Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Railroads built along ridge lines


The trick in crossing a mountain is to design enough mileage into the route to keep the rate of ascent within acceptable limits. The shortest route is rarely the best.

The Central Pacific was limited by statute to a grade of 112 feet per mile. The elevation difference between Donner and the valley is roughly 7000 feet, so the route had to run at least 62.5 miles. My recollection is that it is about 70 miles by rail from Donner to Roseville – so the CP was quite effecient. While there are countless ridges extending westward from the crest of the Sierra, few extend all the way to the floor of the Central Valley. Most end where the intervening canyons merge. The ridge the CP followed happenes to be one of the ones which runs the whole way – in this case between the American River watershed to the south and the Bear and Yuba River watershed to the north.

Nevertheless, I sincerely doubt that that remarkable ridge had anything to do with the selection of that route for the railroad. The initial goal of the movers behind the Central Pacific was to profit from the commerce then flowing between San Francisco and the Comstock Lode – and the Donner route just happened to be the one relatively direct route not yet controlled by other interests (in the form of toll road franchises). Railroads were successfully designed for other routes across the Sierra which – lacking the long ridge used by the CP – managed to fit in the necessary mileage by looping into side canyons along the way.

What Judah did was verify that one could indeed fit 70 odd miles of track between the valley and the summit along the Donner Route. I'm not sure just when – or even if – Judah realized "their" ridge was significant. Mining engineers who laid out the miles of flumes which tapped high country reservoirs to feed the hydraulic mining operations had doubtless already discovered routes with steady grades from the high country to the mines (such as those around Dutch Flat). We know that Judah's initial "survey" between Dutch Flat and the summit merely followed a previously surveyed route which Daniel Strong was trying to promote for a toll road. From Dutch Flat to the valley, Judah initially followed existing roads or railroad surveys without regard to staying on the ridge. And in the end, I'm not at all sure whether it was Theodore Judah or his brother Douglas who actually "put" the railroad onto the ridge to Auburn – rather than down in Auburn Ravine as Theodore had earlier proposed. There is just a whole lot to the final selection of the CP route that is lost to us.

Conversely, the Western Pacific required roughly 100 miles of track to make their economical descent from 5000 feet to stay within their design criteria. The ridges which extend west from their summit were considerably higher than their pass itself, and their steady descent pushed them down into the canyon fairly soon. The trick in their case was shifting from the middle fork of the Feather over to the north fork. They could indeed have followed a ridge – say between the Feather and Butte Creek – farther out into the valley, but to do so would have given them some nearly level running at a higher elevation- -where snow would have been some problem. Even so, the creation of Oroville reservoir in the 1960s forced them to relocate onto that ridge – and if memory serves, resulted in an even better grade.

As an aside, highway 50 between Placerville and the crest of the Sierra runs in the canyon of the south fork of the American River. The road is very winding. However, the little known Mormon Emigrant Trail – the first true road across the Sierra and the one followed by most overland emigrants during the gold rush – follows the ridge just to the south. Getting to it involves some twisty sections, but once on the ridge it runs relatively straight and steady for 25 miles – with some tangents running a full mile.


[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The longest and most famous railroad in Pennsylvania to be built along ridge lines was one that was never completed – the South Pennsylvania RR 1882-1885, under the leadership of one Robert Sayre, who was also chief engineer of the Lehigh Valley RR.

Intended to compete with the watercourse-following Pennsylvania Railroad, the east-west SPRR ran some 20 to 40 miles south of the Pennsy main line. Backed by the New York Central and the Reading, and Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and other Pittsburgh capitalists, it was supposed to extend between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, connecting at the latter point with the Reading for an outlet to Philadelphia and New York. Because it was projected as a freight-only line to carry iron and steel to the East Coast (and siphon that traffic off the Pennsy), its route did not touch any important intermediate towns. That was because no political, public, or media pressure existed to force it (or induce it) to serve passenger or local freight or short-haul freight markets. Without a mandate to serve any particular town, the civil engineers were free to draw the route alignment in the place where they could make best use of their skills. In other words, within "limits" of money (it was a $15 million enterprise, and after all, in 1885 dollars, that was a fortune), they were free to locate the line in as perfect an alignment as their instincts and training permitted.

The result was that the SPRR stayed almost within sight of the ridge line between the Potomac and Susquehanna watersheds in the east, and between the Potomac and Ohio watersheds in the west. By so locating it – and by planning for nine tunnels to cut through the north-south ridge-and-valley Alleghenies – Sayre and his crew managed to lay out an alignment on which no bridge or culvert was longer than six feet, a truly remarkable engineering accomplishment in the rugged topography of Pennsylvania.

When banking mogul J.P. Morgan brokered a PRR-NYC truce, work on SPRR stopped abruptly. It was the civil engineering corps that was most personally and professionally offended. Its members felt that they and their work had been prostituted in order to sustain a war of capital, only to be cast aside when the feud ended. In the final edition of their newsletter – yes, the engineers and surveyors were numerous enough to publish their own newsletter out in the field – they wrote this obituary for the SPRR: "And here, for the time being, and perhaps for a long time to come, is smothered the best line of railroad between the Ohio Valley and the Atlantic that has ever been or can be projected, built, or operated."

Today you can drive over it as the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

In many locations, the Turnpike, America's first superhighway, opened Oct.1, 1940, deviates from the original SPRR right-of-way. Where it does, you can still hike in and walk on the graded roadbed, cuts, and fills that were abandoned on that September afternoon 120 years ago. Many of the culverts are still there, perfect in their dry-masonry artisanship as they were when they were completed. And none of them is more than six feet long, a reminder of the ability of men living in tents and working with nothing more than crude surveyors' transits, pencil, and paper, and drawing by the light of kerosene lamps.

—Dan Cupper, Harrisburg, Pa.

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/19/2005 9:29 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The Central Pacific, later Southern Pacific, and now Union Pacific, follows a ridge route from the Sacramento Valley up to Donner Summit. It helps explain the miles of snowsheds once used on the route. On the East side of Donner, it follows a river route.

Kyle K. Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
111 "I" Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

My work address is:
My personal address is:

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/19/2005 9:32 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

... the Central Pacific line between Roseville and Donner Summit ... followed and climbed the ridge dividing the drainage of the North Fork of the American River from that of the Bear. At Emigrant Gap it passed over the top of the ridge at the point that the Yuba River steals the upper drainage of the Bear River, then continued to the summit.

—Tom Matoff

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/19/2005 9:39 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The very convenient, relatively gentle ridge, shoulder, or watershed dividing the Yuba and Bear Rivers to the north, and the North Fork American River to the south was chosen for the prime route for the Central Pacific across the Sierra Nevada was coupled to another equally important feature: just on the other side of Donner Summit was the fortuitous and generous-sized Truckee River Canyon that allowed continuous routing through the second range of mountains common to this part of the Sierra Nevada– i.e. with no need for a second ascent and descent. Here, the railroad could and did descend from its long ridge and now follow the relatively level banks of the Truckee, as it flowed out to eventually evaporate in a Nevada desert lake.

It was the advocacy of, if not the discovery of fortuitous combination of routing up the gentle slope of a long ridge to the first Sierra Nevada summit, coupled to its easy cutting through the second summit in a river canyon that was the genius of Theodore Judah.

—Denny S. Anspach, MD, Sacramento

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/20/2005 10:33 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Wendell Huffman wrote:

... It amazes me to consider that all of the routes (road or railroad) located before WWI (and even later) were laid out from the ground. No aerial photographs or recon, and if they relied on topos, those too were made from the ground. In several cases the new technology resulted in improvements over the old. But, those old boys did a remarkable job. ...

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/25/2005 9:47 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Yes, they did, but that remarkable job was built on well over 20 years of experience.

By the time the railroad was built, countless wagon trains came here over the various passes in the central Sierras, so the advantages and disadvantages of the various routes were well known by the time that Judah started laying out the CP route. The Beckworth Pass (where the WP goes now) and the SP's Tehachapi Pass and Walker Pass were considered too far North and South of the gold mines and therefore discarded as good routes, even though the passes were lower and better suited. My Great Grandfather and his family used the Echo Summit route that roughly followed today's US 50.

As an interesting side note, by the time the CP Donner route was laid out, the Donner wagon road was virtually abandoned due to steep grades. The CP had the financial resources to tunnel under the worst part. These resources were not availble to the wagon roads. That's what I think made the project work. That and the elimination of the redundant grades over the Eastern summit by using the Truckee River down to Reno. ...


[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/25/2005 9:48 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

What interests me is that Judah selected a route that had been demonstrated by those twenty-odd years of experience to be inferior. The portion of the Truckee Route (as it was called) through the canyon between Truckee (now Donner) Lake and the Truckee Meadows (Reno) was used only once (in 1843 as I recall, by the Townsend-Murphy party). The portion over what is now called Donner Pass was abandoned after the Donner Party failed to get over it in 1846. The following year the traffic – such as there was – moved up Cold Stream to Roller and Coldstream passes. West of Summit Valley the "road" left the general route of the future CP railroad to drop down the Bear River to Johnson Ranch. Beginning in 1848 almost all of the traffic diverted way south to Carson Pass. In the 1850s boosters from several California towns laid out additional routes – diverting traffic their way – thus the road over now-abandoned Border Ruffian pass to Sonora, the Calavaras road to Jackson, the Johnson Pass road to Placerville, the Emigrant Pass road to Forresthill and Auburn, Beckwourth's road to Marysville.

The consensus as of October 1859 (when Judah went to Washington as agent for the San Francisco Pacific RR convention) was that the Pacific railroad would have to skirt the Sierra entirely – either via Nobles Pass (which Judah advocated) or Tehachapi Pass (which Fremont mislabled Walker Pass, thereby sowing much confusion). What changed – in Judah's absence from the scene – was the discovery of the Comstock. When Judah returned to California in late July 1860 he initially pursued his California Eastern Extension RR (which in concert with his Centralia real estate scheme was intended to supplant Auburn as a commercial center). He actually hired a crew of graders, but it slowly dawned on Judah that the Comstock had made people more interesed in getting across the Sierra to Virginia City than they were in a little railroad that was limited by its very design from ever being extended east out of the cul de sac of Auburn Ravine.

According to testimony of participants, following his abandonment of his C.E.E. scheme in late August or early September 1860, Judah went to work for a group of people looking for a route for a toll road to compete with the very busy and profitable Johnson Pass toll road (Placerville-Lake Tahoe-Virginia City). This activity is confirmed in the newspapers. Furthermore, the fact that Judah only examined routes other than the Johnson Pass road corroborates their testimony that Judah was looking for a route to compete with the Johnson Pass road. (Contrary to the legend of Judah laboring dilligently for the perfect pass over all the years since his arrival in California in 1854, there is nothing in Judah's journals, newspapers, or other contemporary accounts to suggest that Judah was ever into the Sierra east of Auburn prior to September 1860.)

Much is made of the Truckee/Donner route's single summit and the long ridge running like a ramp from the Central Valley to the summit. While remarkable, I think these features were essentially coincidences – geographical features of which the railroad took advantage – after the route was essentially already determined (in October 1862) for other reasons (specifically: availability). As I said before, I think the significance of these geographical features dawned only slowly on Judah. (He described the route to his wife – in the spring of 1861 – as the worst route he had ever seen for a railroad.) His early maps indicate a route from the site of modern Truckee directly toward Virginia City – across a second summit at the Carson Range – as well as down off the ridge in an effort to connect with his California Eastern/Centralia property in Auburn Ravine. At the same time, Frank Bishop's survey for the San Francisco & Washoe demonstrate that the second summit associated with the Johnson Pass (Echo Summit) route could be avoided by tunneling from Slippery Ford/Twin Bridges to Fallen Leaf Lake (he never said it would be cheap!) or by running from the general site of modern Echo Summit over to Luther Pass by skirting Lake Valley. The reason the Johnson Pass road had a double summit was simply that the wagon road dropped down into Lake Valley.

My point in all of this is, while the central Pacific railroad route generally followed the course of the bulk of the overland emigration to California in the 1840s and 1850s, the specific route adopted by the Central Pacific Railroad deviated significantly from the popular course in the Sierra. The question of "best route" that faced the principals of the CP organization was not just a matter of where a railroad across the Sierra could be built within the technical limitations of gradient and curvature. (Engineers could figure out a way to put a railroad almost anywhere, e.g. Mt. Washington). Perhaps the overriding consideration for the C.P. was availability of a "practical" route – that is, one that they could obtain/control. Perhaps the great (and generally unremarked) advantage of the Truckee/Donner route was precisely that is was long-abandoned by wagon traffic. I think it telling that Judah's route was essentially the only route across the central Sierra which – as of December 1860 – was unencumbered by a wagon road franchise.

The "Donner" route had been surveyed for a wagon road AND RAILROAD (with chain and transit) in July 1860 – before Judah ever got back to California. Yet, while it was determined practical, there was apparently no incentive to develop the route (which is why the frustrated citizens of Dutch Flat invited Judah to come see that route when they read in the newspapers about his search for a wagon road). When Daniel Strong showed the route to Judah in October 1860 (following the blazes and stakes of the previous survey?), Judah recognized its potential for a railroad. Following his announcement to that effect in December 1860, the people of Dutch Flat did incorporate a Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road company, which our heroes (Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford, and Crockers) cornered in the spring of 1862 (even before they had finally determined that Donner would be the route for the railroad). It would be very interesting to know just why our boys took the effort and paid the expense of getting that wagon road. But, it very likely cost them less than the Johnson Pass, Henness Pass, or Pacific turnpike would have cost them, and it put them in a position to potentially get into the Comstock trade. And once they had it, they had a stronger stake in the route for an eventual railroad – wherever they intended to go with it.


[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/26/2005 2:39 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Independent of the political and economic machinations that lead to building of the CP on the route chosen, in fact probably the best route with the lowest ruling grades actually resulted- the Comstock and prior wagon roads notwithstanding. That the route could also lead fairly directly easterly out of Sacramento only added to its utility.

As has been pointed out, the Emigrant trail did not follow the same ridge as the CP entirely, but instead went down the valley of Bear River from about Emigrant Gap on the current "Donner" route. The trail was largely on the valley wall or ridges, and did not actually descend into the valley until it widened out and reached Johnson Ranch (c. Camp Far West on today's maps) considerably north of Sacramento. It is still a mystery to me how this deeply trodden trail took this route, and even today there are very few passable roads in the lower Bear Valley, and if one attempts to even try to even roughly try to follow the trail route, you cannot.

Perhaps simple history alone tells us that this was then, as it is now, a poor route- wagons or railroads..

—Denny S. Anspach, MD, Sacramento, California

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/27/2005 10:42 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The Emigrant Trail along the Bear River valley was followed with great difficulty around 1956 by a group of staff members from Marin-Sierra Boy Scout Camp near Emigrant Gap. There were several days when they camped within sight of their previous night's camp. They completed the trek with great respect for the emigrants and great wonder as to how anyone took wagons along the trail.

—Cliff Schoff

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

10/28/2005 9:12 AM  

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