When emergency personnel get a call for help in the river canyon on North Bloomfield Road, first responders in fire trucks and ambulances find themselves in a bind.
It’s impossible for firetrucks and ambulances to navigate a sharp hairpin turn at the bottom of the road on the south side of the river and the rickety single-lane historic bridge at Edwards Crossing can only hold 8,000 pounds. A standard fire engine, which is commonly used for responding to fires and emergencies, typically falls within the 20,000 to 40,000-pound range. This can add up to hour-long delays when time is critical and could mean life or death.
“We need a new bridge. We can’t drive a fire truck across the bridge,” said North San Juan Fire Protection District Deputy Fire Chief Tom Browning , a sixth generation Nevada County resident now in his fifth decade fighting fires. “I have been to a number of fires where we had to turn around and go the other way because we couldn’t get an engine across the bridge.”
Now, Nevada County Department of Public Works and consultants from Dokken Engineering are asking the community to weigh in on two alternatives for replacing the bridge, plus a third no-build option. The goal is to keep people safe while preserving the history and natural aesthetic of this popular scenic stretch of the South Yuba River. A Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) provided by Dokken is available for review with public comment due by Nov. 14.
“This project is a long-time coming,” said Supervisor Sue Hoek. “We have needed to improve safety at Edwards Crossing for a long time. I encourage everyone to look at these proposals and give us feedback on them.”
Caltrans recognizes that the bridge built in 1904 is “structurally deficient” to meet modern traffic demands and needs to be replaced. Caltrans is the steward of bridge replacement funds in California. For years Nevada County staff have been exploring ways to address the best path forward for the historic crossing.
The 168-foot culturally significant bridge is a steel truss arch with a timber deck supported on concrete piers. The green paint on the bridge is deteriorating and the surface is rusting.
Set in a postcard-perfect setting, the bridge is a popular destination for swimmers, hikers and history buffs. It’s located on a backcountry road to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park and was originally an important artery that fed the gold mines and later Nevada’s Comstock Lode silver mines of the 1800s.
The bridge was not engineered to hold the weight of modern vehicles. “They were much smaller loads a hundred years ago where you literally had horses, buggies, carts, things of that nature that didn’t weigh nearly as much.” said Pat Perkins, the County’s Principal Civil Engineer for the project.
So, what are the alternatives?
The Nevada County Department of Public Works is studying two alternatives to construct a new two lane bridge over the South Yuba River. The goal of the project is to provide a crossing that meets current standards and has sufficient load capacity to support fire equipment and emergency vehicles, while minimizing impact to the aesthetic appeal of the area.
Two upstream locations are being eyed for a two-lane bridge. Both alternatives consider parking impacts and access for emergency vehicles and during an evacuation.
The first alternative would construct a new 200-foot span bridge located about 60 feet upstream from the existing one. This would not change the road alignment of the current route to and from the bridge. Caltrans has agreed to fund the cost of this option estimated at $7 million.
“It’s not exactly aesthetically pleasing but from a cost standpoint this is the alternative CalTrans has been willing to fund,” said Perkins. “Alternative 1 leaves that hairpin turn, which is still going to create a bottleneck and we’ll still have the problems we have today.”
The second alternative would build a new 500-foot span bridge located about 1,000 feet upstream of the existing bridge. This is the preferred alternative by Supervisor Hoek, who represents the area; first responders, local historians, environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts but the cost is $17 million for construction alone.
Proponents of the second alternative point to the benefits. With the bridge 1,000 feet upstream, the hairpin curve in the road is straightened, improving alignment of North Bloomfield Road, making it ideal for emergency vehicles.
The busy parking area used by recreationists would be kept separate, improving unimpeded access for fire, evacuation and rescue. Proponents also say it is the least destructive environmentally and preserves the aesthetics of the viewshed that make the landmark so popular with locals and visitors alike.
Where does the funding come from?
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Office of Structure Investigations is responsible for performing bridge inspections biannually in accordance with federal regulations owned by local government agencies, making repair recommendations and determining safe load capacity.
In Nevada County, Caltrans inspects approximately 43 bridges. Bridges that have been identified as structurally deficient become eligible for replacement or repair under the Local Highway Bridge Program (HBP).
Since 2017, Nevada County has replaced or rehabilitated seven bridges in western Nevada County. The County is currently working on Dog Bar Road over Bear River, Soda Springs Road Bridge over the South Yuba River, and two Hirschdale Bridges at the Truckee River.
“It’s kind of a nightmare down there”
Since emergency vehicles can’t cross the bridge, first responders often face a dilemma when two sets of crews must be dispatched to both sides of the river when it’s not clear which side of the river the call for help is coming from. A callbox has been installed at the bridge, but cell phones don’t work in the canyon, adding complications to an emergency response.
The bridge is not strong enough to hold the weight of emergency vehicles weighing more than 8,000 pounds arriving for a river rescue or fire. Put in perspective, some modern pickup trucks like a 2024 Ford F-350 or F-450 can weigh over 8,000 pounds. Signage at the bridge alerts motorists of the weight limits.
As one of the primary emergency responders to the South Yuba River, the North San Juan Fire Protection District opposes the adoption of the first alternative and is strongly in favor of the second alternative as the best choice for public safety.
“Emergency vehicles must be able to cross the river. We need a new bridge with the capacity to handle mass evacuations,” said Bruce Boyd, Chairman, North San Juan Fire Protection District, a volunteer based fire department.
The lives of community members are also at stake, according to Boyd. The North San Juan Fire Protection District is located between the South Yuba and Middle Yuba rivers and runs from Bridgeport in the west and Malakoff State Park to the east. The District covers 84 square miles and contains over 3,000 inhabitants. Edwards Crossing is one of only three viable escape routes out of the district should it be hit with a catastrophic fire.
“In my opinion, the first alternative should not be considered. There is a switch back turn you won’t be able to get a dozer around. That’s not going to help us. In an evacuation, they won’t be able to make that turn with motorhomes and trailers. There are hundreds and hundreds of homes out there. It could be very problematic,” said Browning, the North San Juan Fire Protection District deputy fire chief
During the peak of the user season, North San Juan Fire gets an average of 40 medical calls down at the river.
“If it’s a fire, the fire will get larger if it takes us longer to get down there to suppress it,” Browning said. “That spells bad news for the growing number of people visiting the river or living in houses perched on both sides of the canyon rim.”
The problems associated with visitation and wildfire danger are only expected to grow in the next century Browning warns.
“With the amount of people that we have visiting the area the probability of having a large fire certainly increases. Throughout California, fires are becoming more dramatic and more homes are being lost. With current conditions fires are much more extreme,” said Browning.
Sol Henson lives at the top of the canyon, where Grizzly Hill Road and North Bloomfield Road intersect. If a fire swept through the canyon, his house would be one of the first to go.
He has lived on the San Juan Ridge for most of his life and uses the Edwards Crossing bridge daily as his primary route to get to and from his job as Education Program Director at Sierra Streams Institute in Nevada City.
In his estimate, the number of people and cars down at the crossing during the summer months has grown by roughly 200 percent in his lifetime, sometimes adding up to 20 minutes to his commute. He has witnessed many close calls on the steep, winding road when conditions become icy or vehicle brakes overheat.
“It’s a hairy road,” said Henson. “There can be the most insane parking. It’s kind of a nightmare down there.”
As the President of the San Juan Ridge Taxpayers Association, representing a dispersed population of about 2,000 residents on the “Ridge,” he supports Alternative 2 for potential social and environmental impacts.
Natural beauty, outdoor recreation and history
The bridge is located in the South Yuba Wild and Scenic River Recreation Area and encompasses the national South Yuba River Trail. State Parks and Bureau of Land Management are responsible for managing the land in the river corridor and the County of Nevada is responsible for managing the roadway. The current bridge at Edwards Crossing is the fourth bridge built in the location. The first was built in the 1850s.
The local environmental community has expressed concerns that the first alternative will disrupt wildlife and plant life in the river’s riparian zones. The hope is that the bridge outlined in the second alternative will be a little higher and wider with footings further out of the floodplain and less disruptive to aquatic environments during the construction phase.
It’s not uncommon for river-goers who use the bridge as a footpath or park their vehicles in the limited parking spaces near the crossing to come into conflict with motorists trying to cross the one lane bridge.
“Everyone in this area understands how impacted [the bridge] is. With Alternative 1, ambulances can’t safely get down to the river,” said Aaron Zettler-Mann, Executive Director of South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL).
SYRCL has actively encouraged its constituency to respond to the DEIR and voice support of the second option. The environmental advocacy organization with 3,000 members has an active River Ambassadors program enlisting crews of volunteers to speak directly with users and help educate folks to care for the river.
The existing historic bridge will remain in place to serve pedestrians and cyclists with both alternative options. But only the second option will keep the parking area separate from emergency access. With the second alternative, medical and fire services will be able to cross the bridge with no roadblocks or delays.
“I think really what we’re looking at is an option that is cheap and sort of works but doesn’t set us up for success long term versus something that is admittedly more expensive but is something that can be managed and sustained for the long term and considers how visitors use the river. Providing viable parking and safe access for emergency vehicles is crucial to this community,” said Zettler-Mann.
The graceful green three-hinged steel truss arch stands like an art piece set against a backdrop of granite boulders, rushing water and tree-lined canyon walls. If the first alternative bridge is chosen, just 60 feet away, the viewshed will dramatically change.
“The very first thing you see when you come here for the first time is Edwards Crossing bridge. It’s unique. Its design is artistically significant. Even though it’s man-made, it enhances the river experience,” said Chuck Scimeca from the Historical Landmarks Commission.
Scimeca and other members of the commission are concerned that the first alternative will ruin the “scenically culturally significant” view that everyone loves.
Scimeca also wonders if the historic integrity of archaeological sites from the early days of Edwards Crossing, things like rock walls and foundations could be lost during construction of Alternative 1.
With the bridge eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, that designation could be jeopardized if the aesthetics of this place is altered.
“I strongly believe most people don't want a second bridge built right alongside the historic Edwards Crossing Bridge,” said Scimeca. “It's wrong and should not be built for many reasons.”
Next steps and how to get involved
The public has until 5 p.m. on November 14 to comment on the DEIR. After that the county will review the public comments and establish a preferred alternative by December. Caltrans will review the County’s preferred alternative, followed by discussions in the spring 2024. The EIR will be finalized in July followed by a design period from July 2024 to August 2026. Construction is slated to begin during the summer of 2027, if funding is available.
Review the project and provide comment:
To view photos of Alternatives 1 and 2, the DEIR, and other project-related information, please visit https://www.dokkenbridges.com/edwards-crossing. Public Works requests your review and comments via email or letter on the DEIR by November 14 at 5 p.m. to:
Nevada County Public Works Attn.: Patrick Perkins 950 Maidu Ave., Suite 170 Nevada City, CA 95959
Written by Laura Petersen, a freelance writer who has spent two decades chronicling the stories of people and places in Northern California. This is one of a series of articles written on behalf of Nevada County. Laura can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: Nathan Anglin, courtesy of South Yuba River Citizens League