The Sacramento Valley Railroad: The first railroad of the West
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 who 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 Col. 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 businessman 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, Lt. 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 Col. Wilson’s.
By the spring of 1850, before California was even a state, Col. 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.
At this time they took into their grand plan another transportation man, Commodore Cornelius K. Garrison. He had come west at the request of the Vanderbilts to help with their Nicaragua Steamship Line. He had made a small fortune in Panama and, after living a short while in San Francisco, had been elected its mayor. He would also be one of the first to help finance the early Pacific railway surveys and was an ideal choice as a partner.
First incoroporated railroad
Early in 1852, another group of men had gotten together and incorporated the Sacramento, Auburn and Nevada Railroad, which was to be built to serve Negro Bar and Nevada City. Their scheme collapsed when it was reported to them that the first section of track they wished to build would cost in excess of $2 million.
Col. Wilson reorganized this abandoned railroad company as the Sacramento Valley Railroad. His plan was to first connect Sacramento to Negro Bar and Mountain City (Marysville) with future extensions to Tehama, Sonora and San Francisco. On Aug. 16, 1852, the articles of incorporation were filed and Co. Wilson left for the East Coast to acquire more capital, rolling stock and engage an engineer to build the railroad.
Once in New York, he contacted the engineering firm of Robinson, Seymour & Co. Seymour’s brother, the governor of New York, sent Wilson to see a young survey engineer, Theodore Judah, who had just put a railroad through the Niagara Gorge and was very interested in the Pacific railway. On April 2, 1854, Wilson and Judah left for California and, shortly thereafter, Judah opened up an office in Sacramento’s Hasting’s Building at the southwest corner of 2nd and J streets, and started the business of surveying the Sacramento Valley Railroad’s proposed route.
During this same time, 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 Nov. 24, 1854, with the firm of Robinson, Seymour & Co. of New York, retaining them and Lester Robinson as chief engineer to build the road. On Feb. 12, 1855, construction began.
Contractor covers his cost with gold sluices
Approximately 20 miles from town, a Mr. Anderson had taken the subcontract to grade and built 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 Aug. 10, the board of directors of the Sacramento Valley Railroad met to discuss and remedy the situation.
SF Mayor, Sherman lead board
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 become a general for 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 SVRR needed strong leadership and a good banker, and it now had both.
On Aug. 11, 1855, the day after the board meeting, Judah and three others boarded a handcar on the rails, built to 5-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 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 locomotive was under a full head of steam, and construction engineer Lester Robinson and guests took a small excursion to 17th Street, much to the applause and cheers of trackside 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.
Marysville route dropped
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 farther 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” 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 Jan. 1, 1856, it was time to celebrate a formal opening in a grand style.
Inaugural run to Folsom
On Washington’s Birthday, Feb. 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 Sen. Flint and several of the railroad’s board members, the guests were treated to a “Railroad Ball,” which lasted until 5 a.m. of the next day.
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.
No help from Congress
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.
Judah builds line to Lincoln
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.
Upset, but again not defeated, the ingenious Lester Robinson contracted with the Placerville and Sacramento Railroad (soon to become the Placerville & Sacramento Valley Railroad), surveyed a new route to a place called Newport, on the river just south of Sacramento, and named the townsite Freeport. In 1859, he extended a Sacramento Valley Railroad branch from its Perkin’s Station southwesterly 12 miles to the new townsite. (This was known as the Freeport Railroad and was abandoned by the Central Pacific in 1865, possibly the earliest railroad abandonment in the SP records) The city of Sacramento countered by tearing up the original tracks of the Sacramento Valley Railroad along Front Street.
Placerville wants railroad
During the same period, the people of Placerville were demanding that rail service be extended beyond Folsom to their town to carry the heavy freight that was heading over the Sierra to the silver mines in the Comstock Lode of Nevada. They approached the SVRR’s new president, George F. Bragg, and construction engineer Lester Robinson, now the company’s major stockholder, to see what could be worked out. Garrison and Sherman had by this time left California.
The Placerville citizens had heard that Judah had discussed his ideas with two Sacramento hardware men, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, a grocer named Leland Stanford, and a drygoods dealer named Charles Crocker. They also knew that President Lincoln on July 1, 1862, had signed the new Pacific Railway Act, authorizing construction of the Central Pacific and specifically showing the route of the California Central and the Sacramento, Placer and Nevada as the Western terminus. They were concerned that a railroad would not pass through Placerville and extend on along the wagon road through “Johnson’s Pass” to Nevada as they desired.
The 10% bonds
The owners of the Sacramento Valley Railroad informed the delegation from Placerville that, if El Dorado County would grade the route from Folsom and furnish ties, they would supply the rails for 10 percent county bonds. For this, a new company, the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad was incorporated June 12, 1862.
At the general election on Sept. 2, 1863, the people of El Dorado County approved the issuance of $200,000 in 10 percent bonds that would be used to purchase stock in the new railroad. Placerville also pledged $300,000 in bonds towards this end. The P&SV Railroad promptly asked for the money, and construction began in late 1863, from Folsom Junction towards Placerville.
The Big Four start Central Pacific
This was just a few months after Leland Stanford, now governor of California, had lifted the first shovelful of dirt on Oct. 10, 1863, to start the building of the Central Pacific Railroad east from Sacramento. The Central Pacific was the company he, Crocker, Huntington and Hopkins had formed June 28, 1861.
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.)
Quick action gets railroad to Latrobe
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.
The Sacramento Valley Railroad would pick up its papers in Freeport and carry them by rail to Latrobe, there transferring them to the Pioneer Stage for the rest of the journey. The Central Pacific would collect its papers in Sacramento, carry them to its end of track, Applegate, where they would be tossed onto the California Stage. The owners of the Central Pacific knew that there was a possibility that the Chrysopolis might not be able to steam into the port at Sacramento, since the river was too shallow, except at high tide which would not occur at the correct time. In an openly dishonest move, the Central Pacific had a horseman waiting at the Freeport Dock to take their papers to Sacramento and save precious hours.
On Aug. 22, 1864, at 11:15 p.m. the SVRR locomotive “C.K. Garrison” pulling its normal complement of freight, mail and passengers, left Freeport and an hour and 37 minutes later arrived in Latrobe, a 37-mile distance. The Central Pacific’s locomotive “Atlantic,” bare except for its tender, crew and a Pony Express rider, left Sacramento at 12:04 a.m. on Aug. 23 and made its 31-mile run to Applegate in only 42 minutes, setting the stage for the remainder of the race. At 1 o’clock the next afternoon, the California Stage arrived in Virginia City with a total time of 21 hours for the papers from San Francisco. There was a very strong rumor that the Pony Express rider had carried the papers nearly to Virginia City and, at the last moment, hooked up with the California Stage. Nine hours later the challenging Pioneer Stage arrived at the same point, the exhausted driver explaining that the road from Latrobe had never been so crowded and that at every curve the road had been blocked by at least one big freight wagon. Again, the “Big Four” were known for not leaving things to chance, and the stakes here were too big for them to be defeated!
Viewing this as only a temporary set-back, the optimistic Lester Robinson and his Placerville supporters formed the San Francisco & Washoe Railroad to build eastward to Virginia City, and sought legislation to financially assist them. The federal government agreed to give them aid, on the same basis as the Central Pacific received it, provided they could complete the line into Nevada by 1866. The Nevada Constitutional Convention also offered a subsidy to the first railroad to cross the state line (a year later the offer was amended to include only the Central Pacific).
Robinson had argued to no avail before the Nevada Legislature that the Central Pacific did not intend to build a railroad to their state but only a wagon road, since their route was impassible for trains. He referred to his concept of the CP’s plans as the “Dutch Flat Swindle.” He also stated that Judah had been bribed to give him bad information, which Leland Stanford adamantly refuted. It all made no difference, since the young state of Nevada in reality had no money to give anyone.
Railroad reaches Shingle Springs
By June 1865, the P&SVRR had only reached Shingle Springs and, although it now connected to the main road that carried nearly all of the freight and passenger traffic to and from the Comstock, it was obvious that the railroad would not reach Virginia City by the 1866 federal deadline. The line had progressed only four miles in 10 months while the toiling Chinese laborers of the Central Pacific were blasting out a mile a week over the “impassible” route towards Donner Summit. Even in light of this lack of progress, the owners of the Central Pacific still feared that the rails of the P&SVRR could still be extended over the Sierra and become a competing line, so they took steps to completely eliminate this problem.
In a questionable move, the SVRR’s president George F. Bragg finally convinced Lester Robinson and the bankers who held most of the railroad’s stock, that their problems were real and insurmountable. Though the rail line was bringing in substantial income, there was no way more financing could be obtained for construction or payment of their bonds. The railroad was on the verge of bankruptcy.
An underhanded move
On Aug. 1, 1865, president Bragg purchased the entire stock interests of three other directors valued at nearly $400,000. Shortly thereafter, and in spite of the protests and claims of corruption from the press, he sold all of his stock to Leland Stanford and the other principal stockholders of the Central Pacific. The Central Pacific took over complete control of the SVRR on Aug. 16, 1865. In a final blow, Stanford ordered the suspension of all passenger traffic to and from Freeport.
Thus ended the independent existence of California’s first commercial railroad. The sizeable shops of the SVRR at Folsom were dismantled by the CP in 1865 and the equipment moved to their Sacramento shops. The CP also rebuilt the line to standard gauge that same year.
With the sale of the SVRR, the financial interest that El Dorado County and the city of Placerville held in the P&SVRR passed to the purchasers, and the $500,000 in bonds that had been sold in 1863 and 1864, became a financial burden for the county. With the rapid loss in freight traffic through El Dorado County since the completion of the Central Pacific to Reno, Nev., had made that city the gateway to the Comstock, and a general reduction in all mining, the county and city were in a life and death struggle just to exist, let alone pay off the bonds which would mature in 1876.
The 26.2-mile P&SVRR (Folsom Junction to Shingle Springs) had operated as its own company from August 1864 to July 21, 1871. But the mortgage on the property of the P&SVRR was foreclosed on May 21, 1869 and sold to William Alvord. On July 21, 1871, title was conveyed to Alvord who, on the same day conveyed the title to Huntington, Stanford, and Hopkins. They later formed the Sacramento & Placerville Railroad, incorporated April 19, 1877, and by deed of sale dated May 28, 1877, transferred the property of the P&SVRR into the new S&PRR corporation.
Bondholders sue El Dorado County
In 1873, the holders of the P&SVRR bonds sued the County of El Dorado and the City of Placerville, to recover the entire amount due in principal and interest. The county defended the suit but lost in lower court. Finally, through the efforts of H.S. Morey, A. Mierson, and Judge Williams, the whole of the bonds and coupons, with accrued interest, amounting to $239,135.37 were surrendered for the sum of $200,000, which was paid in new bonds running 20 years but only bearing 5 percent interest. The city of Placerville had a simpler solution to the problem.
City Council disappears
When the telegraphed news of the bondholders winning the suit reached the City Council, they all simply resigned, leaving no one in charge or responsible for the payment. The pages of the minute books of the City Council of Placerville are empty from that point into the 1900s, when apparently, the whole problem had become forgotten history and the City Council thought it safe to return.
Placerville finally gets its railroad
The Central Pacific through the Shingle Springs & Placerville (incorporated May 10, 1887) gave a bond of $100,000 to continue the tracks to Placerville. The county had finally won a railroad to Placerville but at a high cost to its taxpayers.
The last 11.6 miles to Placerville were completed March 29, 1888. The first passenger train arrived on April 9, 1888, while the first freight reached the depot on April 18, 1888. The occasion of the arrival of the first passenger train brought out nearly all the residents of Placerville and the surrounding towns. With only five days advance notice, the city was cleaned up and preparations for the celebration had been made. As the 500 excursion passengers pulled into the station, they were greeted by the boom of cannon, the blare of brass bands, and the cheers of the thousands assembled there. A large group of local citizens delivered welcome statements which were followed by an extended oration by Gov. Waterman. Festivities continued with a large parade and finally concluded with a huge banquet.
The occasion marked an important event in the romantic annals of transportation to and from Placerville which had commenced with pack trains only 40 years earlier.
Without the foresight and vision of men like Col. Charles Lincoln Wilson, Theodore Judah, and Lester Robinson, the transcontinental railroad might still have been a dream in the 1860s. They fought to build the first commercial railroad west of the Rockies and opened many eyes with their success. The challenge given the Central Pacific by Lester Robinson and the Sacramento Valley Railroad only sped the progress of the western builders of the Pacific Railway across the summit of the Sierra far sooner than would have happened otherwise. To these companies, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad, the Sacramento & Placerville Railroad, and the men and women behind them, we owe the saving of precious time in the building and settlement of the West.
The Sacramento & Placerville RR operated the Shingle Springs & Placerville RR under lease until May 15, 1888. On that date the 60.7 miles from Sacramento to Placerville were consolidated with 10 other local valley railroad organizations to form the Northern Railway of 1888, all under control of the Southern Pacific hierarchy.
The historical Placerville line became an important feeder branch line after the turn of the century for the Southern Pacific, producing hundreds of carloads annually, mostly lumber and refrigerated loads of deciduous fruits.
In 1986 the Placerville, Camino and Lake Tahoe Railroad, owned by Michigan California Lumber Co., abandoned its line from Placerville to Camino. The Michigan Cal. Co. had been delivering the majority of traffic at the far end of the line. Southern Pacific soon filed to abandon the line from Folsom to Placerville.
El Dorado County, with support of many smaller rail-shipping businesses, was successful in defeating the abandonment, both before the ICC and in federal court. Southern Pacific responded with a $750 per carload surcharge, which the ICC upheld. Most of the remaining railroad shippers reluctantly shifted to trucks as their means of transport.
Ironically, the last train operations all the way to Placerville ended in 1987, just one year short of the line’s 100-year anniversary.
Douglas J. Noble was born and raised less than a 100 feet from the Santa Fe tracks in Pasadena. He has always had a deep fascination with the railroads and Western history. His grandfather, who had come to California in the 1880s. furthered this feeling with tales of early railroad building. Doug moved to El Dorado County in the early 1970s where he worked as a county planner. In 1987 he was requested to write a short history about the Placerville & Sacramento Valley Railroad for inclusion in the arguments against the abandonment of the Southern Pacific line from Folsom to Placerville, which El Dorado County was opposing before the ICC. This history was an integral part of the county’s submission which resulted in the ICC and Federal Court refusal for abandonment. Doug also writes columns for the Mountain Democrat and Sierra Heritage Magazine.
Dunscomb, Guy L., A CENTURY OF SOUTHERN PACIFIC STEAM LOCOMOTIVES, G.L. Dunscomb Publications, Modesto, California, 1963.
Gwinn, William H., THE FREEPORT RAILROAD 1863-1865, Sacramento County Historical Society, Sacramento, California, 1971
Joslyn, David L., RAILROADS THAT HAVE ENTERED SACRAMENTO – THE SACRAMENTO VALLEY RAILROAD COMPANY, 14 pages, self published 1959.
Kneiss, Gilbert H., BONANZA RAILROADS, Stanford University Press, Stanford University, California, 1941.
McAfee, Ward, CALIFORNIA’S RAILROAD ERA 1850-1911, Golden West Books, San Marino, California, 1973.
Mountain Democrat, SOUVENIR EDITION OF THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DISCOVERY OF GOLD, Mountain Democrat, Placerville, California, January 24, 1898.
Mountain Democrat, SEVENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY SOUVENIR REVIEW EDITION, Mountain Democrat, Placerville, California, January 6, 1928.
Placerville Times, 1938, THE BIG YEAR, Placerville Times, Placerville, California, December 29, 1937.
Sioli, Paolo, HISTORICAL SOUVENIR OF EL DORADO COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, Paolo Sioli, Oakland, California, 1883.
The minutes of: Court of Sessions and Board of Supervisors, El Dorado County, 1850-present; Placerville Common Council and City Council, 1854-present
The files of: The El Dorado County Historical Museum; The El Dorado County Library; The Mountain Democrat 1854-1987.
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