… Which Location and During What Years Are We Talking About?
The 1848 location where John Bidwell made a major gold discovery on the Feather River soon became known as Bidwell’s Bar. Since then, variations of the name have been applied to this site and several other locations, some at the same time and others several years later. While each reference may be correct, this multiple use of the name has resulted in confusion in folklore and historical records. Unfortunately, newspapers, official records, historians and the general public have often not clearly defined the location of the place name used in their reference. The map below indicates several Butte County locations that have been referred to in some form as Bidwell’s Bar, Bidwell Bar or Bidwell. To correctly understand many historical references, knowing the year and type of activity, becomes an important parts to correctly identify the geographic location.
How did the same name become associated with so many different places?
The following timeline illustrates how the name became associated with so many different locations. As the dates indicate, the use of the name occurred as different activities developed in the area.
1848: About July 4, 1848, John Bidwell, and the group prospecting with him, made a major gold discovery at a site on the Feather River that would become identified in gold rush history as Bidwell’s Bar.
1851: After the discovery of gold in 1848, the mining camp of Bidwell’s Bar, located on the south side of the river, grew into a significant settlement and the residents asked the United States Government for a post office. On July 10, 1851, the Bidwell's Bar Post Office was officially established. The Pioneer Museum in Oroville has the Bidwell's Bar Post Office cancellation stamp on display in their collection of artifacts. A close examination of the stamp shows the "s" on the end of the word Bidwell. Clearly the United States Postal Department had designated the location of the post office as Bidwell's Bar.
1853: In late 1853, a state statute relocated the Butte County seat from Hamilton. The State of California fixed Butte County's seat of justice "in the town of Bidwell” in Bidwell Township, heretofore known as Bidwell's Bar after August 10, 1853. The Town of Bidwell at Bidwell’s Bar remained the county seat until late in 1856.
1856: Did the state designated name of the town of Bidwell cease to exist when the county seat was relocated to Oroville? No record has been located indicating any legal name change. Perhaps at that point no one cared what the official name of the place was! By this time the Bidwell Bridge Company had completed the construction of the suspension bridge located at Bidwell’s Bar.
1888: The 1888 topographic map for the area is titled Bidwell Bar. The place name for the historic site of gold discovery is located on the map below the suspension bridge, on the south side of the river, and is identified as Bidwell Bar. The map producing branch of the federal government was not constrained by federal postal department or the state government place name assignment.
1900: Starting in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s a store was established about a three-quarters of a mile north of the Bidwell’s Bar Suspension Bridge. Later a gas station was located in this area. This location became known as Bidwell Bar, dropping the “s” from its place name. The business community in this location never became as large as the original county seat town of Bidwell. The historic town site, south of the river, was largely forgotten by this time.
1909: The Western Pacific Railroad was opened in the Feather River canyon in 1909. The railroad designated flag stops or reference points along the route up the Feather River canyon. A site identified as Bidwell by Western Pacific, was located just north of where the mainline track bridge crossed the Middle Fork of the Feather River. A station and boarding house was at this location. The station soon closed and the building became a boarding house for workers. This location was about 1.5 miles downriver from the site of the Bidwell’s Bar suspension bridge.
1909: The Butte & Plumas Railway (later Swayne Lumber Company) built a logging railroad bridge across the Middle Fork of the Feather River, upstream from the Western Pacific bridge. The narrow gage logging railroad expanded northward toward the Jacks Ranch and the Merrimack area. On the north side of the Middle Fork, a worker boarding house, identified as Bidwell Junction, was established. Workers stationed at this location simply called it the Junction. The Swayne Lumber Company ceased operations in 1939.
1922: In 1922, the Hutchinson Lumber Company built a sawmill in Oroville. The timberlands to supply the logs for the mill was located about twenty-five miles northeast in the area of Mooretown, later called Feather Falls. The Hutchinson Lumber Company also developed a railroad division that transported logs to the Western Pacific mainline siding that became known as Land, named after A. H. Land, one of the principal officers in the company. The Hutchinson Company purchased the John Bindle home, located in Bidwell’s Bar, and used this facility as their headquarters camp, while developing the railroad. A railroad wye (turnaround), was placed just over the ridge top, south of the historic town site of Bidwell’s Bar. The wye, allowed Hutchinson engines that had delivered loaded log cars to Land siding, to turn around and return to the Mooretown area.
During this time period railroad activities were occurring just south of historic Bidwell’s Bar, at Bidwell on the Western Pacific mainline and at Bidwell Junction. The activities were located a mile-and-a-half apart and being operated by three different companies!
The Hutchinson Lumber Company went bankrupt in 1927. Two years later, the remaining company assets were purchased, by A. H. Land. Within six months the Oroville sawmill, and all of the lumber in the storage yard, was destroyed by a sparks from a trash fire originating on another part of the sawmill site. Logging and the railroad operations were discontinued for the next ten years.
1939: After ten years of determined effort, A. H. Land, succeeded in securing funding and formed the Feather River Pines Mill Company. A sawmill was built in Feather Falls, and the old railroad reactivated. Renamed the Feather River Railway, the line was completed and ready for operation by July 1, 1940. Once again there was railroad traffic between Feather Falls through the Bidwell’s Bar area to the Western Pacific mainline at Land.
1947: The 1947 Bidwell Bar topographic map places the name of Bidwell Bar north of the Feather River, in the area that was developed in the early 1900’s. There is no place name identification at the historic Bidwell’s Bar town site where the County Seat town of Bidwell was located.
1950-1960: During the mid 1950’s to mid 1960’s, in preparation for the creation of Lake Oroville, it was necessary to relocate sections of the existing Western Pacific Railroad and Feather River highway that would be within the lake area. Three new bridges were constructed: One on Highway 70, a second providing access to the Feather Falls areas, and a third about one mile above the historic Bidwell’s Bar Bridge, that would provide access to Berry Creek on the Oroville-Quincy highway. This third bridge was designed as a suspension bridge, like its predecessor at the site of the original Bidwell’s Bar. This new bridge was not to become a “Jr.” but was designated as the Bidwell Bar Bridge.
2000: The semi-annual event sponsored by the Bidwell Bar Association, a volunteer group working with the California State Parks, to promote the history of the area, is advertised as Bidwell Bar Days. In the City of Oroville’s Pioneer Museum, the sign above the display indicates it contains artifacts from Bidwell Bar.
2015: By popular local use the name associated with the gold discovery site, the town, the new bridge, and railroad era developments are often interchangeably referred to as Bidwell or Bidwell Bar. Picky historians will have to get use to the idea! However, knowing the history and time when a specific site was named, may help later generations understand what appears to be conflicting facts and location references.