What: E-waste collection event for the Brockliss Bridge Project
Who: California Division of the National Pony Express Association
Where: Double Diamond feed store, 692 Pleasant Valley Road in Diamond Springs
When: National Trails Day, Saturday, June 7 from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
She hopes it’s not a bridge too far, as the saying goes, because Melba Leal wants to see the historical structure that once spanned the roaring South Fork of the American River near Pollock Pines reborn before she passes on.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the Brockliss Bridge,” said Melba, 72, who with 77-year-old husband Jerry is leading an effort to rebuild the bridge that until 1988 served as a path across the river for logging trucks and other vehicles. The bridge also served the riders of the annual historical reenactment of the Pony Express runs, covering 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento.
Completing the trail
If the historical reconnection is made, then trail fans including hikers, bikers and horseback riders would find a complete path all the way from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe, connecting the El Dorado Trail in the Placerville area to the Tahoe Rim and Pacific Crest trails.
“This is the only spot where the trail can’t be continued,” said Jerry, showing where the bridge once leapt across the south bank of the river below Highway 50 just east of Pollock Pines to the northern side near Peavine Ridge.
All that remains of the once sturdy wooden bridge are concrete abutments on each side, abandoned scraps of a once proud structure.
The bridge was blown to pieces in 1989 after the El Dorado County Department of Transportation and U.S. Forest Service the previous year determined it was structurally unsound for traffic, particularly for the fully loaded logging trucks that harvested the timber north of the South Fork.
As the shards and splinters settled into the canyon following the explosive demolition, so too did decades of colorful history that Melba hopes to piece back together so that the story won’t be swept away forever.
Bridging the past
The bridge that was destroyed in 1989 was not its first incarnation. That stretch of the South Fork, about a mile below Pacific House, had been crossed from 1850-51 solely by a low-water route known as Johnson’s Ford, blazed by early pioneer John C. “Cockeye” Johnson to save pioneers from having to navigate the steep canyon hillsides.
When that very limited method became tedious, a bridge was built at Johnson’s Ford in 1853, but the winter floods the following year destroyed it.
The California Legislature OK’d a project to build a second bridge, a wood-and-stone structure, with construction occurring from 1855-56. The man tasked with building the bridge was Anthony Brockliss. Brockliss’ Bridge, a timber lock arch structure, was built at a cost of $11,300.
The bridge worked just fine, with only a few bottlenecks as wagon and foot traffic increased, up until 1859. That’s when a rich mineral vein was discovered in Nevada, with the Comstock Lode leaving the Brockliss Bridge struggling to accommodate the flow of traffic generated by the silver rush.
A fine way
Controls had to be placed on the bridge to regulate the congestion, with those crossing at a gait faster than a walk fined $10 — quite a hit to the money pouch in those days. It is said that even the Pony Express riders who crossed westward down the foothills of the Sierra by way of the Brockliss Bridge had to slow down or be fined.
By 1860 the bridge was a toll operation, with the toll keeper earning $100 a month (the Pony Express was charged only 1 cent per month to cross, where other riders ponied up 25 cents for the privilege).
Other toll roads sprang up, taking the majority of traffic away from the Brockliss Bridge by 1864, however, and five years later, in October of 1869, the bridge collapsed due to a combination of hard winters and general neglect.
The need for a bridge at the old Johnson’s Ford became acute again, in 1926, as a different source of riches — timber — took the forefront.
A new bridge was built at the site, called the Brockliss-Blair Bridge, constructed to service the Blair Brothers saw mill in taking trees from the canyon. That operation made use of the bridge right up until its final days, with the logging trucks joined by other vehicles driven by those interested in exploring the historical area.
Because of safety concerns, the bridge was demolished and public access to that part of the South Fork of the American River was swept away as well.
Bridge for the future
Melba and Jerry Leal want to change that and even though the septuagenarian couple has trouble getting around themselves these days, the dream they share keeps them going strong.
“We’re joined at the hip,” chuckled Melba and she carefully picked her way down a dirt-and-rock road with husband Jerry supporting her elbow. The road, rarely used, winds down from Pacific House off Highway 50 alongside a fern-covered canyon wall to the site of the old Brockliss Bridge.
Travelers on Highway 50 a mere mile away have little idea that right below the busy freeway there lies a peaceful setting where wagon trains, mules and horses once comprised the thriving commerce.
It’s the tug of the romance of those early days that keeps the Leals walking the path of history, with both becoming members of the National Pony Express Association in the early 1980s. The Pony Express members have been primary advocates of rebuilding the Brockliss Bridge, but much more help is needed.
After the Army Corps of Engineers demolished the bridge once it was determined by the U.S. Forest Service and county DOT to be unsafe, Melba said “it torqued me off that there were no plans to rebuild it.”
Though the Leals concede it probably was hazardous to vehicular and even foot travel, they have trouble accepting that the bridge should not once again span the river that flows spectacularly past hard-rock canyon walls chiseled by time.
Jerry added that the annual Pony Express reride still includes the stretch where the riders once clomped across the wooden Brockliss Bridge, but nowadays the leather mochilla pouch used to carry the mail is cabled across the canyon, hovering above the river with use of a pulley system.
That transfer of the mochilla, part of the 10-day reenactment ride from St. Joseph to Sacramento, occurs in the wee hours and in darkness — just to make it extra difficult, Jerry noted wryly.
A new bridge no doubt would be great, proponents agree. The problem is money, with the Forest Service saying it would take $2.5 million to rebuild the Brockliss Bridge.
The Leals and others, including a horseback riding club called the Backcountry Horsemen, and the National Pony Express Association, have raised $15,000, but as Melba said, “We need to put more in the kitty for the government to get involved with matching funds.”
Matching the dream
She explained that if bridge backers can come up with $550,000, there is hope there would be that and more forthcoming from government coffers.
To help restore the missing link in the world renowned trails system, Melba has organized a fundraiser for the National Pony Express Association with all proceeds going to the Brockliss Bridge restoration project.
The event, an e-waste collection that is free of charge to the public, is on National Trails Day, Saturday, June 7 at Double Diamond feed store, 692 Pleasant Valley Road in Diamond Springs. The event runs from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and is a great chance to get rid of unwanted computers, TVs, digital cameras, cell phones, copiers, small appliances, fax machines and much more, all while benefiting the bridge project and helping relieve the landfills. Larger appliances are a problem, so call Melba if you are not certain your item will be OK: 530-622-5205.
Donations also are gratefully accepted at any time, mailed to “Brockliss Bridge Project,” NPEA, California Division, PO Box 236, Pollock Pines 95726.
“We’re very optimistic about the e-waste event and I want everyone to know that Melba spearheaded the entire effort,” said Jerry, once again helping his wife to their four-wheel drive vehicle following the brief tour.
Melba’s golden earrings, with a dancing pony inside each hoop, caught the sunlight as she turned toward Jerry.
“Hopefully we’ll have something to put in the pot,” she said, referring to the matching-funds effort.
Melba admits that her “bucket-list” dream of once again seeing a bridge over the South Fork below Pacific House might not happen anytime soon, but there’s no arguing with the determination in her eyes. Through the years she has been the catalyst for producing an informational brochure about the historical Brockliss Bridge and organizing other fundraisers such as selling cookbooks and prints.
“There’s a lot of interest in the project, including the Pony Express association and also from at least a couple of our El Dorado County supervisors,” she said. “What we need are donors — big donors — mega donors.There’s going to be a lot of happy people when it happens.”