RLHS Logo Pacific Coast Chapter,
Railway & Locomotive Historical Society
"Hangtown Express"
Sunday, September 22, 1957
Hangtown Express - Front "Contents" of the Hangtown Express brochure --


Robert Briggs
Hangtown Express - Back

During the great Gold Rush of 1849, the Sacramento and the Feather Rivers became the main arteries of transportation, serving the great interior valley and the foothill region beyond. With the phenomenal growth of the area, shipping conditions, by 1852, were becoming acute. The lack of dependable supply was seriously hampering the growth of both Sacramento and Marysville, the two principal freighting centers for the Northern Mines.

Sacramento's problem was one of rain; in winter the roads leading out of the city were turned into virtual rivers of mud. As the head of navigation on the Feather River, Marysville, too, was seriously affected, since the fluctuations of the latter stream made it impossible to land needed supplies at the proper time.

In an attempt to solve the urgent transportation problem, a group of businessmen met in Sacramento in June of 1852. The result of that historic meeting was a tentative organization, known as the Sacramento Valley Railroad. (1) The new line, the first commercial railroad west of the Mississippi, would not only connect, by rail, Sacramento and Marysville, ". . . two of the most important distributing points in the interior," but would provide a reliable source of supply to the latter city and, at the same time, would traverse the fringe area of the mountain diggings. (2)

By 1855, the area involved had grown to 239,000 people and this population was purchasing an average of 162,700 tons of supplies a year. (3) The tremendous potential was so obvious that the Sacramento Valley Railroad organizers eagerly launched their plans.

They soon encountered a great obstacle, however, in the form of State Legislation. The Railroad Incorporation Law of 1852, with its Amendments of 1853, made railroad building quite difficult, since the law required that twenty-five percent of the capital stock had to be paid before contracts could be let; in addition the capital stock had to equal at least one thousand dollars for each mile of track proposed. As the line was to he some forty miles long, this would call for at least forty thousand dollars worth of stock, ten thousand dollars of which would have to be paid in before a contract could be made.

A herculean financial problem now faced the company. The initial sale of stock raised only five thousand dollars, half the needed amount. Unable to attract more investors, the directors turned to the Legislature and successfully lobbied for changes in the financial requirements.

Having thus solved this first problem, the company sought leadership for the job ahead. The man chosen was Charles Lincoln Wilson, a successful shipper on the river route to San Francisco. Wilson was confronted with two vital needs, money and railroad knowledge, both of which were in the east, not the west; so Wilson set out for New York.

Eastern capitalists were not interested in Western railroads, but the mission was by no means a failure. Through the recommendation of Horatio Seymour, Governor of New York, Wilson learned of a young engineer, who had just completed the Niagara River Gorge Railroad and was very much interested in coming west to build another road. His name was Theodore D. Judah.

At Sacramento the young engineer plunged wholeheartedly into the work. With a route as his first consideration he spent the next few months surveying and inspecting the area. Finally, he settled on two proposed courses: the first ran east in a projection of M Street, cutting through most of the farms between Sacramento and Patterson's Station. The second line, a continuation of R Street, ran behind these farms. Judah pointed out that the cost of the right of way might be too expensive on the M Street projection and, if so, the R Street projection would reduce the cost "without materially increasing its length." (4)

The engineer then continued his survey from Patterson's to Folsom and estimated the cost of this first twenty miles at $870,000. Here his survey stopped, and he estimated the remaining twenty miles to Marysville at approximately $1,000,000. With these figures at his disposal, Wilson entered into contract negotiations with Robinson, Seymour and Company of New York.

An agreement was reached in July of 1854, and the company agreed to build and equip the forty miles of railroad for $1,800,000. The payment for the first twenty miles required that the contractors receive $400,000 in full capital stock of the company at par, $300,000 in cash, and $200.000 in promissory notes as follows: $70,000 within thirty days after track was laid on twenty miles of road to Folsom, $60,000 within sixty days, and $70,000 within ninety days after said track was laid. (5)

Wilson pointed out to the stockholders that this cost was a mere nothing compared to future profits. Judah checked traffic out of Sacramento in May and October of 1854, and compiled a set of figures showing a potential profit of $1,300,000 per year for the railroad. (6)

With the winter months preparatory investigations and prognostication' came to an end. Between November, 1854, when the contract for construction was let and February, 1855, when construction actually began, company activities were limited to negotiations regarding right of way. The company had requested permission to lay track within the city limits, and after much discussion, an agreement was reached on January 30, 1855. Under an ordinance the railroad was granted the right to lay temporary track along R Street from the river to 12th Street and permanent track from there on. (7)

The acquisition of rights of way, however, was not restricted to the city proper. As was mentioned above, Judah had surveyed two routes. He had been correct in supposing that the R Street projection running behind the farms would prove the least expensive of the two and would, therefore, be chosen as the line of construction. It was along this line that grading was begun.

The contracting firm of Robinson, Seymour and Company subcontracted the road grading. Colonel A. Kipp, Beckley and Company and Hartford Anderson respectively, undertook the work of preparing the twenty and a half miles of roadbed.

Colonel Kipp's area, just outside the city limits, ran to the vicinity of Patterson's Station. The Colonel's area called for relatively simple effort. Three miles east of the Sacramento levee, an embankment a thousand feet long and seventeen feet high was constructed across some low land, and on the Widow Hopper's land a cut was carved five hundred feet long and eight feet deep. In the roar of the old Brighton Pavilion, an embankment a thousand feet long and seven feet high was thrown up. The third and last embankment was on the Fitch and Hawley Ranch, some seven miles out of town; it stretched a distance of five hundred feet and was ten feet high.

The next section was handled by Mr. Beckley and his partner, whose area extended to the Eighteen Mile House. Mr. Beckley was faced with the necessity of making a cut some seven hundred feet long through a hill about six miles from the Eighteen Mile House. At Buffalo Creek sixty feet of trestle work was necessary. At Alder Creek a massive trestle four hundred and fifty feet long and forty feet in height was constructed.

Northwest of the Eighteen Mile House, Mr. Anderson had charge of the grading. Ward's Ravine required a trestle two hundred feet long and twenty-five feet high as well as two cuts of four hundred feet long and twenty feet deep. Two more trestles were necessary, one sixty feet long over Watson's Ravine and another sixty foot structure over Willow Creek. Just beyond this point a six-hundred foot embankment some thirteen feet high was required from here the road curved into Negro Bar on the American River, its temporary end.

With the route surveyed, contracts let, and preparations for grading finished, Wilson, for reasons now unknown, resigned as company president. On February 10, 1855, Captain J. L. Folsom, the founder of the town which bears his name, was elected president of the company. (8) The actual construction of the road was to begin two days later, on Monday, February 12, when Mr. Beckley began grading near the Eighteen Mile House. (9) Colonel Kipp started the next day, and the project was on its way to completion. During the next four months work was pushed forward by all three contractors.

With the grading well under way, materials for the roadbed began to flow into Sacramento. Throughout the month of June the wharves of San Francisco, Sausalito, and Sacramento buzzed with activity. Railroad ties reached Sausalito on the 16th and four days later the sloop, J. A. Burr, unloaded railroad cars and materials in San Francisco. June 22 the Dashing Wave came through the Golden Gate with timetables, a locomotive, passenger cars, and signboard signals. (10)

Material was now arriving in Sacramento so rapidly that storage and work space there was urgently needed. The company opened negotiations on June 22, 1855, to construct a temporary building on Front Street just below R in which to place the rolling stock of the company as it arrived. All this activity was but a prelude to the arrival of the schooner, Two Brothers, on June 26, 1855. Aboard the schooner was the first locomotive, the Sacramento. (11)

With material arriving almost daily, work on the roadbed progressed rapidly until July 11, 1855. On this date the company was forced to file a motion in the district court to gain possession of the lands between the City of Sacramento and Negro Bar. There had been considerable trouble with conflicting claims, and a commission had been set up to handle the problem. The commission assessed the value of the right of way at $15,470.39 and stipulated that payment was to be made before the company could gain possession of the land.

The company requested permission to take possession without actually making payment by posting a bond to cover the amount until the commission and the courts could reach a final decision on referencing. The company had appealed to the State Supreme Court on that part of the award requiring the company to pay the probable cost of all new fencing which might be needed. The court approved the company's appeal and placed it in possession of the land.

The right of way problem solved at last, the company was free to consider actual construction. During the last days of July and early August railroad ties, some 35,000 in number, were distributed along the road. The remaining 20,000 needed to finish the job were on the way, along with the remaining 1,000 tons of iron. With the ties, which had arrived, and the 1.250 tons of iron on hand, track laying could commence.

The company suffered a sudden loss in mid-July when Captain Folsom died. His death necessitated speeding up the annual election of officers. Cornelius K. Garrison, well known San Francisco businessman, became president. W. P. Sherman, later General Sherman of Civil War fame and at that time in the banking business in San Francisco, was elected vice-president.

The directors took this occasion (the election of officers) to publish, with the general reports, all other data and information gathered by them since 1852. (12) This report summed up the company's progress and proudly announced that, after seven months of preparation, the actual laying of track could begin.

Workmen began distributing ties along the first two miles of roadbed on August 8, 1855, and so successful was this operation, that the next day the first rail was laid. The gauge of the road had been fixed at five feet. The rails were of English iron and weighed sixty pounds to the yard. They were set in wrought iron chairs weighing seven pounds and fastened with spikes weighing half a pound each. (13)

In two days the Sacramento crews laid down sixteen feet of track and the preparations were made for an inaugural trip on the new line. Judah and three of the company's directors-Robinson, Morie, and Carroll-lifted the first handcar onto the track.(14) This railroad trip on the first commercial line west of the Mississippi River was of short duration, the journey being only some four hundred feet in length.

The track laying crews, though still unfamiliar with the work, were making rapid progress. Mastering the techniques of track laying, and spike driving, they soon were putting down six hundred feet of track daily.

With construction work in full swing and track laid to 14th Street in Sacramento, the rural right of way problem again arose. Just beyond the city limits the road passed through the land of Mrs. Hopper, an obstreperous widow. Mrs. hopper, apparently misunderstanding the court' decisions of July already noted, greeted Colonel Kipp, the grading contractor, and his possession order with a loaded pistol. The Colonel exercising excellent military discretion, retired; and Sheriff D. N. Hunt was called. The Sheriff and a posse explained the situation to Mrs. Hopper the next day, and all parties concerned were satisfied.

The builders again pushed on. Still laying track eastward at the rate of six hundred feet per day, the crews reached 17th Street in Sacramento on August 16th, 1855, where a bridge over a slough marked the eastern terminus temporarily. While the Sheriff was performing his duty by quieting the reluctant widow, on the 17th of August an excursion train including the locomotive, Sacramento, a tender, three platform cars, and sonic two hundred passengers set forth from the foot of R Street. Two days later the company's president, C. K. Garrison conducted a more exclusive run for the company directors and some of the stockholders. The train was clocked at thirty miles per hour as it crossed 10th Street.

Then came an unhappy climax to the spectacular event: Sacramentans learned that the company's financial structure had crumbled, and for a time it appeared that the railroad would never go beyond Seventeenth Street. Under the provisions of the contract $300,000 cash was to be paid to the contractors immediately, and the company did not possess $300,000 in cash or assets. It had been hoped that the sale of stock would produce this figure, but stock sales were slow despite the glowing picture painted by company reports. Unable to find enough investors, the company thus failed in making the cash payments to the contractors. However, temporary arrangements were effected pending a final settlement and work was resumed.

With the contractors maintaining their schedule of laying two blocks of track a day, the rails reached Brighton on the 19th of September, 1855, where an informal opening of the first section of the railroad was held, and some one hundred people took an evening train ride to the end of the line. Twenty days later the track reached Patterson's Station.

At this point, a final adjustment was made in the organization's shaky financial set up. On October 25, 1855, the company went into receivership and J. Mora Moss, a San Francisco banker, was appointed trustee. With the financial help and guidance of Mr. Moss, the company completed the building of the road to Folsom on February 22, 1856, but here construction ceased. Judah's original estimate of construction costs was $43,500 per mile, and the contract had been let for $45,000 per mile. However, when the railroad had been completed to Folsom, it was discovered that the cost had actually been $60,000 per mile. (15) Unable to meet even the provisions of the contract for work thus far accomplished, the company could not assume additional commitments, and no further construction was proposed.

Thus ends the story of California's pioneer railroad, forerunner of the mighty Central Pacific.

  Reference Information:
Bancroft, Chronicles of the Builders, VI, p. 116.
Reports of the Committee of the Board of Directors, Sacramento, 1855, P.4.
Ibid., p.10
Report of the Chief Engineer on the Preliminary and Business of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. (Sacramento.' Democratic State Journal Office, 1854), p.4.
Report of the President of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. October, 1854, p.1
Loc. cit.
The Sacramento Daily Union, January 31, 1855.
Ibid., January 12,1855
Ibid., February 9, 1855
Ibid., June 22, 1855
Ibid., January 1,1856.
Report of the Committee of the Board of Directors, August 7th, 1855. (San Francisco: O'Mears and Painter, 1853).
Thompson and West, History of Placer County. California. (Oakland: Thompson and West, 1882), p.274.
The Sacramento Daily Union, January 1, 1856. 
Bancroft, History of California, VII, p.538,
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