick Road portion of what became the Golden Center Freeway was completed. Let’s take a look at some of the events leading up to its dedication.
It was 1947 when W. L. Warren headed a California Division of Highways traffic survey of Highway 49/20 between Grass Valley and Nevada City to determine if traffic counts were high enough to warrant constructing a freeway.
They were, and the irresistible wheels of transportation progress were set in unstoppable motion.
However, 20 years would pass before the ribbon was cut opening the first portion of the road to traffic.
As it evolved, the freeway would be built in two phases: the first, from just east of Nevada City to the Glenbrook Basin at Brunswick Road, a distance of about 3.5 miles. The second portion would run from the Basin to a point three-quarters of a mile south of Grass Valley to today’s McKnight off-ramp.
But first, the long running drama of “Where would it cut through Nevada City?” played almost nightly to excited and extremely vocal audiences.
As early as 1951, an ad hoc group fired the first shot in what would eventually border on open warfare. The group petitioned everyone in sight not to have it (the freeway) cut through the Plaza, as the meeting of Nevada, Boulder, Broad and Sacramento streets is still known.
The Plaza was spared but now Ott’s Assay Office and the adjoining South Yuba Canal building were smack dab in the line of progress. Enter yet another committee calling itself “Save Ott’s!” Among its ringleaders was the late Bob Paine, Nevada City native, former mayor and City Council member, civic activist and, at that time, a member of the prestigious Last Man Club of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. Joining him and many others was the late Sally Lewis, also an activist for historic preservation.
This well credentialed committee gained the backing of many and varied groups from both in and out of town.
Tenacity paid off and the highway people moved the line of travel slightly easterly to miss the historic buildings. Adjustments to off-ramps were also implemented. Nevada City’s century-old Christmas Tree, a Sequoia dendron gigantia, was not so lucky and fell victim to what some have claimed was a trade: “I’ll give you Ott’s but you must forfeit the Tree!”
This accusation was never proven. However, there was open animosity between the highway’s opponents and proponents.
The huge tree stood in front of Bergemann’s Funeral Home at 246 Sacramento St. Planted in 1863, it became through the years Nevada City’s symbol of Christmas.
Its bright lights were visible all over town and greeted visitors as they drove down the narrow, one lane in each direction Sacramento Street to the Plaza.
Today, visitors still drive down the narrow, one lane in each direction Sacramento Street to the Plaza!
In 1965, the tree fell but still lives at the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park where benches and tables in the Clamper Picnic Area are made from the lumber produced from the old Sequoia.
A non-binding vote of Nevada City residents and business people was not conclusive and the City Council voted to go ahead with the project. The now defunct weekly Nevada City Nugget had been a major opponent of the freeway almost since its inception.
It termed the route through town “Calamity Cut” and had set two headlines to run on page one of its first publication after the vote. The headline not published was “Landslide Buries Calamity Cut!”
Construction of the four-lane Nevada City portion began in January 1965 after Norm. J. Fadel’s low bid of $4,966,000 was accepted by the state. Work progressed, but the project was shut down in July by a strike of the pile drivers.
Work resumed without incident until September 1966 when contractor Fadel suddenly quit the job.
On a rebid, Granite Construction took over; the project was then some 55 percent completed. Granite’s bid of $3.2 million added to the original brought costs to almost $5 million.
Another setback occurred on Nov. 15, 1966, when the unfinished bridge on the Broad Street crossing of the freeway collapsed, injuring 11 men, none seriously.
Finally, on Oct. 18, 1967, a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the completion of the Nevada City portion of what critics still maintained as “The Freeway to Nowhere.”
There were many in Grass Valley who took immediate and great offense to being designated “Nowhere!”
Next time: $5 million budgeted for the Grass Valley portion of the Golden Center Freeway.
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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