Railroad In A Barn

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe Boomer Brakeman, a Paul Bunyan of western railroad lore, is supposed to have made the run over the Sierra Nevada mountains just once. For nearly forty continuous miles, in the 1890’s, the main line of the Central Pacific Railroad was covered by wooden snowsheds—a railroad enshrouded in one long, twilit forty-mile tunnel protecting the tracks and the transcontinental trains against some of the heaviest snows known to man.

After his trip “over the hill” from California to Nevada, the Boomer Brakeman is supposed to have hunted up the division superintendent and to have offered his resignation.

“Blinkety-blank damnation,” the Boomer Brakeman is said to have thundered. “I’ve railroaded in the deserts of Arizona! I’ve railroaded in the mountains of Montana! I’ve railroaded in the Colorado canyons! I’ve railroaded all over the blinkety-blank West, but I’ll be blinkety-blank damned if I’m going to railroad in a barn! I quit!”

And he highballed it over to Ogden and went to work for the Union Pacific.

Forty miles of railroad can be a long stretch when it twists along the sides of mountains and winds its way through tariyons in curves and grades that hold trains to the slowest speeds. It seemed even longer, years ago, when the entire distance was one great wooden “barn,” the twilight broken only by the deeper darkness of an occasional tunnel. This was the Sierra Nevada stretch of the first transcontinental railroad—originally the Central Pacific; now the Southern Pacific. The snowsheds covered not only the tracks but also turntables, depots, section houses, sidings, even homes of the hundreds of railroad people who lived and worked on the mountain line. Children were born and grew up in the sheds, and some railroad men spent years of their working lives in what they sometimes called “the longest house in the world.”

Most of the sheds are gone now, but railroad passengers still complain about the wooden walls that for short distances block their view of the spectacular Sierra. Tenderfoot easterners still find it difficult to believe that enough snow can fall in California to make sheds necessary. Actually, fifteen or twenty feet of snow on the level stretches is nothing unusual in these mountains, and drifts sometimes reach several hundred feet in depth.


The line over the rugged Snowy Peaks was the big hurdle for the Big Four—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkiiis, and Charles Crocker—who built the Central Pacific. Crocker had charge of construction, and he had no idea when work started in 1863 that anything like snowsheds would be involved.

His chief engineer, the brilliant Theodore Judah, reported: “It will be necessary only to start an engine with snowplows from the summit each way at the commencement of a storm, clearing the snow as it falls. A similar course of procedure at each successive storm will keep the track open during the entire winter.”

Starting confidently to meet the Union Pacific, building from the east, Crocker’s men ran their line from Sacramento over the flat California valley and into the foothills along a fork of the American River, climbing through the little towns of Auburn and Colfax into the abrupt canyons of the higher mountains.

In general, the railroad builders retraced the route of the covered-wagon emigrants. Along the American River for nearly eighty miles they went, climbing from close to sea level to more than 5,000 feet, thence across a wooded mountain ridge to the nearby canyon of the Yuba River, and up along the Yuba 21 more miles to Summit, altitude 6,900 feet.

At Summit, they encountered the steep granite cliffs that, on a fall day two decades earlier, had stopped the tragic Donner party. To bypass the dills, the surveyors ran the line to the side of adjoining Donner Peak, then twisted it downward in a slow grade, taking sixteen miles of right of way to make six miles of progress. Below the peak they picked up the Truckee River and followed its canyon down the more gradual eastern slope to Lake’s Crossing (now Reno) and the Nevada desert.

Work went slowly. In many places, coolies tied to ropes had to be lowered over mountainsides to scoop out the right of way. It was May 10, 1869, before locomotives from East and West were bunted together at Promontory in Utah, gold and silver spikes were driven, bottles of champagne were broached, and word was flashed to President Ulysses S. Grant and the rest of the waiting world that the Atlantic and Pacific were connected by rail.