Bear River Awakening
The Bear River watershed was the first to catch the European wave of immigrants to California. More people now live in the Bear's watershed than any river in the Sierra.
Just below Donner Pass, the gentle Bear Valley gave passage to the first wave of settlers on the Emigrant Trail. Later on, the transcontinental railroad wound its way on the ridge above the Bear, as does the busy Union Pacific line today. Old Hwy 40 started the first stream of cars, I-80 turned the stream into a river of traffic, and Hwy 49 from Auburn to Nevada City/Grass Valley is the major north/south artery.
Hydraulic gold mining started on the Bear River and washed more soils into the valley and Delta, proportionately, than any other river in the Sierra Nevada. The first hydroelectric generating systems were built on the Bear. One of the first long distance telephone lines in the country was strung in Dutch Flat to serve mining operations. Miners needed wood for construction and fuel. Dozens of miles of logging railroads were built to serve their needs in the Bear watershed. The first lawsuit brought by farmers in the Sacramento Valley to stop hydraulic mining was filed against mines in the Bear watershed, but did not succeed.
A later lawsuit by valley farmers ended hydraulic mining and the flooding that it had caused. The vast network of canals and waterways that were constructed to bring the river to the mines was extended to support agriculture throughout the foothills. By the late 19th century, Bear River water diversions irrigated extensive orchards. In those years Newcastle, Auburn, Colfax, and Alta together became the fruit shipping capital of the world. Ice from Donner Lake was brought over the summit to ice houses and packing sheds. Pears, apples, and stone fruits were packed in Sierra ice and shipped in rail cars to Chicago and on to the East Coast.
By 1900 the farming market shifted from the foothills to the valley, where warmer weather gave valley growers the early-market sales. Pear blight and soil depletion contributed to the decline of fruit growing in the foothills. The lands of the Bear River entered a sleepy time of little growth beyond modest tourism and retirement homes. This lull lasted through World War II.
Around the Bear in the 1950s and '60s, timber harvest was in full swing, supplying California's post-war growth. By the 1970s, with almost all of the older trees harvested, timber harvest was in decline. Tourism soon became the economic engine and the older sections of regional towns were restored to lure more visitors to Old Town Auburn, Colfax, Nevada City, and Grass Valley.
For the past 40 years, growth has been the main economic engine for the region, with real estate, home building, and commercial mall development driving the change. Growth and development and people and the services they need, will likely be the story for the next 100 years. People live near the Bear River because they love this place. And the river is again becoming a significant theme in people's lives.
In these pages we will celebrate the Bear Rivers's beauty, investigate its changes, and look into the conflicts that arise as lifestyles and attitudes of local residents change. We'll look at the river over time and space, from Native American settlement to the present, and from the top of the watershed to its mouth where it joins the Feather River. Through the story of one of the last traditional Nisenan, Lizzie Enos, we'll look back at the life of those first people who had lived here thousands of years.
We'll then look at what the Bear is today and what it can become tomorrow. The Bear is awakening to a new and different era, and it will require our participation to care for and help it to thrive.
Continue your journey through time along the Bear River by selecting one of the links in the left navigation area of this page, or start with the geology of the Bear River.