Camp 20-Illinoistown-Colfax

November 22, 2017. Colfax Train Depot.

I have always loved train travel. The idea of a traveling community that passes through landscapes, towns, and cities in stasis. On this day, one of the biggest travel days of the calandar, I was in stasis in an important railway town on the transcontinental railway, Camp 20. Later to become Illinoistown and later renamed for the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax by then Governor Leland Stanford.

The only statue in existence of Schuyler Colfax, later to be Vice President under Grant. Stanford named the town after him after a brief visit by Colfax. At the Southern Pacific Passenger Depot.

The east bound passanger train from Sacramento, worked it’s way up the valley into the station. The California Zephyr was running a little late. I walked over to my car and headed out towards Highway 174 to the Historical Viewpoint for Cape Horn. I waited and down below, the Zephyr passed and soon, on the distant hill, the train worked it’s way up the mountain and started up the grade towards the Cape Horn cut, high above the North Fork of the American River. The cars rounding the horn and disappearing from sight. I returned to the train depot to start working my Colfax sketch.

I was sitting on a bench at the restored Southern Pacific passenger depot platform as the westbound California Zephyr worked itself down from the heights of the Sierra Nevada, on it’s way to Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. The train, now being headed by two underwhelming Amtrak diesels, paused long enough for passengers to embark and disembark, as relatives greeted or waved goodbye to those on the platform. And I was just in limbo, not on the train but wanting to be there, as the cars rocked gentle on the steel rails.

Colfax east

Eastbound California Zephyr rolling into Colfax station on it’s way to it’s final destination  of Chicago. The old Southern Pacific passenger depot is on the left.



Bloomer Cut and Cape Horn

After my visit to the California State Railway Museum I headed to a lasting vestige of the Transcontinental Railway, an engineering feat called, “the eighth wonder of the world”. It was about 30 minutes north of Sacramento between Newcastle and Auburn. This was the 63 foot deep and 800 feet long man-made canyon known as Bloomer Cut.

Like the still present ruts of the Oregon Trail, this rail cut is still there. It was blazed in 1864 with blood, sweat, and black powder. The builders did not have the heavy machinery of modernity but hundreds of laborers with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. This is one of the few remnants of the Transcontinental Railway, a permanent scar in the earth that shows it extisted. I was reading the Stephen Ambrose book Nothing Like it in the World and now I was reading it in the landscape.

I sat on a small boulder next to the rail line just where the cut began and I got a sketch in before it started to rain. Two things that don’t go together are watercolor painting and rain.

In the middle of Bloomer Cut, looking out to the southern end towards Newcastle, Roseville and Sacramento.

After reading about one of the other incredible engineering feats on the western reaches of the Transcontinental Railway, a cut made around a rock face, high above the North Fork of the American River called Cape Horn, I desided to see if it still existed. A quick google search not only confirmed its existence but also that it was located near Colfax, a mere 30 minutes east from my mother’s house in Penn Valley. I simply could not pass up this sketching opportunity.

Camp 20, which was later renamed Colfax to honor a visit to the railroad by then Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax. The town was the staging area for the first real assault on conquering the heights of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Railway grades cannot exceed 2%, that is a rise of two feet over 100 feet of rail. This provided one of the major engineering challenges for laying track across the Sierras. Many tunnels were blasted through granite to reduce the climb  and a roadbed had to be blasted into the side of the cliff at Cape Hope to make the ascent on the western slope of Sierra Nevada.

This incredible engineering feat would not have been possible without the thousands of Chinese laborers who worked on the line.  The workers had to be lowered over the cliff in reed baskets where there would drill a hole in the rock by hand and then fill the hole with black power. When they lit the fuse they had a short time to be hauled back up out of harm’s way. They gave their sweat, blood, and lives to make the cut around Cape Horn. The Central Pacific did not keep records of Chinese fatalities so we will never know the true toll in lives sacrificed in order to make a railroad that spread from sea to shinning sea a reality.


A field sketch of Cape Horn from the viewpoint of Highway 174 near Colfax.

Cape Horn railway bed is still in use today. Eastbound California Zephyr just leaving Colfax headed to Chicago, Ill.