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Historic Railroad Beginnings in El Dorado County

11/03/2015 09:09AM ● Published by Jerrie Beard

Photo courtesy of placervillebranch.blogspot.com.

Construction on the Sacramento Valley Railroad, the first commercial railroad west of the Mississippi, began 160 years ago. That venture would eventually connect Sacramento to Placerville and pit El Dorado County against the Central Pacific Railroad in a race to find a route across the Sierra Nevada.

In 1852, Charles Lincoln Wilson, a steamship operator on the Sacramento River, recognized the need for rail transport from Sacramento to inland mining areas and formed the Sacramento Valley Railroad. He traveled to New York to secure the engineering firm of Robinson, Seymour and Company and met and hired a young survey engineer, Theodore Judah. Judah would later survey the route for the transcontinental railroad over the Sierras.

Construction began in 1855, and by 1856 trains were running to Folsom. Soon the citizens of Placerville petitioned for rail service to transport the heavy freight headed to the mines of the Comstock Lode. George Bragg, then president of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, and Lester Robinson, a major stockholder, stipulated that if El Dorado County would “grade the route and furnish ties, they (the railroad) would supply the rails for 10-percent county bonds.” In the election of 1863, county residents issued $200,000 in 10-percent bonds, and work began on the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad.

That same year, the Central Pacific Railroad, which eventually connected to the transcontinental railroad, began their push eastward. Meanwhile, the rails for the Placerville line, which were coming from the East Coast, lay at the bottom of the sea in ships sunk by Confederate privateers. To compensate, the railroad bought or stole rails and ties from smaller, local railroads that had been put out of business by the Central Pacific. 

Proponents of the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad envisioned it traveling through Placerville then Strawberry, tunneling through the mountain to the Tahoe Basin and on to Carson City, eventually connecting to the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad proposed a route through Auburn and Reno and then East. 

Confident of his line’s success, Robinson suggested a race from Sacramento to Virginia City to determine which route was better. Each rail company would pick up a stack of San Francisco newspapers in Sacramento and carry them via the rails and stagecoach, since neither line went over the mountains, to Virginia City. The Central Pacific completed the race nine hours ahead of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. 

The Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad reached Shingle Springs in 1865 amid a host of financial difficulties. Realizing that the railroad had no way to finance further construction or pay off its bonds, Bragg sold the line to the Central Pacific. The Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad no longer existed and bondholders were left with a worthless piece of paper. In 1872, bondholders sued El Dorado County and the City of Placerville. The county settled for $200,000 by issuing new bonds; the Placerville City Council simply resigned leaving no one responsible for payment on the bonds.

The Central Pacific completed the line to Placerville in 1888. The first train—with 500 excursion passengers—rolled into town amid thousands of onlookers and a fanfare of cannon fire and marching bands. Rail service between Folsom and Placerville continued until 1987.

—Jerrie Beard

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