History: Boca and Loyalton Railroad triggered rapid development | SierraSun.com

History: Boca and Loyalton Railroad triggered rapid development

Daniel Cobb
Boca and Loyalton Railroad began operation in 1901.
Provided / Truckee Donner Railroad Society

With a population of just 3,236 as of the 2020 census, Sierra County is the second-least populous county in California. Loyalton, population 740, is the county’s only incorporated city, and there is one traffic light in the entire county – a flashing red at the intersection of highways 49 and 89. 

Sierra County wasn’t always such a quiet, unpopulated place. In 1849-1852, following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Bar, more than 16,000 would-be miners poured into the county. Some homesteaded ranches in the broad, fertile Sierra Valley, producing hay, cattle, and dairy products for the miners and later for markets in Truckee, Reno, and Virginia City.  

The lumber industry also grew in the area, and the first sawmill was established near Loyalton in 1868.  Soon over a dozen sawmills were in operation, and production far exceeded local demand. Due to Sierra Valley’s remoteness, getting lumber and other local products to distant markets was a challenge. By the 1880s, huge steam-powered tractors were used to haul milled lumber to the nearest rail hub, over Beckwourth Pass to the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway in the vicinity of present-day Hallelujah Junction. 

In 1885, the California Land and Timber Company established the narrow-gauge Sierra Valley and Mohawk Railroad, aiming to establish a rail link with the N-C-O. The railroad went bankrupt two years later after laying 14 miles of track from the N-C-O nearly to Beckwith (today’s Beckwourth). In 1894, Henry Bowen acquired the railroad, completed track past Beckwith, and began operations as the Sierra Valleys Railroad in 1995. 

The SV railroad provided valuable, if inconsistent, service for the north side of Sierra Valley, but was of little benefit to the growing communities of Loyalton and Sierraville on the south side of the valley. In addition, since the SV and N-C-O were narrow gauge, loads had to be unloaded and reloaded at Reno to be taken on to Virginia City and points east and west on the Central Pacific. 

Loyalton was home to several lumber mills and box factories as early as 1895. Steam traction engines were used to haul logs to the mills, and a combination of steam tractors and horse-drawn wagons hauled the lumber 16 miles through Dog Valley to the Central Pacific at Verdi, or more than 20 miles to Truckee. The steam tractors were so huge and noisy that they spooked horses and oxen on the busy Henness Pass route, and eventually were run only at night. 

Boca Loyalton railway map.
Provided / Truckee Donner Railroad Society

In 1900 the Lewis brothers, operators of a large lumber mill and box factory south of Loyalton, started work on a standard gauge railroad running up Smithneck Canyon, over a low pass, and down the Little Truckee River to Boca, which was already established as a stop on the CP. Track-laying was completed the following year, and the Boca and Loyalton Railroad began operation. 

Completion of the railroad to Loyalton triggered rapid development in the area, especially in the lumber business. Timber lands in the vicinity were quickly snapped up and at least five new sawmills and a new box factory were built within the first year. The B&L continued its march north, laying track across Sierra Valley to Beckwith at the same time that it was building its business between Loyalton and Boca. The establishment of standard gauge service to the north side of Sierra Valley caused an expansion of lumbering business in that area as it had in Loyalton, and no doubt diverted substantial business away from the narrow-gauge Sierra Valleys Railroad. 

The next five years saw gradual expansion of the railroad north and west of Beckwith, as well as the laying of temporary spurs into the forest between Boca and Loyalton to cut timber stands there. A line north to Clover Valley required a crossing of the SV narrow gauge, and the two railroads fought a protracted battle from 1903 to 1907 over crossing rights and fees. The physical crossing was built and torn up at least three times, and each side won its share of court injunctions and reversals. Mother Nature brought additional challenges, with snow, ice, and flooding frequently interrupting service for several days or even weeks at a time. Mechanical breakdowns and accidents were also frequent.

The Boca/ Loyalton locomotive crash in 1905.
Provided / Truckee Donner Railroad Society

By 1907, most of the prime timber stands along the railroad had been reduced to stumps, and the lumber business in Loyalton was in decline. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, that was when the Western Pacific began construction of its section of the WP/DRGW transcontinental line across the north side of Sierra Valley and down the Feather River canyon. In anticipation, the backers of WP had acquired controlling interests in both the B&L and SV railroads, so there were no competitors or complaints when WP repurposed the SV grade over Beckwourth Pass and into Sierra Valley, and took over the B&L tracks along the Middle Fork Feather River through Portola.   The B&L became main conduit for construction equipment and supplies needed for track-building down the canyon, and according to some sources, ran at a profit for the first time in its history.  

The completion of construction and start of operations by WP in 1909 was the beginning of the end for the B&L. The new transcontinental route took over much of what business remained in Sierra Valley and B&L’s traffic and finances declined rapidly. The railroad ran at a loss from 1911 onward, defaulted on its bond obligations, and went into receivership in 1915. Operations between the Loyalton and Boca ceased and the road’s assets were sold to WP at foreclosure in 1916. 

The rails between Boca and Loyalton were torn up in 1917 and large stretches of the grade were submerged under Boca and Stampede reservoirs. North of Stampede, the grade along Davies Creek and the east side of Sardine Valley is relatively easy to find, and a few deteriorating ties and other remnants remain to this day. From that point, it parallels Smithneck Road all the way to Loyalton. Part of the grade along Smithneck Creek was burned over in 1994 by the Cottonwood Fire, making it easier to find but less pleasant to hike. About two miles of the old grade between Loyalton Rotary Park and Alder Creek have been developed as a multiuse trail, signed as the “Loyalton/Boca Railroad Trail”.   

About the Author:

Daniel Cobb is a railroad modeler, amateur historian, and volunteer with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society. He lives in Tahoe Vista.

Sources: David Myrick “Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California” Vols 1 and 3, Truckee-Donner Historical Society “Tracking the Railroad from Boca to Loyalton.”

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