The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County


To order this book please contact:

The Union
464 Sutton Way
Grass Valley, Ca 95945

The following 3 books can be ordered at the above location: The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County; Nevada County Memories; Nevada County Historic Photo Album. The books can be ordered individually or as a 3 book set.


The Union is proud to announce a special book by our very own Bob Wyckoff, The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County. Drawing from the many years his popular column has been featured in The Union, this beautiful, hard-bound historic retrospective will feature more than 50 of Bob's best articles with historic photos spread throughout. You can reserve your copy of this book now for just $39.95 plus tax. We're also excited to announce the reprinting of our popular Pictorial History of Nevada County books! We are offering them as a special three-volume set for a discounted price. Nevada County Historic Photo Album, Nevada County Memories, and the new The Way it Was by Bob Wyckoff for $99.95. Don't miss out on this opportunity.

The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County


To order this book please contact:

The Union
464 Sutton Way
Grass Valley, Ca 95945


The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County

"Scandalous" is the way women of the 1870s described Lotta Crabtree's smoking habit. She smoked little black cigars both on and off stage. (Bob Wyckoff Collection)

The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County

Black Bart in this Wells, Fargo & Co. photo c. 1883.  (Courtesy Wells, Fargo & Co.)

The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County

The first passengers on the Nevada County Traction Company's line pose at Glenbrook with car. No. 1 on Admission Day, September 9, 1901. (From the Bob Wyckoff collection)

The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County

The Empire Mine's main shaft head frame was destroyed with dynamite on March 6, 1969. Here, the timbers begin to buckle at the moment of detonation. (Photo by Bob Wyckoff)

The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County

Rita Hutchinson, right, with customer Kenly Weills in front of the Last Drug Store on Broad Street. (Photo by Bob Wyckoff)

The Way It Was: Looking Back at Nevada County

London Pasty Shop: Manufactured in Cornwall and shipped daily to all parts of England, Scotland and Wales, the ancient meat pie ranks high for all and sundry on their list of staples. Photo taken in front of London's Euston Railway station on Euston Road.  (Photo by pasty enthusiast Bob Wyckoff)


The kindly, quiet Mr. Martin: Was he really Black Bart?

At inns along New England’s backroads, you will find markers claiming that “George Washington Slept Here.” In and around theaters and lecture halls throughout the rest of the country, there are frequent boasts that “Mark Twain Lectured Here.” In Northern California, the status is that “Black Bart Held Up a Stagecoach at this Spot.”

Stage drivers lived in fear of seeing Black Bart, the infamous hooded bandit in the road ahead, and of his command: “Throw down the box!” The whip always complied, that is, until Wells, Fargo & Co. began bolting the express box to the floor under the driver’s feet. This slowed the bandit down only a few minutes; the contents and the U. S. Mail pouch continued to disappear along with the celebrated highwayman. He never fired his weapon.

Who was this Black Bart, whose name dominates late 19th-century Northern California history as its most celebrated criminal?

“Charles E. Bolton, alias C.E. Boles, alias Black Bart, the P.O. 8. (poet),” is the way he is listed in the Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Express Robbers Record publication. Also listed are his 27 known robberies, committed between July 26, 1875, and Nov. 3, 1883.

However, during the first four years of Bart’s activity, it is claimed that while he was not robbing Wells, Fargo & Co. stages, he worked as “Mr. Martin,” a millhand at James H. Reader’s sawmill near Shady Creek on the road to North San Juan. Reader milled mine timbers for tunnels and flume timbers for the Milton Co. operators of the giant hydraulic Malakoff Mine.

Here’s the story. In February 1962, I photographed and took part in an interview of Frank Reader, 92, son of James and Almina Reader, at the Reader Ranch where Frank was born. Frank was 6 years old in 1876 when “Mr. Martin” first appeared on foot at the sawmill looking for work.

Frank Reader described Martin as “kindly, with a deep voice, well dressed and with a Victorian manner. He sure was polite, and dad gave him a job and let him use a cabin on the property. He was a very good worker.” For four years, Martin would leave each spring and return in the fall. He would come to work, always on foot, and leave the same way.

While an employee, he kept to himself. On Saturday nights, the sawmill gang would ask him to join them for a “couple o’ beers over to French Corral.” Martin always refused, politely. Then he stopped coming. The Readers did not think his absence strange and put Martin out of mind.

Only years later did the truth of the kindly Mr. Martin’s identity come out. One day in November 1883, Jim Reader got an excited message from his former sawmill bookkeeper, Beard Wooster, who was then working in San Francisco. Front-page stories in all the San Francisco newspapers headlined the capture near Sonora, Tuolumne County, of Black Bart.

Wooster couldn’t resist joining the crowds descending on the City Prison to view the famous highwayman. Wooster saw not the notorious bandit, but the kindly Mr. Martin, whom he had paid as a sawmill worker so many times! Now bits of evidence or coincidence began to fall into place. There had been at least three stagecoach robberies within a 50-mile radius in the time periods before Martin’s arrival or after his departure from the Reader Mill. Martin was known to be a “good walker” and was never known to have owned a horse.

Whatever the case, Martin, or Boles or Bolton or Black Bart, pleaded guilty to the Nov. 3, 1883, robbery and on Nov. 21 the same year was committed to California State Prison at San Quentin for the term of six years.

He was a model prisoner and was released early.

Now what may have been Bart’s last hurrah took place on Ditch Hill on Nov. 8, 1888, when the Downieville to Nevada City stage was robbed of some $2,200 in gold. Wells, Fargo immediately investigated and claimed it had all the earmarks of a Black Bart job.

However, an account in the Nevada (City) Daily Transcript of the robbery describes the bandit as “a lone gunman ... wearing blue overalls and (a) red bandana ... (carrying) a single barrel smooth bore ... (with) a squeaky voice.” Not the typical Black Bart caper.

Another twist to this seemingly final chapter takes place at the Reader Ranch not long after the robbery. One day, while Frank’s younger sister Hattie was home alone, a man approached the front porch of the home. It was Mr. Martin, quiet, polite and soft-spoken as he had always been. Could he please visit the cabin where he once stayed? Yes, said Hattie. For some 45 minutes, Martin strolled in and around the cabin.

He returned to the ranch house as Hattie stood at the front door. Mr. Martin thanked her and slipped a bright silver dollar into her little hand. Was he there to recover hidden gold? We will never know. He walked slowly toward North San Juan and was never seen again.

Frank Reader died Sept. 9, 1969, age 99. He saw history from the horse and buggy to man’s walk on the moon and to Black Bart!

Down She Goes!

SOME 200 PEOPLE gathered on the Nevada County side of the old Narrow Gauge Railroad’s high steel trestle across the Bear River. It was a warm and sunny day and they came to watch it come tumbling down. It was 2:45 p.m., Friday, August 23, 1963.

All morning long a demolition crew from Granite Construction Company was busy strapping explosive charges on the supporting members of the 55-year old railroad structure. The Narrow Gauge had ceased operations 21 years before and the rusting steel trestle was scheduled to be demolished to make way for Rollins Dam, which would rise on the exact spot now occupied by the bridge.

Earlier, the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) had passed a bond issue and had embarked on the ambitious Yuba-Bear River Project—a project that included construction of two major dams, strengthen and heighten others, repair and improve water delivery systems, build hydroelectric plants and generally conserve Nevada County’s great natural resource—water.

The old trestle served no useful purpose. However, it was the last vestige of the little railroad’s glorious past. There were those who argued that the structure was historic and should be saved. There was even a suggestion that it be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, but, no dice; her fate was sealed.

Before the demolition ceremony, a luncheon was served in the Veterans Memorial Building in Grass Valley for invited guests presided over by John Hodge, Grass Valley’s mayor, and Edwin Koster, NID’s general manager. The Rev. Robert Noble, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, delivered the invocation while Mrs. Thomas Threlkeld sang the national anthem.

After lunch, the guests boarded buses for the trip to the Bear River site. Here ceremonies would feature a host of local dignitaries with the principal speech delivered by William Warne, state director of the Department of Water Resources.

The honor of setting off the explosive charges was given to Mrs. Warren S. Wilson, wife of the NID’s board chairman. Previously the honor had been offered to John Nolan who in 1908, witnessed completion of the trestle, but Nolan declined, saying that “the old girl was like a member of the family. I don’t have the heart to do it.”

All was ready. The verbal count down began over the public address system: “Five, four, three two, one..” Mrs. Wilson pushed down the plunger in the firing box as newsreel, wire service, local and press photographers from all parts of the state pointed their cameras toward the explosion. There was even a film crew from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) to film file footage.

A cloud of dust puffed up along the bridge footings and rose skyward, followed by the roar of two sharp blasts. The dust then settled slowly. As it cleared, the spectators realized that the old bridge was still standing; broken, bowed and sagging, but still proudly standing.

The audience waited for the structure to topple, but it did not. After a brief period, a roar of laughter went up from the crowd followed by applause. A cable had been attached to the bridge prior to the attempt and a bulldozer then tried to pull the decrepit structure down. As if fate was on the side of the defiant trestle, the cable snapped!

Another chuckle rose from the audience as the announcer apologized for the trestle’s lack of cooperation and reluctantly bid them adieu.

Two more attempts to topple the trestle were made that day and each failed. At 7 p.m., I heard the head powder monkey tell the crew, “Might as well go home, we’re out of explosive.” He then turned to me and said, “Hell, we could have blown the damned thing down on the first try if we had put more explosive around the bridge but there were just too many people watching. I could just see a cross tie or two taking off somebody’s head!” He was serious.

Monday, the 26th saw crews with cutting torches and bulldozers deliver the coup de grace. They again attached cables and with the remaining supporting steel members cut through, down she came in a tangled mass of junk.

Among the spectators that day were many former Narrow Gauge employees. John Nolan, the last master mechanic, attended with Bob Paine, the last freight and passenger agent. Also present was Fred Hawke, a former electrician and engineer. They were universal in their condemnation of the “dastardly deed,” but understood that all that was left for them to savor was their individual memories of the old Never Come, Never Go.

Sic transit gloria mundi!

Rush to ruins: Town dies after two-year gold boom

The story of Meadow Lake reads like a page out of Western fiction. In its short lifetime, the town became an incorporated city, boasted such metropolitan refinements as a newspaper—the Meadow Lake Morning Sun, published daily except Sunday—played host even to a stock exchange, and within two years was deserted.

The saga begins in 1860, when a consumptive former bookseller from Philadelphia named Henry Hartley arrived in California seeking the healthful climate of the High Sierra. He built a cabin near Meadow Lake, which had been constructed two years earlier by the South Yuba Canal Co. to impound water for summer hydraulic-mining operations at lower Nevada County elevations.

Hartley became a trapper. In the winter, he walked his lines; during the summer, he lived down the mountain in Nevada City.

In the spring of 1863, while making the last rounds of his traps, he stumbled upon an outcropping of decomposed rock containing large flakes of gold.

He took samples of his find to Nevada City for assay, and in August returned with two partners to prospect the area. By September, the trio had located and staked out two claims.

News of the strike reached Virginia City, across the Sierra in the western Utah Territory. Some of the miners there felt that the rich Comstock Lode (of silver) was almost played out and were looking for richer diggings—either silver or gold. The first migration to Meadow Lake began with these miners from the Washoe.

By the summer of 1865, some 1,200 claims had been registered, but actual gold mining had not yet begun. More miners and their families arrived—the population approached the 3,500 mark. The rush to Meadow Lake was on!

A meeting was held to set up a town government. The place was first known as Excelsior, then for a brief period it became Summit City. As a result of the meeting, it was named Meadow Lake, after the lake. A town site was surveyed with 80-foot-wide streets, and blocks divided into 60-by-80-foot lots. A large plaza was reserved for public use.

Lots sold to actual settlers for $25 each with the provision that they would be improved by the buyer. The town council convinced the state Legislature to issue articles of incorporation for Meadow Lake, which took place in the summer of 1866.

A month prior to the town meeting, the Excelsior Stock Board was formed with 39 members, even though not one mine was then in operation. In addition to the stock board, some 200 homes were under construction while four sawmills cut timber from the surrounding hills. A number of hotels were under construction “... and drinking saloons, with their bars and gambling tables, reaped a rich harvest.” By 1866, more than 180 establishments of all types were listed in the town directory.

The flurry of mining activity was short-lived; only 27 mines out of the 1,200 claims filed two years before were in operation. Failure of the stock exchange to raise capital had an adverse effect, and money did not flow in.

Many of the miners and merchants left just as rapidly as they had arrived.

Those who stayed refused to admit defeat. The first gold found was on the surface in decomposed rock and was easy to process; the deeper ore defied all attempts to be refined and was termed “rebellious.” The weather at 7,000 feet was severe—short summers and winters with snow depths of up to 35 feet and temperatures 20 to 30 degrees below zero.

The giant inverted pyramid that was Meadow Lake unceremoniously collapsed in a pile of shattered dreams in 1868. The coup de grace came in 1873, when the Excelsior Hotel caught fire, which then spread to the entire remaining town. Two buildings survived.

The man who started it all, Henry Hartley, never lost faith in Meadow Lake. He remained long after all hope of processing the ore had been given up. Hartley died there in 1892, and is buried in the tiny cemetery overlooking the site of his once-proud town.

All is not gone at Meadow Lake. Once a year, usually the first weekend in August, the Henness Pass Highway Association camps near the site of Meadow Lake City. At the evening campfire, the fun-loving group elects a full slate of municipal officers, including a dogcatcher and the commodore of the Meadow Lake Yacht Club. The outgoing mayor reads his State of the Lake report. The population that weekend sometimes reaches 150 men, women and children, all with voting privileges.