Highway 174 weaves together county histories

Highway 174 weaves together county histories
Date Published: November 30, 2007
Expansive upscale homes, like this one, fill The Cedars subdivision in Cedar Ridge along Highway 174. - Photo by Janis Dice
The Bear River, unleashed from the dam at Rollins Lake, clambers down the gorge below Highway 174. This section of the channel serves as the Placer-Nevada county line. - Photo by Janis Dice

Long before modern byways linked foothills communities, the course of Highway 174 connected Placer and Nevada county Gold Rush settlements.
Looping from the outskirts of Colfax to the fringes of Grass Valley, Highway 174 is a rural route that undulates in rhythm with the ravines, ridges and meadows it crosses. Swaying, dipping and diving through unincorporated territory, it is a byway that supplies pastoral scenery and beautiful seasonal color.
After leaving central Colfax behind, the highway sweeps through an old district known as Shady Glen, where Giovanni's restaurant has roots that run two generations deep. After passing the original path of the Colfax-Grass Valley Road, 174 begins to descend the canyon walls that trap the Bear River.
Above the Bear are two bridges - an ornate one erected in 1924 that now is an historic site - and a higher, broader span that was built in 1986. Beyond the river crossing, Highway 174 cuts through the tiny community of Chicago Park, one of the first real estate developments in the region.
A representative for investors in the Midwest arrived here in 1888 and found the mountaintop meadows, temperate climate and proximity to local and transcontinental rail lines an ideal place for a residential tract. By that time, the Central Pacific Railroad had transformed Colfax from a construction camp to a busy train town with freight and passenger depots and the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad (NCNG) was routinely traveling the 26 miles between Colfax and Grass Valley.
Originally built to deliver Nevada County-grown fruits and vegetables to the Colfax station, the Never Come, Never Go railroad - as it was sarcastically dubbed - eventually shuttled mail and passengers between the two towns. The rail line allegedly transported more gold than any other short line railroad in California.
It operated its last revenue train in 1942. Most of the iron rails, trestles and cross ties were sold for scrap or salvaged, leaving little evidence that the railroad ever existed. The last vestige, a 195-foot-high steel trestle reaching across the Bear River, was razed in 1963 during construction of the Rollins Lake dam.
After the rail line was dismantled, a road was built where the tracks once stood. That was the base for what would become Highway 174.
Despite its appealing locale, the 2,000-acre Chicago Park Colony development never took off, but the name stuck to the precinct. Today, the hilltop hamlet is home to century-old orchards and the quaint Happy Apple Kitchen and fruit stand. It also has access to the 3,300-acre Rollins Lake where resorts offer camping, picnicking, boating, skiing and fishing.
Ahead are the old farming villages of Peardale and Orchard Springs, where some ranches are still producing fruit. This area also is home to horse ranches and the new Solune Winery (www.solunewinery.com ), which offers weekend wine tasting on a limited basis.
Highway 174 flows past the trail to Greenhorn Creek and wends across the mountain crest to Cedar Ridge, the largest borough along Highway 174. Besides its abundance of cedar trees, some service businesses and a few stores, the area holds modest cabins, pockets of ranch houses and The Cedars, a contemporary neighborhood of upscale homes on wooded lots.
Off the western end of the highway sits the Empire Mine State Park, the grounds of a gold mine that operated from 1850 to the late 1950s. Today it is a living history center with demonstrations, displays, historic re-enactments and tours of the original owners' stone vacation cottage.
Beyond the road into the park, Highway 49 becomes a city street, weaving into downtown Grass Valley to intersect Highway 49.
Once the route of a narrow gauge railroad that brought Placer and Nevada counties together, Highway 174 now is a savory scenic corridor, with common histories on the side.