Community Profiles – Caldor

Caldor Railroad -

Caldor Railroad -Courtesy of Steve Crandell Fine Art, Placerville

Caldor was a small, but very important, town near Grizzly Flat that was built by the California Door Co. Located on Dogtown Creek (also known as Dog Creek), a tributary of the Cosumnes River, it was the center for the lumbering operations of this company and ultimately, the eastern end of a narrow gauge railroad known as the Diamond & Caldor Railway.

The history of the town and the company goes all the way back to the days of the Gold Rush when a sash and door manufacturer on the East Coast received word that a large shipment of goods had not reached a customer in San Francisco. The company immediately dispatched a Mr. Bartlett Doe with instructions to search out and find the missing shipment. After a three-month journey, he arrived in San Francisco where he found the goods still on the ship, the crew having deserted for the mines.

While trying to located the needed manpower to unload the shipment, Doe observed that this “frontier town” might be just the place to open a new woodworking business. In 1850 his brother John sailed through the Golden Gate and the two then formed the B. & J. S. Doe Co. In the 1860s another brother, Charles F. Doe, acquired a nearby millwork company and, during the 1870s, the three brothers consolidated their interests, while retaining their individual companies. Finally, in 1884, the brothers formed a single company under the name of the California Door Co. and built a new door, window and blinds manufacturing plant in Oakland – the largest then in the West.

In 1900, to assure a continuous supply of ponderosa and sugar pine lumber for the business, the company acquired some 30,000 acres of timberland in El Dorado County, which included an old sawmill at a ghost town known as Dogtown, 30 miles southeast of Diamond Springs (The state archives indicate there was a school called Dog Creek School in this area between 1860 and 1864).

The old sawmill was soon replaced by a larger one that used water power from Dogtown Creek to saw the needed lumber. This new mill was capable of cutting into lumber 60,000 board feet of logs daily. After pondering for a time, the directors of the company renamed the site of the new sawmill Caldor, since Dogtown wasn’t quite the image the owners wanted for their company.

The company had built a planing mill and box factory at Diamond Springs, and now had to figure out best the method to get the lumber from the sawmill at Caldor to the mill at Diamond Springs, from where the railroad would carry the finished lumber to the Oakland factory.

At first mule teams were tried, but maintenance was too high. Then oxen replaced the mules, but that wasn’t much better. Finally, gigantic steam tractors were used to haul the lumber to Diamond Springs. However, the noise produced by their gears and chains was unacceptable, and the county adopted an ordinance requiring an out-rider to lead and follow the tractors by a quarter mile to help prevent the stampeding of frightened horses. Surely, they decided, there was a better way to get their lumber to the factory. Perhaps a railroad was the answer.

In 1901 they hired the chief engineer of the Central Pacific to survey the nearly 35-mile route. One year later, the Diamond & Caldor Railway was incorporated as a common carrier and construction of the three-foot wide, narrow gage railway commenced. Work on the right of way progressed well since the Caldor mill was also able to produce both ties and bridge timbers.

Along the route a total of 63 trestles were needed, including one made of steel, 97 feet in length. In October of 1904, nearly $400,000 and 18 months later, the rails were completed.

To inaugurate the rail line, a excursion train was planned and, because of the overwhelming demand for seats, temporary passenger cars were created by simply fastening benches to flat cars. The trip, given the steepness of some grades, the number of trestles and the short radius curves, turned out to be quite exciting for all.

From the start, the railway proved to be very efficient and profitable way to haul lumber and even a few passengers ($2 each way) between Caldor and Diamond Springs, with intermediate stops at Rodwell (Cole’s Station), Leoni Meadows, Williams and School House. But it did have a few problems.

For the first few years the engines used wood for power and, because of the shower of sparks that emanated from the smokestack, a “rail car” with several employees followed 15 to 30 minutes behind each train to put out any fires that might be started. By 1910 fuel oil had replaced wood on all engines except those used for switching and logging, eliminating most of the fire problem.

In 1923 the sawmill at Caldor burned and the owners of the company decided to build a new, electrically powered sawmill at Diamond Springs, along with a large log pond. The railroad was rebuilt to handle whole logs instead of lumber and the facilities as Diamond Spring were expanded to handle and repair the new equipment. With the mill at Caldor gone, the community was reduced to just a flatcar loading station.

In its time Caldor was never large enough to boast a post office, since mail was easily carried by rail from Diamond Springs. However, it did have a schoolhouse.

The Caldor School lasted only one year, 1914-1915 and is listed by the county Schools Department as an emergency school. When it closed, the children in Caldor were sent to Mountain School, near Grizzly Flat. Both Caldor School and Mountain School were open spring, summer and fall, being closed in the winter due to the heavy snowfall in the area.

In 1929, as the national economy began to fail and the Diamond Springs mill was closed. Engines and railcars were put into storage and the company again looked to the open market for lumber. Fortunately for the community, this closure would only last for five years.

In 1934 the company hired Mr. Chalmers Price to work on rehabilitating the railroad and mill. Tracks and ties were replaced and the route realigned, shortening it a bit. The mill in Diamond Springs was reopened and the box factory leased to the American Box Corp. By the spring of 1935 everything was back in operation with some 150,000 board-feet of logs being loaded each day at Caldor for the trip to Diamond Springs.

In 1952 the golden anniversary of the Diamond & Caldor Railway, the state Safety Commission ordered that the “unsafe” link and pin couplers on the railcars be replaced. The directors of the company weighed the cost and, since most of the logs were by this time being brought from Caldor by truck, decided to remove the tracks and sell the railroad equipment. By 1953, the railroad was history.

Logging at Caldor would continue for several years and the mill in Diamond Springs would operate into the 1970s. Missouri Flat Road would be built through the abandoned railyard and this part of Diamond Springs would become one of the county’s first planned industrial areas.

Sources for this story include: “History of California”, by Theodore Hittell (1897); “California Gold Camps”, by Erwin Gudde (1975); “California Place Names”, by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “Mother Lode of Learning – One Room Schools of El Dorado County” by Retired Teachers Association of El Dorado County (1990); “I Remember, Stories and pictures of El Dorado County pioneer families”, researched and written by Betty Yohalem (1977); “Mines and Mineral Resources of El Dorado County, California”, California Division of Mines (1956); “Narrow Gauge Nostalgia” by George Turner (1965); “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the archives of the Mountain Democrat (1854-Present); and the wonderful people at the reference desk of the El Dorado County Main Library.

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