Jack's Ranch Cutoff vs. Bidwell's Bar Route

A Proposal to Bypass the Bidwell’s Bar Bridge

In December of 1854, the operators of the ferry at Bidwell’s Bar applied for a renewal of their county license. At the same meeting they also submitted a request for approval to construct a toll bridge at Bidwell’s Bar. A license was issued and the completed bridge opened in December 1856 or early January of 1857. The Bidwell suspension bridge, located on the Beckwourth trail, provided yearlong access across the Feather River.

Mining in the Bidwell's Bar area reached its zenith in 1854-1855. The focus of mining moved downriver to the the junction of the Middle and North Forks of the Feather River and to the Oroville area. River mining required large investments of capital to construct diversion dams and flumes to access the bed of the river. Mining companies built temporary roads upriver from Oroville to the junction area. There was also a need to get lumber from the Hart's Mill , located north of Bidwell, to the river mining areas. Construction of the flumes and diversion dams required huge amounts of lumber. To meet this need privately constructed temporary road were built from the Jack's Ranch area to the Feather River. This shortcut provided access to the river without using the suspension bridge located at Bidwell’s Bar. Oroville merchants realized that by redirecting of the traffic on the Beckwourth trail near Jack’s Ranch, and diverting it to the Oroville area would benefit their community. However, it would require the improvement of the temporary road and a county licensed ferry or a bridge at the junction of the North and Middle Forks of the Feather River.

Figure1. Jack’s Ranch Cut-off Road. Jack’s Ranch was a sawmill site in 1852. It was located about half-way between Hart Mill and Bidwell’s Bar. The Foremans (ranch) shown on the map, was a later development. The proposed Jack’s Ranch cut-off road would have left the Hart Mill to Bidwell’s Bar road just below the Foremans Ranch, and crossed the Middle Fork of the Feather River at the junction, then continued to Oroville

By 1855, the mining area of Ophir had transformed into the community of Oroville and desired to have the county seat relocated to that city. In the second issue of The North Californian, on November 24, 1855, editor Charles Lincoln made it clear the focus of his newspaper would be the relocation of the county seat to Oroville. The Bidwell Suspension Bridge was still under construction at that time. In the January 28, 1856, issue of The North Californian an article broached the subject of the Jack’s Ranch rerouting of the road and the need for a bridge at the Junction.

J. E. N. Lewis, a principal owner in the Bidwell Bridge Company, was in a tough spot. The Bidwell suspension bridge was still under construction and there was a real threat the county seat might be relocated. The opening of a route that bypassed the bridge at Bidwell would be a financial disaster. He had no choice but to try every option possible to keep the travel route across the Bidwell Bridge Company’s new bridge. The county directed an evaluation of the proposed Jack’s Ranch route compared to the existing Bidwell’s Bar road. Lewis was an attorney, a recent state representative and the sitting county judge. Therefore, J.E.N. Lewis was very well versed in legal procedures and personally acquainted with both local and state leaders. Lewis was able to influence the location of the Jack’s Ranch alignment survey; in such a way that the Bidwell route became the choice, although it was about three miles longer and had greater elevation changes.

Oroville won the election and by September 1856, the county seat was officially relocated to Oroville. The Butte Record newspaper relocated from Bidwell to Oroville two months after the April election and editor Crosette made a rapid transition to a supporter of the Jack’s Ranch route. Sylvester P. Savage, an Oroville stable owner and teamster was one of the names most identified with trying to obtain county approval to operate a ferry or build a bridge at the Junction. He started his quest for the license in August of 1856. The Board of Supervisors denied his request based on the fact there was no demonstrated pubic need for the facility. He applied again at the November, 1856, session and was once again denied. No reason was stated for the second denial.

The next move by the Bidwell Bridge Company to protect their interest seems obvious. If there was going to be a second crossing at the Junction, they wanted to be the owners. The Junction Bridge Company became an official incorporated company in Butte County on September 17, 1857. The official records indicate the site was about 1 ½ miles below Bidwell's Bar and at the junction of the combined South and Middle Forks of the Feather River with the main stem of the Feather River. The capitol stock of the company was $20,000, composed of 200 shares. The officers of the corporation were J. E. N. Lewis, George W. Hess, R. T. Van Norden, and Jo’s M. Brown. All the officers of the Junction Bridge Company, except Jo’s Brown, were also associated with the Bidwell Bridge Company.

Not easily discouraged Savage once again submitted a request to the Board of Supervisors at the February, 1857, session. The Savage request was denied because there was no public highway to provide access to any facilities located at the Junction. The next opportunity for Savage to request a license was at the November 1857 term. At this meeting the Junction Bridge Company, also submitted a request for a license. Now the Board of Supervisors was faced with competing applicants for the same facility at the Junction. Between November 7- 13, attorneys representing the applicants presented facts and rebuttals supporting their requests. A setback for the Savage interests occurred when the Board of Supervisors used the earlier county road survey, which had been influenced by Lewis, as the basis for evaluating the Bidwell’s Bar vs. the Jack's Ranch routes. A decision on the license requests was issued at the November 1857 meeting. The proceeding statement of the Board of Supervisors reflects they were displeased with the amount of time the matter was taking. In their final decision they denied all requests for a license for a ferry or toll bridge at the Junction. Their state reasons were:

- There was no public road serving the area and the expense to the taxpayers in developing a public road to that area was not justified.

- A review of the prior county-requested-road surveys, although recognizing the Jack's Ranch route had a slight distance advantage, (about 3 miles shorter) that did not justify the issuance of a license for a ferry or toll bridge at the Junction or development of a second public route to access the Jack’s Ranch area.

This decision was clearly a victory for the existing licensees of the Bidwell Bridge Company. However, individuals supporting the Jack's Ranch route were not ready to stop their fight. On September 18, 1858, the Weekly Butte Record listed the names of individuals intending to organize the Junction Road Company. It appears that proposal never materialized since no further evidence has been located indicating this company was established.

Literally a year after the Board of Supervisors rejection the requests for a license at the Junction, attorneys representing Sylvester P. Savage, once again submit a request for a license. The Weekly Butte Record of November 6, 1858, stated that the issue of the application for a license at the Junction was to come before the Board of Supervisors on that day.

Junction Ferry

It is understood that the Board of Supervisors will to-day hear the application for a bridge or ferry at the Junction of the North and Middle Forks of Feather River. Although there is no established ferry or bridge within the distance prohibited by the statute, the influence of other routes has heretofore been sufficient to induce the board of Supervisors to withhold a license for a ferry or bridge at this point mentioned. We have believed, and still entertain the opinion that this refusal of the Board to grant a license for a crossing at that point, has had the effect to retard the business growth and prosperity of Oroville, and the advancement of the county. As it now stands, we are pursuing the most suicidal course possible, by declining to invite travel to us, and compelling it to go away from us. It is (to) be hoped that the Board will throw away all other considerations, and be governed in their decision by the public good alone. It is folly for us to attempt to build up a town, if through our authorities, we refuse to open avenues to it.

At a recent election one new member was seated on the Board of Supervisors and perhaps this encouraged Savage to once again submit his request for a license. In November of 1858, his attorney, Thomas Wells, presented the matter to the Board. He did not offer any new information related to the formation of a road company or other changes from previous applications. The board cited the numerous times they had considered the request and quickly rendered a decision. In 1857, the claim was rejected on a two to one vote. At this 1858 hearing, the vote was three to zero supporting denial of the request. Clearly the change in board membership had not been in Savage’s favor. There were no follow up article about the latest Savage request for a license in the Weekly Butte Record during the balance of November or December of 1858. Apparently even editor Crosette realized there was nothing else to say about an impartial evaluation, the desirability or the realistic possibility of gaining county approval for development of the alternate route to Oroville.

While the local debate about the Bidwell’s Bar vs. Jacks Ranch route was creating tension at the local level, a much larger and important transportation route debate was occurring involving national and state issues that overshadowed the local conflict.

The Pacific Wagon Road Act

The Pacific Wagon Road Act of 1857, was passed in response to pressure from the western states and territories for better mail service and protection. The central government was interested in the route for troop movement and to reinforce the western states loyalty to the United States. The flow of gold from California was vital to the economic stability of the central government.

The selected route of the Pacific Wagon Road followed the California trail across the center of the country into the Nevada desert area east of the central part of California. Political controversy at the national level resulted in Honey Lake being established as the western terminus. Local jurisdictions were responsible for providing the funding and supervising the construction of roads that tied to the national road. Business interests in many of the towns in Northern California became active trying to secure a designation on the route or become the terminus of the Pacific Wagon Road.

Before many individuals were aware of the Pacific Wagon Road Act, Judge J. E. N. Lewis was active, behind the scenes, securing support in Sacramento, with like-minded supporters in Yuba County and to the east in Plumas County, to insure that the local route would pass through Bidwell’s Bar. He wisely specified the route would run from Marysville, to Oroville, then east to the Miners Ranch area, through Bidwell’s Bar then continue on to Quincy in Plumas County. While Oroville interests were perhaps relieved to see they were included in the route they certainly were not pleased because they were left in a secondary position. Travelers on the route south from Bidwell’s Bar could take the Wyandotte route to Marysville, bypassing Oroville. Likewise, north-bound traffic from Marysville, would most likely make purchases before leaving that city and, using the Wyandotte connection, could bypass Oroville. The Plumas County interests quickly supported the route from the Honey Lake area down to the American Valley, through Quincy and then westward to the Butte County boundary in the Walker Plains area and to Bidwell.

Marysville interests later decided to support a route that went south from Honey Lake, down the east side of the Sierras, then crossed over the mountains direct to Marysville. Not to be outdone, the Orville interests gained the support and involvement of John Bidwell as chairman of a committee exploring and supporting a route from Honey Lake thru Humbug Valley area to Oroville and then Marysville. This route was south of the Humboldt Road developed by John Bidwell, several years later, to establish commerce with the silver mines in Nevada.

Oroville business interests were now faced with two favorite routes. At this point, the Jack’s Ranch cut-off route was only favored by Crosette, if the Bidwell’s Bar route was selected as the connector with the Honey Lake area. If that occurred, then later Crosette would push for the Jack’s Ranch cut-off as a local option. However, Crosette’s first choice was now the Humbug Valley Route from Honey Lake to Oroville.

Oroville had grown rapidly during the years 1855 and 1856. However, the following two years were not good ones for Oroville. In 1857, the Fraser River gold mining excitement resulted in a major portion of the male population leaving the area for the new gold fields. The city had formally incorporated early in 1857, but the town now chose to repeal the city incorporation since they could not raise enough funds to operate the government. In July of 1858, the first of two disastrous fires destroyed over one hundred dwellings. Later the same year a second fire destroyed most of the Montgomery Street business district of the town. With these issues facing the city, the issue of developing the Jack’s Ranch cut-off and the crossing at the Junction were now secondary issues. The town focus became basic survival.

Overall, J. E. N. Lewis sustained a major victory by having the route through Bidwell’s Bar recognized by Butte County as the selected route of the connector to the Pacific Wagon Road. Although the conflict over the Junction continued, the Oroville interests never were able to get the designated public highway route shifted from the Bidwell’s Bar area until the Feather River Canyon route was completed in 1937.

The Butte County portion of the connector road with Honey Lake that passed across the Bidwell Bridge Company’s toll bridge at Bidwell’s Bar continued to be an important local and regional road, which over time morphed in identity to become the Oroville-Quincy Ridge route. The Oroville-Quincy Ridge Route still serves as a seasonal secondary road into Plumas County.

If a road does not take the travelers to their desired destination, any official designation soon becomes meaningless. By 1858, the desired destination for West bound emigrants was the Sacramento, California area. Earlier travelers had established routes more direct to that destination. One road, on the north end of Lake Tahoe took them over the Donner summit to Auburn and beyond, and a second on the south end of Lake Tahoe, lead them over Echo Summit to Placerville, with a variation to the south through Tragedy Springs to Sacramento. All other routes that had been so heavily promoted as connectors to the National Wagon Road were relegated to serve as regional or local roads.