Monday, April 03, 2006

Feather River Express 1: A Drowned World

On April 1, the first passenger train since 1997 left from the San Francisco Bay Area to cross the Sierras via the Feather River Canyon route of the old Western Pacific Railroad Company.

The special excursion was being hosted by train afficionados from the Central Coast Railways Club and the Pacific Locomotive Association, which runs an historic train from Niles (Fremont) to Sunol every Sunday (click here for more info).

It was probably planned to coincide with the beginning of spring, but the Unending Rains of March had eased into the Unending Rains of April with barely a break.

It was as if we were chugging along through a drowned world.

The excursion was on a huge, chartered Amtrak train...

...with ten passenger cars... a smoking car, a dome car...

...and a beautiful old lounge car...

...staffed by a mixture of Amtrak employees and volunteers from the two clubs.

At the end of the train was the piece de resistance, the last California Zephyr Solarium dome car in existence.

Admittance was limited to VIPs, and in a welcome show of democracy, to winners of a raffle that everyone on the train was free to enter in order to benefit the train clubs.

Henry Luna, above, was running the lottery. It seems he is the primary spiritual leader of the Pacific Locomotive Association, and the principal of Key Holidays (click here) which was organizing the trip.

I didn't hear a bad word about him on the entire trip...

...which was amazing, since there was plenty to whine about, as is true with most train trips.

The Feather River Canyon train route owes its existence to a struggle at the turn of the 19th/20th century between the robber barons Gould and Harriman who were duking it out over primacy in the railroad lines.

A long handout was given to the passengers that included a schedule, rules for a photo run-by ("While the train is moving forward, please do not talk. The people taking video do not appreciate your voice on their tape.") which never took place because we were so behind schedule...

...along with an extensive history of the rail line and its points of interest.
"In 1900 financier Edward H. Harriman gained control of both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, effectively shutting out Gould's Denver & Rio Grande Railroad at Ogden, Utah. George Gould, flamboyant heir to Jay Gould's empire, was not to be bottled up at Ogden. George Gould considered building a railroad from Ogden to Los Angeles but was again shut out when Harriman acquired control of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. Gould next turned his attention to building a new railroad west from Salt Lake City to San Francisco using the Feather River Route."

"In 1902 short-line promoter Walter J. Bartnett incorporated the Stockton & Beckwith Pass Railroad using explorer Arthur Keddie's 1892 survey for an earlier attempt. Gould and Bartnett joined forces and on March 6, 1903 the Western Pacific Railway Company (WP) was incorporated to build west from Salt Lake City to Oakland."

"Plans called for the Western Pacific to be ready for business by September 1, 1908. The first spikes were driven on January 2, 1906 in Oakland and on May 5, 1906 at Salt Lake City."

"For much of the distance through the Feather River canyon, not even a footpath was handy. Surveyors hung suspended by cables over cliffs to set their line stakes. Small construction camps supplied by pack mules were used as bases for building a wagon road over which supplies and equipment for building the railroad could be hauled."

"At 4:05 PM on November 1, 1909 the rails were joined at Mile Post 280.51 on the steel bridge across Spanish Creek near Keddie. The only spectators were a pair of local women and their little girls. The WP was the last transcontinental railroad, just after the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul's extension to Tacoma, which was completed in 1909."

"On March 20, 1949 the streamlined, vista-domed passenger train "California Zephyr" started service between Oakland and Chicago. This passenger train was a joint venture with the Western Pacific, Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. The train featured the scenic Feather River and Colorado Rockies on its itinerary."

"The last run of the "California Zephyr was on March 22, 1970. Since then the scenic vistas of the Feather River Canyon have been reserved for freight train crews, occasional detouring Amtrak trains, several excursion trains, and business trains operated by the railroad."

What may be the saddest part of this tale is that the Bush Administration is doing everything in its power to destroy the remaining rail infrastructure in this country. However, they have some committed opposition, in the form of The Foamers, extreme train afficionados who are not taking its destruction laying down. See part two.


sfwillie said...

Nice pictures.

I took the Zephyr to Lincoln. But it was probably 1971. I don't actually remember the Feather River, but it was beautiful in October. We went through those snowsheds.

I remember fondly: it wasn't Denver and Rio Grande--it was Denver and Rio Grande Western. D&RGW. At the time it was Burlington Northern.

Christine Okon said...

Dear Mike,
Ah, the Feather River. I actually went fishing on it once and slept in what was once a PG&E worker cabin. My sleep was threaded with the soothing sound of freight trains..I mean that seriously. Some people can fall asleep to, freigh trains. Clack clack clack.


Anonymous said...

In Spring 1970 I rode a freight train up the Feather River Canyon. We had no idea that we were going to see such a beautiful sight. Sitting in a box car with the doors wide open to the valley and river below and the canyon walls above was unforgettable. On the way the train was stopped by state police looking for runaways - I showed them my Maryland drivers license and they let me stay on the train! I might have changed trains after the canyon. By the time we got to Winnemucca Nevada, too cold to ride any farther on the open flatbed car we were on.