Feather River Route

Feather River Route

The Feather River Route is a rail line that was built and operated by the Western Pacific Railroad. It was constructed between 1906 and 1909, and connects the cities of Oakland, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The line was built to compete with the Central Pacific Railroad (and later Southern Pacific Railroad), which at the time held a nearly complete monopoly on Northern California rail service. The route derives its name from its crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where it follows both the North and Middle Forks of the Feather River. The route is famous for its impressive engineering qualities and its considerable scenic value.


Early history

Interest in building a transportation artery through the Feather River Canyon and across the deserts of Nevada and Utah began with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in 1850. The pass, at ft to m|5221 in elevation, is one of the lowest passes through the Sierras. In the 1860s, Arthur W. Keddie began surveying in the Feather River Canyon, in order to find a suitable route for such an artery. He eventually found such a route, and helped to found the Oroville and Virginia City Railroad Company in 1867 to build a railroad along it. However, political pressure from the Central Pacific Railroad, among other factors, led to the end of all construction efforts by 1869.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, little progress was made in forming a company to construct the railroad line. Some interest remained, however, because the proposed route was much less steep and passed through the Sierras at a point ft to m|2000 lower than that of the recently finished First Transcontinental Railroad, owned by the Central Pacific Railroad between Sacramento and Ogden, Utah. The Union Pacific Railroad, which terminated in Ogden at the time, postulated multiple times throughout this era about building the line, so that it could bypass the Central Pacific and access the Pacific Coast on its own. However, none of these proposals ever amounted to any level of action, and the idea was widely considered dead by the 1890s.

However, interest in a line through the Feather River Canyon was renewed in 1900, when the Union Pacific Railroad, then led by E. H. Harriman, took control of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Subsequently, Harriman decided to close off access to the Southern Pacific to all railroads other than the Union Pacific, leaving all other railroads unable to access the Pacific Coast from Salt Lake City. Foremost among these railroads was the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, the westernmost part of an convert|11000|mi|km|0|sing=on transcontinental rail network organized by Jay Gould. Jay's son and successor, George Gould, decided it prudent to regain access to the Pacific Coast. Hence, on April 3, 1903, the Western Pacific Railroad, backed heavily by Gould, was founded in San Francisco, California.


Construction of the line began in 1906, and continued under very harsh conditions. In the Sierras, a total absence of roads, when combined with frequent rockslides in the Feather River Canyon and extreme temperature fluctuation, made working conditions both uncomfortable and dangerous. In the deserts of Nevada and Utah, high temperatures and low amounts of water made conditions similarly difficult. As a result of these factors, construction costs skyrocketed, nearly bankrupting all of the contractors charged with constructing the line. Also, labor turnover was extremely high, due to the miserable working conditions. Nonetheless, progress inched further, although slower than anticipated, due to the challenges caused by the presence of many long tunnels on the Sierra portion of the route.

When the line was finished in 1909, it spanned a total of convert|927|mi|km from point to point, and had been built at the then ferociously expensive cost of $75 million dollars. It featured a ruling grade of 1%, making it only half as steep as Southern Pacific's Donner Pass line, its primary competitor.

History under the Western Pacific

The traffic levels of the Feather River Route fluctuated considerably between its completion in 1909 and the purchase of the Western Pacific Railroad by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1983. Between 1909 and 1918, traffic rose with the onset of World War I, although such gains vanished in the 1920s and 1930s. The construction of the "Inside Gateway" line, completed in 1931 between Keddie and Bieber, California, failed to alleviate the problem. Yet in 1936, in spite of falling traffic, the Western Pacific rehabilitated the Feather River Route using RFC funds. As a result, the line was in optimal condition at the onset of World War II in 1939.

Traffic levels on the route exploded during the first year of the war. Freight traffic doubled, and passenger traffic increased sixfold. Traffic increased steadily in both categories over the next few years of the war. In response to this, the Western Pacific installed Centralized Traffic Control between Oroville and Portola, California, in the Sierras, during 1944 and 1945.

From the late 1940s through to the early 1970s, freight traffic on the line grew slowly, while passenger traffic fell substantially. However, this did not stop the Western Pacific from introducing the "California Zephyr" in 1949. The "Zephyr", which operated over three railroads on its route between Oakland and Chicago, gained immense recognition but failed to last past the year 1970, when lack of riders and unprofitability forced the Western Pacific to abandon the service.

In 1957, a portion of the route between Oroville and Intake had to be relocated to make way for the Oroville Dam. The new line features the North Fork Bridge, which is ft to m|1000 long and ft to m|200 high. The line began operation in 1962.

During the 1970s, the Feather River Route experienced considerable modernization, as operations became computerized. These modernizing steps improved the efficiency of operations along the length of the route.

The present

As of 2007, the Feather River Route is owned and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. It is fully utilized, and generally hosts about fifteen freight trains a day between Sacramento, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The far western portion of the line, between Niles and Stockton is used by the Altamont Commuter Express. Also, the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, a major preservation society founded in 1984, is located next to the Union Pacific rail yard in Portola, California. It is open to the public.

The route loosely parallels the route of the First Transcontinental Railroad between Winnemucca and Wells, Nevada. The Union Pacific, which now owns both routes, has combined the routes between these two cities. Westbound trains use the old Southern Pacific track while eastbound trains use the Feather River route.cite map
publisher = Benchmark Maps
title = Nevada Road and Recreation Atlas
url = http://www.benchmarkmaps.com
edition = 2003
year = 2003
scale = 1:250000
series =
page = 41-44
section =
accessdate =
accessyear =
isbn = 0-929591-81-X
id =

Points of interest along the route

* Tobin Bridges
* Keddie Wye
* North Fork Bridge
* Williams Loop



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