The Sacramento Valley Railroad: Part 2 – Construction Begins

Judah's  Map of the SVRR Railroad

Judah’s Map of the SVRR Railroad

Construction Begins and Folsom is Reached

While Theodore Judah was being hired to survey the new railroad and an engineering firm hired, Colonel Charles Lincoln Wilson, with the help of Judge Divine, a promoter of a railroad from San Jose to San Francisco, lobbied the California State Legislature to change the Railroad Act of 1853, which stood in their way of financing and progress. With the law amended, the route was surveyed and the right-of-way acquired.

A contract was signed on November 24, 1854, with the firm of Robinson, Seymour and Company of New York, retaining them and Lester Robinson as Chief Engineer to build the road. On February 12, 1855, construction began.

As would only happen in California, approximately 20 miles from Sacramento, a Mr. Anderson had taken the subcontract to grade and build the embankment. He had prospected the area before and knew that the dirt contained gold. Through the use of ingenious sluices and other methods, Mr. Anderson was able to recover enough gold to pay for the job and have his payment from the railroad as pure profit.

As the work progressed, financial problems soon arose. It had been a dry winter in California and, because of the reduction in mining, many banks began to fail. Appeals for investors failed and, on August 10, the Board of Directors of the Sacramento Valley Railroad met to discuss and remedy the situation. The Board elected Commodore Garrison as its president. As Mayor of San Francisco, he had ruled the city with an iron hand and had proved to be a man of action. To the position of Vice-President came William Tecumseh Sherman (who would later leave California to serve in the Union Army), now returned from the East and was the head of the banking house of Lucas & Turner, one of the few banks that had not failed, thanks to his careful management. The Sacramento Valley Railroad needed strong leadership and a good banker, and it now had both.

On August 11, 1855, the day after the Board meeting, Judah and three others boarded a handcar on the rails, built to five-foot gauge, that were laid down Sacramento’s “R” Street and pushed their way down the tracks. It was not a long ride, only a mile or so, but it was the first  real railroad journey west of the Rockies.

About a week later, Judah stood on the levee watching while the small locomotive “Sacramento” was unloaded from the schooner “Two Brothers”. The following day the little 4-4-0 was under a full head of steam, and Construction Engineer Lester Robinson and guests took a small excursion to Seventeenth Street, much to the applause and cheers of track side crowds.

Garrison and Sherman then invited several potential investors to come to Sacramento to view their now operating railroad and take the trip to the end of rail, followed by a carriage trip to Negro Bar. The investors included tycoons J. Mora Moss, George F. Bragg, and the bankers Pioche and Bayreque, among others. Unfortunately they were not sufficiently impressed to further invest and, on October 18, 1855, because of lack of compensation to his firm, Lester Robinson attached the railroad through court action, placing it under a deed of trust, and appointing J. Mora Moss as the trustee. Fortunately, work continued under this arrangement.

Because of the financial problems, the connection between Negro Bar and Marysville had to be dropped, but as the rails approached the new town of Folsom just above Negro Bar, Theodore Judah’s mind was still looking further east. The 22.9 miles that had been completed to Folsom were not an end to what he envisioned. He fervently believed in the concept of a transcontinental railroad, connecting both coasts.

By now the locomotive “Sacramento” had help on the rails. The engine “Nevada” had arrived from Boston and the locomotive “L.L. Robinson” from New Jersey. To add to these, Commodore Garrison had purchased the first railroad engine in California, the “Elephant”, which he renamed the “C.K. Garrison (it became the “Pioneer” in 1868). Passenger cars were being built by John Robinson (the Railroad’s Superintendent) at the foot of  “R” Street, using wheels and iron work that had come from Boston. With all this rolling stock and the rails finally reaching the growing township of Folsom on January 1, 1856, it was time to celebrate a formal opening in a grand style.

On Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1856, at 11 o’clock in the morning, the locomotive “Sacramento” pulled away from the Sacramento station with its string of passenger and flat cars carrying a large group of the local citizens and politicians. It was shortly followed by the “Nevada” which, in spite of developing mechanical problems, also arrived at the Meredith Hotel, in Folsom, in time for the celebration. After speeches from Senator Flint and several of the Railroad’s Board Members, the guests were treated to a “Railroad Ball”, which lasted until 5:00 a.m. of the next day.

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