Feather River Route

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Keddie Wye as seen in 2003

The Feather River Route is a rail line that was built and operated by the Western Pacific Railroad. It was constructed between 1906 and 1909, and connects the cities of Oakland, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The line was built to compete with the Central Pacific Railroad (and later Southern Pacific Railroad), which at the time held a nearly complete monopoly on Northern California rail service. The route derives its name from its crossing of the Sierra Nevada, where it follows both the North and Middle Forks of the Feather River. The route is famous for its impressive engineering qualities and its considerable scenic value. All of the route is now owned and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad; however, the Union Pacific has transferred significant portions of the route to other lines. The portion still called the Feather River Route by the Union Pacific runs from the California Central Valley to Winnemucca, Nevada.

History[edit]

A rare case of a bridge crossing over another bridge: here, State Route 70 crosses the railroad bridge over the Feather River

Early history[edit]

Interest in building a transportation artery through the Feather River Canyon and across the deserts of Nevada and Utah began with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass, in the Sierra Nevada, in 1850. The pass, at 5,221 feet (1,591 m) in elevation, is the lowest pass through the Sierras. In the 1860s, Arthur W. Keddie began surveying in the Feather River Canyon, in order to find a suitable route for such an artery. He eventually found such a route, and helped to found the Oroville and Virginia City Railroad Company in 1867 to build a railroad along it. However, political pressure from the Central Pacific Railroad, among other factors, led to the end of all construction efforts by 1869.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, little progress was made in forming a company to construct the railroad line. Some interest remained, however, because the proposed route was much less steep and passed through the Sierras at a point 2,000 feet (610 m) lower than that of the recently finished First Transcontinental Railroad, owned by the Central Pacific Railroad between Sacramento and Ogden, Utah. The Union Pacific Railroad, which terminated in Ogden at the time, postulated multiple times throughout this era about building the line, so that it could bypass the Central Pacific and access the Pacific Coast on its own. However, none of these proposals ever amounted to any level of action, and the idea was widely considered dead by the 1890s.

However, interest in a line through the Feather River Canyon was renewed in 1900, when the Union Pacific Railroad, then led by E. H. Harriman, took control of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Subsequently, Harriman decided to close off access to the Southern Pacific to all railroads other than the Union Pacific, leaving all other railroads unable to access the Pacific Coast from Salt Lake City. Foremost among these railroads was the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, the westernmost part of an 11,000-mile (17,703 km) transcontinental rail network organized by Jay Gould. Jay's son and successor, George Gould, decided it prudent to regain access to the Pacific Coast. Hence, on April 3, 1903, the Western Pacific Railroad, backed heavily by Gould, was founded in San Francisco, California.

Construction[edit]

A Western Pacific passenger train in the grand canyon, circa 1910s

Construction of the line began in 1906 and continued under harsh conditions. In the Sierra a total absence of roads, along with rockslides in the Feather River Canyon and extreme temperature fluctuation, made working conditions uncomfortable and dangerous. In the deserts of Nevada and Utah high temperature and lack of water made conditions similarly difficult; construction costs skyrocketed, nearly bankrupting the contractors building the line. Labor turnover was extremely high, due to the miserable working conditions. Nonetheless, progress inched further, although slower than anticipated, due to the challenges caused by the presence of many long tunnels on the Sierra portion of the route.

When the line was finished in 1909 it spanned a total of 927 miles (1,492 km), and had been built at the then ferociously expensive cost of $75 million (equivalent to $1969 million in 2014). It featured a ruling grade of 1%, making it only half as steep as Southern Pacific's Donner Pass line, its primary competitor.

History under the Western Pacific[edit]

Combined Western Pacific/Denver & Rio Grande Western route map from 1930

The traffic levels of the Feather River Route fluctuated considerably between its completion in 1909 and the purchase of the Western Pacific Railroad by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1983. Between 1909 and 1918, traffic rose with the onset of World War I, although such gains vanished in the 1920s and 1930s. The construction of the "Inside Gateway" line, completed in 1931 between Keddie and Bieber, California, failed to alleviate the problem. Yet in 1936, in spite of falling traffic, the Western Pacific rehabilitated the Feather River Route using RFC funds. As a result, the line was in optimal condition at the onset of World War II in 1939.

Traffic levels on the route exploded during the first year of the war. Freight traffic doubled, and passenger traffic increased sixfold. Traffic increased steadily in both categories over the next few years of the war. In response to this, the Western Pacific installed Centralized Traffic Control between Oroville and Portola, California, in the Sierra Nevada, during 1944 and 1945.

Palisade Canyon along the Humboldt River between Battle Mountain and Carlin. The Feather River Route and Overland Route run parallel on opposite sides of the river

From the late 1940s through to the early 1970s, freight traffic on the line grew slowly, while passenger traffic fell substantially. However, this did not stop the Western Pacific from introducing the California Zephyr in 1949. The Zephyr, which operated over three railroads on its route between Oakland and Chicago, gained immense recognition but failed to last past the year 1970, when lack of riders and unprofitability forced the Western Pacific to abandon the service.

In 1957, a portion of the route between Oroville and Intake had to be relocated to make way for the Oroville Dam. The new line features the North Fork Bridge, which is 1,000 feet (300 m) long and 200 feet (61 m) high. The line began operation in 1962. During the 1970s, the Feather River Route experienced modernization, as operations became computerized.

Shared trackage agreement[edit]

The Feather River Route parallels the Overland Route in central Nevada between Weso (near Winnemucca) and Alazon (near Wells). The Southern Pacific Railroad and Western Pacific came to a shared trackage agreement to use directional running.[1] Eastbound trains of both companies used the tracks for the Feather River Route while westbound trains used the Overland Route.[2] In the shared track area, the tracks mostly run on opposite sides of the Humboldt River; at some points the two lines are several miles apart. There is one grade separated crossing of the two lines near Palisade, Nevada. For the shared track agreement, crossovers were constructed where the lines run in close proximity to allow bi-directional service to the areas previously only accessible from one of the lines, such as Battle Mountain.[3]

Present[edit]

The Western Pacific was purchased by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1983. In 1996, the Union Pacific acquired the Southern Pacific, resulting in both lines between Oakland and Utah being owned by the same company.[1] After the acquisition, the Union Pacific truncated the Feather River Route to the meeting points of the two lines near Sacramento, California and Winnemucca, Nevada. East of Winnemucca, the former Feather River Route has been combined with lines from the former Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad to form the Central Corridor.[4] The far western portion of the line, between Niles and Stockton is now used by the Altamont Commuter Express. The Western Pacific Railroad Museum, a preservation society founded in 1984, is located next to the Union Pacific rail yard in Portola, California. Most of the remaining portion of the Feather River Route follows State Route 70 in California and former State Route 49 in Nevada.

Points of interest[edit]

Along portions built as part of the Feather River Route that are currently assigned to other lines:

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Eureka County, Yucca Mountain Existing Transportation Corridor Study". Eureka County – Yucca Mountain Project. 2005. Retrieved 2010-05-08. 
  2. ^ Benchmark Maps (2003). Nevada Road and Recreation Atlas (Map). 1:250000 (2003 ed.). p. 41–44. ISBN 0-929591-81-X. http://www.benchmarkmaps.com.
  3. ^ "Eureka County, Yucca Mountain Existing Transportation Corridor Study". Eureka County – Yucca Mountain Project. 2005. Retrieved 2010-05-08. 
  4. ^ Union Pacific Railroad. UPRR Common Line Names (Map). http://www.uprr.com/aboutup/maps/attachments/upcomnam.pdf. Retrieved 2009-01-04.