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Over the course of the history of American railroads, there have been hundreds of short-line railroads. Most were built to connect two specific locations, or to haul specific freight, such as coal, timber, ore, etc. from one area to a mill or distribution center.
Central California’s Yosemite Valley Railroad (YVRR) was built to carry passengers to Yosemite National Park. But in addition to passengers, the YVRR hauled a variety of freight. The YVRR’s rails covered 80 difficult miles between the city of Merced and Yosemite National Park.
Incorporated in San Francisco on December 18, 1902, the YVRR ended its service following the run of its last regularly scheduled train on August 24, 1945.
Yosemite National Park
First Californians, then people from across the United States (and then the world) have had a special affection for what became Yosemite National Park since its discovery in 1849. An act of Congress created Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890, making it the nation’s third national park, after Yellowstone (1872) and Sequoia (1890).
However, the boundaries of the new national park were created without regard to existing land deeds, privately held timberlands, or mineral rights within the park. By 1904, the problems created by the park’s boundaries were recognized; a Park Commission recommended that the boundaries be redrawn, a recommendation which Congress agreed to in February 1905. That caused the western boundary of Yosemite to be moved from Jenkins Hill, about 13 miles west of what became the town of El Portal, to the current location about one mile east of current-day El Portal. The portions of Yosemite National Park that were removed were placed in a forest reserve.
Following its creation, national park tourism followed. In the case of Yosemite, the major issue was getting there. Traveling to Yosemite was a long and uncomfortable journey in the park’s early years. Visitors spent two days or more bumping along dusty wagon roads in a horse-drawn stage to reach Yosemite Valley. The only routes into the park wound high through the mountains, impassable once snow began to fall.
The new national park required infrastructure in order to attract more visitors.
The railroad’s founding
A few California businessmen envisioned a much more convenient way to get to the park – a three-and-a-half-hour journey by rail up the Merced River Canyon to El Portal, just outside what is now Yosemite’s Arch Rock Entrance. That idea led to the Yosemite Valley Railroad Company’s incorporation by John S. Drum, William B. Bosley, Sydney M. Ehrman, Thomas Turner, and Joseph D. Smith in late 1902. Drum was named the railroad’s president because he controlled 980 shares, while the others had only five shares each.
The railroad’s articles of incorporation stated that it was to engage in and conduct the business of transportation of passengers, express and freight of every kind for compensation via a standard gauge railroad.
Planning for the railroad began immediately. The YVRR would begin in Merced in California’s Central Valley. It would run northeasterly across the plains to the Merced River near Snelling; the river would be bridged at that point and the rails would then follow the river near its northern banks in an easterly direction through Merced Falls toward the Yosemite Valley.
The YVRR then would enter Merced Canyon and Mariposa County, about 30 miles from Merced, and would follow the river for 50 miles while hugging the steep mountains that formed the canyon. The rails would pass through Exchequer, cross the river again at Pleasant Valley and run along its southern banks until it was just downstream from Bagby, where the rails would again cross to the northern side of the river. From there, the route continued to parallel the Merced River to Crane Creek and the boundary of the national park. The terminus was named El Portal by the railroad. Despite the railroad’s name, rail service did not extend to Yosemite Valley, because construction of railroads is prohibited in national parks.
In 1903, Frank G. Drum, John’s brother, was named president of the YVRR. N.C. Ray, who was the railroad’s chief engineer, began lobbying members of Congress to make changes to Yosemite National Park’s boundaries (as explained above).
In February 1905, Congress changed the park’s boundaries and the legislation was signed into law by President Teddy Roosevelt. This cleared the way for the YVRR to start construction. The contract to build the railroad was awarded to James H. O’Brien. Grading along the railroad’s route began in September 1905 in Merced. Construction and the purchase of equipment cost somewhere between $3 and $4 million.
O.W. Lehmer was hired away from the Santa Fe Railway and named the superintendent of the new railroad. On November 4, the first YVRR rails were spiked down. The railroad’s first locomotive arrived at Merced on the Santa Fe Railroad on November 25. On March 4, 1906, the YVRR’s tracks were completed from Merced to Merced Falls.
The Yosemite Valley Railroad began service in May 1907. For the first time, park visitors could board a train and make the 78-mile journey to Yosemite in relative comfort.
Today, the gas station in El Portal stands on the site of the old train depot, where passengers hopped off the train and onto waiting horse-drawn stages, which were later replaced by automobiles.
In later years, the YVRR made arrangements with the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads to provide through service to Yosemite from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Yosemite visitors could depart either city in the afternoon or evening, spend the night in a Pullman sleeper car, and wake up to find their car transferred from the main line to a Yosemite Valley steam locomotive. Passengers enjoyed breakfast in the dining car as the train puffed up gentle hills and over wooden trestles, following the scenic Merced River north and then east to Yosemite.
The first scheduled passenger train arrived in El Portal from Merced on May 15, 1907. The Yosemite Valley Railroad enabled many to see the national park’s fabled majesty for the very first time. Rather than endure dusty roads and undependable automobiles, vacationers could relax in Pullman accommodations or on the deck of a beautiful observation car and enjoy the scenery as the train ran along the “oak-studded flank of the western Sierra range along the mighty Merced River.” Passengers would disembark at the park boundary in El Portal, and either stay at the Hotel Del Portal or take a stagecoach into Yosemite Valley and the park. Beginning in 1913 motor coaches replaced the stagecoach.
The YVRR became a popular transportation choice for those traveling through a region of California renowned for its beautiful scenery and colorful history. Along much of the railroad’s 80-mile route were places where the “forty-niners” once prospected for gold. They had given unique names to various local creeks and canyons, and YVRR passengers could see many of those geographical features from the train. In Merced County the rails crossed Black Rascal Creek just a few miles east of Merced. At milepost 14.7 the railroad passed the community of Hopeton, which had originally been named Forlorned Hope. In Mariposa County there were Temperance Creek, Humbug Gulch, Nameless Gulch, Hell’s Hollow, Pine Canon, Flyaway Creek, Drunken Gulch, Quartz Mountain Gulch, Good Gulch and Sweetwater Creek.
Tens of thousands of passengers rode to Yosemite National Park on the rail line. The town of El Portal served as the end of the line for the Yosemite Valley Railroad. Passengers would ride the rails to the beautiful wooden station there, disembark, and board four-wheeled modes of transportation to continue their trip on to Yosemite Valley.
However, passenger service on the YVRR peaked in the mid-1920s. It began dropping because of the increased use of private cars to travel to Yosemite, which was accelerated when the new All-Year Highway (now State Route 140) opened in 1926. The new highway also allowed the extension of bus service from Briceburg to El Portal. The new bus service forced the railroad to lower its prices to match the bus fare. Already struggling financially, the railroad’s passenger revenue decreased 38% in the year following the opening of the highway.
Dignitaries and the wealthy visited Yosemite by rail, often in their own private railcars. Among the YVRR’s more famous passengers were two U.S. presidents – William Howard Taft in 1909 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938.
President Roosevelt crossed the country by rail on a campaign tour for the 1938 mid-term elections. When the Yosemite Valley Railroad picked up the president’s party from the Southern Pacific in Merced, three freshly painted and decorated locomotives pulled the train’s 10 railcars, including the president’s private railcar, to El Portal. Roosevelt and his entourage were driven to Mariposa Grove for lunch, and they were on their way back to Merced by evening.
While the original intent of the railroad had been to provide passenger service to the national park, the railroad also enjoyed significant freight traffic. For example, in 1910, the Yosemite Lumber Company was formed and purchased 10,000 acres of timber on the south side of the Merced River opposite El Portal. Access to that timber was accomplished by the construction of a bridge over the river and an “incline” up the mountain toward the timber.
Much of the freight carried on YVRR’s trains included mining products and lumber. Inclines were a simple solution to a problem that faced many logging railroads – how to quickly, easily and economically move loaded railcars out of the mountains and down to the mill. The area being logged by the Yosemite Lumber Company was 3,000 feet above the YVRR main line and separated by very steep terrain. While many lumber companies in similar situations would build a series of switchbacks with gradual grades to allow the use of steam locomotives to move railcars to and from the woods, Yosemite Lumber built an inclined track straight up the mountain to transport railcars by cable. Grades on parts of the incline were as steep as 78%. Rollers between the rails kept the cable in line with the cars. The incline was double-tracked; a loaded log car going down the incline pulled an empty log car back up. The first trainload of logs was hauled to the new lumber mill built at Merced Falls in July 1912.
Merced Falls had been named for a set of rapids on the Merced River. The town was one of the railroad’s stations focused on commerce – primarily lumber. Two sawmills in Merced Falls cut wood for the Yosemite Lumber Company and the Yosemite Sugar Pine Lumber Company; they shipped lumber down from the Sierra Nevada on the Yosemite Valley Railroad.
In addition, a National Lead Company mine at Rancheria Flat just west of El Portal began shipping barium on the railroad. The mining operation continued fairly steadily over the years; it was the last shipper on the railroad when it was shut down over 30 years later. A limestone quarry opened in 1928 at Emory, which is 67 miles east of Merced. It shipped crushed limestone to the Yosemite Portland Cement Company plant just east of Merced.
Rerouting, rebuilding and a new company
In the early 1920s, the Merced Irrigation District decided to build a large dam on the Merced River at Exchequer, east of Merced Falls. As noted above, when track for the YVRR was originally laid, the railroad closely paralleled the Merced River from Merced Falls to El Portal. The dam was to be built in the same place that the railroad tracks were; therefore the tracks had to be relocated. Almost 25% of the railroad’s total trackage – some 17 miles – had to be replaced so that the dam could be constructed. Moreover, the new route for track required construction of five large bridges and four concrete-lined tunnels. Of the bridges, the Barrett Bridge was 1,600-feet long and ran over the reservoir. “The bridge was 236 feet above low water and was the longest steel railroad bridge in the West at the time.”
Debt service to pay off the railroad’s original construction costs were still impacting the company decades after the original construction was completed. To help that effort, the YVRR’s directors incorporated a new company (the Yosemite Valley Railway) in December 1935. The new company acquired all the property of the Yosemite Valley Railroad.
The Great Depression and World War II
Like almost all businesses, the Great Depression impacted the Yosemite Valley Railroad’s passenger and freight volume. For example, among the railroad’s most important freight shipments were finished lumber and limestone, which was used to produce Portland cement (used in concrete). New construction spending dropped significantly during the economic downturn, decreasing the need for the YVRR’s primary freight.
Despite the decreases in passengers and freight, the railroad persevered until the Depression was eventually eased by the nation’s entry into World War II. However, the war stopped passenger traffic to Yosemite Valley – personal train travel (particularly for pleasure) was discouraged because of the need to move troops. Then, in late 1942 the Yosemite Sugar Pine Lumber Company (which had acquired the Yosemite Lumber Company in 1935) closed down.
The YVRR was able to lease some of its locomotives to the Southern Pacific Railroad and began to mix its trains (freight cars and a passenger car at the end instead of a caboose). Although the mixed trains ran every day, service was slow and unpredictable, which led to the loss of the railroad’s lucrative mail contract with the U.S. Post Office.
The end of the line
Despite the numerous setbacks outlined above, the YVRR continued to run trains along its route. However, the sale of the Yosemite Portland Cement Company to the Henry J. Kaiser Company and the subsequent suspension of the plant’s operations in 1944 meant that most of the railroad’s remaining freight was lost. The limestone freight had been very important; it covered the YVRR’s day-to-day expenses. The loss of that freight was the beginning of the end for the railroad.
YVRR petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to abandon operations on October 25, 1944. After more than 40 years, the railroad’s last scheduled run took place on August 24, 1945. Scrapping operations commenced shortly thereafter. Tracks were quickly removed from the line, and while some pieces of equipment were sold to other railroads, many of the aging locomotives and cars were scrapped.
In the mid-1940s floods and landslides damaged nearly 30 miles of the railroad’s remaining track in Merced Canyon.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the National Park Service, yosemitevalleyrr.com, Wikipedia, yosemite.com, yosemitevalleyrailroad.com and others for information and photos that helped make this article possible.