Friday, March 26, 2021

California Railroads Part 1 by Zina Abbott

When most people think of railroads in California, they often to focus on the Central Pacific Railroad (C.P.R.R) which became the western half of the first Transcontinental Railroad, or Pacific line. However, this was not the first railroad in California. Also, although the “Big Four” who founded the Central Pacific Railroad had other business interests, they did not get out of the railroad business once the country was linked east to west. The  C.P.R.R. founders and officers conducted business as though it was their goal to be the first, last and only California rail line.


Today I wish to focus on the rail lines involved with my coming novel. This story is not specifically about railroads, but how the rail lines in California affected the wheat and barley farmers and cattlemen of Stanislaus County in the San Joaquin Valley.

Mid-California  history from 1849 to 1870 in a nutshell:


The gold rush brought thousands of fortune-seekers from all over the world, including the eastern United States that had recently acquired the former Mexican territory that included California. From San Francisco, these miners—and those who ran businesses catering to said miners—moved east to the gold fields—the Mother Lode region—of the southern mines that went as far south as Mariposa. At that time, most travel was done by water or overland. 


The river system that fed the San Francisco Bay included the Sacramento River that flowed from north to south, and the San Joaquin River that flowed from south to north. Steamboats and smaller sail craft made their way up these rivers as far as they could.


Prior to the gold rush, a Mexican land grant along the San Joaquin River and its adjoining delta waterway was awarded to a German immigrant named Charles Weber. Once the United States gained control of what had been Alta California, the city of Stockton, named after Commodore Robert F. Stockton, a naval officer who drove the Mexican forces out of California in the 1840’s, was created. Not long after California became a state, the city was incorporated. From 1849 until about 1855 when the height of the gold rush had passed, Stockton became a major supply center for the mining communities to the east. After the easy gold was gone and the men figured out there was better money to be made in farming, Stockton became a major transportation and freight hub for the San Joaquin Valley as in the decades that followed the gold rush, it became the major wheat and barley producing region in the world.

Stockton enjoyed its role as transportation hub. The city leaders were loathe to relinquish it to railroad interests dominated by financial giants in San Francisco and Sacramento. In order to continue to utilize the strong inland harbor they developed, they determined to raise their own money for a railroad system which would have its terminus in Stockton.

Stockton & Copperopolis Depot at Stockton Harbor

Their first venture was the Stockton & Copperopolis Railroad. Copperopolis was a mining community that, for a short time, generated the second-largest quantity of copper as any other copper mining region in the United States. During the Civil War, the metal was considered vital for producing shell casings. There was no transcontinental railroad at that time, so the plan was to run a rail line between the two communities to replace the original pack mule form of transportation. From Stockton, the raw metal wwas freighted by ship to the east coast where it was processed. 

 The end of the Civil War combined with a drop in copper prices depressed the mining industry in Copperopolis and reduced the need for the railroad. The Stockton & Copperopolis line was built as far as the small town Peters only about fifteen miles from Stockton. There it ended due to lack of funds. Eventually, this line was bought by the Central Pacific Railroad which extended the line to Milton—far short of Copperopolis—in order to acquire the land subsidies provided by the federal government.

Stockton to Visalia Railroad

Another effort was the Stockton & Tulare Railroad that was proposed to the Stockton City Council on September 28, 1869. The road was to run from Stockton to Visalia with the terminus to be in Stockton. However, at the same meeting where the Stockton & Tulare Company presented their proposal, another bigger-than-life figure also attended and put forth his proposal--former California governor and president of the C.P.R.R., Leland Stanford. 

I included a fictionalized version of this meeting taken from historical records in my book. Here is the unedited portion of my chapter including this scene:

            Amelia tried to not gawk as she glanced around in hope of spotting a man who looked like the lithograph images she had seen of Gov. Stanford. She knew he was no longer governor, but was here because of his position of president of the Central Pacific Railroad. A group of men in the second row to her right caught her interest. As one older man leaned forward, she wondered if he could be the former governor.

Leland Stanford abt. 1870s

As much as Oliver Handley expressed the opinion that women should not concern themselves with the business affairs of men, he did not seem to appreciate that this woman did read the newspapers. The small Stanislaus County newspapers might not contain a great deal of detail about the affairs in neighboring counties, but her father subscribed to the Stockton Independent. The paper arrived at the post office in Knights Ferry several days after publication, but it did arrive. Even Lucy read the paper on certain occasions, especially if something she overheard from the adult conversations sparked her interest.

            Amelia knew the Western Pacific Railroad had reached Stockton the month before. She understood that Stockton intended to use that line that connected them with both Sacramento, San Jose, and the San Francisco Bay area to capitalize on a new line intended to run south through the San Joaquin Valley to Visalia. It was that line that interested her father the most, for it was the prospect of a railroad near their ranch that would allow them to more effectively ship their cattle that would lessen his work and generate greater profits. It also would be a boon to the wheat and barley farmers that now hauled their harvests to the steamboats miles to the west for transportation.

            As she waited, she pondered the question of why the president of the Central Pacific Railroad, with its home office in Sacramento, and who managed the lines from the San Francisco Bay to Ogden, Utah from there, attended the meeting about railroad lines in which the Central Pacific had no financial interest.

            The crowd quieted as the meeting was called to order. An undercurrent of tension filled the room as the council considered some minor matters that Amelia guessed did not greatly interest most of those present.

            Squeaks of bodies shifting in the chairs and a low murmur of voices filled the air as the topic of railroads was raised. A representative of the Stockton and Tulare Company was granted the floor. He declared his company’s intent to build a railroad commencing that the Stockton waterfront south to Visalia.

            Amelia watched with interest the discussion between some of the councilmen that was spoken too softly for the audience to hear. She noticed that several times Oliver rose from his seat and either whispered in a councilman’s ear, or handed one a sheet of paper. Not many minutes passed before a man from the group sitting on the second row stood and asked for permission to address the council.

            The head of the council, Mayor Hickman motioned to the man. “The chair recognizes Gov. Stanford of the Central Pacific Railroad.”

            As the man Amelia earlier thought might be the former governor rose from his chair, she flicked an eyebrow upward. The voice that had acknowledged him, although polite enough, had been void of welcome.

            “Gentlemen, members of the Stockton City council, interested citizens present this evening…” Leland Stanford briefly turned and nodded to the audience. “I have heard the proposals put before you this night. Although what you have heard has some merit, if accepted, it would be leaving the council and the city you represent with too many unknowns. I present for your consideration what I consider to be a more attractive alternative. Understanding that the city of Stockton proposed to loan the sum of $300,000 in her bonds, I desire to submit the following proposition:

            “Sirs, the Central Pacific will build seventy-five miles of their road, from a point in the city to be designated by the mayor and common council, the right-of-way to be given, and when the seventy-five miles are completed so that locomotive and car shall pass over it, there shall be delivered to the company the full amount of the bonds. We guarantee the building of thirty-five miles of the road in one year from that date.”

            “Thank you, Governor.”

            Gov. Stanford acknowledged the mayor with a nod. “I will be at the Yosemite Hotel if you have additional questions for me.”

            A murmur of voices sounded once more as eyes followed the former governor and his associates out of the room.

            The representative who spoke before in behalf of the Stockton and Tulare Company rose and raised his hand. “Gentlemen of the council, I ask that you hear our proposition out fully.”

            Mayor Hickman leaned forward on folded arms and tightened the skin around his eyes. “Do you have a written proposition, or is it verbal?”

            The gentleman cleared his throat. “Sir, it is written, although not all officers of the company have fully reviewed the final draft. With your permission I will read it. If all of our officers are in agreement, you will have a copy of the signed proposal before we leave tonight.” After reading the document, he turned to the others with him. “If all are in agreement with this final draft of the proposal as presented to the council, please affix your signatures. We’ll then present the council with their copy.”

            Amelia watched with interest as several men stepped forward and, borrowing a pen from the council secretary, signed three copies of the proposal. Why did they not meet and take care of this before the meeting?

            A smile in his face, the man representing the group handed a copy of the proposal to Mayor Hickman. He cleared his throat. “I think you will find our proposal one that will be of mutual  benefit to the city and the communities of the San Joaquin Valley. What we do ask of the council is that you delay action for thirty days.”

            “Thank you, sir. You and your stockholders with you will please leave the room while we consider the matter.”

            Once the interested parties left, Mayor Hickman turned to the council. “Discussion on the issue before us, gentlemen?”

            A man earlier identified as Councilman Humphrey picked up the proposal, glanced at it, and passed it to the next member. "It seems to me, Mr. Stanford's proposition is all that can be desired."

            With a raised eyebrow, Amelia turned to her father. After listening to his ranting over the years about how the Stockton City Council and the San Joaquin County leaders had worked to build railroads free of Central Pacific Railroad control, she wondered at this man’s response. Did someone get to him? Offer him an incentive?

            “Mr. Mayor.”

            “Yes, General Evans. You have the floor, councilman.”

            “It seems to me it would be well to appoint a committee to make a specified agreement in regard to the line of the road.”

            "It is the desire of the councilmen to have a statement made upon that point?" Mayor Hickman fixed his gaze on Mr. Evans.


            The mayor stretched to his full seated height as he searched the room. His gaze settled on something or someone in the back. “Doctor Grattan, will you be kind enough to go to the Yosemite Hotel and escort ex-Governor Stanford to the council chamber?"

            Amelia turned in her chair as a man who had been sitting in the back of the room rose and agreed to do as asked. She met the gaze of her father before she settled in her seat facing the council once more while everyone in the room waited. How interesting. I had no idea it was like this.

            Heads turned as the man who once headed the state and was still the president of the Central Pacific Railroad entered the room again. He was again introduced to the council by Mayor Hickman and cordially received.

            “General Evans has some questions, Governor.”

            "Governor, may I with propriety ask you at what point your road will cross the Tuolumne River?"

            Mr. Stanford waggled his raised hand. "I cannot say without a map, but it will be somewhere near Empire City."

            Eyebrows raised, Amelia turned to her father and met his gaze. An unspoken message passed between them. Empire City was on the east side of Stanislaus County. If the proposed Central Pacific road angled from Stockton to Empire City, it was likely it would be laid not too far from Barker land.

            “The chair recognizes Councilman Edward Moore."

            “Thank you, Mayor.” Mr. Moore turned to Stanford. "At what point does your road intend to connect with the Western Pacific? Any other point than Stockton?"

            Amelia’s father leaned over and whispered in her ear. “He wants to find out if the C.P.R.R. will leave Stockton as the terminus of the line.” The both sat straight and turned their gazes to Stanford as he spoke.

            "The company will exhaust their franchise in building one road up the valley. It will form a part of the great trunk line connecting the Southern Pacific with Oregon. It is not the object of the company to overlook and ignore the business of Stockton, but rather their aim to enlarge it."

            The mayor motioned to the council members, and in unison, they rose from their chairs and formed a huddle behind the table. A buzz of voices that included no distinct words reached the listeners in the room. Soon, the council members resumed their seats.

            Mayor Hickman focused his gaze on Stanford. "Governor, what do you intend to charge for freight and fares ?"

            Amelia watched as the man’s jaw tightened and his face grew red. He appeared to glare at the mayor as he snapped out his words.

            "None of your ---- business."

            She flinched in response to the expletive. Her gaze followed Mr. Stanford as he spun around and marched out the door. It was not a matter that she never heard such language before. Living on the ranch and spending time around the men, in moments of frustration or anger, some of them occasionally let such words slip. She did not expect such language from a former governor.

            The mayor cleared his throat. “Members of the council, I think it would behoove us to appoint a committee to discuss Gov. Stanford’s proposal in detail in perhaps a less public setting. We can address this again in a future meeting.”

            Amelia watched as the council appointed a committee consisting of three members for the task: George Evans, J. M. Kelsey and Edward Moore. After that, the council moved onto other matters. She lost interest, although she sought to appear as though she remained attentive. Occasionally, she watched Oliver Handley as he worked behind the scenes, being less involved now that the council had moved past the railroad issue. More than once, her gaze met his. Each time, his expression transitioned from being professionally competent into one of disapproval.

To finish this off, I plan to include notes at the end of my book. Here is how I wrapped up what happened as this situation progressed:

The chapter that included Amelia attending the Stockton City Council meeting was based on a historical record of this meeting and its aftermath. Here is a quote of what was reported to have taken place afterward:

“[George Evans, J. M. Kelsey and Edward Moore were] to confer with Stanford regarding his proposal. They succeeded in having one interview. After that interview he was too busy to see them. What took place between him and the directors of the Stockton & Tulare Railroad is not publicly known, but they sold their franchise to the Central Pacific. During this time the Stanford road, passing outside of Stockton, reached the San Joaquin River. Surveyors had been locating a bridge across the Stanislaus River, and Turton, Know & Ryan with men, horses, carts and scrapers had been waiting orders to commence grading from Wilson's, now Lathrop, or from Stockton. Some mysterious event settled the question, and the southern road moved on from Lathrop, but they, as well as Stockton, lost in the deal. Said Charles Crocker to a friend many years after:

“We made a great mistake that we did not put our road several miles nearer the foothills and commence at Stockton." The Santa Fe now covers that territory.”


, Cupids & Cowboys Book 8, is not about railroads as much as it is about the wheat and barley farmers-- well as the cattlemen--of the San Joaquin Valley. My book is currently on preorder. To find the book description and purchase link, please CLICK HERE.




History of San Joaquin County, California with Biographical Sketches - Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, CA – 1923;