December 30, 2009

Tourist train from Folsom to El Dorado building steam

By Mike Roberts
Mother Lode News

The sound of a train whistle in the distance was last heard in El Dorado County in 1987, when the Southern Pacific made its last run from Folsom to Placerville.  “That was a really sad day for this county,” said District 3 Supervisor Jack Sweeney, who fought to retain rail service to Placerville. “Wetzel-Oviat [lumber mill] was still using it, but first the pear decline and then Michigan-Cal curtailing lumber shipments spelled the end of the railroad.”  That lonesome whistle could once more blow in El Dorado County if a bunch of stubborn Folsom rail enthusiasts get their way. The tracks and right of way are still in place, mostly. That’s only because the county fought to “bank” the right of way for future rail use under the federal “Rails to Trails” program, which encourages railroads to transfer inactive corridors to trail managers rather than sell them to adjacent landowners.  “We had to beat Southern Pacific Railroad in court three times,” said Sweeney. “They filed again and we beat them again, then they appealed and we beat them a third time.” As a result, a Joint Powers Authority now owns the corridor. It’s public property, under the control of representatives from El Dorado County, Sacramento County, the city of Folsom and the Sacramento Regional Transit District.  An excursion train on the old rails holds the promise of drawing visitors and money to the region, while bringing its colorful rail history back to life.

The Sacramento Valley Railroad was formed in 1852 with a vice president named William Sherman, who would later become famous for marching to the sea as a Union general in the Civil War.  The railroad began operations between Sacramento and Folsom in 1856 as the first commercial railroad west of  the Mississippi. Another historical figure of note, Theodore Judah, was a visionary chief engineer who saw the line as a contender to become the first transcontinental railroad.  Central Pacific eventually won that contest in dramatic fashion, as outlined in a series of Mountain Democrat articles by Doug Noble published in the 1980s and 1990s.  Under various names, the railroad continued on to Latrobe, then Shingle Springs and eventually Placerville and Camino, hauling lumber, freight and passengers. It came under the control of Southern Pacific in 1888, and continued operations for the next 99 years.  The route east from Folsom bypassed, and eventually doomed Clarksville, near modern-day El Dorado Hills, where the Tong family had optimistically named their inn “The Railroad House.” The flatter route through Latrobe allowed a more gentle elevation gain by winding through, and mostly around the foothills.

It’s that last curvy stretch that Folsom railroad buffs dream about. They tried for years to stimulate interest in an excursion line running from Old Town Folsom to Placerville.  The tracks remain largely intact, winding cross country at no more than a 2.4 percent grade through Latrobe, Shingle Springs and El Dorado. Until recently, the tracks skirted Diamond Springs, then crossed the dramatic steel trestle over Weber Creek, emerging in Placerville adjacent to the county jail.  Their dream was pooh poohed in a 2003 feasibility study commissioned by the city of Folsom which concluded in rather harsh terms that the local group had neither the experience nor the funding to launch the project, and that the venture, like other excursion rail lines in California, would struggle financially.

Undeterred, the Folsom, El Dorado & Sacramento Historical Railroad Association, FEDS, led by president Bill Anderson, continued to operate the railroad museum in old town Folsom, and dream that they’d see trains running on the Placerville branch in their lifetime.

Meanwhile, Folsom launched a $20 million redevelopment project at the west end of Sutter Street on 5 acres that was once housed Folsom’s Southern Pacific shop. A replica of the Sacramento Valley Railroad’s turntable has been constructed in the middle of what was an unattractive parking lot. Plans are still in flux for other trainthemed amenities that could tie-in with the excursion.

In 2008 convivial Englishman Phillip Rose arrived in Folsom from the U.K. with a marketing background and a passion for all things rail. He teamed up with Anderson and began seeking support for an excursion rail from surrounding communities and the Joint Powers Authority, which controls the right of way.  Importantly, they convinced their fellow FEDS members to dial back the scope of their dream.  First, they had to abandon the idea of going all the way to Placerville. The rail corridor between Missouri Flat Road and Placerville has since become a dedicated bike and foot trail, and the dramatic steel trestle would likely require an expensive retrofit.

Harder still was giving up Old Town Folsom. The rail line crosses streets 11 times in the congested area between Sutter Street and what’s now called “Folsom Point,” the commercial area immediately west of Costco.  The area needs public transit options far more than a potentially traffic snarling tourist attraction.  FEDS leaders hope to team up with city officials to attract funding for a clean energy transit line - historical trolleys come to mind - that will one day connect Old Town Folsom with an excursion train station at Folsom Point and all the homes and businesses in between.

The shortened excursion line would eventually run along 31 miles of track from Folsom Point to historical El Dorado, the eventual home of the El Dorado County Rail Museum.  Rose got permission from the JPA for a series of consciousness-raising demonstration runs along a portion of the line for local officials and media representatives this summer, all the while pitching his dream of a revitalized “Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad” excursion to a captive and influential audience.

The invitation-only excursions ran in a carefully restored 1936 gas-powered rail car called the “Skagit,” originally used in logging and industrial yards.

Not just trains.

Original plans for the excursion line put hikers and bicyclists in competition with rails. The latest vision includes Folsom trails planner Jim Konopka, who is confident that a bicycle/hiking trail, in addition to an unpaved equestrian trail can share the rail corridor, even in the narrow cut areas.  In some cases, he said, separate footbridges may be needed, and in other areas, strips of adjacent land may need to be acquired.

Rose, Anderson et al hope to get the go-ahead from the JPA to run the excursion from Folsom Point to Latrobe for the public every weekend next summer. In the mean time they’ll be working to repair a washout roughly two miles south of Latrobe that is the de facto terminus of the excursion. A proper crossing is established at White Rock Road is also needed.

Eventually, FEDS volunteers hope to use a pair of diesel locomotives to haul a combination of open flat cars, a restored coach and a caboose, first as far as Latrobe, then later, when more track restoration is complete, all the way to El Dorado.

In their wildest dreams, FEDS volunteers see steam trains once again running on the rails. The cost and upkeep of the vintage steamers is beyond the scope of their current proposals, however.  Rose insists that the excursion can be accomplished piecemeal, and that momentum, and funding, will grow with each successive phase. He helped a similar historical rail line become a major regional tourist attraction near his home in England.

Sweeney sees the project as a potential economic shot in the arm for El Dorado County, and a vital link in a trail corridor that could bisect the state.  “One day you’ll be able to walk, bicycle or maybe even ride a horse all the way from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe,” he said. “Think what it could do for tourism. It’s a gold mine.”  The backers understand the challenges they face. But Sweeney insists “Volunteers and willpower can overcome a lot of obstacles.”  “Twenty years from now people will look back and ask who had the foresight to put something like this in,” he predicted.

Volunteers and donations are needed. To help out or learn more, see,

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