March 4, 2012

Railroad adventure takes author to gold country


---- — Editor's Note: This is the final installment in a series detailing Richard Frost's cross-country train trip.

Two mornings after departing Omaha, Neb., our train rolled on past Dutch Flat in the heart of California gold country.

Next stop, Colfax, named for a former congressman and vice president. Originally a railroad town and now a fruit-shipping center, Colfax lies just west of the Sierras. More relevant to us, it signaled the approach to Sacramento. Within half an hour, we disembarked in California's capital.

Big four connections

The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 led to the rapid growth of Sacramento. Twenty years later, completion of the transcontinental railroad solidified the city's early importance. While Thomas Durant dominated behind-the-scene activity of Union Pacific construction west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, a group of four businessmen spearheaded the Central Pacific's progress from California east toward Promontory Point, Utah.

All of the so-called "Big Four" had northern New York connections. Charles Crocker, born in Troy, headed west with the Gold Rush. Along with Mark Hopkins, originally from Henderson in St. Lawrence County, he found it more profitable to "mine the miners" than mine for gold.

Collis Huntington wasn't born in upstate New York, but he had the most pronounced long-term presence here. In pre-Gold Rush days, he owned a store in Oneonta. While labor proceeded on the railroad in the West, he was the person who stayed in the East raising funds. Later in life, he owned Pine Knot, one of the first classic Adirondack Great Camps.

We visited the Huntington and Hopkins Hardware Store, originally located on K Street, then moved to Old Sacramento State Historic Park along the Sacramento River. An exhibit called "Hardware in the Nineteenth Century" explained the revolution in retailing that brought so many articles formerly available from only skilled artisans and specialized merchants for sale at one place. Think of this as the progenitor of superstores like Wal-Mart and Target.

The fourth member of the group, Leland Stanford, grew up in Watervliet, near Albany. Once upon a time, he sold chestnuts and horseradishes on the family farm. In 1852, he headed west, where he found business success, became president of the Central Pacific Railroad and, in 1861, was elected governor of California. His fortune established Stanford University "for all the children in California."

We toured Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park, the ornate home he purchased in 1861 and eventually enlarged to four stories and 44 rooms. Stained-glass skylights, mansard roof, pocket doors with etched glass and carved moldings adorn the sumptuous estate. Custom-made furniture featured many references to the trains that made all this possible.

When Stanford and his wife moved to an even more elaborate mansion on San Francisco's Nob Hill, they left this to the Catholic Church as "Stanford-Lathrop Home for Friendless Children." By the 1930s, it evolved from an orphanage into a home for troubled young women. In 1978, the state purchased it for eventual restoration as a historic site.


The California State Capitol also made it onto our itinerary. Interior hallways and rotundas featured impressive murals and portraiture. Along with modern legislative chambers are historic offices decorated as they were over a century ago. An auditorium offers a film on civic responsibility, while the State Archives host an exhibit room.

Adjacent Capitol Park boasts 40 landscaped acres filling the equivalent of 12 city blocks. The beautiful grounds include the stunning World Peace Rose Garden, a cactus garden and an impressive sampling of the state's trees. Monuments commemorate historical figures as well as law-enforcement officers and firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty. At the Vietnam Memorial, black granite panels enclose life-size statues and relief sculptures depicting daily life for soldiers in Southeast Asia.

Vision for future

California State Railroad Museum sits right where the first track for the transcontinental railroad was laid in 1863. As with the Interstate Highway System, the government first looked at the advance as a boon for moving troops.

The Big Four looked further ahead, envisioning profits from moving goods, raw materials and passengers around the country. Within five years of Abraham Lincoln's signing the Pacific Railroad Act, advertisements could offer "San Francisco to New York — 6 Days and 20 Hours," a far cry from the hundred days required to sail around the coast of South America or cross the isthmus of Panama on foot.

Detailed displays address all aspects of the accomplishment, including the roles of the Big Four, the challenges posed for surveyors and the engineering.

One of several poignant life-size dioramas depicted the role of Chinese labor. At first, the Big Four hired only whites. Chinese who had come to America to mine gold were denigrated for their small size, lack of skills and even their habit of bathing daily.

Many white workers, however, proved unreliable, deserting their jobs for gold prospecting or other endeavors. In frustration, Crocker forced construction chief James Strobridge to hire 50 Chinese men. Despite Strobridge's harassment, none quit, and most were productive. Soon he would hire only Chinese. More than 11,000 were working on the tracks by 1869.


In the museum's Great Hall, we examined rolling stock. Two 1873 steam locomotives are still operable. The last steam engine made, Southern Pacific Locomotive 4294, came off the line in 1944. It's 119 feet long, weighs more than a million pounds and could deliver 5,000 horsepower. The sleek steel Western Pacific Railroad Number 913, built by General Motors in 1950, represents the change from steam to diesel-electric.

The "Silver State," an 1881 passenger coach, boasted red plush seats, marble wash basins and a potbelly stove. Luxurious though it might have been, it was no match for private cars such as "The Gold Coast." Sumptuous parlors, staterooms and dining areas boasted leaded glass, mahogany paneling and upholstered furniture. An Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Dining Car, the "Cochiti," was built for the Super Chief, one of the first streamlined stainless-steel trains.

Paved way for travel

Railroads dominated California politics for decades. They also changed daily life forever. Before railroads, communities delineated time by the sun. Every 13 miles east or west would change time by a minute. With rapid transit now at hand, in 1883, the United States and Canada set time zones and established standard time.

Sacramento enjoyed status as terminus for the Pony Express and then the transcontinental railroad. From there, travelers might proceed to San Francisco by steamboat. One such vessel, the Delta King, now stays docked on the local waterfront, where it serves as a hotel and restaurant. It made a fine setting for celebrating our final evening in the city. (Try the sea bass.)

The advent of rail travel gave Americans the chance to see sights they previously could only read about. Yosemite, one of the first National Parks, became an especially alluring destination. We ended our journey there.


The name Yosemite conjures up visions of broad valleys, iconic rock formations and tall waterfalls. Don't overlook the giant sequoias. A settler by the name of Galen Clark heard about these trees and assumed the tales were hoaxes. Upon finding the massive sequoias, he led a drive for preservation; Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley were set aside for public use in 1864. No photograph can convey the enormity of the world's largest trees. Hiking the Mariposa Grove with ranger Kelsey Lahr brought us to trees large enough to accommodate automobile tunnels.

Our first view of Yosemite Valley came just after exiting a tunnel on our way south from Mariposa. Tunnel View has to be one of the world's grand vistas. We saw El Capitan to our left, Half Dome in the distance and Bridal Veil Falls off on the right. Later close-up views of each couldn't surpass the drama of that first glimpse.

Spray at the foot of Bridal Veil Falls was akin to a cloudburst. We could barely see the waterfall.

Yosemite Falls, the highest cataract in North America, goes dry by late summer. A short walk brought us to a dramatic view of the lower falls emerging from precipitous cliffs. Watching the torrent — it falls 2,425 feet in three sections — it was hard to believe this would disappear in three months.

Ribbon Falls, the highest single drop on the continent, is also ephemeral. At the other extreme is Fern Spring, the smallest falls in Yosemite. It's barely a roadside ripple, but it does run year-round.

Then, there are the rock formations. At Mirror Lake, we directly faced the 4,800-foot cliff of Half Dome. Later, we considered El Capitan, perhaps the continent's most iconic rock face. Climbers (looking like ants from our perspective at the bottom) generally need four or five days to complete the 3,000-foot ascent. I cannot even imagine sleeping several nights in a fabric hammock lashed to the cliff.


Remember, our westward journey began right in downtown Plattsburgh. It's possible to leave Clinton County by train and be in California just three days and three nights later. And this would be a spectacular excursion. But stop in a few places along the way, as we did. We thereby got to experience three cities and savor the views out the train windows even more. Within days of arriving home, we were already scoping out timetables for another railroad adventure.

Richard Frost is the author of "Hotel Champlain to Clinton Community College: A Chronicle of Bluff Point." Reach him at 563-5342 or via email at