Monday, July 24, 2006

Engineering Notes on the Sierra Nevada Line

From: "Larry Mullaly"

I recently came across some primary material on the Sierra Nevada portion of the Overland Route (see below) that I thought might be of interest. Although the anonymous writer is generally critical of CP engineering standards, the he seems well versed in such matters and makes insightful comments. Any ideas as to the date of the document and the identity of the author would be welcome — as well as critiques of his critique!

—Larry Mullaly


Comments from An Anonymous Engineer: 

Pino to Reno    

In October, 1998 during a visit to the National Archives in Adelphi, Maryland, I came across a set of hand written notes at the bottom of a box of documents: R(ecord) G(roup)48, Secretary of the Interior Lands and Railroads Division, Railroad Packages Number: 187. The notes, written in ink in a small hand, are unsigned and undated. They provide interesting technical perspectives on portions of the Overland route. My transcription covers only part of this material.  

Larry Mullaly  


If the 6 degree curve to left stat[ion] 669+30-672+85 had been omitted and curves on each side joined by a tangent from one to the other [side?] of this curve, how much would it have increased work? There is too much timidity about being willing to take work to get good line.  

Clipper Gap.            

The several ... curves west of Clipper Gap station are needlessly sharp. Even tangents substituted for some curves would not make the work heavy or much increase it.

Series of reversed curves on 43rd mile could be made much easier. Tangents in place of some of them would not make heavy works. Series of reversed curves on 46th mile could be much improved without making heavy work. The same occurs on the 50th mile curve 9 degrees R. Stato. 970-980 could be replaced by tangent without very great cost and 6 degrees R. at Station 2660 might even have been omitted. Of course to ease curve is less expensive.  

Colfax, Gold Run, Dutch Flat, Alta.            

The road west of this is generally well built so far as culverts, bridges, and embankments are concerned, but the location is throughout on a very contracted vision, the extreme of curvature being adopted to save cost, to the great injury of the commercial value of the road.            

The line examined today (from Auburn) lies in shale formations affording no material for ballast, and the shale rock which has been used in surfacing the road is all disintegrating into clay, grassy [?] and so retentive of moisture as to be unfit for ballast. The cuts in some cases [are] rather narrow. The water tanks entirely too small. [Penned into margin] Note: Compare the locations on the C.P. road with that on the Penna. railroad in valley of Juniata, or that of Pittsburgh and Columbus R.R. between Pittsburgh and Steubenville or between Steubenville and Dennison. See what prodigious work was taken by these latter roads to get good alignment: high embankments and deep cuts to get curves of radii from 957 feet to 1910 feet. A curve as sharp as 957 radius was never used unless more demand existed for it than is on C.P. very often considered a justification for much sharper cures.  

Shady Run            

Bad locations on the 71st mile, stations 3720-3760. Line between this and Alta has same objection as before, too much curvature and needlessly sharp. Occasionally, however, on this line there are points where line is well laid showing less timidity of design.            

7 degree curve east of Shady Run is an instance where an easier curve could have been used at small increase of cost leaving balance of line undisturbed bed. There is a tangent on each side of this curve, and by simply lengthening the curve (that is, increasing the radius) this [could?] have been obtained....            

The 7-degree curve at 117th milepost is needlessly sharp.            

It seems to me the engineering over the Sierra is altogether too much cramped, and that too little attention was paid to the effect on the operating of a road by such a constant use of sharp curves. It is claimed the work is very expensive and as our evidence the tunnels are very numerous. True, there are many tunnels, but after all, the total length of tunnels is small, less than on Baltimore & Ohio road or on Penna. Road, and considerably less than on road between Pittsburgh and Columbus. (Total length tunnels on C.P. was 6262 feet of which.... I cannot think of a proper effort was made for a good location such as would have been in the long run, economical).  


A very great detour is made between Reno and point 5 or 6 mile below, when line approached river again. This is totally wrong. Line should have been straight from point west of Reno to upper end [of?] narrows. It is said present line was taken to avoid low ground, which is a great mistake. In locating roads we must meet and overcome difficulties, providing it can be done with any reasonable outlay, not dodge the [problems?].            

In narrows below this point curvature is needless[ly] great and sometimes almost shameful.            

For 15 miles ... profile not furnished, but cannot reconcile myself to location. Is it proper or necessary to bear away from river so much and make undulations?            

The two curves near 168th milepost are needless even with present grade. It is plain there should either have been less curvature/no reverse, or the grade should have been easier. My ideas is ...[that?] ameliorating should have been secured by taking the requisite work.            

Locations from about Station 3510 on 172nd mile to about 3600 is bad. This undulation could have been avoided at a very light increase of cost and the curvature diminished a same time. Part of the sharpest curvature here is begotten by keeping up the grade. A change in location has served throughout undulating, making an easy grade. Shorten the line, reduce the deflecting, and lengthen the radii of curves with but little additional cost...            

The line down Truckee valley partakes of the general character of the balance of the locations. It is penuriously cheap in first cost, alignment and grades being both sacrificed to attain this. Distances are often needlessly increased and the curvature caused largely in excess of what is required by the valley for a line from moderate cost. The commercial value of the road is diminished and the cost of operating it is increased. I think the whole line bears evidence that a contest for time had much to do with the locating. [Text continues].


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Don Snoddy"

My best guess would be the Congressional investigation in 1882-83. ... The other option might be the government directors reports. I don’t remember them getting that detailed in the printed reports, but there could have been notes that were not included in their reports.  ...

7/24/2006 5:11 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

To assist in dating this item, the Town of PINE GROVE was established as a gold camp in 1850; however another PINE GROVE was already in existence in Amador Co., therefore when a Post Office was established, PINE GROVE became Placer on October 4, 1861.

To avoid yet more name challenges, PLACER Post Office became Smithville, January 1, 1862. When the CPRR arrived, a mile to the northwest, in 1864, Smithville became PINO, and the Post Office name change became official on December 6, 1869, with James Oscar Loomis as Postmaster.

As time went by, PINO was confused with Reno, and on May 28, 1890, Pino became LOOMIS.

And, Loomis it is called today.

—G J Chris Graves

7/24/2006 7:03 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


This is an interesting piece of review work apparently written by a railroad civil engineer (or location engineer) some years after the CPRR was completed. Track alignment topics don't often get much attention these days by historians or others, so I'll take this opportunity to offer my comments. I design trackwork as my profession.

A good track alignment in the 1860s followed the same design principles as good alignments of the 1900s or the 1990s. Reduced horizontal curvature (increased radii), longer tangent (straight) sections, and lower vertical grades all reduce operating costs and transit times, but lead to higher initial construction costs and longer completion schedules. Building to better initial standards also reduces future track-maintenance costs and the need for later "improvement" projects.

Mainline practice in the 1860s for mountain crossings in the western USA called for 6 to 10 degree curves and up to 4% grades. At the time train speed was generally 15 mph and there was very little parallel competition. Today our industry standards still allow 6-degree curves but typically limit grades to 1% or 2%. Modern railroads try to run freight trains at 60 mph, and there's lots of competition. Let's say we would need to double the number of required locomotives for every sustained 1% increase in grade; sharper curves and steeper grades also decrease transit times.

Construction of the 1860s proceeded without mechanized equipment, and thus it was prudent to "follow the contours" of the land and design a slightly longer alignment. Today's construction is more expensive because of our efforts to reduce curvature and grades, and to shorten the overall length of tracks. This all leads to more earthwork (cuts and fills), longer and taller bridges, and more tunnels. Do keep in mind that there is very little "virgin" track building in the USA today; most new construction takes place to reconstruct existing yards, and to realign or add second tracks to existing mainlines.

You always have to be curious about the motivations of reviewers. In this case, this gentleman knew that expediency was one key objective of the original CPRR track construction teams. He also likely knew that CP would come back at a future date to refine the original alignment with improvements; he implies this toward the end of the quoted review sections. Because of these factors, it does appear that he was somewhat overly critical of the initial construction effort.

—Lawrence Meeker, P.E., Railroad Civil Engineer

7/24/2006 5:43 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

Should anyone wish to view the original grade alignment, on SPRR documents, I have a full original set, some 800 pages, more or less.

—G J Chris Graves, NewCastle, Cal.

7/24/2006 8:06 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


I have to agree with Larry. The CP was in a race with the UP and was being paid by the mile of track put into service. This had to be the over-riding idea driving everything the CP did. Following the lay of the land in order to minimize fills and bridges was the expedient thing to do.

—Charlie Siebenthal

7/25/2006 9:37 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Larry Mullaly"

In regard to my engineering notes, there seems to be a consensus that these date to the 1880s. The particular set of packages in the box where I found the notes, however, date to 1869. Is there any reason why the comments could not be from this earlier period?


7/26/2006 12:37 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Edson T. Strobridge"

Please allow me to add my two-bits worth. In reviewing what contemporary information I have, I could not find any clues or reasons that the Engineer's notes could not have been written in 1869 or earlier however I found no clues or reasons why they would have either. I am not aware of any reason anyone would make a critical survey before the line was completed and I doubt that any one would have access to Central Pacific's engineering data, without the approval of the Board unless it was the Govt.

The Central Pacific was busy repairing and bringing their track work up to the standards required by the government before their line was accepted and the final bonds issued – and that was not complete until well after 1869. The anonymous engineer makes no comment regarding any ongoing work which leads me to believe that his efforts were the result of being hired to provide a critical review of the line as well as the impact on the commercial value and associated operating costs by an interested party – the Govt.? – after it was completed. Sounds to me that he probably was preparing his report for the U.S. Senate's 1887 Pacific Railway Hearings. I doubt that the final approval of the acceptance of the line as being complete would have required this kind of report as the initial location, grade and alignment had already been accepted by the Govt. Commissioners on their inspection trips as the construction progressed. At this point the requirements related more to meeting established standards and quality. Certainly these comments would not have been welcomed by the Associates.

Just an opinion.

—Ed Strobridge

7/26/2006 1:11 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


There was a special Railroad Commission inspection (separate from the inspections of each completed section) of all completed work in late 1868 or early 1869 (the dates is a guess, I am at work, away from my notes), dealing with a variety of issues, some rumor, some more factual which were fast becoming a potential public scandal. They were looking at several things, including whether any of the original WP rail had been pulled in 1868 from the San Jose to Niles Canyon segment (it hadn’t), whether any of the alignments were designed to gain length and thereby more bonds and land grants, and whether the railroad was built to the standards expected.

I was more interested in the Western Pacific portion, including the rail issue, and also questions of why they took such a long route (the commissioners pointed out that while it looked circuitous on paper that they were avoiding a large swamp (the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta)

This may be part of that inspection. It would be in line with other comments made.

—Randy Hees

7/26/2006 1:18 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

Randy Hees brings to the table an interesting question, one that I have pondered, and have found no acceptable answer, EXCEPT the WP rail.

My challenge: I find, frequently, IRON pear rail branded RIC 64, that weighs in at 50 lbs to the yard. This RIC 64 rail is scattered from Colfax, California to Battle Mountain., Nevada along the original CPRR grade, ... and most spots inbetween.

Randy, did the WP use RIC 64 50lb rail? If so, that would explain this stuff.

—G J Chris Graves

7/26/2006 1:20 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


So far, I haven't found any information which calls out the specific rail the WP used, and only limited accidental information on shipments for the WP being received in San Francisco.

1864 would be the earliest that rails for the WP would be rolled. The company is formed in Dec 1862, but doesn't start work on the right of way until January 1865. Rail isn't laid until 1866 or so. I thought the locomotive orders were 1865, but again, this is by memory.

I have copies of the SJ&SN invoices and CP vouchers for transporting the loose rail from San Jose to San Francisco for shipment to Sacramento. Again, from memory, there is nearly 50 track miles of rail listed. Some newspaper reports suggest that there may have been twice that.

The first section of the line was built with chairs rather than fish plates, so, this suggests an earlier style of rail.


7/26/2006 1:41 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

The RIC 64 rail that I find still has chairs on them, from time to time. So, that rail MIGHT be WP. Thanks!


7/26/2006 2:40 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Edson T. Strobridge"

The CP Huntington Papers include several letters between CPH and others re: the acquisition of the Western Pacific which was finalized in in June 1867 (EBC/CPH 8 June 1867). Several mentions of the rail can be found in the letters from April through Nov. 1867. The trade for the WP occurred because McLaughlin could not repay his debt to John Griswold, owner of the Rensalaer Iron Co., who had already supplied about 40 miles of rail and threatened to foreclose on the WP. McLaughlin had laid twenty miles in 1866 and turned over another twenty miles of "not laid" rail to the CP as part of the trade. The rail was 50 lb with rail chairs.

Here is a brief summary of the content of the above mentioned Huntington letters:-

The various letters describe several suggestions to lay the WP 50/rail on other roads, including the CP but that was all it was, just talk. "I wish" it was heavier, "I wish the iron for the WP was all Fish Joint"; EB Crocker suggested to CPH that the "50 lb rail be sold to the CPRR for side or spur tracks, or to some other road" but readily admitted it was too light for the CPRR, but these suggestions seem only to come during the press for more rail but nothing was ever mentioned that the WP rail was used on the CPRR. CPH continually counseled his associates not to violate the rail weight requirements as the penalty would be too great. As McLaughlin's contract for rail had not been fulfilled at the time of the trade CPH was obligated to purchase the remainder of the order, as well as pay for all the material in arrears. Discussions followed that suggested that CPH could arrange to change the order to 56 lb and use the rail on the CP and pay Griswold the difference. Griswold had the CP by the throat due to their taking over the WP Contract and I found no further mention of discussions for changing the order specifications. After all, Griswold knew that the CP had to lay 56 lb rail as a minimum size and was stuck with the 50 lb rail they could not legally use of the Pacific Railroad.

I have a thin slice of "RIC 65", 50 lb. rail pear head rail, no brand, (the original rail reposes in the CSRM) that was represented as a piece of the McLaughlin order which was probably the earliest rail the WP received and again, probably, a part of the first twenty miles of rail laid by McLaughlin east of San Jose. Could Chris's "RIC 64" be a part of the WP order? Anything is possible but I suspect a lot more research needs to be made into the McLaughlin contracts to find out. I also suspect that a number of the competing railroads rapidly being planned and/or built used 50 rail and all roads being acquired at a later date by the CP may have been the source of all the 50 lb RIC rail. It easily could have been cascaded by the CP for use as house or side track after the Pacific Railroad was completed and the 1862 RR Act no longer applied. Lynn Farrar would be a good person to ask about the mystery of the source of the CP's 50 lb iron rail.

—Ed Strobridge

7/26/2006 5:08 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Randy Hees"

10:00, at home, notes at hand...

From the Western Pacific Railroad Report of Commissioners on 1st SECTION 20 miles 1st mile to 20th mile, Commissioner’s report dated December 10, 1866, President’s acceptance dated December 14, 1866.

"They would further report and certify that on the said 20 miles of said railroad there are twenty miles of track laid on main line and 3400 linear feet of side track. The rails are manufactured by the Rensselaer Iron Company of Troy N. Y. and the Bay State Iron Company of Massachusetts, and weigh from 50 to 51 pounds per linear yard. There are in each mile of single track 440 chairs, 9328 spikes and 2112 cross ties. ... "

Part 2...

The Special Commission report I mentioned (for the Western Pacific) is dated August 2, 1869. For the Western Pacific this is a very detailed critic of all aspects of the railroad’s construction, including angle of fills, nature of the culverts, choice of routes... In rereading it, it is consistent with your unidentified find.

—Randy Hees

7/27/2006 5:54 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

In reference to the Ed’s comment ["I am not aware of any reason anyone would make a critical survey before the line was completed"], consulting engineer George Gray was hired by the railroad specifically to make a critical survey of the CPRR line as built. However, his report (reproduced on the website) was published in July 1865—well before the line extended anywhere near Reno. I've wondered whether the document Larry found is the notes taken by one of the government "commissioners." They examined the railroad in sections, as the railroad completed them. But there are also government reports on the whole line. The fact that the document is found in Washington suggests (but does not establish) a government connection.
While I suspect an early origin rather than a late one (people would have been more interested in the line when it was new), the 1887 congressional investigation may have inspired (or instituted) an engineering examination of the line.

7/27/2006 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Tom at Mile Post 190 said...

Approximately 1 mile West of the site of Cisco is evidence of a rail siding leaving the original CPRR main on the south side rising to the West. The siding continued to West for several hundred yards.
Climbing a steep loose rise in the rock to the south of this siding is the remains of a large quarry operation, in brown rock, which appears a lot like ballast. There is evidence of numerous tracks, a tipple, and other quarry operations. What is this? When was it built? What else do you know about it?

7/04/2014 5:47 AM  

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