A brief history of the Sierra Railway and Railroad
The Sierra Railway of California was incorporated February 1, 1897. Behind the incorporation was Mr. Thomas S. Bullock, a New York railroader and former owner of the defunct Prescott & Arizona Central Railroad, as well as chief promoter of the new line. Providing financial resources were Mr. William Crocker, San Francisco banker and treasurer of the California Exploration Company (which owned many mines in the Mother Lode) and his brother-in-law, Prince Andre Poniatowski, the representative of a group of wealthy French investors.
Construction of the first 41 miles of the railroad, from Oakdale to Jamestown, began on March 24, 1897. The original rail had previously been used on the Prescott & Arizona Central (P&AC), an earlier scheme of Bullock's that failed when the Santa Fe Railway built a line of their own, paralleling Bullock's.
In addition to the rail, Bullock also brought along three locomotives from the P&AC. The largest of these three locomotives, a 4-6-0 built by the Rogers Locomotive & Machine Works of Patterson, New Jersey, was destined to become a railroad movie star; it remains on exhibit at Railtown 1897 today. The railroad used 400 men and 300 horses and mules, working from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, and completed the line into Jamestown amid great ceremonies on November 10, 1897 - a mere 37 weeks to complete.
In Jamestown, the Sierra located its General Offices in a newly constructed depot. The structure was adjacent to the Nevills Hotel, a joint venture of Bullock and Captain W. A. Nevills, owner of the Rawhide Mine on the side of nearby Table Mountain and a local teaming entrepreneur. The hotel - largest in Tuolumne County at the time - was a magnificent and elegant structure, containing 60 rooms. The railroad also located its roundhouse and maintenance facilities at Jamestown. The railroad announced plans to extend into Sonora and beyond.
While there were certainly lots of supporters of a railroad for Tuolumne County several groups, especially teamsters (engaged in the business of hauling goods by wagons), were very much against the "iron horse" entering Sonora. After an injunction was finally removed, the Sierra's first train entered Sonora on February 26, 1899. There a depot was built (20' x 40') of two stories, the first floor of Columbia marble and the second of wood. The depot, adjacent to Hales and Symonds (one of the original teamster companies fighting the railroad in 1898), stood until razed by fire in 1946.
From Sonora an additional 12 miles of railroad was built to Carters-Summersville (later renamed Tuolumne City). This extension completed the building of the Sierra's main line, with the end of the line and a new depot located only a few hundred yards from the mill of the West Side Flume & Lumber Co. (another project of Bullock's which was soon sold to a group of experienced Michigan lumbermen). The completed line to Tuolumne City opened on February 1, 1900.
Lumber from the West Side Lumber Company mill at Tuolumne City and the mountain mills of the Standard Lumber Company (served by another Bullock venture, the Sugar Pine Railroad - later named the Pickering Lumber Company) furnished the largest source of revenue for the Sierra Railway. However, the Sierra was anxious to build a branch line to Angels Camp, hoping to gain revenue from the many rich mines in the region. This line would also help protect the Sierra from the threat of other railroads wishing to build into the area.
Construction of the Angels Branch was soon under way, under the direction of W. H. Newell, the Sierra's new Chief Engineer, who discovered a feasible route to Angels after several experienced engineers declared it "impossible." The line started in front of the Nevills Hotel in Jamestown and wound its way back and forth, always following the "Mother Lode" vein and passing many of the most famous gold mines in its 19.3 tortuous miles. Included along the route were "switchbacks" in the steep canyon of the Stanislaus River.
The first train into Angels Camp arrived on September 15, 1902. Because of the steep grades, tight turns, and numerous switchbacks, geared locomotives and special equipment had to be used. Two special "shorty" passenger cars were built especially for the Angels Branch in 1902 by the Holman Car Company of San Francisco. These unique cars, combination coach-baggage No. 5 and coach No. 6, have seen many years of varied service on the Sierra. Both have been used in countless movies and remain on display today at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.
Other railroads connecting directly to the Sierra included the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific, both at Oakdale (providing connectivity to the national rail network); the Hetch Hetchy Railroad at milepost 26, which provided a means of getting construction materials to the site of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir's O'Shaughnessy Dam; the Sugar Pine Railroad (Pickering) at Ralphs, milepost 54; and the West Side Lumber Company (originally known as the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley RR) at Tuolumne City, the end of the line at milepost 57.
Traffic reached its peak on the Sierra Railway in the years just before World War I, when as many as 10 regularly scheduled trains ran over the line every day. Two fires in 1915 and 1923, respectively, brought an end to the two tourist hotels on the line: the Nevills and the Turnback Inn in Tuolumne City. During the "roaring twenties" the Sierra boosted its total track miles to 92.5, primarily because of two water projects under way in the area. The first was work on the Don Pedro Dam on the Tuolumne River, which began construction in 1921 and was served by an 8-mile branch line from Rosasco at milepost 26. The second project was the Melones Dam on the Stanislaus, served by a 7-mile branch line from the Sierra mainline at Jack's Siding (milepost 32) to the dam site.
The raising of the O'Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley by the City and County of San Francisco brought a further flurry of activity to the Sierra from 1935 to 1938. During this period the 59 mile Hetch Hetchy Railroad was reconditioned and operated as a branch of the Sierra, giving the Sierra an all-time record of 140 track miles operated. Later in 1935, the railroad began to shrink when the Angels Branch was abandoned. The last regularly scheduled passenger train on Sierra rails left Tuolumne City for Oakdale on March 12, 1939.
The Depression also saw the Sierra Railway go into receivership, finally emerging in 1937 as the Sierra Railroad under the ownership of Crocker Associates. During World War II things were slow on the Sierra, and in the coming decades traffic would become concentrated entirely on serving the lumber industry.
Luckily for the railroad, Hollywood film producers had discovered Tuolumne County's rugged countryside and quaint, ancient trains beginning in 1917. The Sierra Railroad, even in its worst years financially, managed to keep the film business rolling, and even brought in "old" railroad equipment to keep producers happy. It also kept its older locomotives (such as "movie star" locomotive No. 3) and ancient wooden coaches on its roster. These were maintained and stored in the Historic Sierra Railroad Shops and Roundhouse at Jamestown.
The Modern Era
Diesel-electric locomotives (two Baldwin S-12s) operating out of a small engine facility in Oakdale would take over all freight operations on April 18, 1955. Thankfully, the Sierra continued to operate its steam-era roundhouse in Jamestown for benefit of its Hollywood sideline business. In 1981 the railroad itself was sold to Silverfoot, Inc. of Chicago.
In 1982 the Jamestown complex (today's Railtown 1897 State Historic Park), along with the remaining steam locomotives and historic passenger and freight cars, was sold to the State of California. Administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation, it assumed its new identity but remained challenged for staffing and other resources. In 1992, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park came under the jurisdiction of the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, and in 1996 the affiliated, non-profit CSRM Foundation took over business responsibility for train operations, Depot Store sales, and public activities at the Park.
In early 1995 the freight line was again sold, this time to the Sierra Pacific Coast Railway. In mid-1995 Fiberboard Corporation announced the sale of its Wood Products Division to Sierra Pacific Lumber Company. The plywood mill at Standard was converted, and the mill now produces cut lumber from "large logs." The mill at Chinese Camp has been upgraded (1996) with a huge log mover, and concentrates on cut lumber from "small logs." Both mills ship finished wood on the railroad, plus a large amount of wood chips.
The Sierra Railroad again changed hands in September 1995, when it was taken over by several existing investors due to internal issues. The new owners have plans for expansion and brought in new diesel locomotives. Among their current operations is the Golden Sunset Dinner Train, which operates out of Oakdale.
The excursion trains of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park operate over the tracks of the Sierra Northern Railroad under a trackage rights agreement.