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Back Country Bridge to Nowhere

My husband’s idea of a great day trip is anything that involves trains and back roads so we headed over to Maxwell on I-5 to satisfy his curiosity about an old rail line. While most travelers may have noticed train lines run north and south through the Central Valley west of the Sacramento River very few rail lines ran west into the foothills, except at Maxwell.

Once upon a time the Colusa and Lake Railroad had grand dreams of a line that would run through Colusa, Lake and Mendocino county mountains all the way to the sea. While the line would reach mineral springs resorts in Lake County where the freight revenue to support such a line would come from was a mystery. The line made it about 30 miles, all the way to Sites nine miles west of Maxwell and ended.

Sites had a sandstone quarry that cut blocks to be shipped by rail to Colusa and on to San Francisco. There the stone was dressed (cut to size) and used constructing the Ferry Building, the Spreckles Bandstand in Golden Gate Park, and banks throughout the city. The quarry’s existence kept funds rolling in for decades to the Colusa and Lake Railroad along with shipments of salt obtained at Salt Lake north of Sites. When business from the quarry slowed the tracks were torn up. But if you’re a rail fan there are old track grades to spot, bridge abutments and assorted detritus to make a search interesting.

Now I have seen some strange sights on California back roads but along the north side of the Maxwell Sites Road is the Olney Land and Cattle Company. What should they have decorating their roadside equipment yard but a small Plymouth diesel locomotive, a Western Pacific caboose, and a Southern Pacific Maintenance of Way passenger car and another caboose. Someone went to a lot of time and expense to truck in this old equipment and it would put a smile on the face of any train fan to what’s materialized on a roadside.

From Sites, which consists of a half dozen homes and what appears to be an old schoolhouse, we took Colusa County’s gravel Huffmeister Road south to connect to Bartlett Springs Road at Bear Valley. Bouncing along at 20mph what did we find about 10 miles down the road but a locked gate across the roadway. Excuse me, but is it an unreasonable expectation when you look at a current road map of Colusa County to expect a road to be OPEN from one location to another? How about a road sign back in Sites that says “Road Closed 10 Miles Ahead.” Retracing our route back to Sites we went north towards Ladoga, then west towards Stonyford, then back south again to get to Bear Valley and Bartlett Springs Road. Luckily we had all day for mis-adventures.

Rural Lake and Colusa Counties ranchlands feature dead coyotes disintegrating on barbed wire fences, fields of star thistle in bloom, and lots of cows. Could someone please tell me why a utility company chose seldom traveled Bartlett Springs Road for a 33-mile underground line all the way to Clear Lake at the town of Nice?

Last year I shared a story in the AVA on the development of mineral springs 120 years ago in this area. Twisting and turning up and down hills and constantly climbing I could only imagine the dusty ride by stagecoach back then. We had a picnic at Indian Valley Reservoir’s dry lakebed under oak trees. Six miles long and a mile wide with 22 miles of shoreline’s gone. No Kokanee Salmon, no Rainbow Trout, it’s a victim of the drought. There was a faint glimmer of water miles away to the south but the whole area is closed to visitors.

Traveling up along the headwaters of Cache Creek another puzzlement presented itself. In an area I believe was once Hough Springs Resort, which could accommodate 100 visitors at a time a century ago, was a bridge to nowhere. We found a steel girder bridge 50’ long stranded in the middle of Cache Creek. The creek had changed direction and cut off the bridge from Bartlett Springs Road with a new channel. The old rusty structure just sits there, still sturdy, but no way to reach it.


On to Bartlett Springs, which I’d last seen 30 years ago. Discovered in the 1860’s by the mid-1870’s it had a two story hotel, 40 cabins, campground, and resident doctor and masseur, There was a dance hall, a billiards room, pool hall, bowling alley, tennis and croquet courts and riding stables. There were stores, restaurants, a telegraph office, steam laundry, barbershop, and an ice making plant. Visitors took the waters, hunted, fished, swam, and relaxed. It was not unusual to have 5,000 guests over a season of visitors. We might have driven right by if I hadn’t spotted huge rose bushes in bloom and ornamental cedar trees, and we stopped.

You can still walk the cement paths of the resort and drink the mineral water burbling out of a pipe into a small overgrown pool but the buildings first burnt down in 1934, burned again in 1960, and yet again in 1996. The wind was roaring as it blew up the canyon and the place was far noisier than I would have expected. The old advertisements claimed it was insect free at 2,600’ but no ones told the abundant flies and bugs today that they are in the wrong place. I imagined myself a century ago in a long dress, strolling on a veranda, smelling rose blossoms, sipping mineral water and swatting flies.

Chinese workmen were brought in during the 1880’s to finish the tortuously twisting road down to Clear Lake’s shore. One statistic I read said the road drops 2,700’ in three miles as it corkscrews down the mountains. Spectacular views of the Clear Lake basin appear at every turn. Arriving at the Highway 20 intersection travelers find a bottling works. Built by a French company about 25 years ago to bottle Bartlett Springs water it never prospered and closed. Now the facility blends and bottles custom wines.

While Bartlett Springs Road claims it is 33 miles from Bear Valley to Nice it’s a 20mph drive at best. With stops for photos, a bridge to nowhere, and ruins it took us three hours and in all that time we saw a grand sum total of three other vehicles. That’s my kind of road and my best way to waste a day.

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