Railroad past for railyard future
The Town of Truckee and the Holliday Corporation are about to embark in a planning process to redevelop the historic railyard property just east of downtown Truckee. The next three Echoes From the Past columns will focus on this historic area. By understanding the history of the industrial site and its impact on Truckee, the citizens of Truckee can help plan the future.
The Central Pacific Railroad was very important to Truckees early days. Truckee was very important to the railroads early years of operation. When the railroad was being constructed, Truckee served as the dominant supply point. As a separate stretch of track was extended down the Truckee River while the Donner Pass tunnels were being built, Truckee was a major staging point for the rails and rolling stock that were brought over the mountains by wagons. The railyard-mill site was a huge stockpile as 40 miles of track were constructed down the river to the Nevada stateline. Once the Transcontinental Railroad was done, Truckee became important to the maintenance and operations and as a division point. The focal points of the operation were the railyards and the roundhouse. In January of 1869, 40 engines a day were coming and going. Around 20 engines were housed in the first roundhouse that was completed in late 1868.
On March 29, 1869, the Truckee roundhouse caught on fire. Within several months a new roundhouse was constructed and railroad operations continued to expand.On May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed, and Truckees future as a railroad town was secured. With its proximity to the Sierra Nevada summit, its vast forests, and its natural transfer point for passenger and freight traffic south to Lake Tahoe and north to the Sierra Valley, Truckee would remain a railroad town of great importance for many decades. During the 1870s Truckee shipped more freight than any other point on the Central Pacific.By 1872, the railyard had a repair and machine shop, a wrecking train, a fire train the Samson, two immense snowplows, and huge piles of cordwood to supply engines all along the railroad. The repair shop could fix cars or locomotives, assist in getting rolling stock back on track when derailed, and performed all forms of maintenance.
There were many derailed cars and locomotives, wrecks, accidents, and damaged cars that had to be repaired in Truckee before they could be put back into service. The shop also had a backup hand powered fire pump that could shoot a stream over the entire building. The repair shop was run for years by Nate Webb, who was the Central Pacifics most prominent supervisor between Ogden and Sacramento. While Webb was in charge, he developed a new flanger that would remove snow and ice from inside the rails. In the late 1870s Webb also ran the Sacramento repair shops.Another notable repair shop man was George Royal. He invented and manufactured an improved flanger that cleared the ice from inside the tracks. The Royal flanger was constructed in the Truckee repair shops and was an instant success from its unveiling in 1875. In 1877 an improved Royal ice cutter was also built at the Truckee shops.
Truckees second roundhouse contained four stalls that held four engines each. It too was built of wood, but it had an impressive fire protection system. Each stall had a hydrant with a hose attached. A new water supply that was 150 feet in elevation supplied 75 pounds of pressure. Water barrels were also placed on the roof. Arrangements were made so that the engines could be moved out quickly by hand in case of another fire. Several small fires did occur in the life of this roundhouse, but all were quickly put out before causing major damage.In 1875, a new larger outdoor turntable and more sidings were added. Tracks were raised in the yards too allow for the easier removal of snow. A 600 foot long wood shed capable holding several hundred cords of four-foot long locomotive wood was also constructed in 1880. As rail traffic grew so did the Truckee yards.
The immense forest that the railroad passed through naturally led to the construction of sawmills. George Schaffer and Joseph Gray built the first sawmill across the river from Truckee in 1867. Elle Ellen built a sawmill along Trout Creek, just to the northwest of downtown Truckee in 1868. The present Truckee-Tahoe Lumber Company and Catholic church now occupy the site. Side tracks were extended to the mill so much needed rail ties and bridge timbers could be loaded directly onto rail cars. Ellen also built a factory that produced planed lumber, shingles, windows and doors. Ellens mill burned in 1869 and was quickly rebuilt. In 1878 the factory caught fire and burned down, but was also rebuilt. In 1878 Ellen built a new mill three miles up Trout Creek in what is now Tahoe Donner. A V flume was built to float rough lumber, timbers, and cordwood down to the railroad tracks. The side tracks were in use until about 1904.George Schaffer built his second sawmill in Martis Valley, three miles from Truckee. He built a box flume to float his lumber to the railyards. His flume crossed the Truckee River on a 50 foot high trestle and landed the lumber in a large yard on the south side of the tracks next to what is now East River Street. In 1897 the Sierra Nevada Lumber & Wood Company built the Hobart Mills complex on Prosser Creek. They connected it with a seven-mile standard gauge railroad that hauled the finished lumber to the Southern Pacific. Dozens of miles of narrow gauge logging railroad were built in the forests north of Hobart Mills. Much of the lumber that built the towns and houses of the interior west came from the Truckee area. Millions of board feet of Truckee lumber passed through the Truckee railroad yards.
As an operating point for almost three decades, Truckee figured importantly in the scheme of things. Situated at the foot of the steep climb to the Donner Summit, helper engines would congregate here and trains would crowd the local railyard. The affairs of over 325 miles of rail line from Truckee to Carlin, Nev., were administered and dispatched from these railyards. Train crews were switched at Truckee, which was the first crew change east of Sacramento. Even today some train crews are still changed at Truckee.The railyard and roundhouse were also the headquarters for the fire trains that responded to the many fires that plagued the railroad system. The first fire engine was the Samson, which was stationed here to protect the second roundhouse, the freight depot, and more importantly the wooden snow sheds that protected the tracks from the heavy snows. It served the town of Truckee as its fire alarm and was the most efficient fire fighting apparatus in town for many decades. In 1885, the Central Pacific Railroad ceased to exist. The cars and locomotives were renamed and repainted to reflect the new ownership of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Still Truckee continued its place as a major operation, employing hundreds of railroad workers.
Larger engines and more rail traffic put a severe strain on the Truckee roundhouse. Planning for a new roundhouse began in 1880. In the fall of 1882 the imposing 24 stall roundhouse was started. This roundhouse was built as fire proof as possible with very little wood. The decking on the turntable pit that turned with the turntable was the only wood in the structure. The outside of the top was covered with galvanized sheet iron so it would not catch fire from coals or sparks. This metal roof absorbed enough heat from inside so that the snow would slide off of the roof. The floor was constructed of blocks of granite. There were wood stoves in each stall to keep the water pipes on the locomotives from freezing and bursting.It was built of Rocklin granite and was one of three similar structures in Houston, Texas, and Algiers, La. The walls were 23 feet high and several feet thick. It was designed and the construction was supervised by George Washington Barnhart, who was hired by Mark Hopkins for the project. The roundhouse had pillars in aways from the walls with the turntable in the center. It had to be very sturdy to withstand the heavy snows that Truckee got and still gets on occasion. At first the engines went into the stalls or pits headfirst. Each engine stack was parked under a chimney in the roof that took the engine smoke out. However, as the locomotives got larger, they had back in to keep the stacks from hitting the braces and the chimneys. With the stacks in the center of the house, the smoke collected in the top of the roundhouse. Enough sulfur fumes were in the smoke that when condensation formed, it turned to sulfuric acid that ate away the steel rods and braces. The building was condemned, the roof was removed in 1939, but the walls and the turntable were still standing until 1955.
In the next column the continuing history of the railyard/mill site will be told. More photos and a timeline will be at the Railyard Planning workshop next Tuesday night.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 582-0893.