Beckwourth Pass (SR 89/70)
MAN CONQUERING NATURE
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 5,221 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: No
ALONG THE WAY: Oroville, Quincy, Graegle, Portola, Sierra Valley
WHAT TO DO NEAR BECKWOURTH PASS
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Superstitious types will have shot at boosting their good fortune if they hold their breath during the drive through the Elephant Butte Tunnel. If you’re not, it’s a rare opportunity to peek out “windows” cut into a tunnel’s rock.
This is home to the famed Feather River Route. Keep your fingers crossed that a train passes over you on the Pulga Bridges. It’s good luck!
See hydroelectric power in action, passing multiple powerhouses and dams along the river.
TGet a photo with Chief Graegle at the welcome sign in the middle of the town named for him.
Civilization Advancing Across the Mountains
Man vs. nature has been a continuing theme around the Beckwourth, which has seen the second transcontinental railroad cut a path through the Sierra for trains and a major hydro-electric project harness the North Fork of the Feather River for power.
The Flamboyant Finder: James Beckwourth
But blazing a trail was the first step. Credit for that goes to James Beckwourth, one of the more colorful Sierra denizens. The child of a white nobleman and one of his slaves, Beckwourth was born a slave in Virginia but freed by his father. He would go on to become an explorer, coming West to the Rockies with a fur-trapping expedition in 1824.
In the years before he came across the Sierra pass named for him in 1850, he would spend several years living with the Crow Indians. Beckwourth claimed to have risen to the rank of chief during his time with them, though because he was notorious for embellishing his life story, it isn’t entirely clear if he held such a lofty position. Nonetheless, he adopted Crow customs and wore his hair in two long braids and accessorized with ribbons and jewelry.
When Beckwourth didn’t find a lake of gold, he instead turned his attention to helping more of the overland migration across the Sierra. He built a wagon road along his path through the mountains, and it became the heavily-used emigrant route known as Beckwourth Trail.
Tracing the Beckwourth Pass west to east takes you along Highway 70 from Oroville to the Sierra Valley before connecting with Highway 395 on the East Side. Highway 70, also known as the Feather River Scenic Byway, opened to auto traffic in 1937. Highway 89 runs concurrently with it from Keddie to Graegle, where it takes a southern route toward Tahoe. Highway 70 then continues on to Portola and over Beckwourth Pass before meeting Highway 395 near the Nevada border.
Oroville: The Last Indian & an Emptied Cemetery
This is also where “the last wild Indian” came into civilization. Oroville made news in 1911 when Ishi wandered into town starving and alone. The 50-year old man had been part of the Yahi tribe that lived secluded from other cultures near Deer Creek Canyon in the southern foothills of the Cascades. The last surviving member, he was discovered in Oroville hiding near a slaughterhouse (now gone, but having sat at the corner of Oak Avenue and Quincy Road).
He was given a name that is the Yahi word for “man,” and then sent to San Francisco and studied by UC-Berkeley anthropologists until he died of tuberculosis in 1916. Oroville honors him with a mural in its downtown on Robinson Street between Lincoln and Huntoon. It’s on the old jail where Ishi was temporarily held after being found.
Oroville Chinese Cemetery
Oroville is also home to a Chinese Cemetery that served as a resting place for Chinese who came in search of gold or to work on the railroad. But only a temporary one. There were no more burials here after 1944, and most of the bodies were relocated to China, leaving a sort of ruin with mostly empty gravesites and some bricks etched in Chinese to honor those who remain. Though the cemetery was abandoned, Oroville has a still-active Chinese temple as a legacy of its early Chinese population.
Railroad and Timber Country
The Western Pacific Railroad
Railroad history is a big deal in California. Trains were essential in connecting the burgeoning West Coast population to the rest of the country and enabling their enterprises to thrive. One example is logging in the Northern Sierra. Once the Western Pacific Railroad was completed, the ability to easily transport lumber long distances made the timber industry a vital economic driver long after Sierra trees were used to build mining operations and the railroad itself.
It no longer operates, but Western Pacific was a major railroad company in the West until it merged with Union Pacific in 1982. It created the last transcontinental train route to be built over the Sierra, one that linked the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad that ended in Salt Lake City to the western coast.
The California Zephyr: Riding the Rails in Style
In addition, it was one of the original operators of the famed California Zephyr. In its heyday, the luxe passenger train was called “The Silver Lady” and had uniformed hostesses called Zephyrettes, dining cars with china and silver, and special cars that were outfitted with glass-domed tops so that riders could take in the sights. (Amtrak took over the name in 1983 and still uses it for its San Francisco to Chicago route over Donner Pass. Though not as fancy, it still has glassed Sightseer Lounge cars. And onboard tour guides announce points of interest on select legs of the journey, just as the Zephyrettes once did.)
Western Pacific’s construction of tracks extending from the San Francisco Bay (Oakland) to Salt Lake began in 1905, with the Feather River area at Beckwourth Pass chosen as the point where it would cross the Sierra. (The idea was to provide a northern alternative to the first Transcontinental Railroad that went through the mountains at Donner Pass.) When work was completed in 1909, it spanned 927 miles and became known as the Feather River Route.
Western Pacific’s chosen site was based on a wagon route through the Sierra and made for a distinctive railroad design. The tracks cross back and forth over the river on bridges and pass through the imposing granite in tunnels.
The Keddie Wye
Its most famed feature is the Keddie Wye six miles west of Quincy where tracks run through a tunnel and then split and cross bridges to form a “Y” shape. It’s named for Arthur W. Keddie, who was the one to survey the Feather River Route and envision a railroad. It’s also where the railroad was completed, with the final spike being driven on the Keddie Wye trestle.
The Pulga Bridges
Taking the Beckwourth Pass, you’ll come across several other eye-catching bridges as well. The Pulga Bridges are a steel arch bridge carrying Highway 70 across the North Fork of the Feather River and a railroad bridge crossing 200 feet below it. Tobin Twin Bridges is another place where train and auto pass each other. This time the railroad bridge crosses over the highway bridge. (It’s considered good luck if a train rumbles over your head while driving here.)
The Williams Loop
The Feather River Route also has a loop like the one off the Tehachapi Pass in the Southern Sierra. Another of the Seven Wonders of the Railroad World popularized by Plumas County, the Williams Loop can be seen from the Spring Garden Bridge some four miles outside of Quincy. Like the Tehachapi Loop, the circuitous route helps trains gain elevation at a consistent 1% grade instead of a steeper incline. It also results in longer trains passing over themselves on a trestle as they complete the one-mile loop.
Riding Through Mountains: The Honeymoon Tunnels & Elephant Butte Tunnel
Trains in the Feather River Canyon pass through dozens of tunnels, some quite long. A series of five of them near Belden are called the Honeymoon Tunnels. But the highway also had to cut through Sierra rock.
Three tunnels here — Arch Rock, Elephant Butte and Grizzly Dome — were WPA projects, some of the many Franklin Roosevelt authorized during his presidency to create work for the unemployed. The longest is Elephant Butte, running 1, 187 feet. It even has “windows” carved out of the rock to offer views during the dark ride.
The Stairway of Power: Turning Water into Energy
Hydroelectric power creates energy from moving water, so one of the best sites for a hydroelectric plant is a mountain river where the water runs down a dropping elevation. Most of California’s hydroelectric plants are in the Sierra Nevada for that reason.
Near the Beckwourth, the North Fork of the Feather River has seven along a particularly steep stretch, and they are collectively known as “The Stairway of Power.” Canyon Dam on Lake Almanor is at one end, and the Poe Dam and Powerhouse just above Lake Oroville are at the other.
Hydroelectric power has advantages in leveraging a renewable resource and being economical to produce, but there is an environmental impact. In the case of the Feather River, where its North Fork serves as its main branch, the evidence is in the growing shoreline. This had been a prime fish habitat, but restricted waterflow brings higher water temperatures, which are not salmon- or trout-friendly.
Graegle: A Company Town
Old company towns can be found throughout the country, communities that sprang up specifically to support one business. Graegle is one of them, and this is why it has so many red buildings. Graegle’s benefactor was The California Fruit Exchange, which bought the town in 1920. (At the time, the small milling town was called Davies Mill.)
The California Fruit Exchange intended to manufacture boxes for its fruit in its new acquisition and did so into the 1950s. The small red buildings that all sport the same look were mill workers’ homes. Today the town is owned by a family instead of a business. The Wests purchased it in 1958.
Note: For additional detail on Beckwourth Pass highlights beyond Graegle, see our Northern Sierra section and its discussion of the Sierra Valley.
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