Farmhouse Gives Insight to Local History
By Susan Wiesner, August 2014
The site of 2014’s neighborhood picnic has special significance as it is one of the very early farmhouses built on Cement Hill. Tracing the history of the land is a slow process but becomes meaningful through the stories that arise. The current farmhouse sits on a 10 acre parcel which includes two outbuildings, a pear orchard and a small cottage. For many years it was part of larger 80 acre tract of land and included what is now River Hill Farm and another adjacent property.
The first transfer record identified for this property was for land earlier claimed by the DeBernardi Quartz Mine but later abandoned for mining. When J. DeBernardi (a Nevada City charcoal dealer) passed away in 1883, the “ranch” and other acreage was inherited by his widow Catherine who then sold it to Manual Jose Bernardo (M.J.).
M.J. Bernardo immigrated to the U.S. in 1864 at age 27 from the Portuguese Azore Islands. After his Portuguese wife, Mary, joined him in 1881, they chose to settle and raise a family on Cement Hill. They may have learned about property from the other Portuguese settlers who lived in this area: Anton Costa, Manuel S. Davilla and Manuel Ignacio. M.J. Bernardo bought the subject land for $300 in “gold coin” in 1886. In this same transaction for 80 acres, he acquired the water rights of “that certain Ravine called Know Nothing Ravine, and that certain ditch known as the Kistle Ditch.” The ditch and flume system, first built for mining purposes, had been extended and expanded to allow for agricultural uses. Above the house you can still see the remains of a ditch and pond used to store water for household use.
The Bernardos raised five children on the property: Manuel, Joseph, Mamie, Annie & Francis. On official documents, M.J. showed his occupation at times as a miner and at other times as a farmer. He probably cleared much of the land for agricultural purposes constructing some of the rock walls and cairns which stand to this day. The family most likely built the original farmhouse or expanded an existing building to accommodate their family as it grew. M.J. also acquired adjacent land to the south, increasing his holdings to over 160 acres by 1897. County assessment records from 1906 cite that his land had “improvements” valued at $150. That was in addition to the value of a wagon $20, harness $10, 2 horses $50 and 2 cows $40! In 1914 M.J. transferred title of the primary 80 acres to his son Joseph.
By the time M.J. Bernardo died in 1922 the land had passed to Astiace Luigi Silicani. Born in Lucca, Italy, Astiace immigrated to the U.S. in 1899 and lived for several years in Humboldt County operating a “donkey” steam engine in the logging industry before he moved to Cement Hill with his wife Carolina and their three children: Arnold, Messalina (“Lena”) and Homer (“Tito”). Their ranch was described as a dairy farm and he considered himself a farmer on census records but he also worked as a mine superintendent. The Silicanis must have felt quite comfortable joining the Orzallis, the Agostinis, the Garesios and other Italian families who had previously settled in the area. It was not uncommon to have gatherings for holidays or celebrations. One such occasion turned to a tragedy and has been recounted over the years by several descendants of the original Italian families.* The Silicani family and friends had gathered under the large fig trees (still growing near the farmhouse) for a picnic. Carolina decided to bake cookies for the group and crossed the field below to gather fresh eggs from the chicken house. A bull she had raised like a pet unexpectedly turned on her and trampled her to death. Shocked neighbors later gathered to mourn her passing and Mary Morales recalls as a child carrying two large platters of ravioli to the farmhouse with her mother, May E. Orzalli.
Astiace Silicani continued to live in the area but moved to a smaller cabin on Cement Hill near the Applewood area. In 1942 the ranch property was sold to Mervyn N. Robinson (M.N.) and his wife Ann who arrived from Niland, California, with their adopted daughter, Elizabeth (“Betty”) Ann. Betty Ann loved to ride bareback through the lower fields on her Palomino horse named “Tom” holding only the mane as reins – no saddle, no bridle! The Robinsons farmed on a larger scale than the other Cement Hill neighbors. In addition to the local acreage they owned farmland in the Imperial Valley where they grew cantaloupes, tomatoes and squash. While many neighbors grew grapes and made wine each year for personal consumption, the Robinsons outdid everyone else with a huge tank in the basement for processing grapes and storing large quantities of wine. On the local property they also had a sizeable pear orchard and in late summer the pears and grapes were hauled to Colfax for sale. A large rock and masonry outdoor oven was constructed near the house for baking. To help with farm work and act as caretakers, a Mexican couple from the Imperial Valley lived in the nearby cottage.
Since those times, the house and property have passed through several other owners. Parts of the extended property were sold off and during one period the house fell into neglect. More recent additions and major renovations to the original house have been made to increase the size, modernize the kitchen and add an office. While the original stone foundation work, the wrap around covered porch and the hefty original wooden beams keep the “flavor” of the historic home, the added rooms and modern amenities allow the current owners to continue a tradition of welcoming guests to the property.
*The author appreciates the oral histories and some of the stories provided by Mary Morales (previously Mary Orzalli Peard) and her son Burnell Peard.
Nevada City’s Old Airport Property”
by Eileen Jorgensen, April 2021
The Old Airport property is an open 109 acres of beautiful Sierra foothill landscape, which some 100 years ago had 30 acres flattened to accommodate airplane runways. It is situated at the end of a steep, narrow, circuitous road with one-way access. It was once a part of the Nevada City Rancheria, the last homestead of the Nisenan Indians. What remains of the Nisenan homestead, is now BLM property which borders The Old Airport. The entire parcel is in the Deer Creek watershed. It is the largest parcel in the Cement Hill neighborhood and has sat virtually unattended for over 70 years. It is a property that helps to form the green wooded enclosure surrounding the historic town of Nevada City.
The Old Airport property was once a privately owned airport that was taken over by Nevada City in 1934, as it was the only airport in western Nevada County. The site is two miles from Nevada City’s town center and completely surrounded by County property. As you will see in the timeline, the City has recently entertained a proposal for a 30-acre solar farm on the site. The City is also proposing a three to five acre City Storage Yard there. As yet, there is no Master Plan in place.
Here is a brief history of the Airport Property taken from the City’s website, original documents, and conversations with officials:
Built as a private Airport
City receives Airport Property
City constructs hangars and improves runways
California Aeronautics Division revokes the permit for Nevada City Airport because it does not meet the current standards
1980 to 1992
City finds the need to research and contact all possible heirs to the property
City allowed to annex as non-contiguous property by LAFCO, if used for beneficial municipal purposes
City rezones property from R1 (Single Family Residential) to AF (Agriculture/Forest)
Pacific Telephone rents the property for a radio transmission facility
City and neighbors create an easement with PG&E, AT&T and others
City entertains vineyard lease, Christmas tree farm, golf course, or ATV training facility. But all failed for various reasons
City received Quiet Title to Airport property
Arbitration focuses on City’s responsibility to maintain Airport Road
City receives an easement through BLM property from Airport property to Cement Hill
First solar field plan developed with private funds but not considered by Council
GCHNA and NID works collaboratively to bring treated water up to the Airport area
Over 1,000 trees are felled due to bark beetle infestation and left scattered about
City uses the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) process to procure bids for a utility solar farm with logistical support of SBC and the Nevada City 100% Renewables Committee
City tasks workshops to test various land use concepts that might complement the Solar farm project under consideration
City begins developing an Old Airport Master Plan without significant collaboration seen with GCHNA and neighbors
Bid respondent to RFP asks for option to build, waiting until City can create need for PG&E to install updated transmission line and an “off-taker” for electricity can be found. Council turned down the bid saying they want to create a Master Plan for the whole property first.
Cement Hill has stake in land use
By Eileen Jorgensen and Susan Wiesner, March 2021
The Greater Cement Hill Neighborhood Association (GCHNA) extends from Sugarloaf Mountain on its eastern edge, to Highway 49, and then to the ridgeline that overlooks the South Yuba River canyon. The organization was formed in 1990 during the Nevada County General Plan update to be a voice for appropriate land use planning. We serve over 475 property owners or tenants and actively work to maintain our status as a FireWise Community. We publish seasonal newsletters, reaching out to neighbors and we sponsor educational and social events. We communicate with residents and provide a common forum through regular meetings of our Steering Committee comprised of 15 neighborhood areas or road representatives. The neighborhood is entirely within Nevada County yet hosts over 200 acres of Nevada City’s Open Space within its boundaries.
This article will serve as an informational piece for all residents and civic leaders by sharing some history of these Open Spaces and by expressing our neighborhood’s concern regarding vegetation control, habitat and cultural preservation, homeless issues, and fire abatement on these properties.
Nevada City’s General Plan Vision Statement speaks of a “distinct city surrounded by a green wooded enclosure” and civic leaders chose to preserve important historic lands within the Cement Hill Neighborhood to fulfill this vision. We applaud this forethought. The development and stewardship of these Open Space parcels are of particular interest to us as they are destined to be increasingly enjoyed by the public.
The Old Airport: The City acquired this 109-acre airfield property in 1935. Completely surrounded by the County and within GCHNA’s neighborhood, the Old Airport is two miles from town center. It is zoned Agricultural Forestry in the City’s General Plan. No serious development steps have been taken for decades. The City is currently entertaining proposals for a 30-acre solar farm but none have been received. They are also proposing a City Storage Yard on the site. During the planning process it does not appear that an overall management plan for the entire area including fire risk, homeless issues and emergency evacuation has been properly addressed to date.
Hirschman’s Pond: Between 2004 and 2009, the City purchased Hirschman’s Pond with grant funds and was gifted a 4-mile strip of land adjacent to Highway 49 as part of the Indian Trails subdivision. Nevada City also purchased a small parcel from the NC Elks to provide parking and a caretaker’s cottage. Through a partnership with the Bear Yuba Land Trust, a 2.4-mile Hirschman’s Trail was created for passive recreation and a barrier free route to the pond. This is now a very popular destination. These lands form our neighborhood’s southern border and we are grateful for all the work done to reduce flammable undergrowth and provide residents and visitors easy access to nature. The neighborhood wants to be kept appraised of ongoing, sustainable management efforts.
Sugarloaf Mountain: In 2011 the City purchased the 36-acre promontory called Sugarloaf Mountain, also with grant funding. It is the iconic backdrop to the town and the eastern boundary of our neighborhood. The homeless population that had been living there were recently relocated as they had created an imminent safety and wild fire risk. This was accomplished through a model collaboration of the City and County using specially designated Federal Funds. We look forward to continued communication with City, County and The Bear Yuba Land Trust as an acknowledged stake holder in this project.
In summary, GCHNA’s neighborhood incorporates City, County and State lands as well as approximately 23 acres of BLM land. These 23 acres have been untouched for decades and in great need of fire abatement. We have chosen to live in this wild land–urban interface and we are working to reduce the heightened fire risk within our neighborhood. As private landowners, we are responsible for our properties and we want to see the same responsibility demonstrated for their publicly held lands which we also value and that impact our safety. GCHNA looks forward to working collaboratively with all relevant agencies and asks that our neighborhood be included as you adopt a comprehensive management plan for designated publicly owned Open Spaces. Through our relationships, we will foster responsible stewardship for future generations together.
1896 “NEWS”: Electric Pole Line Carries Cheap Power over Cement Hill to Nevada City & Grass Valley
By Susan Wiesner, April 2013
This imagined headline reflects what might have been the talk of our neighborhood in February 1896. The convergence of several factors made the time ripe for a hydro-electric power revolution in California. This story focuses on the local development of the Nevada County Electric Power Company which ultimately combined with other power companies and evolved into Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation (PG&E).
In 1895 the power sources for gold mines were either steam power, from the burning of wood fuel, or water power. However, water power from a Pelton wheel was only available to mines located 100-200’ below a constant water source. Hard rock mine operations required power to operate pumps, hoists, mills, rock breakers and compressors. By the mid 1890’s trees available to burn as fuel for steam power had been depleted and several mines were shutting down for lack of affordable power.
That soon changed after the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in 1893 in Chicago, featured an International building devoted to electrical exhibits. George Westinghouse won a bid against General Electric Company and introduced the public to electrical power by dramatically illuminating the Exposition. The public was fascinated by the potential applications.
Two enterprising men, aware of the need for developing electrical power, joined forces to take advantage of the opportunity to provide electricity to the mining industry. Alfonso Adolphus Tregidgo (“Alf”), a Cornish miner who had worked in quicksilver and copper mines, and Eugene J. de Sabla, Jr., a descendent of French nobility, teamed up to create a company to sell the concept to local mine owners. The two men already had a vested interest because their own Peabody Mine in Grass Valley was lying idle for lack of power. John Martin, an agent for the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company, arranged for Stanley engineers to come assist with the project.
A survey of the mines (which became part of the business “prospectus” used to sell interest in the venture) demonstrated the potential electric load need for 4220 HP and supported the construction of a hydro electric plant on the South Yuba River and the power lines to carry the electricity to the mines of Nevada City and Grass Valley.
Work on the plant commenced about June 1, 1895. The initial plant equipment was transported by mule and wagon along Cement Hill Road and down what is today Augustine Road to a point several hundred feet above the South Yuba River, about two miles downstream from Purdon Crossing. From there it was lowered on sleds down the canyon walls to be installed just above the water edge. Later a steep road was extended to access the plant. The equipment included two Stanley induction generators (two phase, 133 cycle) capable of delivering energy at 5500 volts. Each would be direct driven by a 36” Pelton water wheel. A diversion dam 1-1/2 miles above Purdon Crossing, ditches and a flume (6’ wide X 4-1/2’ deep) carried water from the South Yuba River to the top of the penstock approximately 200’ above the plant. The force of the falling water then drove the two Pelton water wheels.
Power poles carrying two direct electric lines were installed up the steep canyon face from the river. The pole lines continued almost due south up to the ridge of Cement Hill near the intersection of Augustine Road and Cement Hill Road. From that point they ran southeast, passing by Spanish mine and then continuing to Champion Mine where they split in two directions: one line to the Grass Valley substation and the other line to the Nevada City substation (a stone structure still visible on Wyoming Road close to the Miners Foundry). Transformers at the substations converted the 5500 volts of power into 1000 volts.
Within three or four years of construction the Nevada Powerhouse became known as the Rome Powerhouse when Romulus Riggs Colgate became an investor. Romulus, nicknamed “Rome”, owned the Spanish Mine just below Cement Hill Road and above Indian Flat Road near the Nisenan Indian Camp.
The “Rome” Powerhouse operated for only fifteen years until 1911 but the concept was successful. While Tregidgo moved on to follow mining opportunities in Alaska, De Sabla and Martin continued to build other hydroelectric facilities bringing power to industry and lights to our homes. They became known as the two “Fathers of PG& E”.
Much information for this article comes from an interview with Dale Johnson, a PG&E retiree with an interest in local history. Dale teamed with our late neighbor, Mike Nevius, to create an informative Rome Powerhouse display at the Miners Foundry. The 1897 map of Mining Districts of Nevada City and Grass Valley showing the power line route is available at the Doris Foley Library. Other source materials included Electric World Vol. 59 no. 22 (June 1912).