Bear River Canal has 150-plus year history

Sections of canal still formed by china walls alone
By: Nancy Hagman, Special to the Colfax Record
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The Bear River Canal has a history that dates back 159 years. According to Pat Jones, former Record editor and author of “The Colfax Connection,” J.R. Crandall and James Neal built what was one of the first water ditches in Placer County in 1852. Jones calls it the great granddaddy of the big canal that now originates at the base of Rollins Lake dam. At that time, these waterways were not much more than a slit in the ground to divert water to sluice boxes for the placer mining of gold. As river gold “panned out” in just a few years, miners turned to hydraulic mining that required huge amounts of water fed to the large monitors – very big hose nozzles. These would blast away hillsides and reveal gold located in ancient riverbeds deep in the hillsides. Enterprising men or-ganized the South Yuba Water Company to supply this demand. They built arterial systems of hand-dug ditches and wooden flumes diverting water from its natural course. After completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, many skilled Chinese laborers went to work for the ditch company. They constructed new and improved older structures with their knowledge of building dry-stack rock walls. Known as “china walls,” there are many examples around Colfax. They still stand today as a testament to the capability of the builders. During this period, the agriculture industry in the foothills and flatlands was expanding. With the delivery of water to irrigate crops and grazing land, food production grew exponentially. In 1880, the South Yuba Company bought the Bear River Canal. Evidently, it was just in time, as Judge L.B. Sawyer made a decision on Jan. 23, 1884 that became the miners’ loss and the farmers’ gain. Prohibition of the discharge of mining debris into rivers took effect. Mining went underground, and damage to the rich soils of the farmlands ceased. Delivering water for irrigation and domestic purposes – referred to as “raw” and “treated” water today – did not provide enough revenue to support the company. Along came Edison and inventors like him and the production of hydroelectricity entered the scene. Subsequently, in 1905, the South Yuba Company merged with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Over the next 47 years the care, improvement, maintenance and repair of the big canal for the production of power and delivery of its contents for farm and household consumption was completely a PG&E service. In 1957, PG&E made a crucial decision. It involved its delivery of water; the company opted to concentrate on the production of electricity alone. The Placer County Water Agency came into existence that year. Today, PG&E owns the Bear River Canal and is solely responsible for its upkeep. The April 19 canal break has left the waterway empty. It provides an opportunity to perform an assessment of the 159-year-old structure, similar to what an archeologist would do at ancient ruins. First, like the Cape Horn railroad bed, the canal was hand dug following hill contours, constantly descending to its far point. Local rock was hauled by wagon and handcart and hand-stacked to shore the slanted sides. Then, over the years, workers used various qualities of cement, gummite and reinforced cement. In almost all cases, the canal repairs and up-grades take place from its floor, accessed at a few strategic points by ramps. More recently, construction includes im-provements like full, state-of-the-art, formed concrete replacement sections, discharge-gates, metal walkways and steel flumes. This year’s breakout was not the first of its kind in this region. Fifteen years ago a section failure over the Bear River campground occurred. The scar to the hillside is still visible. Many years ago (date unknown as of this writing), only about a half-mile downstream, a break similar to the current situation resulted in a tunnel being dug and sealed with reinforced concrete. Engineers are still determining the cause of the current failure and plans for its repair.