Railroad Transportation


The Sierra Railway of California was incorporated February 1, 1897.  Thomas S. Bullock (a railroad builder), William Crocker (a San Francisco banker) and Prince Andre Poniatowski, (who represented wealthy French investors), founded the railroad.  Bullock brought rails and engines from his original railroad investments used on the Prescott and Arizona Central Railroad.  The first forty-one miles were built from Oakdale to Jamestown by November 10, 1897, where the roundhouse and central maintenance facility was set up.  After teamsters protested and delayed, the connection line to Sonora was completed on February 16, 1899.  From Sonora the railroad added another 12 miles to reach Carters-Summerville (later renamed Tuolumne).  By February 1, 1900, the end of the main line was completed with a depot located only a few hundred yards from the new mill of the West Side Flume and Lumber Company.


The Sierra Railway was the connection between Sonora, Jamestown and the company lumber towns of Standard and Tuolumne.  The West Side Lumber Company's mill at Tuolumne and the mountain mills of Standard Lumber Company and later the Company's mill at Standard furnished the largest source of revenue for the Sierra Railway. The Standard Lumber Company’s Sugar Pine Railway and the West Side Lumber Company’s Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valleys Railway fed the mills that produced the lumber products that were shipped via the Sierra.


The Angels Camp branch of the Sierra Railway brought freight and passenger service to the bustling gold mines in Calaveras County.  After struggling with the elevation changes and resulting steep grades, a system of four switch back spur tracks were designed to bring the Sierra Railway nineteen tortuous miles over trestles and bridges from Jamestown to Angels Camp.  The Angel’s branch was completed September 15, 1902 and operated until 1935.


The Sierra Railway connected directly to Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads in Oakdale, providing access to the national rail network.  It reached its peak passenger service in years just before WW1 when ten regularly scheduled trains ran every day.  The Sierra Railway was used to supply the Don Pedro Dam project on the Tuolumne River and the Melones Dam project on the Stanislaus River in the early 1920s.  It also supported the Hetch Hetchy Dam project (O’Shaughnessey Dam) in the 1920s and operated the Hetch Hetchy Railroad 1935-38, which ran up to the Hetch Hetchy Valley’s major construction sites.  In the 1950’s the Sierra Railroad supported the Tri-Dam Project consisting of Tulloch, Beardsley and Donnell dams.


The depression saw the Sierra Railway go into receivership and emerging in 1937 as the Sierra Railroad.  The last passenger train service was on May 12, 1939.  In 1955, the railroad began to use diesel-electric locomotives and continued to haul freight exclusively.  The original Jamestown complex of roundhouse, turntable and steam maintenance shops were sold in 1982 to the State of California Parks and Recreation Department to become Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where steam passenger excursion trains operate today on weekends from April through October.


The Sierra Railway is also famous for its role in the film industry.  It began in 1919 when Hollywood discovered the old steam engines and rolling stock for the silent movies.  It also became one of the first field facilities to use sound on location.  The local Tuolumne County scenery is perfect for movie making of all types and specialized in western films.  Over 200 films and TV programs were filmed using Sierra’s rolling stock and steam engines and it continues to play a role in filmmaking supported by the Tuolumne County Film Commission.  Many notable movie location sites, which were used in such films as "High Noon" starring Gary Cooper, still exist today.  A living history experience of the Sierra Railway steam era and western film making in Tuolumne County is provided during a visit to Railtown 1897.  You can enjoy a train ride, interpretive roundhouse tour of the shops and movie artifacts accompanied by period dressed docents.


For more information, order CHISPA, Vol. 9, No. 4, April-June, 1970, “Pioneer Railroading In Old Tuolumne,” Vol. 12, No. 3, January-March, 1973, “A Ride On the Hetch Hetchy Railroad, Circa 1920,” Vol. 18, No. 4, April-June, 1979, “West Side Revisited,” Vol. 25, No. 3, January-March, 1986, “Sierra on the Silver Screen,” and Vol. 36, No. 3, January-March, 1997, “The Sierra Railroad, A Centennial Tribute 1897-1997.”