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The road to Stevenson Creek Falls; the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad, Italian Bar Road, and the Million Dollar Road

This weekend I ventured out to the San Joaquin River Canyon to view Stevenson Creek Falls.  My journey would take me over the former grade of the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad on Jose Basin Road, Italian Bar Road, and Million Dollar Road.



Overview; the journey to Stevenson Creek Falls

Stevenson Creek Falls is located deep within Sierra National Forest between Big Creek Powerhouse #3 and Big Creek Powerhouse #8 on Million Dollar Road.  Stevenson Creek Falls is the 12th highest waterfall in California at an approximate height of 1,200 feet.  Stevenson Creek Falls drops from approximately 3,180 feet above sea level through the San Joaquin River Canyon in four tiers to the San Joaquin River.

Unlike the much more well known waterfalls of Yosemite Valley there isn't much in the way of amenities in Sierra National Forest or on the way to Stevenson Creek Falls.  The San Joaquin River within it's namesake Canyon divides Madera County to the north and Fresno County to the south.  Million Dollar Road and Stevenson Creek Falls can be reached from Madera County from North Fork via; Road 225 to the Fresno County Line at the Italian Bar Bridge and Italian Bar Road.  From Fresno County the route to Million Dollar Road and Stevenson Creek Falls requires traversing Jose Basin Road and the downhill slope of Italian Bar Road.

Given Yosemite National Park is presently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions the journey to Stevenson Creek Falls was suddenly even a more attractive venture in my view.   At present moment the route to Million Dollar Road through Madera County is sporadically closed due to the Italian Bar Bridge replacement project.  Given the possible closure at the Italian Bar Bridge I opted for the southern route to Million Dollar Road through Fresno County.  The southern route to Million Dollar Road would allow me to check out the former grade of the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad and clinch Italian Bar Road.



Part 1A; the history of the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project and San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad

The surveys that would eventually lead to the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project ("Big Creek Project") first took place in the 1880s.  By the early 1900s the concept was taken up by the Pacific Light and Power Company ("PL&P") as a possible source of electricity to power the city of Los Angeles.  PL&P had additional surveys conducted along Big Creek and San Joaquin River between 1902 to 1905.  Construction of the Big Creek Project would require a railroad be built and a haul road be established.  Said railroad would come to be known as the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad ("SJ&E").

The San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad was a standard gauge line constructed from February 5th 1912 and was completed by July 10th the same year.  1912 the San Joaquin and Eastern Railroad was intended to haul materials for the construction of the First Phase of the Big Creek Project.  The SJ&E branched off from the Southern Pacific Railroad at El Prado (near modern Friant) and ascended 55 miles eastward into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the site of Big Creek Powerhouse #1.  The SJ&E had 1,073 curves, 43 trestles, and grades as high 5.3%. 

The SJ&E in full scope can be seen on 1914 Britton & Rey Map of Fresno County.





Numerous Sidings and Stations were established along the SJ&E which can been on the 1914 Britton & Rey Map above.  From El Prado the Sidings and Stations on the SJ&E were as follows:

-  McKenzie
-  Wellbarn Station (currently Marshall Station)
-  Lodge Station
-  Auberry
-  Indian Mission Station (currently Big Sandy Rancheria)
-  Hutchens Station
-  Lerona
-  Shaver Crossing (near Camp Sierra)
-  Cascada Station (current Big Creek community)

The First Phase of the Big Creek Project ended in 1914 during World War I when the tunnel to the future site of Powerhouse #3 was being constructed.  During 1917 the PL&P and SJ&E were merged into Southern California Edison ("SoCal Edison").  The SJ&E would remain active during Phase Two of the Big Creek Project which took place between 1921 through 1929.  The SJ&E during Phase Two of the Big Creek Project can be seen in great detail on 1922 USGS Maps of Fresno County.



During the onset of the Great Depression work on the Big Creek Project stopped which signaled the end of Phase Two.  The SJ&E during it's entire operating life only recuperated 22% of it's construction costs.  Given that the haul road (future Legislative Route 76, California State Route 168, and Kaiser Pass Road) to the primary Big Creek Project sites had become increasingly viable for travel there wasn't a need for the SJ&E.  SoCal Edison filed abandonment paperwork for the SJ&E on August 15th 1933 according to Abandonedrails.com.

Between Big Sandy Rancheria and Camp Sierra the grade of the SJ&E was recycled into a roadway known as Old Rail Grade.  Old Rail Grade Road between Big Sandy Rancheria east of Jose Creek to Mathew'ss Mill can be seen on the 1935 California Division of Highways Map of Fresno County.


In time Sierra National Forest would establish Forest Road 08S008 from Mathew's Mills to Huntington Lake Road at Camp Sierra.  Forest Road 08S008 is know as SJ&E Railroad Grade and is signed as Forest Road 8.  What was known as Old Rail Grade between Big Sandy Rancheria and Mathew's Mills would later be renamed by Fresno County (who maintains the road) to Jose Basin Road.

Part 1B; photos of the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad

The SJ&E can be seen below during 1918 somewhere near Powerhouse #1.  From Powerhouse #1 there was a short spur line which connected further uphill to Dam #1 at Huntington Lake.


The SJ&E can be seen below near Powerhouse #1.


In the photo from the Fresno County Library Collection a Model T can be seen on the SJ&E during 1924 on what is now Jose Basin Road.


Below SJ&E Locomotive #109 can be seen.


A derailed SJ&E #108 can be seen below (image from the Fresno County Library Collection).


The below photo from gearedsteam.com shows SJ&E #106.


The photo below from the Fresno County Library Collection shows SJ&E traveling through the snow.


Part 1C; driving Jose Basin Road from Big Sandy Rancheria to Italian Bar Road

My journey towards Stevenson Creek Falls began with a turn from eastbound Auberry Road onto Auberry Mission Road approaching Big Sandy Rancheria.


The Big Sandy Rancheria lies at an elevation of approximately 2,500 feet above sea level.  The Big Sandy Racheria is home to a Mono Tribe which had a 2010 population of 118 residents.  The Big Sandy Racheria was purchased by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1909.  Auberry Mission Road enters the heart of Big Sandy Rancheria and Jose Basin Road can be found by turning left at the main fork.



Jose Basin Road lies atop the grade of the SJ&E Railroad.  From Big Sandy Rancheria the route of Jose Basin Road is initially two-lanes but drops to a single lane as it enters Sierra National Forest.



Jose Basin Road opens out onto a vista of the Big Bend of San Joaquin River.









Jose Basin Road snakes along a tight cut in the rock face to a one-lane bridge at Bald Mill Creek near the former site of Hutchens Station.











The bridge at Bald Mill Creek was reconstructed during 1947 to widen it for road use.  The Bald Mill Creek Bridge contains parts of the original truss and support columns which once carried locomotives up the SJ&E towards Powerhouse #1.


Jose Basin Road passes through some private parcels of land which were once part of the siding of Lerona.

















From the site of Lerona the San Joaquin River Canyon above Redinger Lake can easily be seen.  Big Creek Powerhouse #3 and Million Dollar Road can be seen from Lerona looking into the San Joaquin River Canyon.


Jose Basin Road east of Lerona comes to a fork.  The left split in the fork is the beginning of Italian Bar Road whereas Jose Basin Road continues on the right on the grade of the SJ&E.






Part 2; the drop into the San Joaquin River Canyon on Italian Bar Road

Italian Bar Road is an approximately 16 mile highway which begins at North Fork and travels east/southeast over the San Joaquin River into Fresno County via the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge to Jose Basin Road.   Italian Bar Road is now signed as Road 225 and largely routed through Sierra National Forest.


Italian Bar Road likely was constructed to ease access to Big Creek Powerhouse #3 and #8.  Big Creek Powerhouse #8 was completed by 1921 followed Big Creek Powerhouse #3 in 1923.  Given the road access to both Powerhouses would have been from the Fresno County side of the San Joaquin River having a crossing via what is now the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge would have been a far more direct route from Madera County.  During the 1920s there was still considerable logging interests on the Madera County side and especially around North Fork.
From Jose Basin Road traffic on Italian Bar Road is notified of the 5 ton weight limit on the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge.  Traffic is also advised of the Italian Bar Bridge replacement project limiting access to Madera County.  From Jose Basin Road the route of Italian Bar Road begins at an elevation of approximately 3,000 feet above sea level.


Italian Bar Road drops rapidly through one-lane switch backs over the course of about 3 miles to a gate at Million Dollar Road at approximately 2,000 feet above sea level.  Italian Bar Road on the Fresno County side has consistently steep grades and is often less than 12 feet wide.






















From Million Dollar Road the route of Italian Bar Road swings west towards Big Creek Powerhouse #3 and the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge.


The 1925 Italian Bar Bridge is a Warren Pony Truss design which features a 242.1 foot length, a 11.2 wide wooden road deck and a hell of a cool view from the bottom of the San Joaquin River Gorge. The 1925 Italian Bar Road Bridge was renovated in 1951 (probably raised due to the Redinger Lake project) and is slated to be replaced by what sounds like a bland modernized 22 foot wide modern span.  The photos below are from Italian Bar Road westbound crossing the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge over the Madera County Line to Road 225 (what Madera County calls Italian Bar Road).












On September 6th 2019 Sierra National Forest announced the following regarding the replacement of the Italian Bar Bridge on their Facebook page:

"Fresno & Madera Counties to begin the Italian Bar Bridge replacement project, on Italian Bar Road September 17, 2019

Clovis, Calif., September 06, 2019 – The Sierra National Forest would like to inform the forest communities and visitors to the forest, American Paving Co. (Contracted by Fresno & Madera Counties) will begin the Italian Bar Bridge replacement project in the very near future. Road closures will start on 9/17/19, with rock blasting starting around 9/30/19.

Signs will be posted along various roads, the San Joaquin River Trail where it intersects with Italian Bar Road, and at the Redinger Boat Launch.

The signs will inform visitors and residents of construction and road closures. The signs will state the following: “This Road (or Trail, or Boat Launch) will be Closed Intermittently Start Sept 2019 thru Feb 2021 Mon.-Sat. 7 am–5:30 pm.”

The existing bridge will remain in place until the new bridge has been completed, then it will be removed. The new bridge will be located just west, or downstream, of the existing one."

It seems that those wishing to enjoy the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge will have until early 2021 to do so.  That said, I am unsure of how COVID-19 has affected the construction of the replacement Italian Bar Bridge.  On a 2015 report posted by Sierra National Forest they cited Caltrans (an agency with has zero stake in this structure) listed the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge as structurally and functionally deficient.   Considering how remote the terrain of the San Joaquin River Canyon really is I find the concept of a two-lane modern bridge on a largely one-lane road to be overkill.

While (rare opinion on this blog series) I understand the need to have a modernized structure to hold the weight of Big Creek Project vehicles it does seem reckless that nobody involved in replacing the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge thought it had any value to remain for people to enjoy (especially since Stevenson Creek Falls is increasing in popularity).  I would point to the countless examples of preserved historic bridges across the country that draw the interest of travelers and give real world examples of how road based transportation used to be like.  Considering how long the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge has been in place above Redinger Lake I don't agree with the assessment (my disagreement is with blanket engineering logic with no regards historic value) that the current clearance is insufficient.  While I would like to see the 1925 Italian Bar Bridge preserved the best advice I can give in the interim is to visit it yourself if it or the San Joaquin River Gorge captures your interest in any way.


Part 3; hiking the Million Dollar Road to Stevenson Creek Falls

Million Dollar Road is maintained by SoCal Edison and thusly isn't open to normal vehicle traffic.  That said, Million Dollar Road is open to hikers and cyclists.  Despite the ominous appearance of the gate at Million Dollar Road the signage from SoCal Edison is actually very welcoming to anyone wishing to visit Stevenson Creek Falls (good luck with the cell phone reception though).





Million Dollar Road was constructed during 1922 as part of Big Creek Project Phase 2.  Million Dollar Road connects Big Creek Powerhouse #3 northward up the San Joaquin River Canyon to Big Creek Powerhouse #8.  From Big Creek Powerhouse #8 there is access to Powerhouse Road towards Mammoth Pool Road (Forest Road 81 on the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway) in Madera County or Canyon Road to Huntington Lake Road in Fresno County.  The name "Million Dollar Highway" is said to be a reference to the cost of the roadway per mile when it was constructed during 1922.  Given the amount of blasting that would have been required to make Million Dollar Road possible the reference is likely somewhat accurate.  Million Dollar Road is approximately 7.1 miles in length.


As Million Dollar Road begins it quickly crosses Jose Creek on a single lane bridge.






Jose Creek has a small waterfall which was mostly dry when I was passing by.




The pilings from an older bridge can be seen in Jose Creek.


SoCal Edison trucks aren't an uncommon sight on Million Dollar Road.


Considering what is ahead as Million Dollar Road climbs the San Joaquin River Canyon I'd say that this is sound advice for SoCal Edison Drivers, hikers, and cyclists.


Million Dollar Road begins to climb from Jose Creek onto a vista which overlooks the Powerhouse #3 complex and Redinger Lake.










The water inlet tubes to Powerhouse #3 are located off of Million Dollar Road on a dirt spur.  A four wheel drive side road appears to access the tunnels above Powerhouse #3 and Million Dollar Road. 








Million Dollar Road ascends to a vista above Powerhouse #3.






Million Dollar Road starts a sharper ascent towards the deeper reaches of the San Joaquin River Canyon.


As Million Dollar Road continues to ascend it passes by a quarry area.  The quarry has a large concrete foundation which appears to be part of some former processing facility.  A large water outlet tunnel can be found behind this concrete foundation.  I'm to understand that the water outlet tunnels usually only operate during a heavy winter months and there is a siren that is sounded before they release. 





Million Dollar Road narrows to a width of approximately 8-14 feet approaching the granite walls of the San Joaquin River Canyon.





Million Dollar Road apparently has been freshly repaved through the narrow corridors of the San Joaquin River Canyon.  There are numerous mirrors positioned on power lines to aid SoCal Edison navigate the other traffic.









The granite walls of the San Joaquin River Canyon become more and more apparent as the elevation on Million Dollar Road increases.





The SoCal Edison truck below demonstrates how narrow Million Dollar Road really is.


Hell of a view from the roadside below.  It is easy to envision what made Million Dollar Road so expensive to construct.


The vertical drop from Million Dollar Road down to the San Joaquin River Canyon is deep enough that a person would disappear potentially for good going over the side. From Million Dollar the large chucks of granite rockfall can be seen in the San Joaquin River.















Million Dollar Road begins a descent and swings eastward towards Stevenson Creek Falls.  Traffic is advised that the bridge ahead potentially can be icy.






Stevenson Creek Falls emerges into view approaching the bridge on Million Dollar Road.






During heavy winter months SoCal Edison releases additional water over Stevenson Creek Falls.  These additional releases of water render the Million Dollar Road impassable.


Stevenson Creek Falls was at a steady but gentle flow as I crossed the metal bridge on Million Dollar Road.









Another water outlet tunnel can be found next to Stevenson Creek Falls.



In front of the water outlet tunnel there is a small picnic area from which the bulk of Stevenson Creek Falls can be seen.


The full height of Stevenson Creek Falls can be seen by continuing north on Million Dollar Road.



At the start of my return hike to Italian Bar Road I noticed a tourist helicopter fly over Stevenson Creek Falls.  This was a scene that would never be replicated above any of the falls in Yosemite Valley aside from a hiker and/or climber rescue.  If anything it was a good reminder that the National Parks aren't open and that National Forest hikes tend to be a different beast.





The climb back up Italian Bar Road was fast despite the somewhat surprising amount of people down slope headed towards Million Dollar Road.  The one lane alignment back westward to Big Sandy Rancheria was somewhat amusingly encapsulated by my GPS.


Incidentally "Spook" refers to Forest Road 09S061.  The name alone left me intrigued as to how a road obtains such as a "spooky" moniker. 

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