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California \ Yosemite Short Line Railway \ Yosemite Short Line Railway Company: A Fresh Look

Yosemite Short Line Railroad Company.

A Fresh Look

by Mark Steven Francis

The Yosemite Short Line (YSL) is generally considered to have been short-lived - active only during the years 1905-1906. This brief run has been chronicled by other writers including Deane, Wurm, Ferrell, and Elg. 1 Recent research has uncovered additional information that provides a broader picture and understanding of the YSL's history - a history that goes well beyond 1906.

The primary source of new data comes from the Jamestown newspaper, the Mother Lode Magnet, published weekly during the period. Articles, although often brief, are rich in details bringing life to the history. Other sources were located at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland; the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley; the California State Archives in Sacramento; the California State Railroad Museum's library, also in Sacramento; and the Tuolumne County History Center in Sonora, California.

The history of the YSL begins with the ambitions of Thomas Bullock and the other investors in the Sierra Railway to tap the timber resources owned east of the North Fork of the Tuolumne River; to gain revenues by serving the mining activities in the region; and to exploit the growing tourism into the Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite valleys. There was competition for this trade to the park from another railroad to be built from Merced- the Yosemite Valley Railroad.

In the absence of surviving records to establish the fact, it is suggested that the Sierra's board of directors approved planning for the new railroad in 1904. The railroad was initially incorporated as the Jamestown & Yosemite Railway Company on January 7, 1905, in San Francisco. Initial capitalization was one million dollars. The stockholders (and their initial investment) were identified as T.S. Bullock ($45,000), S.D. Freshman ($29,700), S.H. Smith ($100), C.N. Hamblin ($100), and W.C. Potts ($100). All were associated with the Sierra Railway.

The proposed route would depart from the Sierra Railway at a junction west of Jamestown and follow Woods Creek past the Shawmut Mine, bridge the Tuolumne River at Jacksonville and continue up Moccasin Creek and Priests Grade toward Groveland then on to Yosemite Park. Preliminary surveys had been made; finals were to be completed without delay. The Magnet of January 11, 1905, reported that William Newell, the Sierra's chief engineer and surveyor, arrived from Tuolumne to begin preparations for a survey to Jacksonville. In March, a Sonora newspaper reported: "The fourth and successful survey for the Yosemite Valley Railway past the Shawmut mine has been made. The depot will be in front of the chlorination plant at that mine. The new route brings the track between the chlorination works and the creek. The other surveys were too high." In July 1905, the articles of incorporation were amended and soon after the capitalization was increased, members of the board of directors changed, and the name of the company became the Yosemite Short Line Railway Company. In August, the Sierra Railway board of directors agreed to lease and operate the YSL and to guarantee the issuance of YSL bonds and payment of interest due on the bonds.

In July and August, the Magnet reported regularly on YSL-related activities: surveying was continuing slowly due to the summer heat; representatives of three construction contractors (Lewis Moreing of Stockton, A.M. Erickson of Point Richmond, and W.H. Morrrow of San Francisco) had inspected the right-of-way with Newell. In August, Bullock let a contract for 50 miles of steel rail for what was to be known as the Yosemite Short Line Railway Company. Another contract would be let for 175,000 six-foot cedar or oak ties for immediate delivery. The Magnet of August 16 included a lengthy article about the YSL including its route and planned operations using steam power for freight trains and electric-powered motorcars for passenger service. The gauge was to be thirty inches.

In August, the Sierra Railway ordered two locomotives from the H.K. Porter Company of Philadelphia. These were to be direct-connected 0-4-0 small industrial-types with twin side tanks for water and built to burn fuel oil. In the same month, discussions were taking place with the J. Hammond & Co., California Car Works of San Francisco about an order for flat cars. The Olds Company was queried about a proposed track car to hold four passengers. In early September, it was confirmed that the Sierra had ordered thirty flat cars from Hammond. Acquisition of right-of-way progressed through purchase and occasional use of the courts using the corporations' status as a common carrier to compel a sale. In a report suggesting Bullock's deep concern for his investments, the Magnet of September 6 reported Bullock's instructions to Newell to avoid cutting any large sugar pine trees by rerouting the line if necessary.

The construction contract was issued to the Tuolumne Construction Company, another of Bullock's corporate creations held in the names of Bullock, his brother-in-law, Sidney Freshman, and S. E. Freshman (Sarah, his wife). Construction began on Tuesday, September 5, 1905, when T. Tennant, supervisor of construction for Erickson & Company of Point Richmond, sent a crew to begin work on the grade near the crossing of the Tuolumne River at Jacksonville. By September 20, the entire line had been surveyed from Jamestown to Mocassin. On that date, it was reported that C.E. Cotton of the bridge building firm of Cotton Brothers of San Francisco was at the Nevells Hotel in Jamestown. Bridge construction at Woods Creek had begun with excavations for three concrete piers. During September and early October, bridge work continued at Woods Creek and at Jacksonville. A crew of 200 Japanese laborers began grading from the boarding house at the Shawmut Mine west of Jacksonville toward Jamestown. The Japanese laborers had been sourced through a contract dated October 9, 1905, between the Tuolumne Construction Co. and the Japanese-American Industrial Corporation (JAIC) of San Francisco. The JAIC was one of a number of similar labor contractors operating on the U.S. west coast at a time of Japanese immigration principally from the Hawaiian Islands. Shortages of domestic workers were prevalent during the period affecting agricultural and industrial production and construction.

Later in October, three locomotives for the YSL were reported en route from Pennsylvania while three grading crews were at work. In November, six flatcars for the YSL were shipped via the Stockton yard of the Southern Pacific Railroad, arriving in Jamestown by November 8; passenger cars were reported to have been ordered for delivery after January 1, 1906. On December 13, fourteen flatcars and four ballast cars for the YSL were reported to be at the staging point (the Associated Oil Company's plant at Quartz Siding) on the Sierra line just west of Jamestown. 2 One week later, two locomotives arrived in Jamestown and were placed in the old roundhouse. They were described as follows:

They are 12-ton machines, and two pair of drive wheels, straight connected, the tanks being on either side of the boilers. They are undoubtedly serviceable little things, and capable of doing an astonishing amount of work, but a look at them makes one think he is visiting the world's fair at St. Louis again. It is an even guess among those who have seen them as to whether the engineer or the fireman will ride in the cab. 3

On December 20, 1905, the Sierra Railway ordered two additional locomotives from H.K. Porter. These were to be a slightly larger and more powerful version of the 0-4-0 tank-types previously ordered and delivered.

On January 3, 1906, the Magnet reported that YSL Engine No. 1 had "been fired up last week and given a trial in the roundhouse yards." Laying of a third rail between Jamestown and Quartz Junction was expected to be completed within the week after which track laying toward Jacksonville could begin. The line would be completed to the park boundary by June. During January and February considerable progress was made. The bridge over Sullivan Creek was completed and bridges over Woods Creek and the Tuolumne River at Jacksonville neared completion. Track was laid as far as the Shawmut Mine near Jacksonville. At the Sierra Railway's carpenter shop at Jamestown, box cars and tank cars were being built for the YSL. Evidence of this exists today in a box-type structure atop YSL flatcar #1 that awaits restoration at Railtown 1897 State Historical Park in Jamestown. This car was maintained for many years as a storage shed in the Sierra Railway's Oakdale yards. Sierra Railway records show that two 1,700 gallon tank cars were built for the YSL and numbered 301 and 309.

In March 1906, proposals were announced for a large hotel at the terminus to be built near Yosemite Park with depots at Shawmut and Jacksonville and a spur to the Republican Mine.

March also brought continuous rain from the 10th through the 26th causing flooding throughout the county. The YSL's bridge works were essentially destroyed with an estimated loss of over $30,000. Later in the month, Newell and Bullock met with representatives of the Japanese labor contractor and were convinced to reopen the contract due to the shortage of materials and the results of the winter storms. Bullock called a special meeting of the Sierra Railway's board of directors to discuss additional financing for the YSL. The meeting was held on April 17, 1906, in San Francisco during which the board approved a plan to provide more capital. In the early hours of April 18, a great earthquake and fire devastated the city and much of northern California. The YSL suffered no direct damage, but the financial interests of some board members - including Poniatowski and the Crockers - were severely distressed by the earthquake and fire. The result was a deferral of plans for further financing. Some track was laid during May and additional survey work completed. By the end of the year, track laying appears to have come to a halt. A Standard Lumber Company journal entry in December 1906 shows the YSL was paid $11,765.77 for 765 pieces of steel rail, 455 kegs of spikes, two switches and stands, and associated fasteners. Although sporadic attempts were made to resume construction, operating trackage never went beyond Shawmut. No revenue was ever generated by the YSL.

Although the period of construction was brief, it was not without incident beyond the damage resulting from the storms and flooding. On November 1, 1905, the Magnet reported that 48 Austrian laborers working near the Shawmut Mine quit their jobs because two others had been fired for being too slow. In another incident reported in the same issue, an Irishman and a Slav at the Jacksonville camp mixed words until Mike laid the Slav flat on the ground with one blow. "Another Slav stepped up to avenge his fallen countryman, but he, too, went down and out. Reinforcements were hurried to the front, two at a time, but Mike's good right arm sent them to grass until seven of them had been made subjects for the hospital." Other workers at the excavations for the Jacksonville Bridge were more fortunate. In their off-duty hours they found time to work the gravel deposits taking out gold worth about $7 per hour of labor - a sharp contrast to the daily wage of $2.25 paid by the contractor.

In February, 1906, two laborers, Francis Connally and George Gill were arrested by Deputy Constable Sweaney on a charge of highway robbery. They were accused of holding up an YSL foreman, W.C. Mitchell, near Jacksonville. Mitchell claimed to have lost a time check worth $54 and over $600 in cash. In March, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

In the period before the earthquake and fire of April 18 and the days immediately following, the Sierra Railway's board of directors made decisions seemingly contrary. On April 19, an internal Porter Company document reports the receipt of a telegram from the Sierra Lumber Co. [sic - Sierra Railway Co.] to renumber the two larger locomotives ordered in December to cab numbers 20 and 21. If the instruction was sent as a result of the meeting of April 17 or an earlier decision, it confirms that the Board was committed to a future for the YSL. If the order to change the cab numbers was issued April 18 or April 19 (post-earthquake), we are left to speculate about the Board's intent. Perhaps there was hope for a quick recovery from the financial difficulties brought on by the earthquake that would allow for additional financing of the railway. Whether hope, indecision, or another factor was driving the Board's actions, on or shortly before April 30, the H.K. Porter Company received a telegram from the Sierra Railway delaying delivery of the two locomotives ordered the previous December. Shortly thereafter, the order was cancelled.

In spite of the post-April 18 decision by the Sierra's board not to provide additional funding, construction resumed. Track laying was reported in progress on May 2 and the first train to Shawmut expected June 1. Wages of white laborers was increased from $2.25 to $2.50 per day. By May 30, the track reached within one-half mile of Shawmut Mine. The final half mile was completed by June 6; the first train was expected at Shawmut by June 15. As noted earlier, no revenue train ever reached Shawmut. A final note about construction was printed in the Magnet of October 31, "Workmen commenced rebuilding the Short Line railway bridge spanning the Tuolumne, below Jacksonville, this week." If started, it was never completed.

Thomas Bullock had a basketful of corporations and enterprises in 1906. One of his most successful ventures was the Standard Lumber Company that he incorporated in September 1901. The company grew rapidly, initially purchasing lumber from existing mills, soon leasing milling facilities, storage yards and factories, and by the end of 1905, completely controlling the output of four sawmills in the mountains above Sonora. Two of these mills (Empire Mill and Cold Springs Mill) were located within a few miles of each other along the North Fork of the Tuolumne River. Both mills experienced difficulties moving lumber by traction engines and team-drawn wagons to Sonora due to road conditions. A railroad from Cold Springs Mill to Empire would eliminate one of the torturous roads. A connection to the SLC's planned railroad along the South Fork of the Stanislaus River would alleviate another.

In 1903, Bullock incorporated the Sugar Pine Railway to reach into the timberlands the company controlled among the watersheds of the forks of the Stanislaus River. Now, in April 1906, Bullock must have seen an opportunity to take advantage of the calamity in San Francisco that abruptly terminated, if only temporarily, his plans to exploit his timber along the planned route of the YSL. He must have seized upon the situation of idle locomotives, cars, and an unfinished labor contract within days of notice that financing of the YSL was in limbo. Bullock must have negotiated quickly with the Sierra Railway's management. He arranged for the Japanese labor force to complete the YSL contract by moving to Empire to build a new rail line. The Sierra also allowed Bullock to "rent" their two YSL locomotives and a number of the flatcars. On May 9, it was reported in the Magnet that a railway of five to six miles was to be constructed at Bradford Mill (the SLC's Empire Mill). The Banner (one of Sonora's three weekly newspapers) of May 11 reported that Newell and a survey crew had gone to Empire to lay out a route for a narrow gauge railroad from the Sonora Lumber Company mill (the SLC's Cold Springs Mill) to Empire Mill "and perhaps beyond."

It is known that an YSL locomotive was loaded on a flatcar on or about June 26 at Quartz Junction and shipped via Ralph Station to Middle Camp where it was reloaded onto a wagon to be hauled to Empire Mill. 4 An unknown number of YSL flatcars were shipped shortly thereafter. Another report in early August stated a narrow gauge locomotive was hauled to Empire from Middle Camp by a team of 30 horses. An additional number of the YSL's Hammond-built flatcars were sold to the Union Construction Company to be used on the Stanislaus Railway - a railway built to support the construction of a flume as part of the huge hydroelectric project on the Stanislaus River.

As 1906 ended and 1907 began, there was little news of the YSL. On February 1, the Banner claimed there were signs of life at the YSL with locals awaiting a resumption of work. In June, news came of negotiations to lease the rail line to the Shawmut Mill. Louis Rosenfeld, president of the Eagle-Shawmut Mining Company was in talks with T.S. Bullock. Nothing apparently came of the discussions. In September, a report was printed that construction of the YSL would resume in 1908. In March of 1908, the YSL continued to acquire right-of-way near the Boitano Ranch, north of Big Oak Flat and west of Groveland.

The records and newspaper essentially were silent about the YSL over the next few years. The Sierra Railway furnished annual reports to the Interstate Commerce Commission declaring interest payments on the YSL bonds. Bullock (for the YSL) signed and submitted the Circular No. 11 annual reports to the ICC attesting to the length of track as six or seven miles and that the railway never operated nor received any revenue. The Magnet of July 6, 1910, reported that a fire below the community of Stent had burned the YSL's 90-feet long and 30-feet high bridge.

From the Sierra records, a letter was found dated November 10, 1915, from C.N. Hamblin to Jack Bullock (Thomas Bullock's son) reporting that the third rail from Jamestown to Quartz Junction had been removed. Later that year, Newell was asked to investigate possible options to reactivate the YSL rail line to serve the Shawmut Mine. Newell detailed the damage that had occurred to the original grade and trackage. His report included three options and the estimated costs:

  • 1. To repair the line from Quartz Junction without replacing the third rail to Jamestown

  • 2. Standard gauge the line to the mine

  • 3. Build a standard gauge line to the mine from Montezuma

Apparently, the costs proved prohibitive as no further action is documented.

On August 29, 1917, the Magnet reported that the YSL's rails had been taken up. On November 7 of that year, the paper noted the YSL rails near the Sullivan Creek wagon bridge had been removed and hauled to Quartz Junction by auto truck. The last reference to the YSL found in the Magnet came on May 22, 1918, when it reported that carloads of YSL rails were being shipped from storage at Latrobe (El Dorado County).

The final death knell came on July 18, 1917, when a Superior Court in San Francisco adjudged a final condemnation of the YSL on behalf of the City and County of San Francisco. The plaintiff paid a sum of $2,206.30 to the defendant, Anglo California Trust Company as trustee for the YSL bond holders. The YSL right-of-way was then made available for a new railroad already under construction - the Hetch Hetchy Railroad.

In subsequent years, the Sierra Railway continued to report to the California Public Utilities Commission the amounts of interest paid on the YSL bonds and other liabilities. The report of 1926 shows salvage of YSL had netted $25,000. YSL contractual liability subject to annual amortization equaled $173,375. The YSL bonds issued September 1, 1905, with maturity coming due on September 1, 1945 had an initial par value of $625,000; the amount still owed was $365,000. Amortization of YSL bonds during the year amounted to $9,125. Similar figures were reported in 1929 and 1932, the last year of record.

The Yosemite Short Line Railway, a very short line that had little more than a year of meaningful existence and never made a dime of revenue, nevertheless managed to make history for many more years, most of them unhappy for the directors of the Sierra Railway and the numerous investors who saw little, if anything, in the way of profit.

Revised: May 2, 2016.
1See Dorothy Newell Deane, Sierra Railway, (Berkeley, Howell-North, 1960); Ted Wurm, THE "SHORT LINE" TO YOSEMITE, CHISPA, THE QUARTERLY OF THE TUOLUMNE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY, Vol. 9, No. 4, April-June, 1970 (Sonora); Mallory Hope Ferrell, Along the Narrow Gauge, Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette, Vol. 32, No. 5, Nov.- Dec. 2006 (Mt. View, CA, (Benchmark Publications); and Lennart Elg, The Yosemite Short Line Railway Co.,, (
2Magnet, December 13, 1905. A map from Sierra Railway records shows the trackage at Quartz Siding. The Sierra Railway's main line with a siding serving the oil company's plant is immediately west of the junction of the YSL and a standard gauge spur. A spur from the YSL's main line is adjacent to it. The staging area likely was at this location. A description reports the third rail from the YSL turnout to Jamestown.
3Ibid, December 20, 1905.
4See Deane, p. 118, for a description of the move. Her facts are imperfect: the loading was unlikely to have occurred at Rosasco Junction because this point is west of Quartz Junction where the third rail from Jamestown ended. An eight-horse team is not likely to pull a Porter locomotive, however small, up the steep grade of the dirt road from Middle Camp to the Sonora-Mono Road and on to Long Barn and Empire Mill. A photograph shows twenty horses at the head of a wagon loaded with a Porter. The unloading could not have taken place at Stoddard Spring (on the Sonora-Mono Road above Long Barn). The rail line was initially built on Browne's Meadow, hundreds of feet below Stoddard Spring. No rail was laid near Stoddard Spring before 1908.

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