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California \ San Joaquin & Sierra Nevada Railroad \ A History of the SJ&SN

A History of the San Joaquin & Sierra Nevada Railroad.

By Randy Hees.

For 25 years, one of California's least known narrow gauge lines, the San Joaquin and Sierra Nevada ran between the Mokolamne River and the Sierra foothills east of Lodi.

The SJ&SN had grown out of local dissatisfaction with the Southern Pacific, the service it provided and the rates it charged. Additional impetus came from the need for better transportation in a growing area, and a new tax on wheat shipments though the port of Stockton. Local farmers wanted a way to get their wheat to the deep water ports of San Francisco Bay. To the East, James Sperry, was developing the Calaveras Big Trees as a tourist destination. To these men the solution was simple, build a narrow gauge railroad.

The 70's and 80's were a time of narrow gauge fever in the West. Narrow gauge railways were promoted as a less expensive and therefore achievable solution to both local transportation needs and as a way of breaking the railroad monopoly. Until now Huntington and Stanford, through their Southern Pacific Railroad had successfully controlled transportation to tidewater. A formula had developed for those who wanted to control their own transportation destiny. The formula was simple, find access to water, and build a railroad to that point. Railroad cars built by the Carters, and locomotives from the catalog of one of two eastern locomotive builders Baldwin or Porter. If you had time you ordered your rails from the east, if not you turned to the only supplier of rails on the west coast, Pacific Rolling Mills of San Francisco.

Newspapers of the times are full of proposed narrow gauge lines. Most would do little more than hold meetings to complain about the present state of transportation. A few would survey a route, sell stock and order equipment and even move a little dirt, then failing interest enough investors, fail, selling off their supplies to satisfy their creditors. Examples included the Stockton & Ione, which ordered locomotives and started construction, but would never turn a wheel, The Peoples Railroad, which proposed a line from Oakland, across the Sierras, and later the Stockton & Amador. Even the South Pacific Coast was involved as it announced plans for a 650 mile long extension to the East to connect with the Denver & Rio Grande under the name of the San Francisco & Colorado River.

The new SJ&SN initially followed the pattern. Meetings were held starting in November 1881. A committee was formed. The members were Jacob Brack and Dr. Bently of Woodbridge, W. C. Green of Lodi, Captain Holman and Dr. D. J. Locke of Lockford and John Story of Comanche. The farmers and businessmen of the region clearly saw a need for transportation, both to fight the Southern Pacific's monopoly and to help the country side develop. One of the organizers, a local farmer, Jacob Brack had started construction of a new steamer landing, including dredging a two mile long channel from the Mokolumne River, so there was access to deep water. Like many of the other railroads, the organizational meetings were not without their disagreements and set backs. One of the organizers, Capt. Holman was hired to survey the sloughs along the Mokeumne River in December, only later to be fired from the position in January for lack of progress. The promoters and supporters saw the construction of the line as a noble battle between good (the local farmers) and evil (the Southern Pacific), as this exert from the RAILROAD SONG, published in the Valley Review in January 1882, clearly shows;

"Come on and all, both great and small. In union there is strength, By working altogether, we'll overcome at length. And we will show today boys, The powers with whom we wage, That we have grit and pluck enough, To build the narrow gauge."

In addition, they believed that a narrow gauge line was less likely to be taken over by the "Associates" owners of the Central and Southern Pacific. By January a resolution had been passed by the committee, calling for construction of a narrow gauge railroad from "the most feasible point at tide-water" to Woodbridge, Lodi, Lockford and Comanche. The route clearly showed that the new railroad was community based. Rather than build new communities, with the opportunity to make a profit from land development, the new line planned to serve the existing settlements. Support for the project continued to build. Joseph Brack offered a right of way to his landing, along with 10 acres for a depot and warehouses, with the condition that if the line ever fell into the hands of a monopoly the land would revert to him. In February, the town of Woodbridge donated 4 acres of land, for construction of the railroad shops

So the proposed SJ&SN had local support, but it needed more to succeed, and it found the something more in Fredrick Birdsall, from Dayton Nevada. Mr. Birdsall, owner of the Lyon Quartz mill, had built a horse drawn half-mile long tramway in 1869 to haul the "tailings" which his mill was built to process. The line used wooden rails with strap iron facing. Twelve years later in 1881 Birdsall upgraded his line, now called the Dayton, Sutro & Carson Valley Railroad. The rebuilt line was two miles long, now equipped with conventional rails and powered by a small steam locomotive.

To promoters of the SJ&SN he was both a savior, and, as an outsider, a suspect. He brought to the project both money and expertise. In early 1882 he became interested in the SJ&SN. He first sent Captain Dailey, who had built the track at Dayton to Woodbridge to oversee the work there. He then sold his railroad and mill to Joseph Douglas on April 26th, but not before he sold the locomotive and at least one car to his new railroad, the SJ&SN. Birdsall soon moved to California, followed by John Scott, his superintendent who would serve as general freight and passenger agent for new the line.

With Birdsall on board things started to happen quickly. The company incorporated March 21, 1882. Orders were placed with the Pacific Rolling Mills of San Francisco for rail. Birdsall's locomotive arrived on April 14. This locomotive (and at apparently one car) had been purchased used from the Lyon Mill & Mining Co. of Dayton, Nevada, Birdsall's old railroad. This locomotive would become the "Ernie Birdsall" a Baldwin 0-4-0t, built 1876 for a coal British Columbia coal mining railroad as the "Quadra" . Weighing only 6 tons it would see little use after completion of the road, being classified as a special service locomotive. The first entry in the new railroad's cash book is April 10th for freight for the locomotive followed by a bill for four days demurrage. On April 22, Jocob Brack drove the first spike. Then on May 2nd, this ad appeared:

Men Wanted

For track laying on the S. J. & S. N. R. R.
Apply to P. Daily track layer at Bracks Landing

So, Birdsall's associate, Capt. Daily had reappeared. Later he would become the Road Master of the SJ&SN, before going to work for the Central Pacific. The same issue paper reported that five miles of track had been laid and construction trains were now running. The route chosen ran from the steamer connection at Brack's Landing to the town of Woodbridge where the Railroad's shops were located. Then on to Lodi and a connection with the Southern Pacific. From there the line ran towards the farming communities to the East. Between the Delta and Lodi the landscape appears flat, and narrow gauge lines are supposed to be lightly built, but the local paper noted, "work of construction of this new road goes steadily on. The graders have had some heavy grading to do between here and Lockford. This seems strange when we thought the face of the country so near level before we were convinced to the contrary by seeing the embankments and cuts made by this road. They will be in Lockford with the grading this week and after the work is done near the wharf, the steel rails will be laid in hot"

Then on May 13, less than a month after the arrival of the Ernie Birdsall, a second locomotive was ordered from H. K. Porter, this time a Forney type ( 0-4-4t ) named for Director Joseph Brack which would arrive in mid July. Flatcars, built by the Carter Brothers, had started to arrive on May 8th . Deliveries would continue until July 12th , followed by five boxcars on August 26th. Hardware for four water tanks one each at Brackville, Woodbridge, Lockford and Wallace, was purchased from the Carter Brothers on June 15th. In addition the Carters would supply two push cars, two hand cars and two iron cars, as well as spare links, pins, car brasses and miscellaneous other parts.

On July 8th 1882 the line opened for business between Lodi and Woodbridge with an excursion. Construction continued, with the line between Woodbridge and Bracks opening a few days later. To the East work would continue towards the towns of Lockford, Clements and Wallace. Director Lock built a stone grain warehouse in Lockford. Ground was leased from the SP for a depot site in Lodi.

The railroad had an immediate effect on local freight patterns and rates. On July 26th the Valley Review reported that 4 carloads of wheat had been shipped from a new station at Gihespier's Ranch. But more important to the community was a report in the same paper that the Central Pacific had reduced freight rates on transportation for Melons to San Francisco from $2.60 a ton to $2.25 a ton in the face of the competition. So, for the local farmers the railroad was already successful. Freight rates had dropped.

Track construction progressed through early summer at the rate of about 3/4 miles a day. Construction The line was completed to the new town of Wallace, just over the San Joaquin county line, three miles from the proposed stop at the existing town of Comanche. Wallace was surrounded by rocky bluffs, making further progress difficult. For now, construction would stop and the railroad would settle down into normal operations.

By August a Regular steamer schedule had been established between San Francisco and Brack's Landing. The Steamer Centennial would leave San Francisco's Washington Street Wharf on Mondays, Wednesday and Friday at 5:00 p.m., arriving at Brack's in time for the morning train. The return trip took place on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. By November two trains a day were scheduled, a mixed train the morning and a passenger train in the afternoon. Steamer Service would be cut back to two round trips during the winter, but the Valley Review stated that "the road is doing as well, if not better than it had hoped to at this time of the year." The trains were timed to connect with the Southern Pacific's broad gauge trains at Lodi.

The third (and for an independent SJ&SN, the last) locomotive would arrive on September 20th also from Porter, this time a mogul (2-6-0) named "B. F. Langford". The SJ & SN RR have received an elegant passenger coach also a new locomotive from the East. It is a very fine one and is named "B. F. Langford". It must be a fast one too, if it runs as well on the railroad as its namesake does at the polls. (Valley Review, Lodi, CA, Sept. 20 1882) The "elegant" passenger coach would be their Carter built caboose. Like the SPC and other early California railroads, cabooses were passenger cars, usually combines, assigned to this third class service, but compared with the flat cars used earlier, the caboose would have been elegant.

With the arrival of the caboose times changed on the SJ&SN. From now on the Carters were no longer the main supplier of railroad equipment for the line. Spare parts were now purchased directly form the manufacturer. But more significantly the shops at Woodbridge started on a construction program of their own. The first project was more hand and push cars. It was followed by five boxcars, and two passenger cars, a coach (which would become car 1010) and a baggage. Finally 5 more boxcars would be built, but this time the frames would come from the existing Carter built flatcars. Construction of new cars would then stop as suddenly as it began.

By 1884 business had grown and an additional coach was needed. This time the railroad returned to the Carter Brothers, and had them build what was to be one of the finest cars ever turned out by the firm. The new coach would be named "Ettie." The car featured a Railroad roof rather than the more common duck bill style. On one end the car had solarium style windows, which reached within inches of the floor.

Efforts to extend the tracks beyond Wallace went slowly. In October 1893, Fredrick Birdsall was in Calaveras trying to sell $300,000 in the railroad's stock to finance the extension. The board of directors, meeting in San Francisco, voted to extend the track 13 miles on February 13, 1884. Track construction started again in June. This time work went more slowly, as the terrain was much more difficult. The line opened to Valley Springs in April 1885. Originally the SJ&SN was projected to serve the Redwood Groves at Calaveras, but as a narrow gauge line would never be built beyond Valley Springs.

By 1886 the line was rumored to be having financial problems. Stockton interests were promoting a line from Stockton to Woodbridge, to replace Brack's Landing as the steamer connection. A report in the Lodi Sentinel suggests the line may not have owned enough cars for the traffic. Brack's Landing was not as successful as hoped, as a result steamer fewer steamers called and connections were fewer than planned. According to some reports more freight was transferred at Lodi to the Southern Pacific than was shipped via Brack's. And, although not mentioned in the press, we can assume that as the Southern Pacific lowered its rates in response to the narrow gauge competition, profits would have fallen.

In early 1888 Birdsall, the president and chief investor, was having marital problems, which resulted in a particularly nasty divorce, and as a result, withdrew from the project, resulting in the railroad's sale to the Southern Pacific on May 15, 1888. The SP folded the SJ&SN into its "Northern Railway Co.". Changes included renumbering the equipment along with a change in passenger car paint color to dark "Pullman" color. Some equipment, including one additional baggage car was shipped in from the SP's Oregonian Railroad, along with two more locomotives. Several tank cars were added. Most of the community seemed to have lost its fear of the monopoly and welcomed the Southern Pacific as a stabilizing influence, along with the improved service via Stockton. As expected SP started to divert the traffic away from Brack's Landing and its steamer connection in favor of the Port of Stockton and direct rail connections. Slowly, over a period of years the track from Woodbridge to Brack's Landing was first de-emphasized, then in 1897 it was abandoned.

The narrow gauge continued on until 1904 when Southern Pacific decided to standard gauge the line. The last narrow gauge train ran August 31st of that year. With the change the shops were moved to Lodi from Woodbridge. The equipment was shipped to other SP properties, including the SPC and the N&C, and several locomotives were scraped.

For 20 years the line was only a sleepy branch of the SP system, Service on the branch being provided by a daily mixed train. Then in 1925 San Francisco interests started development of the Calaveras Cement Company plant near San Andreas. As a result the branch was extended 18 miles to the new plant, at Kentucky House. Cement is among the heaviest commodities moved by rail and as a result the line was substantially upgraded. As railroads changed through the years so did the Kentucky House branch. Passenger service ended in 1932, steam gave way to diesels, and finally the cement plant closed in 1984. For 20 some years the branch was out of service, but tracks are still in place. Finally the rails were removed. So ended 100 years of railroad operations on what had once been the narrow gauge San Joaquin and Sierra Nevada.

California \ San Joaquin & Sierra Nevada Railroad \ A History of the SJ&SN
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