|This page is dedicated to Ella Mae Kemp. "Aunt Mae", to those of us that loved her, lived in this area for the
better part of 60 years, taking up residence in Greenwood, California.
We will always love her and will miss her dearly.
|Please be sure to visit my main page on
Abandoned and Historical Railroads in the Northwest
|Last Update: April 27, 2004
|The No Hands concrete railroad bridge over the American River, near Auburn, California, is one of the most
unique abandoned railroad bridges I've seen yet. It certainly has quite a history, the most interesting of
which occurred long after it was abandoned.
The Mountain Quarries Railroad was established around 1910 to connect the Mountain Quarries, a huge
limestone quarry to the Southern Pacific mainline in Auburn, California. The Portland Cement Company
owned the Mountain Quarries Railroad and sometimes the railroad is referred to as the Portland
Cement Railroad or the Pacific Portland Cement Railroad. The line was about 10 miles long, but despite
its short length, it crossed 18 trestles (some sources indicate only 15 trestles), including one of the
most unique railroad bridges in the United States, the No Hands Bridge. Most of the trestles crossed
small creeks while the railroad hugged the north bank of the American River on it's way to the city of
Auburn. The No Hands Bridge, crossed the American River itself.
In 1910 a construction crew of over 800 men were gathered together to begin construction of what
would be at the time, the longest concrete railroad bridge in the world. 200 men worked from one side,
while 600 worked from the other. A major cement manufacturing plant was built on the banks of the
American river next to the bridge site. In approximately two years the bridge and the rest of the
railroad was completed.
|On the left is a picture taken by me in 2004. On the right is a
picture from the same view sometime in the 1920s or 1930s
when the railroad was in operation.
|This view was taken from an airplane by my uncle,
Geron Marcom. Here you can see all three bridges
discussed on this page. The No Hands bridge is on the
lower left corner, the Hwy 49 bridge is just above there,
along with another highway bridge above that. The huge
Forest Hill bridge dominates the background.
|Jen is seen here
walking along the old
railroad grade at the
south end of the bridge.
|These views show the surface of the bridge. It's 150 feet down
to the river from the middle of the bridge. The handrails were
added around 1985. Prior to that, there were no hand or guard
rails which must have been quite interesting for the
automobiles that had to use this as a temporary bridge in the
|From the north end of the
bridge looking south. Here
you can see how rugged the
river bottom was and why
building a concrete bridge
made more sense than using
|From 1912 to 1939, the Portland Cement Company operated the line from its huge limestone quarry.
Trains operated between the quarry and the Southern Pacific Mainline in Auburn, California, that was
the mainline that runs through Reno, over Donner Pass, to Sacramento and beyond.
It's not clear how often the railroad was used, but apparently, it was one of the few railroads that
actually had to yield to automobile traffic, instead of the other way around. The only major highway
crossing was Hwy 49, near the No Hands Bridge.
In approximately 1939, the railroad was abandoned, most likely because the quarry for which the
railroad was built had panned out. A new quarry was located very nearby and continues to operate
today, although all limestone is now hauled out by truck. In 1941, World War Two was just on the
horizon for the U.S. and the rails were torn up and later used for scrap for the war effort. Some
sources indicate that the metal bridges along the line were torn up and scrapped as well at this time.
Other sources indicate that at least some bridges remained until the 1960s when they were torn out
due to dam construction.
The no hands bridge survived, and its most interesting history would come long after it's original
purpose faded. Several highway bridges were constructed near the No Hands Bridge for Hwy 49 to
cross the American river, and over the years, some of those newer bridges have been washed out. All
the while, the No Hands Bridge stood firm. One such incident in particular was the Hell Hole dam burst
of 1964. When the Hell Hole dam broke fairly far up river, it sent a torrent of water rushing downstream
and heading right for the main Hwy 49 bridge, just recently replaced, and the no hands bridge. The
brand new bridge was washed out and completely destroyed. Much of the remains can still be seen in
the river today. However, the No Hands Bridge was literally unscathed. This may be due to more than
just the strength of the concrete. A look at the bridge reveals that it's quite hydrodynamicly well
designed, especially the pillars. For several years in the mid 1960s, local residents would have had no
easy access to their homes, had it not been for the no hands bridge. Long abandoned at this point, the
bridge was pressed into service as a one lane automobile bridge. A dirt road was constructed down to
the railroad grade, from Hwy 49, and vehicles were allowed the cross the old railroad bridge, until the
new highway bridge could be built. Remember, this was a single lane bridge, barely wide enough for
one vehicle and there were no guardrails and the bridge was over 150 feet tall!
|Another view of the bridge
taken by me in 2004 from
Hwy 49 from the north.
|This view is from the south
end, just below the railroad
grade and show the river as
well as the remains of
anotherbridge that predated
the No Hands bridge.
|Another view of the bridge
taken by me in 2004 at the
north end of the bridge on the
old railroad grade.
|Here the bridge is completed. Note the construction
buildings still on the site and note the old suspension
bridge. Today, both the construction buildings and the
suspension bridge are long gone, although the concrete
embuttements of the suspension bridge remain.
Courtesy El Dorado County.
|This view shows the bridge under
Courtesy El Dorado County.
|More historical pictures. Much thanks to El Dorado County for sending me these above five very
|The largest intact grade of the old Mt.
Quarries Railroad is this section between the
No Hands Bridge and the terminal where
limestone was loaded onto the rail cars. This
section was later turned into a road and
today is used as a hiking trail.
|These views show the terminal just below the quarry
where rail cars were loaded up. Today, bench tables and a
rest stop for hikers replace locomotives and what appears
to have been a giant building at one time.
|The flood of '64 wouldn't be it's only test. A few years later, California prepared to build a huge dam
down river of the No Hands Bridge. In preparation, one of the tallest bridges in the United States and
the tallest in California was built above the No Hands, and Hwy 49 bridges. It was anticipated that the
valley below would be flooded, submerging the No Hands Bridge and Hwy 49 forever. The new "Forest
Hill" bridge would replace the Hwy 49 route. There was little concern about the No Hands Bridge as it
was long abandoned. Over one billion dollars was spent on excavating the new dam site and laying
down some concrete before construction was halted, due to environmental concerns. Today, over 30
years later, dam construction is still halted. Every so often, the project is brought up again in
discussions about continuing dam construction and someday, the dam may actually be built, but not for
During initial construction of what was to be the Auburn dam, a diversion tunnel and a 250 foot
cofferdam was built. The river was diverted through the tunnel. In 1986, the no hands bridge was
tested yet again, during the Valentine's Day Flood. That day, flood waters had backed up at the coffer
dam site up river, at one point rising waters over 150 feet and completely submerging both the No
Hands Bridge and the Hwy 49 bridge, until the coffer dam broke, sending flood waters rushing
downstream. Both bridges survived.
By the mid 1980s, the bridge was seeing some tourist attraction as a footbridge and horse back riding
bridge. Metal guardrails were added for safety. But by the mid 1990s, the bridge was almost doomed.
Erosion and flooding had finally taken its toll. The main support footing had eroded so badly that the
bridge literally was tilting over. Finding money to repair the bridge was difficult, because it was always
assumed that eventually the Auburn dam would be built and the No Hands Bridge destroyed anyway.
But later, the cost of tearing down the bridge for safety reasons was considered, and at over $700,000
for demolition costs, it was decided that money could be better spent repairing the bridge, instead. By
1998, the bridge footing was repaired and today it's as strong as ever and currently exists along a state
hiking trail built on the grade of the old railroad.
The "No Hands" name came decades after the railroad was abandoned, but it's how the bridge is
identified today. After being abandoned, local horseback riders commonly used the bridge, and one
rider in particular, was famous for riding the bridge, which had no handrails and was over 150 high,
without using the reins, hence, the "no hands bridge."
Not much of the old grade exists from the north end of the No Hands Bridge to Auburn, due to the dam
construction. From the south end of the bridge, the rails are long gone, but the grade was later turned
into a road and then into a hiking trail for the remaining several miles to the old Quarry. The old Quarry
and remains of the load station of the railroad can still be visited today if you are willing to hike about 2
or 3 miles past a gate.
|The pictures just do not do justice to the sheer size of the bridge. At over 700 feet tall, it is the highest bridge in California
and the 3rd highest bridge in North America. Built in the late 1960s, it was never intended to hold those titles for long as the
bridge was built in anticipation of the Auburn dam. The new lake, created by the dam was supposed to cover up a
significant part of the concrete pillars. However, the dam was never finished and may never be completed.
|The view over the valley from the
bridge. Notice how it's not much
different that the view taken from
the air by Geron (see picture at top
|Jen is seen here about in the
middle of the bridge. From here
it's 730 feet down. And
unfortunately, a few lives have
been lost here over the years.
|This stairway gains access to a
catwalk under the bridge.
Obviously well locked up, but I did
notice graffiti through my
binoculars on the two middle
concrete pillars, indicating some
brave (or stupid) people were able
to gain access at one point.
|This is an active mainline bridge that Southern Pacific built in the early 1900s, in the city of Auburn, California.
What makes this bridge significant is how it was later modified when Hwy 80 was widened and turned into a
main freeway. The entire bridge was supported by several four legged trusses, like the one you see on the
left of the middle picture. But later, some of these trusses had to be removed and replaced by the giant
structure that almost looks as if the upper section was built over an old bridge. But that's not the case. The
upper section is the original bridge, while the lower section over highway 80 is the newer section built to
replace the trusses and allow the highway to be significantly widened.
|For many more pictures and info about the Mt. Quarries Railroad, I HIGHLY recommend visiting
this website. http://ncespee.railfan.net/Foothill/mqmain.html On this website, you will find historic
photos, maps and further information, including a ton of information and pictures about the
locomotives that served on this railroad.
|If anyone has any further information or pictures about the Mountain Quarries Railroad,
please let me know. You can Email me anytime. Thanks.
|Copyright © 2004 Brian McCamish, All Rights Reserved
Note about the photos on this site:
Most photos were taken by me, except for those that are otherwise indicated. I usually allow people to use my photos for personal use or
websites. Simply Email me. I may not have authority to grant permission regarding some photos that were only loaned to me by others
specifically for this website. Every effort has been made not to include other's photos without the proper permission and credits, however, if
you see any photos which belong to you and that I don't have permission to use, I apologize. If you send me an Email, I will remove the
photos immediately or give proper credit, which ever you wish.
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|The Forest Hill Highway Bridge
|Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) Railroad
bridge over Hwy 80 in Auburn, California