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California State Route 49, The Golden Chain Highway (CA 16 north over Yuba Pass to CA 89)

After completing California State Route 124 I took CA 16 to the eastern terminus to start my first Trans-Sierra route; California State Route 49/Golden Chain Highway over Yuba Pass.

As stated I joined CA 49 from the eastern terminus of CA 16 in Amador County.  CA 49 actually begins in Madera County to the south in Oakhurst at CA 41.  CA 49 is about 295 miles long and travels most of the traditional 1849 Gold Rush Country north from Oakhurst to CA 70.  If you want history and old towns then CA 49 is one of the best routes on the West Coast to see both.

To the north of CA 16 the next major junction is Signed County Route E16 in Plymouth which is on Shenandoah Road.  E16 is a 33.2 mile route which travels northeast to US 50. 

Plymouth dates back to the 1850s and is mostly known for a winery that dates back to 1856.  These photos are from Main Street looking west.

CA 49 generally is very rural and doesn't deviate much from when it was first signed back in 1934.  While CA 49 isn't as difficult as a highway to drive as some of the other state highways in the Sierras it generally isn't a road you can't sit back and use cruise control on (which is a good thing).  North of Plymouth CA 49 crosses into El Dorado County while crossing the Cosumnes River.

CA 49 goes through a jump in elevation ascending to El Dorado.  El Dorado was apparently called Mud Springs when it was settled in 1849 but it quickly changed to El Dorado in most likely 1855.  CA 49 takes an eastern swing on Pleasant Valley Road towards Diamond Springs.

Interestingly the photo above displays the original junction of CA 49 and US 50.  US 50 came in from Sacramento on the left on Pleasant Valley Road and briefly multiplex CA 49 to Forni Road.  US 50 continued northeast to Placerville which eventually becomes Main Street.  The original alignment of US 50 can be seen on the 1935 California Division of Highways Map of El Dorado County.

1935 El Dorado Highway Map 

Interestingly US 50 seems to have been shifted onto a bypass of El Dorado on Mother Lode Drive by 1938.

1938 State Highway Map

CA 49 continues through Diamond Springs before turning north on Diamond Road towards Placerville.  Diamond Springs apparently dates back to 1848 and was named from local springs.  Diamond Springs has a couple older buildings along CA 49 as it runs on Pleasant Valley Road.

CA 49 crosses Weber Creek and ascends to a high bluff which becomes Sacramento Street at the city limit of Placerville.

CA 49 descends on a 13% grade on Sacramento Street before taking a left turn on Pacific Street and Main Street.

Placerville is the County Seat of El Dorado County and is at an elevation of approximately 1,870 feet above sea level.  Placerville is located near Coloma and was one of the many mining camps that sprang to life in 1848 following the discovery of Gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma.  Placerville was originally known as Dry Diggins and Hangtown before obtaining it's modern name in the Mid-1850s.  Placerville has an extensive downtown area on Main Street full of historic structures.

As mentioned above Main Street was the original alignment of US 50.  US 50 was present on Main Street until the alignment was shifted to the modern expressway sometime in 1957 or 1958.  The difference in US 50 can be seen by comparing the 1957 and 1958 state highway maps.

1957 State Highway Map

1958 State Highway Map

CA 49 briefly multiplexed US 50 on Main Street between Sacramento Street and Spring Street.  The alignment of CA 49 is the same today which has resulted at a strange at-grade intersection with the US 50 expressway.

CA 49 follows Spring Street before continuing north following a left turn on Coloma Road.

CA 49 has a junction with the southern terminus of CA 193 at the edge of the City of Placerville.  CA 193 loops north back to CA 49 where it begins an unsigned multiplex.

CA 49 begins to descend towards Coloma and the South Fork American River.  CA 49 pretty much just follows the terrain between Placerville and Coloma which means so steep downhill grades.

CA 49 junctions CA 153 at Cold Springs Road on the left.

CA 153 actually signed on Monument Road and is reputed by the placard to be the shortest state highway at one half mile.  CA 153 actually isn't the shortest state highway but that story warrants it's own blog entry.

Coloma is the location of where the California Gold Rush started in following the discover of gold in the waters of the South Fork American River by James Marshall in January of 1848 at Sutter's Mill.   Coloma essentially is a ghost town today preserved as part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Park.  There are plenty of old building ruins and other various remaining structures in Coloma which can be viewed alongside CA 49.

The 1915 Coloma Bridge on Mount Murphy Road crosses the South Fork Sacramento River and provides some nice views from the single-lane truss span.

North of Coloma CA 49 crosses the South Fork American River.

Seven miles north of Coloma is Pilot Hill.  Pilot Hill was founded in 1849 and was originally three communities with the other two called Centerville in addition to Pittsfield.  By the mid-1850s all three communities were united under the name Pilot Hill.  There isn't much left of Pilot Hill today other than the 1880 Grange Hall.

CA 49 meets CA 193 again in Cool.  CA 193 multiplexes CA 49 silently north to Interstate 80 in Auburn.  Cool has been around since the 1850s but doesn't really resemble a Gold Rush Era town with mostly modern structures.  Cool apparently was Stage Stop during the height of the Gold Rush era.

North of Cool CA 49/CA 193 begins to descend into the American River Canyon to the confluence of the Middle Fork and North American Rivers.  The Forest Hill Bridge can be seen descending on the 8% downhill grade into the American River Canyon.

CA 49/CA 193 crosses the North Fork American River and enters Placer County.  CA 49/193 turns left on El Dorado Street and the Auburn State Recreation Area can be accessed on the right via Old Foresthill Road.

The Auburn State Recreation Area starts at the confluence of the Middle Fork and North Fork American River.  The Auburn State Recreation Area was set aside for the defunct Auburn Dam project which would have flooded the confluence of the Middle Fork and North Fork American Rivers.  The Auburn Dam was a concrete arch design that was halted in 1975 following an Earthquake centered in Oroville.  The design of the Auburn Dam was deemed to be insufficient to stand up to a large earthquake which largely killed the project.  Work on the Auburn Dam foundations resumed down river from the confluence of the Middle Fork and North Fork American Rivers in the late 1970s but the project never went any further.

Part of the Auburn Dam Project was Forest Hill Bridge over the North Fork American River which was intended to be a new alignment of CA 49/CA 193.  The Foresthill Bridge was constructed from 1971 to 1973 and has the highest bridge deck in California at 730 feet above the North Fork American River.  Had the Auburn Dam project continued CA 49/CA 193 would have crossed the Middle Fork American River on a similar span to the Foresthill Bridge.

Returning to CA 49/CA 193 I found this oddly shaped CA 49 shield.

CA 49/CA 193 ascend the American River Canyon on El Dorado Street to the City of Auburn.

Originally CA 49 would have met US 40 at Lincoln Way and multiplexed it through downtown crossing the Southern Pacific Rails.

CA 49/CA 193 continues on High Street bypassing the downtown section of Lincoln Way.  Lincoln Way currently has three sections in Auburn but I believe they were all once one street.  I believe CA 49 would have multiplexed US 40 through downtown on Lincoln Way but I don't have detailed enough maps of Auburn from the 1930s to be sure.  Auburn dates back to 1848 and is the County Seat of Placer County.  There are various old buildings all over Auburn but there is a substantial amount of Lincoln Way in downtown.

CA 49/CA 193 turns a right on Lincoln Way briefly and passes some Historic US 40 signage.

CA 49/CA 193 turns north on Grass Valley Highway towards I-80.  CA 193 splits from CA 49 onto I-80 west.

CA 49 north of Auburn enters Nevada County as it approaches Grass Valley.  CA 49 between Auburn and Grass Valley largely varies between a four-lane to two-lane road is listed as a Caltrans Safety Corridor.  I've heard many tales of infamy about traffic problems but I didn't really see what the issue was other than the corridor had a steady flow of traffic.  In Grass Valley CA 49 is on a freeway alignment so I took the original alignment on Auburn Street.

Despite Auburn Street not being the present alignment of CA 49 there is still plenty of directional signage for CA 49, CA 20, and even CA 174.  The modern CA 49 freeway can be seen ahead on northbound Auburn Street in the first picture.

At Main Street CA 49 northbound would have taken a right turn and multiplexed CA 20.

Specifically CA 20 would have come in to meet CA 49 in Grass Valley via the Rough and Ready Highway at the intersection of Main Street and Auburn Street.  CA 20 would have multiplexed CA 49 all the way to Nevada City where it continued over Sacramento Street onto Nevada Street.  Legislative Route Number 25 would have met CA 20 and CA 49 in Grass Valley at Bennett Street.  LRN became was designated as CA 174 during the 1964 California Highway renumbering.   The modern freeway alignment of CA 20/49 can be seen in development from 1966 to 1969 State Highway Maps.   CA 20 seems to have been realigned off the Rough and Ready Highway to the south to meet CA 49 at Empire Street sometime between 1982 and 1986.  All applicable map references can be seen below in addition to the 1935 California Division of Highways Map showing the original alignment of CA 49, CA 20, and LRN 25 in Grass Valley through Nevada City.

1935 Nevada County Highway Map

1966 State Highway Map

1967 State Highway Map

1969 State Highway Map

1982 State Highway Map 

1986 State Highway Map

Grass Valley is the largest community in Nevada County and apparently had Post Office Service all the way back to 1851.  Reportedly Grass Valley was called Boston Ravine and Centerville before assuming the current name.  Grass Valley is located at approximately 2,400 feet above sea in the Sierra Foothills and really is the gateway towards the rise above Yuba Pass.  I continued on the original alignment of CA 49/CA 20 east on Main Street towards a roundabout.  CA 49/CA 20 continued ahead through the roundabout on Nevada City Highway towards Nevada City.

CA 49/CA 20 originally used Zion Street and Sacramento Street as it entered Nevada City.  CA 20 would have split eastward at Nevada Street while CA 49 northbound would have turned on Broad Street into downtown Nevada City.  Today Broad Street crosses over the CA 49/20 freeway as it enters downtown Nevada City.

Nevada City is the County Seat of Nevada County and dates back to 1849.  Nevada City was settled on Deer Creek and apparently was one of the largest gold producers in California in the early 1850s.  Apparently Nevada City was originally called "Nevada" and the "City" part was added in the 1864 to avoid confusion with the recently State of the same name.  There is an old road in Nevada City called Old Downieville Highway but I don't believe that it was ever part of CA 49.  The 1935 Nevada County Map cited above seems to show the original alignment of CA 49 continuing on Broad Street through Nevada City to the modern highway.

North of Nevada City CA 49 becomes extremely rural as it climbs higher into the Sierras.

Modern CA 49 largely aligned on the north bank of the Rush Creek descending down to the South Fork Yuba River.  The 1935 Nevada County Highway Map seems to indicate that CA 49 crossed Rush Creek at an alignment I can't locate and rejoined the modern highway possibly using Jones Bar Road.  The modern alignment of CA 49 descends a 7% grade to the South Fork Yuba River.

At the South Yuba River there is an older concrete rainbow arch design bridge from 1921 that was used as part of CA 49 until 1993.  The 1921 bridge is officially known as the "Hoyt Crossing Bridge" and is the trailhead for many hiking paths branching away from the South Yuba River Canyon within South Yuba River State Park.  There was actually a news crew present on top of the 1921 bridge talking to county officials about river safety.

Suffice to say the modern crossing of the South Yuba River is substantially wider than the 1921 bridge.

CA 49 northbound rises out of the South Yuba River Canyon, the next major community of interest is North San Juan.  North San Juan dates back to the 1850s and was named by a veteran of the Mexican-American War.  Apparently North San Juan has connections to the hydraulic mine district that is now part of Malakoff Diggins State Park off to the east.  There isn't much left of North San Juan today aside from a couple buildings which would have been part of a downtown district.

North of North San Juan CA 49 crosses the Yuba River into Yuba County.

Near Camptonville CA 49 has a junction with Signed County Route E20 at Marysville Road.  CR E20 heads west for about 20 miles to CR E21.

CA 49 bypasses Camptonville and never appears to have entered the community during the Signed State Highway era.  Camptonville was around back in the 1850s and was a north terminus of one of the legs of Henness Pass Road.  The Henness Pass Road was a wagon toll road developed in the early 1850s but largely was replaced by the late 1860s when rail freight became more developed in California.

CA 49 appears to be pretty much as it was all the way back in 1935 within Yuba County which an be seen looking at the California Divisions of Highway Map from said year.

1935 California Division of Highways Map of Yuba County

North of Camptonville CA 49 enters Sierra County quickly crosses the North Fork Yuba River.

CA 49 follows the North Fork Yuba River along the north bank to Downieville.  There is a large overlook on a bluff above Downieville which is a great place to see the entire community.

The overlook includes a 1874 Topographical Map of Sierra County.

Despite not being an incorporated place Downieville is the County Seat of Sierra County.  Downieville is located at the junction of the Downie River and North Fork Yuba River at about 3,000 feet above sea level.  The current population of Downieville was slightly less than 300 residents on the 2010 Census.

CA 49 becomes a one-lane highway in downtown Downieville.  CA 49 turns right over the Downie River while Legislative Route 36/CA 194 would have began at Main Street.

Looking ahead at Main Street which was the beginning of LRN 36/CA 194.

LRN 36 was adopted as a state highway all the way back in 1907 which terminated at Saddleback Mountain north of Downieville.  LRN 36 meant to serve mining interests north of Downieville and surprisingly survived the California Highway renumbering to briefly become CA 194.  CA 194 only lasted one year and was decomissioned in 1965, the route was likely never signed. has a extended piece on the history of LRN 36/CA 194 and maps from 1964 in addition to 1966 show the relinquishment of the highway. on LRN 36 on CA 194

1964 State Highway Map

1966 State Highway Map

The 1935 California Division of Highways Map of Sierra County shows the full length of LRN 36 from Downieville to Saddleback Mountain.

1935 Sierra County Highway Map

CA 49 crosses the Downie River on the 1938 Jersey Bridge.

The Jersey Bridge is one of the more unique highway bridges being a single-lane span.  There is some nice views of the Downie River and of an old Scenic placard with an accompanying CA 49 shield on the north bank.  CA 49 is one of the few state highways with a remaining one-lane segment, others would include; CA 4, CA 146, CA 35, CA 36, CA 168, and CA 172.

Downieville is one of the more fascinating Gold Rush era town sites.  Downievile dates back to 1849 when gold was found at the confluence of the North Fork Yuba River and Downie River which led to mining claims in the mountains to the north.  Downieville was originally called The Forks before renamed after William Downie who apparently had a hand in founding the community.  Downieville was one of fifteen communities in contention to replace Vallejo as the state capital in 1853 but ultimately the remote location in the Sierras didn't help it's cause.  Downieville apparently had a population as high as 5,000 during the Gold Rush Era which dropped off sharply at the end of the peak mining days.  Sierra County continued to decline in importance in the early 20th century and apparently still has less than 3,500 residents in modern times.

After crossing the Downie River CA 49 continues to follow the North Fork Yuba River to Sierra City.

Sierra City is at an approximate elevation of 4,150 feet and is the last major community before Yuba Pass and CA 89.  Sierra City dates back to 1850 but was abandoned for several years after the town was destroyed in an avalanche in the winter of 1852-1853.  The mines of Sierra City were apparently on both banks of the North Fork Yuba and I'm to understand placer mining still takes place in the community today.

After passing through Sierra City CA 49 begins to ascend rapidly to Yuba Pass.  There is a small community at the junction of Gold Lake Highway called Bassetts which apparently dates back at least to the 1870s.

Unlike most of the Trans-Sierra Passes the road over Yuba Pass is somewhat shallow near the peak on both flanks of the Sierras.  The grade isn't a difficult climb up to 6,000 feet above sea level.

Yuba Pass is at 6,701 feet which can be seen from this placard.

The eastern descent from Yuba Pass to CA 89 has a shallow grade of only 5%.  Most of the passes through the Sierras have a much sharper drop on the eastern flank of the range than from the west.  CA 49 descending Yuba Pass was heavily damaged but it wasn't much of an issue due to no on-coming vehicles.  There was an overlook of the valley below but it was partially overgrown which led to an obstructed vista.

After crossing Yuba Pass I turned north onto CA 89 since I was heading to CA 70 and the Feather River Canyon.

But I did return to the junction the following day and continued on CA 49/CA 89 to Sierraville.

CA 49/CA 89 is a reverse concurrency between the Yuba Pass junction and Sierraville.  Since I was on CA 49 North my concurrency for CA 89 was listed as southbound.

Sattley is only 1 mile east of the start of the CA 49/CA 89 concurrency and Sierraville is 5 miles away.

CA 49/CA 89 has a junction with Signed County Route A23 at Westside Road in Sattley.  CR A23 loops back to CA 89 just 13 miles to the north.  Sattley itself was founded in the 1880s after the heyday of the Gold Rush Era and there isn't a ton to see in the community.

The road between Sattley and Sierraville opens up into a wide vista.

In Sierraville CA 89 splits south towards Truckee and Lake Tahoe while CA 49 continues straight to Loyalton.  When I took this photo I was headed south on CA 89 towards Lake Tahoe.

Surprisingly there isn't much literature online about Sierraville but the buildings make it obvious it is from the Gold Rush Era.  Sierraville was on this 1873 map of California that I found.

1873 Map of California

What makes Sierraville really interesting in the context of CA 49 is that there was a chance it was the north terminus of the highway at one point.  After the Signed State Route program began in 1934 there was several state highways that were actually signed on non-state maintained roadways.  CA 49 from Sierraville over the Plumas County line to CA 24 (modern CA 70) was actually originally signed on County Maintained roadways which can be seen on the 1938 State Highway Map, The Sierra County Highway Map from 1935 above, and the Plumas County Map by the California Division of Highways in 1935.

1938 State Highway Map 

1935 Plumas County Highway Map

By 1940 CA 49 is not shown existing between Sierraville and CA 24.  It appears that all State Highway signage on County Maintained roadways was removed by 1940.  CA 180 and CA 33 were also on County Maintained roadways on the 1938 map but also are not shown on the 1940 map.

1940 State Highway Map

By 1954 a proposed new road known as LRN 233 is shown between Sierraville and CA 24 appears on the state highway map.

1954 State Highway Map

By 1958 the previous county roads between Sierraville to CA 24 officially became State Maintained and part of CA 49 once again.  LRN 233 and the new alignment it would have used seem to have been completely abandoned in the planning stages.  CA 24 through the Feather River Canyon to US 395 was redesignated as US 40A by 1958.

1958 State Highway Map

So the question in regards to Sierraville remains open; from 1940 to 1958 did CA 49 end at CA 89 coming down from Yuba Pass or did it end in Sierraville?  Unfortunately none of the maps I've found show enough detail and I don't have any vintage pictures to use as evidence.  Hopefully someone out there has more substantial information or photographic proof to solve the mystery.

So with that in mind like I said near the beginning of this blog, I did take the southern segment of CA 49 from Oakhurst in 2016 to I-80.  In that regard I'm hoping to work up that blog entry at some point in the next couple months but I might consider attempting the full route of CA 49 from CA 41 all the way north to CA 70 this year with a larger emphasis on historic sites.  I did check out some items of interest along CA 49 as I was returning home in the southern segment that I will incorporate when I get to my second blog entry on the highway.


Anonymous said…
This really is a awesome drive, the views are amazing and I take it about once a month just to take the drive

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