Rails and Timber


Introduction and Background


On July 4, 1828, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad laid the first roadbed in the United States.  From that meager beginning, railway construction flourished starting in the east and spreading to the mid-west financed by private investors.


Railroad development in the west was slow because private investors did not see the potential for short term gains.  Construction was hampered by the lack of labor and difficult terrain of mountain ranges, deserts, and river crossings.  The California Gold Rush from 1848 to 1852 caused placer gold mining towns to spring up overnight and early statehood of California becoming the 31st state by September 15, 1850.  Business opportunities grew rapidly as the western population exploded.


By 1856, the first California railroad was build by private business investments.  Theodore Judah, the chief engineer promoted and surveyed this railroad route.  The Sacramento Valley Railroad was only 22 miles long and went northeast from Sacramento to the foothills of Folsom, a new distribution center that supplied the many gold mine camps along the forks of the American River.


Judah had a passion for extending the railroad into a transcontinental railroad.  As early as 1859, he went to Washington D. C. selling the idea and provided surveys of routes over the Sierra Nevada to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.  It was recognized that the U. S. government would have to help finance such a large project but Congress was in disarray with the north and south competing over which route to take.  In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected and the next year eleven southern states seceded from the Union with the Civil War starting on April 12, 1861.  A northern route for a transcontinental railroad was assured.


Inspired by the vision of Theodore Judah, the possibility of a transcontinental railroad was pursued by a Sacramento group of powerful developers known as the “Big Four” – consisting of Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Charles Crocker.  Lobbying the U. S. government for financial support for land grants and subsidies, the Big Four chartered the Central Pacific Railroad in 1861.  By 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act was passed by the U. S. Congress identifying two companies to build the transcontinental line – one working east to west from Omaha, Nebraska, the other west to east from Sacramento, California.  The Central Pacific Railroad was specifically designated as the western company.  A new company to be known as the Union Pacific Railroad was to build the eastern portion.


President Abraham Lincoln and Congress approved subsidies in the form of land grants and predetermined dollar amounts for each mile of line completed.  The transcontinental railroad was spurred on by the Civil War.  In 1863, single gauge of track was selected (standard gauge) of 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches.


The Central Pacific Railroad was managed by the Big Four and made substantial financial demands of the government, which was preoccupied by the war.  Theodore Judah objected and wished to find new investors to buy out the Big Four and rushed back east via the Isthmus of Panama.  He passed away October 26, 1863 as a result of yellow fever.  Huntington managed the acquisition of materials from the east during the war using gifts of Central Pacific stock in lieu of money.  By 1864, only 18 miles of track had been laid.  On April 1, 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated and Vice President Andrew Johnson became president.  When the war ended shortly thereafter, Crocker hired a construction boss James Strobridge, an experienced railroad builder from Connecticut, and things started to move.  He and Crocker decided to hire and train Chinese laborers after some proven success.  Crocker, working with Chinese agents, set out to hire 10,000 Chinese to build their road and blast through the Sierra Nevada.  There were many obstacles to overcome.  Rails and engines were shipped in from the east.  The winter of 1866-1867 was the worst storms on record.  Heavy snow storms required construction of snow sheds.  A leap frog concept was developed to grade beyond the tunnel sites while the tunnels were being built. Each section was then tied together.  The Chinese proved to be incredibly diligent laborers.


The Union Pacific Railroad was promoted by Thomas Durant from New York, supported by east coast investors.  Construction of the Union Pacific Railroad started in March 1864, but progress was minimal.  During the last year of the Civil War, Durant managed to hire Major General Greenville Dodge as chief engineer.  Because of his railroad expertise, Dodge was given a leave of absence by General Sherman from the Army.  Dodge was also familiar with the Indians of the Great Plain from his war career.  Dodge and a newly hired construction boss, Brigadier General Jack Casement, made a strong team and things began to move rapidly.  The two military trained men created the “Army on wheels”, a 22-car self-contained work train with labor lodging facilities, carrying guns and ammunition.  Wagons were used to re-supply the consist as it laid track in a production line manner, approximately one mile of track per day.  West of Omaha was basically uncivilized stretches of flat land with Indian tribes located along the rail route.  Because of the lack of hardwood trees for railroad ties, lumber was transported from Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana.  Rails and engines were brought to the frontier from eastern factories.  They began to hire up to 10,000 labors consisting of ex-military, Irish, and Indians.


Encounters with Indians along the route were sometimes hostile.  The Indians saw their hunting lands and buffalo herds being wasted by whites who killed for sport, not food.  Other distractions included the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act which gave citizens willing to populate the new territory 160 acres of free land.  These people wanted to be near the railroad which was selling land as part of their financing.  Temporary tent cities were also a problem.  These tent cities followed the track laying routes and were full of gamblers, saloon keepers, dance-hall operators, prostitutes and outlaws.


The Transcontinental Railroad was completed after the Central Pacific Railroad left Sacramento, California, forging through the Sierra Nevada, laying 690 track miles and the Union Pacific left Omaha, Nebraska blazing through the plains and deserts, laying 1,086 track miles.  They met to form one railroad line at Promontory, Utah at the Golden Spike ceremony on May 10, 1869.  Crossing the continent by train took only one week, setting the stage for a new era of western expansion.


In 1880-1905, a “Second Gold Rush” in California was driven by hard rock quartz mining.  Using new technology such as the availability of electricity, modern explosives, air pumps, steel strain cables, modern drill bits and new square set timber designs made it possible for deeper mines of several thousand feet or more.  Industrialization was maturing and western railroads were again seen to be the solution to transportation of heavy mining equipment, timber and delivering of mined ores to the milling facilities for extraction of gold.  New mines were started and many old mines were re-opened and made deeper in the southern mining areas.  There were few roads and only animal-led wagons for transportation.  The Santa Fe and Southern Pacific (formerly Central Pacific) railroads were planning connections in Oakdale, California providing access to the gold mines in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.


In February 1897, the new Sierra Railway, a standard gauge short-line, was urgently incorporated by Thomas Bullock, Prince Andre Poniatowski and William Crocker to go from Oakdale to Jamestown to head off the competition of the larger railroads.  Bullock was searching for a railroad to build with equipment and rails he owned from a previous venture (Prescott-Arizona Central Railroad) that failed because of competition from the Santa Fe Railroad.


Bullock and Poniatowski considered a route to the gold mines using an extension of a narrow gauge San Joaquin and Sierra Nevada Railroad built by F. Birdsall in 1885 which had been taken over by the Southern Pacific Railroad.  This line started at Bracks Landing near Lodi and had a terminus at Valley Springs in Calaveras.  The two men scouted on horse back and selected a more direct route, which could go from Oakdale to the Tuolumne and Calaveras mines.  They decided the first rails should go to Jamestown with the option to continue into Calaveras.


By March 24, 1897, construction of the first 41 miles was started and within nine months the first passenger train arrived in Jamestown on November 10, 1897.  Bullock, et al reached the gold fields before the larger railroads and another short line Stockton Tuolumne Railroad, known as the “Women’s Railroad”, and financed by Annie Kline Rikert and a number of local women investors.  In the fall of 1897, William Newell was hired as chief engineer by Bullock to design the line extension to the town of Tuolumne, which was driven by the pursuit of timber for his 1899 entry into the lumber mill industry. By 1902, Newell had completed the line over difficult terrain to reach the gold mines in Angels Camp, Calaveras County. 



References for Rails and Timber in Tuolumne County


CHISPA, the Quarterly to the Tuolumne County Historical Society,

Vol. 9, No. 4; April – June 1970

Vol. 25, No. 3; January – March 1986

Vol. 36, No. 3; January – March 1997


Colorful Men and Women of the Mother Lode, Janet Irene Atkinson


Hetch Hetchy and Its Dam Railroad, Ted Wurm


Railroads of the Yosemite Valley, Hank Johnston


Rails in the Mother Lode, Adolf Hungry Wolf


Sierra Railway, Dorothy Newell Deane


Sugar Pine Railway Memories, Manuel J. Marshall


The Movie Railroads, Larry Jensen


West Side Pictorial, Mallory Hope Ferrell


Mr. Lincoln’s Military Railroads, Roy Meredith & Arthur Meredith


Trains of the Old West, Brian Solomon


Westward to Promontory, Barry B. Combs


Makin’ Tracks, the Saga of the Transcontinental Railroad, Lynne Rhodes Mayer & Ken Vose


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