September 08, 2010


By C.W. Reichert

Few places are more uniquely beautiful than the Western slope of the central Sierra Nevada. Adjacent to Shingle Springs, the town of Latrobe is situated in the heart of these hills in the southwestern section of El Dorado County. The gentle slopes, outcroppings and springs add a certain flavor that continues to attract people of nearby cities. Perhaps the Nisenan or Southern Maidu Indians appreciated the valley's diverse splendor when they inhabited this region in aboriginal times.

The Indians' homeland stretched across to the Bear River and south of the south or middle fork of the Cosumnes River. The Nisenan tribe was made of a primary, permanent village surrounded by several secondary villages and seasonal camps. The villages encompassed family dwellings, acorn grenaries, bedrock mortars, a dance house and sweat house with 15-500 people living there at a time. The usual village sites were along knolls, ridges or streams with a southern exposure. Here, the Nisenan ground acrons as their main meal and also caught fish with their hands or spears. Salt was obtained from the springs and with the use of fires and snares, they hunted deer, rabbits and other small creatures. Ants, grasshoppers, lizards and frogs were also devoured. Manzanita berries were used to make a cider like beverage. The Nisenan were wiped out by a malaria epidemic in 1833, and the gold miners also took over their land.

Latrobe owes its roots to the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad, which established a station for the tremendous benefit of neighboring Amador County.

The history of the area is further connected to the Gold Rush of the 1850's, the agricultural and economic development of El Dorado County and commerce between Clarksville and Latrobe. In 1849, one year after gold was discovered in California, thousands of hopeful gold seekers arrived in the "diggings." Many of them came through the area to settle in Latrobe.

The railroad station was located at the intersection of Latrobe Road and South Shingle Road, in what became the town of Latrobe with Shingle Springs as its eastern terminus.

The railroad was completed in 1884. The town was named after the civil engineer who was instrumental in the construction of the first railroad in America.

J.H. Miller, a locaql rancher and hotel owner, opened the first store in Latrobe in 1863. The population grew to 700-800, with the number of stores increasing to six or seven. Latrobe supported four hotels, three blacksmith shops and a single wagon and carriage factory. Latrobe also offered a bakery and several butcher shops.

There were only three doctors along with two drug stores to take care of the medical needs of the entire community. The public school building, which still stands today as part of Latrobe School, is a two story building that contained all public meetings.

The Masons and Odd Fellows organizations each had their own halls.

By 1864, rails had been laid to the new town of Latrobe, as the first trains rolled in. From then until June 1865, as the line reached Shingle Springs, it was an important way station for the great deal of business that flowed over the Placerville Road to Virginia City. About 23 years later, the railroad extended to Placerville.

Families living along the course of the railroad saw some immediate benefits. However, the acquisition of the right-of-way by the railroad made many other residents angry as they had homesteaded the area but were forced to give up some of their land for the railroad line.

In 1866, hotels were located in Latrobe and Michigan Bar, supplying train passengers and local residents with dinner and overnight accommodations.

For a long time, Latrobe controlled all trade activities of Amador County. The town became the focal point for many travelers, providing eight daily stages in connection with the trains. However, because it wasn't a mining town and the railroad construction continued east, business suffered. The state of prosperity came to a grinding halt in 1883, when the population dwindled down to about 80 people with one general store, one hotel, a telegraph officde, two blacksmith shops and the lone carriage and wagon shop.

In 1981, El Dorado County adopted the Latrobe Area Plan, which covers the west side of Logtown Ridge to the Cosumnes River, boasting such landmarks as picturesque Sugarloaf Mountain and Indian Creek.

Today, the businesses no longer exist, and the town consists primarily of multi-acre rural residential parcels such as the Shadow Hawk and Sun Ridge Meadow subdivisions. Another subdivision is currently being built next to Miller's Hill School.

Also still standing is Oddfellows Hall, and what has become one of the highest rated grade schools in California today-Latrobe Elementary School.


The Folsom Historic Railroad and Transportation Festival will take place Sept. 18-19 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. behind the Hampton Inn, 155 Placerville Road, Folsom. Admission is free, but there will be charges for speeder and streetcar rides to raise funds for maintenance on the 35-mile stretch of railway.

By Gina Kim

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010 - 12:00 am
Page 1B

Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010 - 9:02 am

Steel wheels hit the tracks in rhythmic cadence as six rail cars wound out of Folsom through the golden fields of late summer, past lazing cattle, sprightly jack rabbits and the occasional red-tailed hawk.

But it wasn't a train on this recent day bumping along the railroad, sounding the requisite two toots to go forward and three to reverse. The individual cars were golf-cart sized, gasoline-powered vehicles known as speeders – used by railroads to repair and maintain tracks during the second half of the 20th century.

Speeders are the growing passion of hobbyists who salvage them from dusty barns, install luxuries like cushioned seats, intercoms and picnic coolers, and chug off to experience the winding rails at a leisurely 15 mph.

"You get to see a lot of the country from a viewpoint no one else sees," said Warren Froese, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, president of the North American Railcar Operators Association. He organized a speeder trip a few years ago through a part of northern Manitoba accessible only by plane or train.

About 1,100 people in North America secure insurance for speeders through the association; the number grows about 5 percent each year, he said.

The boxy cars set off recently from behind the Hampton Inn in Folsom, just beyond East Bidwell Road and Highway 50, in preparation for a Sept. 18-19 railroad festival that will raise money to maintain the historic track.

The 10-mile section was built in the late 1800s or early 1900s to bring Placerville lumber and stone down to market in Sacramento, said one of the festival organizers, Larry Bowler.

The stretch is no longer used by rail companies, leaving it vulnerable to disrepair and development. But the local speeder group has negotiated for use of the run, cutting back weeds, tightening bolts and replacing ties and rails in exchange.

"Inside every man's breast beats the heart of a steam locomotive," said Bowler, 71, of Elk Grove, a retired Sacramento County sheriff's deputy and state assemblyman.

Bowler's two-seat 1960s Fairmont speeder – which often tows a cart carrying maintenance tools – was originally used by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Railroad companies have since replaced speeders with hybrid trucks that can drive on roads as well as ride rails.

Bowler's speeder now boasts upholstered van seats, racks and shelves, brake lights and an antique oiler can. He bought it for $2,000 a few years ago and thinks its value has increased to $5,000.

"This is preserving history," Bowler said, "and it just happens we have fun doing it."

Speeder enthusiasts get permission from track owners and travel in groups of at least two – the aging vehicles inevitably break down and having two guarantees a ride back, Bowler said. His speeder carries six gallons of gasoline, fuel enough for the better part of a day.

Don Lee, 76, of Lincoln, bought a speeder for his railroad-loving grandson. That grandson is grown, but the retired mapmaker for the California Department of Transportation continues to climb aboard his four-seater with the California flag flying from one side and the American flag from the other.

"It's like a disease," said his wife, Diana.

Chuck Ratto, 46, owns a speeder that starts with the turn of a hand crank. Tinkering is requisite – there's no catalog for parts and creativity is a must to keep it running, said the medium-equipment mechanic from Calaveras County.

"You turn the crank and start the engine, put it in gear and go," he said. "Not many people get the opportunity to do that."

Tom Correa, 62, of Jackson, bought a speeder that once ran along the Soo Line Railroad in Minnesota and was discovered in a snowbank. He dismantled it down to the axles, and then the retired Xerox technician installed aluminum running boards, new forklift seats, a wood console with cutouts for drink cups … and shiny truck horns.

"We're always little kids," he said. "We just happen to get old."


The Folsom Historic Railroad and Transportation Festival will take place Sept. 18-19 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. behind the Hampton Inn, 155 Placerville Road, Folsom. Admission is free, but there will be charges for speeder and streetcar rides to raise funds for maintenance on the 35-mile stretch of railway.

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