Hunting for heavy metal in Colfax

First stop to check out historic Stevens Trail
By: Nancy Hagman, Special to the Colfax Record
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I’m curious about heavy metal. Specifically bronze. More specifically, what it is used for. It’s used to make plaques, mainly to commemorate and identify historic places and Colfax has a few. The big question is, how many? Some folks around town think we may have more plaques, per capita or per square mile, than any other place in the world! So that is where my quest is taking me, to explore the heavy metal of Colfax. Off the top I can think of about 25 plaques: a dozen on Main Street, a handful at the Colfax Ball Park, and a couple by the railroad tracks. There are four sites on the National Registry of Historic Places. But alas, only three have plaques. One is missing, or it may never have gotten one in the first place. On my search for heavy metal, I’ll start with the historic landmark for Stevens Trail. The trail’s story begins with the gold seekers of the 1800s, who needed to get from the supply community of Colfax to the mining fields of Iowa Hill. But, first they had to get across the rugged North Fork of the American River canyon. In 1866-67, John Rutherford, an Iowa Hill miner and tanner, surveyed the route for the trail. He was looking to compete with Rice’s Grade, which had dangerously steep grades and a toll rate that was exorbitant (Iowa Hill Road). Rutherford, running short of funds, brought in a partner, Truman A. Stevens, a miner and rancher. Rutherford lost his half ownership to Stevens in the spring of 1870 when he was unable to settle his debts. Using Chinese labor, Stevens completed and opened the trail during its main years of historic use — 1871-1895. It became a toll path starting at Stevens’ Trading Post in Colfax down to Secret Ravine along the American River over a bridge and then traveling up the other side to Iowa Hill, then a major metropolis (population 15,000 and no that’s not a typo) during the Gold Rush. The trail was opened to foot, horse and pack mule traffic in the fall of 1871. Rice’s Grade was abandoned in 1877 after two state Supreme Court cases exposed bribery and other crooked practices on the part of its owner. As a result, Stevens won the mail contract and carried the mail over his trail, which served as the main route to and from Iowa Hill for 10 years. There was talk of expanding the trail into a road and pledges amounting to $50,000 were acquired for the project. But when Rice’s heirs built a new bridge at his crossing all support for Stevens Trail was abandoned in 1888. Eventually, the use of the trail died as the gold rush petered out. In 1922, local aviator Lyman Gilmore led a group of Colfax and Iowa Hill residents in the last attempt to give better access between the two communities via a highway over the trail route. His effort failed when the county board of supervisors rejected plans to widen the road in the fall of 1925. Here the story gets a little tricky. According to the Bureau of Land Management website, the route was “all but forgotten until 1959 when a Sacramento area Boy Scout was credited with rediscovering the trail.” But Jay Shuttleworth, one of those responsible for getting the trail listed on the registry, tells us it was local Colfax Eagle Scout Eric Kiel who “unofficially” marked the trail in 1969. The trail was threatened by a contractor doing some clear cutting, but saved by a conservationist movement in 1978. In 1993 the BLM was able to purchase 230 acres that had been planned for a housing development overlooking what would have been a reservoir behind the (now defunct) Auburn Dam. The Stevens Trail Fire in October 2005 started accidentally at the river. It roared through a section (934 acres) around the trail at Burnt Flat bringing great devastation and further damage from dozers creating fire breaks. Because of the trail’s historic status, a great effort was then made to cover and repair the unavoidable mechanical damage around the route. Hikers today may not notice the fire-damaged area except for the stands of burnt trees that remain. Stevens Trail became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, thanks to the efforts of Shuttleworth, who researched the history and garnered public support. But did it ever get a bronze plaque? If so, what happened to it? If not, why not? If anyone can give any clues to solving this mystery or would like to help get it corrected, please contact the Colfax Record office. The bridge across the North Fork no longer stands, but the trail still provides a beautiful hike through an area that was once bustling with miners...all in search of gold! Now the treasure lies in the experience.