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California Zephyr

I have always wanted to travel on the original Transcontinental Railroad, from the West Coast to the East and see some the sights from the original right of way over the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. The closest you can come to doing this today is by taking the California Zephyr.

AMTRAK operates the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago (not the East but the Middle Coast). The daily route covers 2,438 miles and takes 51 hours and 30 minutes (that is if the train is running on time). The route covers seven states and stops at 35 stations including Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Helper (Utah), Denver, and Omaha, to name a few of the major stops.

So I booked a roomette for my Spring Break in April. Which at $550, I thought was a good deal because it included two nights and all the food was part of the fare.

Since the time of booking the trip, the spread of Coronavirus and Covid-19 (not related to Corvid in any way!) in the United States has thrown a monkey wrench into the works. At this time my continental train trip hangs in the balance as some predictions estimate that the virus might spike in late April.

One thing that I sketched, regardless of if I would be boarding the California Zephyr in Emeryville in early April or not, was to sketched out the route with all the stops in a visual map (featured sketch). I also drew the locomotive that is used on this route, the P42DC, with all it’s specifications (below).

The workhorse of much of AMTRAK’s long distance routes, General Electric’s P42DC.

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The Transcontinental Railroad

Since visiting Promontory Summit, where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met, thus completing the Transcontinental Railroad, I wanted to visit the location where the railroad started in California. So it was that I found myself on a Friday morning in “Old Town” Sacramento, on the banks of the Sacramento River.

A sign on the the side of the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot, notes, “You are standing where the First Transcontinental Railroad in America had its western origin, at Front and K Streets in Sacramento.” This location made sense because all of the materials used for the building was shipped up the Sacramento River from San Francisco and it was unloaded here. On January 8, 1863, then Governor and President of the Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, turned a shovelful of dirt, the official start of building the western leg of the Transcontinental Railway.

IMG_2777Just below this sign, is the birthplace of the Transcontinental Railway on the banks of the Sacramento River.

The other reason I found myself in Old Town was to visit the California State Railway Museum. The museum was opened in 1981 and I was there with my father to see SP’s No. 4449 and UP’s No. 8444 (now numbered 844) on the opening day. But today as these engines where back in Portland and Cheyenne and I was here to see a another very important steam engine: the Central Pacific’s No. 1 the Gov. Stanford.

This American type 4-4-0 was the first locomotive purchased by the Central Pacific at a cost of $13,688. The engine was built in Philadelphia in 1862 and then shipped on the Herald of there Morning around the horn of South America to California where it was reassembled in Sacramento. Stephan Ambrose notes of the 50,000 lb locomotive, in his book Nothing Like in the World, “the Governor Stanford [was] the biggest man-made thing in California”. This engine has many notable firsts for the Central Pacific: it hauled the first excursion train and the first passenger train on April 15, 1864 and the first freight train on March 25, 1864. It also took part in building the Transcontinental Railway with hauling supplies for the construction of the line over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The engine was slated to be scrapped in 1895 but it was saved and donated to Jane Lathrop Stanford, widow of Leland Stanford, in 1899 where it was put on display at Stanford University. It was later loaned to the California State Railway Museum where it is on display near where it first steamed to life on November 6, 1863, on the banks of the Sacramento.

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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.