From the Valley to the Summit
The Inseparable Connection Between the Sacramento Shops and the Transcontinental Railroad

Stephen Nemeth  2019  250 pages

Every once in a while the DSHS post office box has a little jewel in it and that was the case when “From the Valley to the Summit” arrived. It is a unique compendium of local railroad information, mostly through reprints of the SP Bulletin with some added text at the beginning of each chapter.  Because of the many stories about the railroad, along with a lot of detail, this is a professional train buff’s dream but it’s also attractive to the amateur train aficionado as she pages through the many stories.  Just paging through is a treat because the SP Bulletins, being reprints, have the main story, such as the development of refrigeration, but then also the columns that went along with that story to fill the issues: the SP replacing two kittens for two little girls (the kittens were killed by a train because it’s hard to fence kittens), 1920’s humor, etc.

The premise behind many of the stories, having to do with the Sacramento shops is that to look at California development you have to consider the railroad. In order to consider the railroad, you have to consider the Sacramento locomotive works, or the shops, “The first major industrial complex in the West” and at one time the largest manufacturing entity west of the Missouri River.

The book is an eclectic set of stories including:
            Railroad watches and the history of railroad time
            Reminiscences of old timers of railroad operations and day to day life
            The story of Tunnel 6
            The Pullman Strike
            Fighting and preventing fires and Red Mountain and how it worked.
            Fuel economy
            Ice production
            Ground breaking ceremonies

Chapter 11 gets the reader, or the amateur paging through the book, to Donner Summit and snow removal and snowsheds. Here we learn that our snow is much superior to other snow because of the water content.  Our special snow then required the development of bucker plows and rotaries both of which are detailed.

Where the amateur buff will get turned off by the many details and just page by, the professional will happily feast. There is a surfeit of facts.  The Southern Pacific had the need to buy one locomotive per day.  To build the snowsheds 900 tons of bolts and spikes were used on 37 miles. Carpenters were paid $4 a day and laborers $2.50.  44,639,552 board feet of lumber were used and 1,316,312 lineal feet of round timber.  It was thought that eucalyptus trees cleaned the air of malaria (“odorous antiseptic emanations from its leaves”) and so the trees were planted around the Sacramento shops. The locomotive C.P. Huntington was locomotive #3 and placed into service in 1864.  It “could haul four cars carrying 22 tons each at 35 miles an hour up a grade of 26 feet to the mile.” Snowshed fires could burn 100 feet of shed in a minute.  The Governor Stanford (see picture here) was locomotive #1 and had cylinders 16” in diameter, weighed 28 tons and had a piston stroke of 22”. In the development of rotary snow plows we learn about the number of bearings, how windows were de-iced, RPM’s, the number of motors, the addition of universal  joints, and the conversion to electrical power.

We learn about Mallets on the Sierra route (weighing 400,000 lbs.), the grades out of Colfax, the frequency of sidings, and something about “drivers” and “consolidations.”

California was called the “orchard and garden of the United States” in 1923.  During the eight previous years 218,526 freight cars of grapes were shipped out.  In 1923 the SP “handled more than $176,000 cars of perishable freight.”  176,000 cars is an enormous number requiring 3,520 trains of 50 cars each which would cover 1,753 miles of railroad.  That would occupy the entire main track from Los Angeles to Ogden, Utah. Even then that would not be the end because the engine would be another 146 miles east of Ogden.  Those are statistics with which to wow your friends or amateur train buffs.

One SP Bulletin from 1928 contained an interesting fact about the laying of 10 miles of track in one day.    Relays of men were provided for the laying of the track.  When the first relay team came to spell the original team the “Latter refused to be replaced and therefore the same men handled the entire ten miles of iron rails in that one day.”  They were paid four days’ time for that one day. We should note here that the story-teller does not mention that the teams were all Chinese.

Given that these reproduced SP Bulletins are from their time we also get the “times.”  For example, one old timer reminisced after 57 years on the railroad, about the parade and celebration upon the completion of the railroad in 1869.  He talked with pride about the wagon carrying the Irish railroad workers who had done the feat of laying the miles of track in a day.  He doesn’t mention that the actual work crew was all Chinese and that the Chinese were not invited to the celebration or allowed to be in the parade.

The problems are few.  You’ve really got to like trains to read it all.  The reproduction of SP Bulletins does not reproduce high quality pictures.  If the answer is not in the SP Bulletins we don’t get it. For example, the Pullman Strike is covered but we don’t know who won or what the results were.


Advice for transcontinental railroad travelers in the early days of transcontinental travel
Excellent hotels are located at convenient distances along the route. Meals can be obtained at these hotels for .75 in coin or $1 in currency.  Those who cannot pay these reasonable prices, emigrants for example, bring along baskets of provisions.  Those can be replenished  along the line.  At principal stations milk, hot tea and coffee can be purchased.  In a corner of the food basket reserve room for a comb, brush, towel, soap, tin cup, small basin, sponge, mirror, tooth-brush, “etc. etc.”  First class passengers can reserve a berth but others have to make do with a blanket as best they can, but second class is never full.


Look up Alta California Guide Book
The Alta California Pacific Coast and Trans-continental Rail-road Guide 1871


About Sierra storms
“No one can face these storm when they are in earnest. Three of our party came through the pass one evening, walking in the storm - two got in safely. After waiting a while, just as we were starting to look up the third, he came in exhausted… he had lost his way and thought his last hour had come.”  Pg 145


A story from the Sacramento Union February 2, 1869 (from Appendix 2 which is a collection of newspaper articles about the beginning of the transcontinental railroad). 

It was called “Snow Life.”

The storm came in stopping railroad traffic on February 16, 1869 which was a Tuesday.  The passenger train was pulled onto a siding pending the arrival of the snowplow pushed by five locomotives. When morning came the passengers  “found us in the midst of a boundless waste of snow, at least two and one-half feet having fallen during the night, and more coming.”  “Patience weakened…”  “growling was indulged in…. toilets were made of snow water.”  A good breakfast  enabled them to wait with more composure.

The locomotives and snowplow arrived.  The passenger train went back down the hill but the correspondent and the fellow with the mail got on the front locomotive of the snowplow assemblage and stayed.  The front engine whistled twice and that was followed by ten more whistles from the following engines.  The procession plowed forward slamming into the snow.  “The snow was turned in huge furrows…”  The engines proceeded but the snow began to fall more heavily.  “the locomotives wheezed and labored…” and came to a stop.  The engines took the plow a half mile back down the track and then with the speed of the wind charged forward into the snow again.  Throttle valves were pulled wide open and “every pound off steam let on the cylinder…”  They struck the snow and moved a few rods (16 2/3 feet in a rod).  The train was brought to a stop.  Back and forth, charging into the snow, it went on for hours. One engine became disabled.  Snow increased. It took until dark for the plow to force its way to Blue Canyon.  The mail had to go through and so the fellow with the mail went out by himself “crawling and swimming almost to the station…” Then the mail was taken by two other fellows “hardy men of the mountains” who took it to Cisco.  There two more took it to Truckee and operating trains. 

The whole next day was spent trying to work the locomotives and their snow plow through the snow.  On Friday two more engines arrived and “rushed again to the fray.”  Finally they arrived at the sheds of Emigrant Gap having gone four miles through snow “five to twenty feet in depth.”

That storm convinced the reporter that snowsheds were a necessity all along the track.

A day later, on Sunday, a large force of men arrived and started shoveling snow.  A half mile of track was cleared.  The reporter decided to walk to Cisco, nine miles away, at 2 AM Monday.  Pits had been dug in the snow as part of the snow clearing for the first four miles.  They were eight feet apart and four feet deep.   The reporter and companion fell into each pit, scrambled up and out and then into the next. It took four hours of “tedious walking” until they got a mile west of Cisco and found the bridge carried away by a snow slide.  A hundred men were at work rebuilding. 

The train the reporter and his companion had left behind did not get through until Tuesday, “making the time from Alta just one week, and every man on the road working his level best.” 

Aren’t we glad we live today?