History of the Sacramento Southern Railroad


The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is one of the oldest fruit-growing regions in California. With its rich soil and plentiful water, the Delta's early development coincided with the rush to the Mother Lode gold fields. As the search for gold grew ever harder, and as the likelihood of a railroad to the East grew ever closer, this development intensified to serve the needs of a growing population. With completion of the Pacific Railroad in 1869, this "land of plenty" was poised to ship wheat, other grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables across the continent as well.

Throughout the latter decades of the 19th century, orchards continued to spring up in the Delta's flood plains, interspersed with fields supporting other crops. At harvest time, farmers would set out the harvested goods at individual landings along the Sacramento River or its many tributary sloughs. From these, a river steamer would transport the goods to Sacramento, Stockton, or San Francisco, where local markets or long-distance transportation awaited.

If the goods were intended for an eastern market, they would soon be loaded aboard a Central Pacific or Southern Pacific train in this pre-Panama Canal era. (There really was no alternative for perishables, although grains could be shipped overseas without risk of spoilage.) By 1900, however, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway had invaded the territory of "The Octopus," completing its San Francisco & San Joaquin Valley subsidiary along the southern edge of the Delta region, from Stockton to Point Richmond. Santa Fe's stern-wheeler Frances would ply the rivers and sloughs, loading agricultural products for a shorter trip to the rail connection near Antioch.

The SP responded by incorporating a new railroad: the Sacramento Southern. Totally owned, funded, and operated by SP, the standard-gauge line was to be built in a southeasterly direction from Sacramento to Stockton. Plans called for the railroad to be 100 miles long, to serve as a common carrier for both freight and passengers, and to have two branches one running from Walnut Grove to the vicinity of Antioch, the other connecting Woodbridge with the SP main line. Although the Sacramento Southern never became more than a branch "feeder" line, SP had its reasons for these plans. At the time, the railroad was seeking an alternate passenger route from Sacramento to San Francisco Bay; its main line to Benicia was sinking into the Suisun Bay marshlands, and the SP was unsure it could control the problem.

In September 1907, the city of Sacramento granted the Sacramento Southern a franchise to build south from "N" Street with the stipulation that the waterfront levee be raised along the warehouse district, for the first several blocks of the line. Not only did the railroad agree to this, it also went on to elevate much of the right-of-way further south along the river. A large number of road crossings could thus be grade-separated, and train speeds raised accordingly. In keeping with Sacramento Southern's mainline ambitions, a substantial through-truss bridge over Riverside Avenue carried two tracks. By June 20, 1909, service began to Freeport, while construction crews continued to push southward. The line was surveyed and right-of-way purchased following the winding Sacramento River from Hood to Walnut Grove, but a shorter, more direct route was ultimately constructed bypassing Courtland.

Completion of the pivot bridge at Snodgrass Slough (with room for two tracks, although only one was ever laid) allowed through service to begin between Sacramento and Walnut Grove on March 12, 1912. Just one month earlier, the properties and assets of the nearly 25-mile long line were sold to the Central Pacific Railway as part of an SP corporate reorganization; the company's Suisun Bay marshland tracks had been stabilized, so the Sacramento Southern's mainline ambitions would never be realized. From this time forward the route would be popularly known by its timetable designation: the Walnut Grove Branch Line.

Self-propelled McKeen Motor Car railcars-with their distinctive round "porthole"-style window-provided passenger and freight service two times daily in each direction from Sacramento, supplemented by a single, steam-powered roundtrip freight run operating from Walnut Grove. In 1924, service was reduced to a single steam-powered "mixed" (freight and passenger) round trip (no more motorcars) operating from Sacramento. Over the next few years, however, rail competition increased in the area as the Western Pacific and its subsidiary Sacramento Northern built branches into the Delta.

Southern Pacific responded by extending its Walnut Grove branch another 7.5 miles south to Isleton; this extension which crossed Georgiana Slough on a Bascule lift bridge opened in late October 1929. In 1931, a three-mile spur was built to the Golden State Asparagus Company cannery on the Mokelumne River. With the Depression in full swing by this time, SP ceased carrying passengers on the branch the next year. Freight business continued briskly throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Decline and Rebirth

In 1951 the spur to the asparagus cannery was abandoned, although service continued to Isleton. Retired SP engineer and CSRM volunteer staffer Al Shelley recalls working the route in the 1950s and 1960s with a 2-8-0 steam locomotive and, later, diesel locomotives pulling the trains. Fruit especially Bartlett pears was the main commodity hauled on the branch, but during sugar beet harvests over 100 beet cars nightly might be carried! Train crews often would pick fresh asparagus for dinner (it grew directly on the right-of-way in places) and stop for coffee and donuts or meals at the Freeport Cafe.

Unfortunately, a major flood inundated Isleton in 1971, destroying much of the railroad on Andrus Island. Six years later, SP abandoned 17 miles of the line below Hood; with the flood damage the line had become impassable, and customers of necessity turned to trucking. The traffic decline continued, and service to Hood was reduced to a thrice-weekly local freight. By 1978, the railroad applied to abandon all but three miles on the line's Sacramento end. At this point the California State Railroad Museum entered the picture, setting out to acquire major portions of the right-of-way to Hood. On October 10 of that year, SP diesels picked up the final train of empty freight cars, stored below Hood, and exited the picture.

Following the Museum of Railroad History's 1981 opening, the California State Railroad Museum featured commemorative excursion train operations in 1982 and 1983, celebrating the facility's anniversary by operating along the Sacramento waterfront. Financial backing provided by the Friends of California State Railroad Museum (today's CSRM Foundation) made possible an operating agreement with the Pacific Locomotive Association, whose crews ran SP 0-6-0 No. 1269. The Museum's staff handled promotion, while Friends staff and Museum volunteers handled the money, cleaning and preparation of coaches for the public, and provision of car attendants on the excursion trains.

In 1983 the team of Ralph Orlandella, Joel Harrison, and Cathy Taylor got together to discuss acquisition of the Walnut Grove Branch Line's remaining three miles (those closest to Sacramento) and the possibility of the Museum through utilizing volunteers operating excursion trains during summer months over the line. After lengthy discussions with Sacramento District-California State Parks leadership and CSRM staff members Walter Gray, Stephen Drew, and Janelle Miller, Gray was assigned as "staff lead" for the project's planning and implementation. Soon, the "Excursion Railroad Project" was born-as an entirely volunteer-led program.

The core group branched out to include Terry Stefani, Mark Spellman, and Dick Noonan (Dick today serves as the railroad's general manager), and soon a training program was ready along with all the materials needed to form a cohesive and well-trained operating crew. Financial backing was obtained from both the Friends of the Railroad Museum and the Sacramento State Parks Docent Association (these two groups are now functionally one at CSRM, and known as the California State Railroad Museum Foundation).

Museum volunteers were solicited to determine how many would be interested in working on the railroad, and a gratifying 140 responses were received. These folks formed the initial training class of the future Sacramento Southern Railroad. About 110 of the group made it through the entire training process, and were on hand for the railroad's first season of operation, which began on June 2, 1984. Although additional issues remained to be resolved engine crew qualifications being the most troublesome the railroad's leadership remained dedicated to achieving institutional stability.

Today's Sacramento Southern

Today, the Sacramento Southern Railroad has matured into a true heritage railroad. A vital revenue generator for the California State Railroad Museum and Foundation, it carries over 60,000 riders each year and in the process is a valuable educational asset. It is now under the jurisdiction of the Federal Railroad Administration, administering an FRA-regulated locomotive engineer training and certification program for volunteer crew members. Several have been promoted to engineer under the program's guidance, including Cheryl Meyer, the Sacramento Southern's first female engineer to have gone through the complete training process.

Each weekend during the summer, and several other times as well, the traditions of steam passenger train operations are practiced and preserved.

The California State Railroad Museum is proud of the role that its Sacramento Southern Railroad plays in Old Sacramento. We can all be proud of what we have in the Museum's excursion line: It remains a California transportation institution, serving the community with over 90 years of tradition and history all carried on by a well-trained crew of dedicated railroaders. All Aboard for the Museum's train rides!