Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Sacramento Valley Railroad: Part 1 – The Beginning

SVRR railroad bridge in Folsom - 1866

SVRR railroad bridge in Folsom – 1866

The now abandoned railroad which served Placerville from Sacramento was originally called the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad and was an extension from Folsom of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. Its history began in the early days of the California Gold Rush and involved many men familiar to all of us, including railroad engineer Theodore Dehone Judah, military general William Tecumseh Sherman and, on the opposing side, the “Big Four:” two Sacramento hardware men, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, a grocer named Leland Stanford, and a dry goods dealer named Charles Crocker..

This story started as a three-paragraph synopsis prepared for El Dorado County’s first fight against the abandonment of the railroad by Southern Pacific in the mid-1980s. At the request of the county’s attorney, it was expanded by the author into a ten page document for inclusion in the pleadings. During the following years it was added to on numerous occasions as more and more information was discovered. The story of the creation of this, the first commercial railroad in the west, is an interesting and important part of our history.

The Beginning

Before the paddle wheels on the steamer “Oregon” had fully stopped, a young man with a vision stepped onto the dock at San Francisco. It was late in 1849, and the town was crowded with gold seekers that had heard of the instant riches lying in the streams and rivers of northern California. Most had left their homes and families in the search for it, but Colonel Charles Lincoln Wilson was different.

Wilson had been an orphan born on a farm in Maine and raised by neighbors. Early in life he enlisted in the army, which at that time was waging war with Mexico. Through rapid promotion, Wilson reached the rank of colonel and then left the service to become a successful business man in New York. His background was in transportation, and now he was looking for success, not gold, in this new land.

When the “Oregon” pulled away from the San Francisco dock, another military man, Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman was on board, leaving California for the East. He had heard of Asa Whitney’s scheme for a coast-to-coast railroad and had actually spent some time scouting passes for a possible route. His future father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, then Secretary of the Interior, had obtained for him a new assignment on the East Coast, and he felt he had seen California for the last time. He would soon return though, and his path would cross with that of Colonel Wilson’s.

By the spring of 1850, before California was even a state, Colonel Wilson owned a steam schooner that carried passengers and freight up the Sacramento River to the gateways to the Sierra foothills and the mines. He soon expanded his business to include a plank toll road and a toll bridge which, although built at great personal expense, poured profits into his rapidly expanding businesses.

With his bride, Sarah Jane Rood, a wealthy woman in her own right, they cruised along the Sacramento, watching the endless trains of wagons carrying freight from the river to the two main foothill towns, Negro Bar and Mountain City (later to become Marysville). Through their enterprises they accumulated a half-million dollars, and in 1852 they decided that iron rails from Sacramento to these two towns would be a profitable investment.

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.

The Sacramento Valley Railroad: Part 3 – Progress, then Competition

Charles Lincoln Wilson

Charles Lincoln Wilson

On Towards Placerville, But Then the Central Pacific Begins Construction

Though the Sacramento Valley Railroad was not yet completed, the four engines were pulling trains loaded with all the passengers and freight they could handle. But, even with this success, meeting its construction costs were still proving difficult. The cost of laying the track had been nearly 50 percent more than Judah had estimated and there was 30 percent interest to be paid on the floating debt under the trusteeship, along with some 10 percent bonds. They were generating income, but if they were to expand, the fully privately financed railroad would need government help.

The railroad’s vice president, William T. Sherman, contacted his brother John, who had recently been elected to Congress, for help. He asked John to try and obtain federal land grants for the railroad and a wagon road to Council Bluffs, Iowa. He was not at all successful.

Theodore Judah, though, was not daunted. He had earlier surveyed the line to Marysville and knew it was possible. He was so positive that he leaked the results of his survey to others, which upset Lester Robinson, the Sacramento Valley’s engineer. Judah felt that if the SVRR was not interested in building to Marysville, he would form another railroad, the California Central.

He did so, incorporating the company on April 21, 1857. Ground was broken for the California Central on June 1, 1858, and between then and Oct. 13, 1861, 18.5 miles connecting Lincoln, to the north, with the Sacramento Valley Railroad at Folsom Junction. In the meantime Judah had proceeded to Auburn to survey his route over the Sierra. The citizens of Auburn, irritated with his action, as they wished to be connected to the Sacramento Valley Railroad, formed their own railroad, the Sacramento, Placer and Nevada Railroad, which they built and by 1862 connected Auburn with Folsom.

The city of Sacramento, meanwhile, was experiencing a drastic loss of revenue. Folsom had become the new center for freight heading into El Dorado and Placer counties, and to retaliate, Sacramento placed a tax on all passengers and freight goods that crossed the levee from river boats to the trains at its docks.

The Sacramento Valley Railroad: Part 4 – A Contest Between Rivals

Sacramento Valley Railroad Locomotive, L..L Robinson

Sacramento Valley Railroad Locomotive, L..L Robinson

A Contest of Speed

The Central Pacific’s rails were laid alongside and crossed the earlier excavation and short trackage of Judah’s California Central near Roseville. The CP then continued its route on to Rocklin and Auburn. It became apparent that the four Sacramento merchants had gained the upper hand in the power play for the Pacific Railway financing, and they were not to be stopped.

The tracks of the California Central and the Sacramento, Placer and Nevada railroads became useless. The California Central was sold by foreclosure Feb. 28, 1868, and conveyed to C.P. Huntington. The 8.2 miles of CC rail between Roseville and Folsom were removed by the Central Pacific that same year. (The California Central had five locomotives, one became Central Pacific No. 93, the “Oronoco.” Its trackage from Roseville to Lincoln was sold to the California and Oregon Railroad.)

Because much of the rail that the P&SVRR had ordered from the East lay in the holds of ships sunk by the Confederate privateers, Lester Robinson bought the property of the Sacramento, Placer and Nevada Railroad. In spite of local opposition and legal roadblocks from the Central Pacific, he removed the rails and ties (sometimes in the dark of night) and used them to extend the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad to the El Dorado County town of Latrobe, where the trains arrived in August of 1864. (The P&SVRR never owned any rolling stock and used engines and cars of the SVRR. The SVRR would lease the new trackage of the P&SVR for its own use.)

Problems for the P&SVRR, however, were not over. Robinson, still fighting the Central Pacific, and believing that the route through Placerville was the best over the Sierra, challenged the owners of the Central Pacific, now known as the “Big Four”, to a contest of speed. The steamer “Chrysopolis” would bring two bundles of San Francisco papers up the river to the terminus of each railroad, and there would be a race to see who could get them delivered to Virginia City, Nevada the fastest. The Challenge was accepted by the CP.