Historical foundation works to preserve the past

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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When an ambitious plan to produce a DVD on the history of the Western States Trail needed seed money, the Placer County Historical Foundation was there to help. In the 1970s, when the 1850s Bernhard House in Auburn was falling into disrepair, the Auburn-based foundation propped it up and got it back on firm footings. When the small, pioneer Lone Star Cemetery was threatened, the foundation provided a grant to help with fencing to protect it. Through a history going back 40 years, the little-known Placer County Historical Foundation has come through with fundraising efforts and grants to preserve and promote a rich vein of history in the area. Newly elected officers are President Hal Hall, vice president Donna Howell, second vice president Wes Briggs, secretary Mike Lynch and Treasurer Al Stoll. Hall, an Auburn resident and past winner of the Tevis Cup 100-mile trail ride, said that the organization has served the historic-minded efforts of Placer County for nearly 40 years and this year’s board will continue that work. “We help small groups, mostly, but have even helped the county years ago when it was looking to archive its still photos on computer,” Hall said. “We acquired the computer equipment and software for a program that’s still being used today.” Hall estimates that the foundation has invested more than $200,000 over the years in local historical efforts, using bequests and fund-raising, as well as some matching grants. The foundation provided about $5,000 for a study on the Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge in the American River Canyon, which was critical in getting the 97-year-old span placed on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, the foundation assisted in the funding for the critically acclaimed documentary film “They Crossed the Mountains,” on the history of what is known as the Western States Trail between Carson City, Nev. and Auburn. Lynch, a retired state Parks Department ranger who has studied and written about the many bridges in the Auburn State Recreation Area, said the foundation believed it was important to the history of Placer County to help fund the documentary, given the historical significance of the trail and its mining locations. “The Western States Trail is one of only a few east-west trail routes from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Sacramento Valley that is largely untouched by development,” Lynch said. “For the most part, it remains much like what the early-day users would have known.” The trail passes over areas once native to the Washoe and Maidu Indians and later crisscrossed by European explorers and gold seekers from around the world. Hall is working with the offices of California’s two state senators to have the route declared a National Scenic and Historical Trail. He said wider release of the DVD should increase awareness of the effort. “There are longer routes like the Emigrant Trail with tremendous history but none are actively used,” Hall said. “What’s unique about the Western States Trail is that while it wasn’t a popular emigrant route, it has over the past 50 years or so developed its own history from riding and running.” Other recent foundation efforts included grants to help the Old Town Auburn Preservation Society work to open a new medical museum near the Placer County Courthouse and printing costs for a book of historic images of the Middle Fork of the American River. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at or comment at