John Bridges has spent several years building this model train layout depicting a gold mining town.

Driven by History:

 Nevada City man's creation at home parallels this year's fair theme

By Trina Kleist

(Saturday August 6, 2011)


The front drive to John Bridges' Nevada City home gives away his passion. It's lined with rusted pieces of an iron skip car, thick gears, long bolts, wheels from ore carts, huge wrenches, mercury flasks, parts of stamp mills, mule shoes, a cylindrical ore pulverizer, oil lanterns, rock cores and a hinge from a wooden refrigerator car. And rocks. Lots of rocks. Greenish rocks, grayish rocks, rocks streaked with layers of quartz, rocks speckled white and black. They show the variety of formations at mine sites ranging from the Original Sixteen-to-One in Sierra County to high-elevation workings in Colorado.

Since 1983, Bridges — a retired mail carrier out of the Grass Valley Post Office who worked a Chicago Park route — has collected bits of mining history from throughout the West.

Inside a room at the back of his house, Bridge has meticulously recreated a scale model of a gold mining operation that puts the big, heavy, iron pieces and rocks into perspective. Bridges' creation is a model for understanding what the area looked like just 50 or 60 years ago. This year's theme of the Nevada County Fair, “Gold! Rush to the Fair!,” runs along the same lines.

Though Bridges' scene replicates the mountains of Colorado where Bridges loves to hike, the mine workings he depicts in painstaking detail are similar to what they would have been here in the mid-20th century. At one end of the model, tiny miners roll ore carts along a rail to a building with chutes that channel rock into a stamp mill. Next to the stamp mill is a little stone powerhouse, a brick boiler house, a machine shop and a wooden dynamite shack. A round-top brick coke oven is nearby. A wooden support by an old mine shaft entrance holds what would be tons of waste rock. At the base of the mill, an N-gauge model railroad chugs, taking the ore around rock-and-plaster mountains and across a trestle bridge over a river to town.

Bridges' little town includes boarding houses, a hotel and card room, restaurants and a train station. On the outskirts are power poles and a stockyard, and beyond are water tanks, a coal mine and other features. His scene includes 150 feet of ON3-scale track, 25 cars on the track, 40 buildings, 40 animals, 85 human figures, seven bridges, five gold mines and 400 tiny trees.

Linda Bridges, his wife, painted realistic background scenery all around, portraying mountains, waterfalls and cloud-dotted skies.

Bridges has spent several years building this model train layout depicting a gold mining town, including a railroad station.

Rocks that he has collected from real mines provide authentic scale relief. “I love the whole mining thing,” said Bridges, who volunteers at the North Star Power House Museum, on Allison Ranch Road in Grass Valley.

As he strives for accuracy in details such as weathered siding on his rail cars, Bridges thinks about “how hard they had to work, how much they had to know to get to the ore and dig it, get it to the mill — the whole deal.”

The Bridges' grandson, 2-year-old Preston Hixson of Alta Sierra, could be the successor to the realistic little scene. Whenever he comes to visit, he insists on seeing “choo-choo” in operation before moving on to other activities, the couple said. And the two train aficionados have matching engineer caps.
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(To contact The Union's Senior Staff Writer Trina Kleist, e-mail  or call (530) 477-4230).

Stay tuned for more photos and stories from John and Linda.