Railroad Beginnings in California

Having proven successful in the East, the first railroads built in California also provided transportation from inland communities to the rivers and ocean harbors to meet the needs of the growing population of California.

The discovery of gold in California near Sutter's Mill in Coloma, east of Sacramento, on January 24, 1848 brought a huge number of people lured by the promise of "gold laying in the streams" into California during 1849. An estimated 55,000 arrived by overland routes and another 25,000 by sea. Transportation from the mines to the Sacramento River became increasingly important. Freight wagons and stagecoaches provided transportation to the mining camps over the often rugged roads.

The Union Wharf and Plank Company, incorporated in December 1854, built a pier on the North Shore of Humboldt Bay at Arcata, a point where lumber schooners could be loaded. A unique 3 ft. 9 1/4 inch narrow gauge horse tramway was built with wooden rails on the pier to transport lumber to the schooners. By the end of 1855 the company had laid two miles of wooden track connecting to the wharf, a horse pulled the cars to and from the wharf. The track was upgraded and a lightweight steam locomotive was put into service around 1875. The line was extended to provide service to neighboring mills, reorganized as the Arcata & Mad River Railroad with the line extended to North Fork on the Mad River in 1882.

Sacramento Valley Railroad in Sacramento Sacramento Valley Railroad

On August 4, 1852 the Sacramento Valley Railroad was incorporated, Charles Lincoln Wilson was selected President. The SVRR hired Theodore D. Judah to survey a line eastward from Sacramento to Folsom and Marysville.

Grading began in Sacramento in February 1855. The first English iron rails were laid on August 9. Track was completed between the foot of R Street and 17th Street on August 16. The first common carrier railroad in California, the SVRR made its first trial run on August 17, 1855 with a three car train pulled by the locomotive Sacramento. Construction was completed to Patterson Station by the end of September. A depot, railroad shops and a turntable were constructed at Folsom. The SVRR opened for business to Folsom on February 22, 1856, hauling ore, food, goods and passengers along the 22.9 mile line between Folsom and the river docks in Sacramento.

The SVRR was acquired by Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific Railroad in August, 1865. In 1877 the line was consolidated into the Sacramento & Placerville Railroad.

California Central Railroad and other connecting lines

California Central RR train leaving Folsom crossing the American River (courtesy California State Library, California History Room)Other railroads were constructed to provide passenger and freight service to other parts of the Sacramento Valley area. Ground breaking for the California Central Railroad took place on June 1, 1858. By October 13, 1861 the railroad connected Lincoln to the Sacramento Valley Railroad at Folsom Junction.

The Sacramento, Placer and Nevada Railroad was organized in 1859 to connect Nevada City, Auburn and Folsom. At Folsom the railroad connected with the California Central RR at a spot called Ashland Station. Service on the line was inaugurated to Wildwood Station in July 1862, eight miles from Folsom. The track opened to Auburn Station, about six miles from Auburn in October 1862. Track laying stopped at Loomis, 11 miles from Folsom, when construction funding ran out. The line was abandon in May 1864 due to competition from the Central Pacific.

Incorporated in June 1862, the Placerville & Sacramento Valley Railroad began construction from Folsom Junction towards Placerville in late 1863. The 26 mile line from Folsom Junction to Shingle Springs was completed in June 1865. With the discovery of Silver in Nevada in 1865, the small village of Shingle Springs witnessed sudden growth as a bustling freighting and transportation center in the mountains. The depot was 800 feet long and saw the arrival of one freight and two passenger trains daily from Sacramento. Stages ran daily from Shingle Springs to Placerville and all stations east, burdened with passengers and express. All shipping to the Comstock mines passed through Shingle Springs. From here freight was transported by wagons pulled by teams over the Sierras. The line was acquired by Huntington, Stanford and Hopkins following foreclosure in 1871. In 1877 the line was consolidated into the Sacramento & Placerville Railroad.

Today a portion of the line is preserved as an operating heritage railroad by the Folsom, El Dorado, and Sacramento Historical Railroad Association. The Ashland Freight Depot, constructed in 1858-1859, has been moved to Folsom and is currently used as an interpretive center.

Central Pacific "Gov. Stanford"Central Pacific Railroad provides connection to the East

Leland Stanford, Collins P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California on June 28, 1861, convinced by Theodore D. Judah that a railroad could be built between California and the East and be profitable. President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act on July 1, 1862, chartering the Central Pacific to build eastward from Sacramento. The Central Pacific Railroad broke ground at Front and K Streets in Sacramento on January 8, 1863, and laid its first rail on October 26.

The Central Pacific's first locomotive, No. 1 Governor Stanford, was placed in service on November 10. Most of the rail, supplies and equipment for the Central Pacific had to be shipped around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. It typically took from three to seven months or longer for shipments to arrive from the East.

The Central Pacific pushed their rails 18 miles east of Sacramento to Roseville by February 1864 and train service began in April. Trains began running from Sacramento to Newcastle on June 10, 1864, and Auburn on May 16, 1865. Colfax, 55 miles away, was reached on September 10, 1865. The first CPRR locomotive crossed the California - Nevada border on December 13, 1867. The Central Pacific continued building track eastward to meet the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869, forming the 1780 mile long Pacific Railroad linking California with the East by rail.

The Central Pacific completed the line connecting Sacramento to San Francisco, on November 8, 1869, via subsidiaries Western Pacific Railroad and San Francisco Bay Railroad.

San Francisco & San Jose Locomotive No. 5San Francisco & San Jose Railroad

Railroad passenger service between San Jose and San Francisco began in October 1963 with the opening of the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad. The railroad was incorporated in 1859, most of the financing for the project came from county government in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties following a three-county election in 1861. In addition to depots in San Francisco and San Jose, the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad Company constructed two "way depots" at Santa Clara and San Mateo. The University of Santa Clara and local industry also playing a significant role in both stock acquisition and placement of the depots.

The Southern Pacific Railroad acquired the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad in 1870.

The Santa Clara passenger depot was constructed by the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad Company in late 1863. It was moved to the opposite side of the tracks and joined to an existing freight house in 1877, placing the depot on the same side of the tracks as the town and providing additional square footage.

Santa Clara Depot, photo courtesy CaltrainThe Santa Clara depot was the oldest continuously operating railroad depot in the State of California until the ticket office was closed in May 1997. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the restored depot hosts a railroad library, model railroad exhibits and a museum and is serving as a railroad depot for Amtrak, Caltrain and Altamont Corridor Express trains.


San Francisco, Oakland & Alameda Railroad

The San Francisco & Oakland Railroad was incorporated in October 1861. The railroad began operation of a steam transit line from Broadway down 7th Street to the Oakland Mole in September 1863, extending to LaRue's Wharf and San Antonio by 1865.

The San Francisco & Alameda Railroad was incorporated in March 1863. The line was built from High Street in Alameda to the Old Alameda Point. Service began in August 1864 and provided ferry boat service to Davis Street in San Francisco. The San Francisco & Alameda Railroad built a wharf at the foot of Pacific Avenue, and a railway through town and over to the mainland. They did not acquire a boat until 1865, when they began service to San Francisco. The San Francisco and Alameda Railroad built the Alameda in 1866, the first double-ended ferry on the bay.

The line consolidated with the San Francisco, Alameda & Stockton Railroad which completed a line to Hayward in August 1865. Consolidated with the San Francisco & Oakland Railroad to form the San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda Railroad Company in June 1870. Consolidated into the Central Pacific in August 1870.

Napa Valley Rail Road train, courtesy Napa County Historical SocietyNapa Valley Rail Road

The Napa Valley Rail Road was built by Samuel Brannan and a group of business associates. Brannan owned a hot springs resort and real estate in Calistoga. The track from Soscol to Napa was completed on July 11, 1865. The NVRR reached Oakville on September 15, 1867, St. Helena on February 27, 1868, and Calistoga on July 31, 1868. Stops were made at Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Bello, St. Helena, Barro, Bale and Walnut Grove. The California Pacific Railroad Company purchased the Napa Valley Rail Road Company at foreclosure in June 1869.

The Central Pacific purchased the California Pacific in 1876. The Southern Pacific operated passenger service to Calistoga until 1929 and provided freight service on the line until 1987. In 1987 the track from Napa to St. Helena was sold to the new Napa Valley Railroad for operation of the Napa Valley Wine Train. The Calistoga Depot is preserved as a State Historical Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a plaque indicates it is the second oldest remaining railroad depot in California.

Western Pacific Railroad

The Western Pacific Railroad Company was incorporated in 1862 to connect San Jose with Sacramento, with Timothy Dame serving as the first President of the new corporation. Construction of the Western Pacific Railroad began in San Jose in 1865, with the first 17.5 mile section to Niles opening in October 1866. Absorbed into the Central Pacific, the 123 mile line was completed from Sacramento via Stockton, Tracy and Niles Canyon in September 1869. The San Francisco Bay Railroad Company 22.5 mile long line was consolidated into the Western Pacific Railroad Company in November 1869, adding a line from Niles Canyon to East Oakland, which became the western terminus of the Central Pacific. (This Western Pacific Railroad is not associated with the later Western Pacific.)

California Pacific Railroad

The California Pacific Railroad Company was incorporated in 1865. The railroad ran from Sacramento to Vallejo, connecting with a passenger ferryboat to San Francisco. Construction began in Vallejo in December 1866 and was complete to Davis in August 1868. California Pacific purchased the Napa Valley Rail Road Company at foreclosure in June 1869, which it operated as a branch line, and another branch line from Davis to Marysville. Completed in 1870, the railroad provided a shorter 90 mile route from Sacramento to San Francisco Bay than the Western Pacific (Central Pacific) line. The California Pacific was sold to the Central Pacific in 1876.

Today Amtrak's Capitol Corridor follows the original California Pacific line between Sacramento, Suisun/Fairfield, Oakland and San Jose.

Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad

LA&SP Locomotive "San Gabriel"Following the entry of California into the United States in 1850 the number of ships calling in the state increased. August W. Timms and Phineas Banning both opened wharfs in San Pedro Bay. Banning's Wharf soon became the center of the shipping industry in San Pedro Bay. Cargo and passengers moved between the harbor and Los Angeles in wagons and stagecoaches along the wagon road which was little more than a rutted path. Growing commercial activity in Southern California created a need to improve transportation between Los Angeles and the harbor.

Banning was elected to the State Senate, and in 1866 sponsored legislation to authorize a bond measure to fund a railroad linking Los Angeles and the harbor, which the City and County of Los Angeles approved. Banning broke ground for the 22 mile long Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad on September 19,1868, the first railroad in Southern California. By mid-December two miles of track were completed.

Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad depot at Alameda and Commercial, circa 1870, Courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.The railroad's first locomotive was a tiny four wheel locomotive called the San Gabriel. The locomotive was one of two small "pony" engines built several years earlier by the Vulcan Iron Works of San Francisco for the Napa Valley Railroad, which had found them too light for their service. It was purchased for the construction of the line and arrived by ship.

On September 8, 1869, the tracks were completed to the railroad's new depot at the corner of Alameda and Commercial streets. To celebrate the formal opening of the line Banning and the railroad directors invited all of Los Angeles for a free round-trip on the train and a huge dedication ball afterward at the Los Angeles depot on October 26, following the arrival of the railroad's second and larger locomotive, the Los Angeles. Over 1,500 took the excursion. The Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad provided an efficient overland route linking Wilmington and Los Angeles.

Sold in 1873 to the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad continued to operate as part of the Southern Pacific.

Southern Pacific Railroad

The Southern Pacific Railroad was incorporated in December 1865. In July 1866, congress passed a bill authorizing the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, based in San Francisco to build a southern transcontinental line from San Francisco to meet the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company, building westward from St. Louis. The Great Pleasure Routes of the Pacific Coast" Southern Pacific Railroad, Northern Division 1885, E. Schultze for the Southern Pacific Railroad (Engraving)Both companies were to meet at the Colorado River near the 35th parallel. The Southern Pacific acquired the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad following authorization by the state legislature in March. Grading began on the extension southward at 4th Street in San Jose in April 1868, carried out by the Santa Clara & Pajaro Valley Railroad which had been incorporated in January.

The Southern Pacific was purchased by the directors of the Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, Collins P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker in September 1868. The Southern Pacific line was extended, with service operating to Delano in July 1873.

When the Southern Pacific Railroad, began planning a route through the Southern part of the state, both the City and County of Los Angeles realized that Los Angeles and its emerging port were dependent on a railroad link to the rest of the nation to have any hope of survival. Southern Pacific partner Charles Crocker reminded city leaders of the consequences if they failed to cooperate, telling them "I will make grass grow in your streets." To insure that the Southern Pacific would terminate their second transcontinental railroad in Los Angeles County, the City and County of Los Angeles gave their holdings in the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad to the Southern Pacific Railroad on April 23, 1873. In addition, the county provided a $602,000 cash subsidy to the Southern Pacific and rights of way to build lines to Pomona and Anaheim. Phineas Banning and Henry Tichenor also sold their shares in the line making the directors of the Southern Pacific virtually the sole owners.

Southern Pacific work crews began construction of a branch line to Anaheim in the summer of 1873, which opened on January 17, 1875. Another line was extended from the station on Alameda Street to Naud Junction where one line continued 22 miles northward to San Fernando, and the other 29 miles eastward to Spadra in 1874. The line reached the Colorado River across from Fort Yuma, Arizona in 1877, the end of the distance the charter allowed.

Southern California and the East were linked at Lang Station, near Palmdale on September 5, 1876 with the opening of the Southern Pacific line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Los Angeles and Independence Railroad Depot at Fifth Street and San Pedro Street, Los_Angeles circa 1875Los Angeles & Independence Railroad

The Los Angeles & Independence Railroad Company was incorporated in January 1875 with Francisco P. Temple, John P. Jones, Robert S. Baker, T. N. Park, James A. Pritchard, J. S. Slauson, and J. U. Crawford, as directors. John P. Jones had partnered with Robert S. Baker to develop a seaside resort town on Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica in 1874. The railroad was intended to connect Los Angeles with the new town at Santa Monica Bay, then continue to San Bernardino and Independence in the Owens Valley via Cajon Pass to serve the Cerro Gordo Silver Mines (owned by John Jones) near Panamint.

The 16.7 mile line between Los Angeles and Santa Monica was constructed primarily by Chinese laborers, the right-of-way was provided by local ranchers who were anxious to have access to a railroad. The line opened on October 17, 1875. At the mouth of the Santa Monica Arroyo a wharf extended into the ocean. There, ships could dock and unload freight onto rail cars.

The Southern Pacific Railroad refused to allow crossing of their main line tracks, preventing construction of the Los Angeles & Independence line east of Los Angeles. Competition with San Pedro for shipping business, slow real estate sales in Santa Monica and the closure of the Panamint silver mine in early 1877 led to fiscal difficulties. On July 4, 1877 the Los Angeles & Independence was acquired by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Under Southern Pacific ownership during the 1880's the existing wharf was extended to allow access to larger ships, the population at Santa Monica boomed, and railroad briefly became one of the region's principal freight corridors. But with the federal government's 1897 decision to build a harbor in San Pedro instead of Santa Monica, gradually eliminating the need for the Santa Monica wharf. The line was electrified for interurban rail service in 1908 and became known as the Pacific Electric's Santa Monica Air Line by the 1920's, providing service to Santa Monica, Venice and Culver City. Pacific Electric ended passenger service on the line in 1953. Today the right of way West of Flower Street is used as the Los Angeles Metro Rail Expo Line.


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