|Sacramento Northern Railway|
|Locale||Central and Northern California|
|Dates of operation||1918 (began Dec. 27, 1904 under the Northern Electric brand before the rename to Sacramento Northern)–1983 (upon purchase by Western Pacific)|
|Track gauge||4 ft 81⁄2 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge)|
|Headquarters||Marysville, CA |
The Sacramento Northern Railway was originally a 93-mile (150 km) electric interurban railway linking Chico in northern California to the state capitol of Sacramento. By combining with an interurban that ran south, it expanded from Sacramento to the city of Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, operating under the name Sacramento Northern Railway between 1918 and 1983. It became a subsidiary of the Western Pacific Railroad in 1921 retaining the name Sacramento Northern. Passenger service ceased in 1941, and the system operated as a shortline freight-hauling railroad thereafter. The Sacramento Northern (SN) name increased Western Pacific (WP) profits when freight was shipped by SN lineside businesses and transferred to WP. Western Pacific received more income by accepting or delivering freight with the Sacramento Northern because of transfer fees from one railroad to another. Western Pacific also owned regional sister electric railroads Tidewater Southern (Stockton to Modesto) and Central California Traction (Stockton to Sacramento).
The Sacramento Northern Railway was created out of two different established interurban railroads. The third rail powered "North End" stretched north of Sacramento through the agricultural Sacramento Valley to Marysville-Yuba City and on to Chico and from 1904 to 1918 was the Northern Electric Railway. The Northern Electric reformed as the Sacramento Northern in 1918. In 1921, it was purchased by the Western Pacific Railroad and became a WP subsidiary. The trolley wire powered "South End" stretched south of Sacramento through farmland, marshes, over a bay by ferry, to Pittsburg-Concord and then into the Contra Costa County hills to Oakland. From 1913 to 1919 it was the Oakland, Antioch, and Eastern Railroad. It became the San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad in 1920, and in 1928 it was purchased by and merged into the Western Pacific controlled Sacramento Northern. The two Sacramento Northern divisions used different voltages as well as the north end's third rail and the south end's overhead trolley. Thus only some interurban cars and freight locomotives could traverse the entire Chico to Oakland route due to the two different power systems. When in Oakland, SN equipment using Key System tracks had to accommodate a third power form. Some equipment carried a pantograph, trolley pole, and third rail shoe.
At 185 miles, the Sacramento Northern was one of the longest interurban lines in the nation and was built and operated to very high standards. As with most interurban railroads in the United States, its return on initial investment was lower and its annual operating costs were higher than had been projected at corporate conception. Interurbans as well as most railroads found themselves more labor intensive than expected, particularly in the shops maintaining rolling stock. SN Passenger business was less than projected and became increasingly unprofitable, even after the Sacramento Northern reached downtown San Francisco itself via the new San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge in 1939. Freight service was increasingly the lifeblood of the railroad, keeping it in profit long after passenger service had ceased. Although it had a somewhat shorter route from Oakland to Pittsburg/Antioch in competing with the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific steam railroads, its route through the Berkley/Oakland Hills was very steep (4%) by railroad standards. Freight trains consisted of just a few cars on those grades with locomotives ("juice jacks") at both ends of the train. From Sacramento north to Chico, the SN had direct competition with the Southern Pacific Railroad and, up to 1921, with the Western Pacific Railroad. It traversed rural farming country containing only Marysville-Yuba City as major towns before reaching Chico. Thus passenger business north of Sacramento was light and could not be expected to increase much over time. In 1921, the Western Pacific acquired the SN as a feeder line for freight business. The SN had branches to Vacaville, Woodland, Colusa, and Oroville. (cited: three Interurban Press publications regarding the history of the Sacramento Northern.)
The first portion to be known as the Sacramento Northern Railway was the Northern Division or "North End", created from the Northern Electric Railway in 1918; this portion linked the state capitol of Sacramento with the towns of the agricultural Sacramento Valley, stretching as far as Chico. In 1921, it was purchased by the Western Pacific Railroad and operated thereafter as its subsidiary.
In 1928, the San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad (formerly the Oakland, Antioch and Eastern Railway, and originally the Oakland and Antioch Railway) was added as the Sacramento Northern's Southern Division or "South End".
The combined high-speed main line stretched for 185 miles (298 km) between San Francisco and Chico. At the southern end, the railway shared the facilities of the Key System; at first, the Key Pier facility in Oakland, and then the crossing of the Bay Bridge into San Francisco's Transbay Terminal from 1939 after the bridge's construction.
The railway's fortunes were struck a heavy blow by the Great Depression and the rise of the automobile. Interurban passenger service was ended in 1941, while streetcar service in Chico continued until 1947. Other impacts to the company were the 1951 Lisbon Trestle Collapse in which crewmen were hurt as well as a long causeway trestle needing rebuilding , and the withdrawal of the Sacramento Northern's aging ferry, the "Ramon".
Freight service continued and was heavy during the years of World War II. In 1944, the railroad received its first diesel locomotives, which began the process of de-electrification. All electric operation ceased in 1965, after which the railway operated as a minor freight subsidiary of the Western Pacific. Much trackage was abandoned over the years, especially that which duplicated routes on other railroads. The Sacramento Northern ceased to exist with the WP's acquisition by the Union Pacific in 1983. However, SN's seniority list continued and is still in use by the Union Pacific today, although it is doubtful many former WP/SN employees remain so many years after the merger.
The SN rail line connecting the California ghost towns of Montezuma, Dozier, and Cannon in Solano County is now owned and operated by the Western Railway Museum as a heritage railway. Much of the SN's equipment is part of the museum's permanent collection.
Although the Sacramento Northern's Oakland Yard at 40th and Shafter was the end of the railroad's own right-of-way, its trains continued west along 40th St. on the tracks of the Key System and on to the Key System's "mole". In later years, the trains ran over the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge which was built near the site of the Oakland Mole pier, to San Francisco's downtown Transbay Terminal, connecting by way of the Key's tracks on Yerba Buena Ave. and 40th Street. This service ended with the railroad's passenger service in 1941, but freight interchange with the Key System continued until that system's demise.
The terminus of the railroad's right of way in Oakland was a compact yard on the corner of 40th Street and Shafter Avenue. The main line ran single track north up the center of narrow Shafter Street in a residential area. At the end of Shafter, the track crossed College Avenue and started a long curving 4% grade into the Berkeley Hills in the Rockridge district of Oakland. It then skirted Lake Temescal on its eastern shore and ran southeast through the Montclair district of Oakland. It crossed into Montclair over a trestle at Moraga Ave. and Thornhill Dr., then ran along a high berm between Montclair Recreation Center and Montclair Elementary School, before crossing Mountain Blvd. and Snake Road via trestle. High above the northwest side of Shepherd Canyon the line headed east, then made a sharp turn northeast as it passed through a major cut in the hill. It then climbed up Shepherd Canyon to a station called "Havens" at Paso Robles Dr., named for real estate developer Frank C. Havens, one-time partner of the Key System's "Borax" Smith who was trying to encourage sales in Shepherd Canyon. At Havens below Saroni Drive, the line entered a short ravine leading to a one mile long single-track tunnel under the Berkeley Hills. The tunnel itself is still intact but is sealed at both ends. In 1994, home developers filled in the approach ravine and tunnel mouth and constructed residential homes on this fill and on top of the tunnel. The upper one foot of the top of the tunnel portal could be observed in the back yard of one of the new homes. A home further northeast behind the first was constructed on top of the unlined tunnel, and by altering drainage in the area, caused the tunnel below the home to slowly subside. The home shifted and dropped and had to be removed.
The SN track exited the tunnel into Contra Costa County at Pinehurst Road near Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, and immediately entered a sharp ninety degree curve adjacent to and over Pinehurst Road to run southeastward through Redwood Canyon. Although technically oriented to the northeast (perpendicular to the axis of the hills), the railroad designated a station just outside the tunnel portal as "Eastport." The tunnel portal is no longer visible, largely as a result of a landslide which occurred during the El Niño rains of the early 1980s. The right of way was located along an extant fire trail just west of the spot where Pinehurst Road makes a sharp u-turn. This fire trail was previously known as Winding Way on some maps, and was originally an old 19th century logging road built by Hiram Thorn, for bringing redwood logs out of the Moraga Redwoods and to his mill, and then over the mountain into Oakland. Even earlier, the route up the canyon to what is now Huckleberry preserve was a cattle trail for the Spanish and Mexican ranchers, en route to a landing at the mouth of Temescal Creek on San Francisco Bay.
At the sharp curve at Eastport, the tracks immediately crossed over Pinehurst road on an overpass. The right-of-way then headed down Redwood Canyon on a ledge (still apparent today) just above Pinehurst Rd. progressing southeast along the valley floor past the small community of Canyon. The line then turned north to Moraga, past St. Mary's, and thence northeasterly through Lafayette, Saranap, and the valley past Walnut Creek and to Concord and Pittsburg. Some of the right of way through Contra Costa County is now used by the BART system to Concord. At Pittsburg, the tracks ran parallel and adjacent to the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific main lines, then dropped down, turned north sharply, and went under the SFe and SP through an underpass to reach the SN ferry landing on Suisun Bay. (This track layout and underpass is still shown on a 2009 Google website map of Pittsburg.) The Pittsburg side ferry landing and depot was called "Mallard" by the SN. There, a ferry boat, the Ramon, carried the entire train across to a landing near Suisun called "Chipps" on Chipps Island. From here the line proceeded across an extensive marshland on a long trestle. After the trestle, the tracks continued north through farmland past Montezuma, Rio Vista Junction, Creed (where there was a branch west to Vacaville and Travis Airforce Base), and on to Dozier and Yolano before continuing on the four mile long Lisbon trestle (which collapsed in July 1951 as a steeple cab powered freight train of steel plate for Pittsburg was crossing it) into West Sacramento, then entered the city of Sacramento by way of the "M" Street Bridge (1911), and later by way of its replacement (1935), the Tower Bridge, which is still in use. At West Sacramento, just west of the Tower Bridge, the line to Woodland left the southbound main line and headed west. The SN progressed through downtown streets onto I Street to reach the substantial columned two story brick and stone "Union Terminal" on I Street between 11th and 12th. Union Terminal, also used by Central California Traction trains to Stockton in the early years, is now gone after use in the 1950s-1960s as a grocery store. Downtown Sacramento streets, particularly east and south of the Tower Bridge, carried many Sacramento Northern and Central California Traction tracks.
Freight service from Oakland to Lafayette ceased on March 1, 1957. Overhead wire and tracks were removed and the Shepherd Canyon tunnel sealed. The former roadbed from St. Mary's College through Lafayette was converted to the popular Lafayette-Moraga trail. The following year, freight service only extended from Walnut Creek to Sacramento. The Ferry "Ramon" was removed from service in 1954, thus creating a divide between Mallard at Pittsburg and Chipps Island. To overcome this limitation, SN, through parent Western Pacific, had obtained trackage rights on the Santa Fe Railway from Stockton to Pittsburg where SN trains could reach SN tracks and online freight shippers in Pittsburg and Concord. When the Union Pacific absorbed Western Pacific/SN, it obtained further trackage rights on the Santa Fe which extended to Port Chicago where SN had a small yard. Thus, Pittsburg trackage was removed in the early 1990s. (As of 2009, Google and MapQuest maps acquired by web searching "Rio Vista CA" shows original Sacramento Northern track and sidings (most now abandoned) at Pittsburg and north of Suisan Bay including the northward turn to Suisun Bay under the SFe-SP. The track Rio Vista-Creed is still shown as Sacramento Northern.)
The electrified Woodland branch line had left the main line in West Sacramento and ran 16 miles (26 km) west to Woodland (known as the Yolo Shortline RR until 2003 and now known as the Sierra Northern Railway). This track ran on the west side of the Sacramento River over a long elevated wooden bridge (over a flood plain), and then down parallel Main St. in Woodland to the Opera House where the train turned around. Today's SERA terminates shortly before East Street several blocks East of the Opera House. The Woodland terminal was a Mission style structure and was recently reconstructed. The interurban cars exited the terminal onto Main Street through a unique archway in the station wall.
From the Sacramento depot location at present day Terminal Way, the Sacramento Northern's "North End" ran north up 11th Street to a Northern Electric built girder bridge crossing the American River and then proceeded to Rio Linda. This line (the third rail former Northern Electric) continued to E. Nicolaus, then Marysville where it crossed the Feather River into adjacent Yuba City, split off the branch to Colusa, then went on to Live Oak, split off the branch to Oroville, then to Gridley and to Chico where it terminated. In Chico there were yards and primary shops. From a junction just northwest of Yuba City, another branchline ran west to Meridian and Colusa. It crossed the Sacramento River at Meridian on a narrow combined rail and vehicle bridge. From Yuba City to Meridian the track ran alongside and north of the Colusa Highway, California route 20. As of 1992, this track and unusual Meridian bridge were still in use and provided the SN a Southern Pacific-Union Pacific interchange at Colusa. As of 2009, Google website maps still show the former SN trackage in most areas alongside Route 20.
The first Sacramento interurban terminal (for Northern Electric Ry) was at Eighth and J Streets. Sacramento's final interurban terminal was on I Street between 11th and 12th. This was called Union Station and served both Sacramento Northern and the Central California Traction. The terminal at Woodland (close to the Woodland Opera House) was unusual in that the interurban cars swung around behind it, loaded passengers, then emerged through an arch in the station wall to reenter the street. This terminall was close to the Woodland Opera House, a unique facility for such a small town.
Because of interconnection with the Key System, Sacramento Northern cars had to operate under a number of different electrical standards. The North End (former NE, Northern Electric Railroad) was electrified exclusively at 600 volts DC, which was the nation wide standard trolley and interurban voltage at the time of construction. Trolley wire and trolley poles were used only in urban areas. In the open country, the line used a solid, uncovered top-contact third rail. Cars built originally for the North End could not operate south of Sacramento. The South End (former OA&E, Oakland, Antioch, and Eastern) was electrified largely at 1,200 volts dc until 1936, after which it operated at 1,500 volts, with areas of 600 volts in Oakland and Sacramento.
The interurban cars had to use a pantograph rather than the trolley pole on Key System rails (electrified at 600 volts) and over the Bay Bridge (electrified at 1,200 volts for the Southern Pacific); the Key System used a covered top-contact third rail over the bridge. Because of the Key System's third rail, cars that could traverse the whole system had to have their third rail shoes removed, since the top-contact shoes would have fouled the Key System rail's cover. They were normally added or removed in Sacramento. Such all-line capable cars were switchable between 600 V and 1,200 V operation; they could also operate at half speed at the 1,200 V setting on 600 V overhead.
The Sacramento Northern's south end (former OA&E) high quality electrification structure used catenary rather than a single trolley wire leading to the eventual exclusive use of pantographs rather than trolley poles everywhere south of Sacramento. Catenary allows the vertical supporting poles to be spaced farther apart than if a single suspended trolley wire is used, plus it is better for pantograph operation at speed due to stability. (The present day (2009) South Shore line uses pantographs against a single trolley wire in Michigan City streets but has catenary for high speed operation elsewhere.)
The Oakland, Antioch and Eastern needed to cross Suisun Bay, and chose to do so between West Pittsburg and Chipps Island, a gap of 2,600 feet (790 m). A bridge was originally planned, but the bay saw heavy shipping traffic and thus a high-level draw bridge with long approaches was required. Construction began on the bridge in 1912; the estimated price tag was $1.5 million and construction time was estimated as two and a half years. This would have delayed the opening of the railway, and so an alternative plan of a ferry service was implemented as a temporary measure. Construction of the bridge stopped in May 1913 after construction of the pier on the Contra Costa County side, because of a shortage of funds. The railway, not meeting revenue expectations, never did restart construction, and the "temporary" ferry service became permanent. 
Thus, the railway became one of only two interurbans to operate a car ferry, and was the longer and more ambitious of the two. The first ferry constructed, the 186-foot (57 m) Bridgit (a pun on "Bridge It") was constructed of wood in San Francisco and launched in July 1913. The Bridgit, however, was destroyed by fire on May 17, 1914.
After unsuccessful experiments with an unpowered barge, the railroad rented car floats from other railroads in the area and commissioned a new, steel ferry from the Lanteri Shipyard in nearby Pittsburg. The new vessel, the Ramon, was constructed entirely from flat steel plate to save time, and had no curved surfaces on its hull. It was a double-ended design with a central, raised bridge in the typical carfloat style. Power was by a 600 horsepower (450 kW) distillate engine, one of the largest ever constructed, which was rather insufficient to counteract high winds and currents in the bay.
Three tracks were installed on the deck, all long enough to carry three passenger cars or five freight cars. All three could not be used at the same time; the central track overlapped the other two, and either the single central track or the two outside tracks could be used, depending on load. All tracks were equipped with powered trolley wire.
The Ramon was retired in 1954 after a Coast Guard inspection determined that the hull plating was no longer in a safe condition, and it was scrapped locally.