The Pelton Wheel and a lot more

Beryl Robinson’s bold moves helped put Nevada City back on the map

Karen Newell Young

Nevada City Advocate 

As the longest serving city manager in state history, Nevada City native Beryl Robinson Jr. has been credited with helping to accomplish several key milestones for the town.

But one of the little-known accomplishments was something he practically did on the fly – the installation of the 15-ton Pelton Wheel in 1987, one of the many efforts for which Robinson Plaza earned its name and the home of the Pelton Wheel. 

Other weighty achievements during his tenure were more difficult, considering the town had no money and Robinson had virtually no staff, but they changed nature of the town.

The administration of the Historic District Ordinance, the Downtown Betterment project, the acquisition of multiple parking lots, renovation of City Hall, the purchase of much of Calanan Park would soon result in increased tourism and higher real estate values.

But in between was the delivery of the Pelton Wheel, which typified Robinson’s reaction to a challenge.

Robinson got a call out of the blue one day from a PG&E employee named Monte East asking if Nevada City would like the Pelton Wheel, which was invented in 1879 at Miner’s Foundry. It was on its way to Oakland on a PG&E truck to be scraped.

“Would you like the Pelton Wheel?” asked East. “You can have it, but you have to unload it.”

He knew the city would love to have it. The question was how could it be lifted off the truck? Beryl called Robinson Timber which brought over a crane. It was no easy task though. They could only lift it inches off the truck in the middle of Main Street by detouring traffic around the block. 

After several hours, Robinson and his crew were able to install the giant wheel next to the Chamber of Commerce.

It was one of many seemingly impossible tasks that Robinson was called upon to achieve. 

“If he said he was going to do it, you could take it to the bank,” said Paul Matson, who was mayor four or five times throughout Robinson’s tenure. “He made himself very present. He was very accessible,” he added.

“I think the general impression was that he ran the staff and he ran public works and all of its employees,” Matson said. “He was very respected.”

Robinson and the late city attorney Bill Wetherall are largely responsible for the character Nevada City has retained to this day. Robinson administered the Historic District Ordinance, which passed in 1968. Wetherall wrote every word of it.

At the time, several buildings were targeted for demolition and it spurred a public outcry lamenting the loss of historic structures.

“In the mid-1960’s, the people of the city were beginning to appreciate their rich heritage in the form of historical and architectural treasures and to recognize the need to protect and preserve them,” Wetherall wrote of the ordinance after it passed. 

“Construction of the Grass Valley-Nevada City freeway, which resulted in the destruction of several landmark buildings, including the Union Hotel, was, in itself, a ‘wake up’ call.”

Robinson and others set their sights on preserving the historic nature of the town and by the late 1960s, he and several town leaders pressed for a historic designation. The result was the combination of the Historic District Ordinance and the Nevada City Betterment Project, which is why Nevada City has the Gold Rush flavor it has today.

“There was huge community involvement in both of those projects,” Robinson said. “I was tied to those because I was the conductor. The community realized something had to happen or we would lose the historic buildings we had left.

“Many people coined it the ‘hysterical district.’ There was some pushback, but eventually it became a groundswell of support. Considering how broke the town was, there was a lot of support for the preservation.

“It’s hard for people who weren’t here to grasp that in the mid-1960s, Nevada City was in desperate economic conditions,” Robinson said. “The town today isn’t the Nevada City that it was is 1966. We could barely run the city.”

Eventually people started upgrading their properties and with that, others thought, “we can do this.”

“I was married to the city,” Robinson said. “I loved the town and loved my job. I bought into the theory that it was up to me to help preserve the town.”

Robinson was born in 1935 and grew up in Nevada City where his family lived and operated a service station in town, which was removed to make way for the freeway in 1968. His mother was born in town, and her father was raised on Broad Street. He was killed in a mining accident in 1890.

Robinson was among those in the first graduating class of Nevada Union High School, which is celebrating its anniversary this summer. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1957.

“I made quick decisions,” Robinson said of his many achievements. “I could take a dollar and squeeze it until it was two dollars. Maybe that’s why I have a plaque” in Robinson Plaza.

“He really had a feel for Nevada City,” Matson said.

“Robinson was a tremendous asset to the city,” said Madelyn Helling, former county librarian and witness to many of the

improvements to the town during Robinson’s era. “He made major contributions to the historic aspect of the city. He was vital in that respect. It wasn’t a tourist town that would draw people until they established the historic district.” 

“The town was saved by the historic district.”

About the photo: 

Previous page: Beryl Robinson stands in front of the Pelton Wheel at Robinson Plaza in downtown Nevada City.

Photo by Karen Newell Young

The Pelton Wheel, which revolutionized hydroelectric power, was invented by Lester Pelton in 1879 at Miners Foundry in Nevada City. He founded the Pelton Water Wheel Company in 1888 in San Francisco. In addition to the Pelton Wheel at Robinson’s Plaza in Nevada City, others can be seen at Miners Foundry in Nevada City and at the North Star Mine in Grass Valley.