First In The West

In the 1850s, California was in the midst of the Gold Rush. Getting mail and supplies to the population was a major undertaking. Everything had to take the several month long journey through deserts and over the Sierras, or it had to go south by sea through the Isthmus of Panama. Both propositions were long and dangerous.

A group of businessmen saw the opportunity to build fast, reliable transportation from Sacramento to the mining communities. They incorporated the Sacramento, Auburn and Nevada Railroad, but plans fell apart when the first section of track they were planning to lay was going to cost more than $2 million dollars.

A man named Charles Lincoln Wilson also saw the opportunity for a railroad to service the area. He reorganized the abandoned railroad company and formed the Sacramento Valley Railroad in August of 1852. He then left for New York to gather talent and build the railroad.

There he met Theodore Judah, who came to California in 1854 and surveyed the railroad. Theodore Judah designed a route that ran down R street in Sacramento, along present-day Folsom Boulevard, and across the river to Negro Bar. The plan was to run the line all the way to Marysville. Wilson also lobbied the State Legislature to change the laws so the railroad could be built. In late 1854, contracts were signed and in Feb 1855, construction began on the Sacramento Valley Railroad.

At this point, Captain Joseph Libbey Folsom became president of the railroad. He had Theodore Judah lay out the town through which the railroad would run, called 'Granite City'. When Captain Folsom died in July 1855, his executors renamed the town to 'Folsom'.

The SVRR fell into receivership in October 1855, but because of a San Francisco banker named j. Mora Moss, the line was completed to Folsom in January of 1856.

The inagural run of the SVRR on Feb 22nd, 1856 was quite an event, with a breakdown of the locomotive just short of Folsom. Despite this, passengers arrived and were treated to a party that lasted into the next morning.

The SVRR was the first railroad west of the Mississippi River. It's original planned route was cut short because the actual construction costs in the end were 50% more than originally anticipated.

Theodore Judah, interested in continuing the line, formed the California Central which connected Folsom to Lincoln. His dream was to build a railroad all the way over the Sierra. While he never realized his dream, he had a significant influence on the SVRR, the town of Folsom, and the Transcontinental Railroad.

At the same time, the people of Placerville wanted rail service to carry the heavy freight that was destined for the silver mines in the Comstock Lode. The Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad was formed in June of 1862. After commitments from the people of El Dorado County and Placerville, construction from Folsom Junction towards Placerville began in late 1863.

Opposition came from locals and from the Central Pacific, which was working had to be the main route for the Transcontinental Railroad. Due to the Civil War, much of the rail ordered for the P&SVRR was sent to the bottom of the sea by Confederate privateers. Despite these hurdles, the P&SVRR extended the line to the town of Latrobe, where the first trains arrived in 1864.

For a time, it was hoped that the P&SVRR was a contender in the Transcontinental Railroad race. Lester Robinson believed the route through Placerville and over the Sierras was the best route. But the Big Four (Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins) of the Central Pacific were determined to win. There was actually a race in August of 1864 where both lines competed to deliver the San Francisco papers up to Virginia City. While stories indicate that the race was not exactly fair on a number of levels, the CP finished the race in 21 hours, and the SVRR and P&SVRR group delivered the papers 9 hours later.

As history would tell, the Central Pacific became the famous route over the Sierras. The 'Big Four' would eventually own both the SVRR and P&SVRR.

In June 1865, the P&SVRR reached Shingle Springs. Despite the fact it connected to the main road that carried almost all the freight and passengers to and from the comstock, it became apparent that the line would not reach Virginia City by the 1866 federal deadline. Then SVRR president George Bragg convinced the P&SVRR that there was no way financing could be secured to pay their bonds. He then purchased the stock interests of 3 other directors, and sold all the interest to Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific. This brought and end to the SVRR as an independent railroad.

This also led to financial problems for owners of the P&SVRR. They continued to operate, but in 1869 the line was forclosed on, and in 1871 title was transferred to Huntington, Stanford, and Hopkins. In 1877, the P&SVRR was turned into the Sacramento and Placerville Rail Road.

In 1888, the line was finally completed to Placerville. Despite the high cost to taxpayers, the first passenger train was welcomed with huge fanfare. The arduous journey from Sacramento to Placerville would be changed forever.

The SVRR and P&SVRR had their mark on history. These railroads forged roads that led to building the Transcontinental Railroad. Without these railroads and the men who built them, bridging east and west in the United States could have taken many more years.

Thanks to the following publications, which were very useful in preparing this information:

  • "The Sacramento Valley Railroad: The first railroad of the West", Mountain Democrat, Doug Noble, Feb 2011
  • "First in the West: The Sacramento Valley Railroad", by Cindy L Baker, published by the City of Folsom

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