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Feather River Canyon

Scenic Feather River Canyon as photographed by Eric Seimens in September 1971. Abandoned Lumber Mill in Feather River Canyon, Frank Brehm Two GP-7's lead a local across the bridge at Clio on September 4, 1966.
Scenic Feather River Canyon as photographed by Eric Seimens in September 1971. Abandoned Lumber Mill in Feather River Canyon, Frank Brehm Two GP-7's push from the rear as a train crosses a bridge on the "Highline" on September 4, 1966.

The Feather River Canyon is, roughly speaking, the dividing line between two great mountain systems in the far west, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Cascade Range. Although Lassen Peak is popularly considered as the southern end of the Cascades the Sierra Nevada’s terminate at the North Fork of the Feather River within this steep walled canyon with forested mountains and rushing streams. Its namesake river received its romantic name “El Rio de las Plumas”. . . ‘‘River of the Feathers” from Don Luis A. Arguello, a Spanish conquistador, who while on an exploring expedition up the canyon in 1820, observed and was impressed by the quantities of wild fowl feathers floating on its surface.

Woven intricately into the over‑all story of California is that of the Feather River Canyon. Following by only a few months the discovery of gold at Coloma by James W. Marshall, the discovery of gold along the river at what would become Bidwell Bar on July 4, 1848 by General John Bidwell, helped open the fabulous chapter of the Mother Lode era, which lasted many years. Other gold strikes would quickly follow Bidwell’s find. Most of the old mining camp names, such as: Peasoup Flat, Hungry Canyon, Indian Bar, Dutch Hill, Poorman’s Creek, Cariboo, Graveyard Hill, Calcutta, etc., have faded into the past, but Rich Bar is still in existence, having yielded, unofficially, about $14,000,000 to $23,000,000 in its lusty days.

James Pierson Beckwourth, a trapper, Indian Chief, and maulatto army scout, discovered Beckwourth Pass, for unknown ages a great Indian thoroughfare, to civilization, in 1850. A Sierra crossing more than 2,000 feet below the elevation of Donner Pass, it became popular for covered wagon trains. Beckwourth immediately recognized its importance and went to Marysville where he presented a plan to Dr. S. M. Miles, the first mayor of the newly incorporated town for an emigrant road by the way of the pass. The mayor was enthusiastic and promised community support. The road was built, but the night that the first party of emigrants arrived over it into Marysville, the town was almost destroyed in one of its early‑day fires. The hard hit city failed to give the promised funds although a subscription raised some money for Beckwourth. The route that he pioneered was from a point near Reno, over Beckwourth Pass, elevation 5,218 feet, across Sierra Valley, then along the ridge of the Middle Fork of the Feather River to Bidwell’s Bar and into the Sacramento Valley.

The Sierra Nevada crest acts as a barrier to the moisture-laden air that comes from the Pacific Ocean and the cold dry air masses that come from the central United States in the winter. During the summer, the crest also acts as a barrier to the hot, dry air masses that develop over the central United States.  This situation creates a high precipitation, cool summer, and mild winter climate on the western slope; and a low precipitation, hotter summer, and colder winter on the eastern slope.

Portions of the North Fork Feather River west of the Sierra Nevada crest are within the Mediterranean Climate Zone, which consists of cool winters and warm, dry summers. Minimum temperatures occur in December to February with maximums in late July or August.

The eastern sierra portion of the North Fork Feather River is in a rain shadow where little precipitation falls and desert conditions prevail. Total precipitation depends more on summer thunderstorms than winter snowfall. With the lessening of the marine influence, temperature has a greater daily and seasonal variation, with annual precipitation in the 15 to 20-inch range.

The fabulous Feather River was never destined to relapse into ghostly memories after the dust of wagon trains rolling westward had settled and the grubstakes of gold miners had faded away. For after these early seekers and settlers came pioneering "water men"- engineers who saw in the North Fork of the Feather River one of the finest potential sources of hydroelectric power in all California. An important advantage lay in the natural underground storage of water in the porous volcanic rock formations of the region.