Community Preservation & Progress 1950’s – 1970’s

Once the minerals were exhausted, most hastily built mining towns were abandoned. Grass Valley and Nevada City persisted after the Gold Rush because San Francisco investors gambled on hard rock mining, water rights, and power generation. Lumber mills continued to operate. They supplied timber for the railroad from the mid-1860s through 1870. Large cattle ranches had become established.

The nation’s attitude was about growth and commerce. Railroads moved goods and people between coasts. The age of the automobile, beginning in the early 1900’s, led to road development. By the end of WWII, in the 1940’s, travel and outdoor recreation was a trend that middle-class America embraced.

1950: Freeway Proposal

By the 1950’s the California Division of Highways documented traffic problems between Nevada City and Grass Valley. Logging trucks jammed narrow roads. Some residents remember it taking between 30-45 minutes to drive between towns, a distance of 4.2 miles.

1951: Choosing Sides

If there was a historic rivalry before, the coming of the freeway strengthened it. Folks were divided about where it should go. Some merchants thought that downtown offramps would stimulate business while others sided for historic building preservation.

1960’s: Freeway Construction Begins

In the early 1960’s right-of-ways had been obtained, structures were removed and dirt work commenced. Then the building contractor went bankrupt. It took the Highway Department close to a year to secure a replacement.

Nevada City residents, disturbed by the altered landscape of the town, called the Broad Street area a ‘Calamity Cut.’


In 1965, Beryl Robinson came in as Nevada City Manager. He inherited ‘a mess.’ Downtown commerce was in trouble.

Nov. 15, 1966. Unfinished bridge on the Broad Street freeway crossing collapses. Eleven men injured, no fatalities. Photo courtesy Searles Library.

1968: The controversy and upset over the freeway project may have garnered public support for Nevada City Historical Ordinance 338, written by Bill Wetherall, Nevada City’s Attorney. (The ordinance governs preservation of Mother Lode architecture. It was the first one written in the State of California.)

Page 16 from Nevada City Building Design Guidelines

The quote, “Nevada City’s future is in the preservation of its past,” from former City Council member and mayor, Bob Paine, hung in City Hall for many years, expressing the civic sentiment of the time.

Map of Nevada City Historical District

from Ordinance 338 PDF document

While those in opposition called it the ‘Hysterical District,’ most downtown businesses followed the ordinance mandates, turning Nevada City into one of the best preserved, still functioning, Gold Rush towns in the west.

1969: Freeway is Complete

In December, twenty-two two years after the first traffic survey, the Golden Center Freeway opened for traffic.

$7,000,000 spent by the City of Grass Valley
$5,000,000 spent by the City of Nevada City

1972: Nevada City received a grant to move utilities underground. Gaslights were installed. Neon signs removed.

Nevada City’s Mission Statement – The City of Nevada City is dedicated to preserving and enhancing its small-town character and historical architecture while providing quality public services for our current and future residents, businesses, and visitors.

Grass Valley Mission Statement – The City of Grass Valley’s Public Works Department is committed to providing essential municipal infrastructure maintenance and improvement services that preserve and enhance the quality of life in our community for residents, businesses and visitors alike, while providing a safe and productive work environment for Department employees.

Thanks to keen observers, county civic organizations, and city leaders the historic Mother Lode charm of Grass Valley and Nevada City remains. Since their beginnings, the towns along the Deer Creek watershed have been a community gathering places, a hub of entertainment and a place to enjoy nature.

Moving forward, if lessons learned are heeded, the area will continue to thrive while remembering and honoring its past.


If you liked this post, check out Anthony House and Penn Valley Under Lake Wildwood and Lake Wildwood Developments & Current Events.


City of Grass Valley 2020 General Plan

City of Grass Valley – Tree Removal Application

City of Grass Valley Departments

2005: Grass Valley Tree OrdinanceChapter 12.36 of the Municipal Code Ensures that community trees are protected and managed to ensure civic benefits.

Historical Effects of Logging on the forests of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Ranges of California (1990) [PDF]

Nevada City Building Design Guidelines – Sept. 1995 [PDF] (numerous historic building photos)

Nevada CityHousing element 2014-2019 [PDF]
This focus on preservation of a strong sense of community, coupled with geographic, topographic, and infrastructure constraints has limited growth to a slow, manageable pace.

Nevada City Ordinance 338 [PDF] – Establishment of a historical district and regulations for protection, enhancement, and perpetuation of buildings

Nevada County Demographic Report 2016-2017

Nevada County Historical Society

Nevada County Historical Society YouTube Channel (Interviews with multi-generational
families who grew up in Grass Valley and Nevada City – 1940’s through 1960’s.)

The Union – The tale of a freeway that divided two cities – 2/22/03

The Union – Golden Center Freeway a reality; Grass Valley portion done – 3/8/03

The Union – For some, Golden Center Freeway was a ‘Calamity Cut – 4/20/10

The Union – Development plans may help Nevada City meet its housing needs – 01/04/18

Wikipedia – Nevada City Downtown Historic District


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