Traction Co.'s Trail of Two Cities
Most people who live in a richly historic place such as Nevada County eventually catch the "history bug." It starts with a mild curiosity and often builds until you can be labeled a "true collector." For Tim O'Brien, collecting got into his blood at an early age. Because he was fascinated with trains, he started collecting memorabilia that had to do with the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad when he was about 8 years old.
O'Brien grew up here and his mother understood the importance of history. So when one of her sorority sisters offered her the bell from the Nevada County Traction Co. - the trolley that ran from Nevada City to Grass Valley from 1901 to 1924 - O'Brien readily accepted it. "This bell is priceless, almost," he said." When I was a kid we knew everybody in town. ... I liked talking to the old-timers. In the late '70s, I delivered prescriptions for Grass Valley Drug. I was reprimanded for taking so long on my deliveries because I would get to talking," O'Brien said.
Ron Sturgell also came to love area history, his path by way of photos he started collecting. His massive collection includes photos of the Nevada County Traction Co. He and O'Brien are teaming up to create a display featuring the Traction Co. for the 2007 Draft Horse Classic.
Many residents today don't realize that trolleys ran between Nevada City and Grass Valley at the turn of the century. These were not similar to the Cable Car trolleys in the Bay Area; they were grand rail cars that were 36 feet long and weighed an amazing 28 tons - unloaded. The rails below weighed 80 pounds, the heaviest used at the time.
Where B&C True Value Hardware is now in the Fowler Center, there used to be a huge barn that housed the generator and batteries used to run the Traction Co. cars. They ran on 500 DC to 575 DC volts that were supplied from two 200-horsepower generators. The car barn that housed the equipment was a corrugated iron building 109 feet by 47 feet. It had three tracks and pits for repairing and cleaning the cars.
The first official run of the Traction Co. was Sunday, Oct. 13, 1901. The Traction Co. cars took off at noon from The Plaza in Nevada City, which now is the intersection of Sacramento Street, Boulder Street, Broad Street, and Nevada Street. The cars held 32 passengers inside and an additional 12 outside.
The cars ran hourly between the two cities, with complaints lodged against boys who "hooked on" the sides of the car, avoiding the 20-cent charge.
The rail line construction began right in front of Richard Noell's ranch, which is now the site of the Nevada County Country Club on East Main Street. A terrible accident occurred in 1915, when Noell stepped from behind a hedge on his ranch onto the track and an oncoming Traction Co. car. The 76-year-old Grass Valley hardware dealer died an hour later at the defunct Grass Valley Sanitorium.
The rail line was profitable for more than two decades, until its demise on Jan. 3, 1924. First the snow blocked the tracks, then a decision was made to discontinue the service permanently. Many were left trapped in one town with no way to get to the other. The highway between Grass Valley and Nevada City was paved around that time and automobiles were becoming more common, helping the decision to put the brakes the Traction Co. cars.
Most of the rails for both the Traction Co. cars and the Narrow Gauge Railroad were eventually paved over. The cars themselves were throw into a ditch and set ablaze. But some people salvaged items, including O'Brien's bell, which continue to keep Nevada County history alive.
This story was published in the Union Newspaper November 2, 2006.
To contact Readership Editor Dixie Redfearn, 477-4238.