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Railroad History

Railroad car
RAILROADS have been an important part of El Dorado County’s history.  After gold was discovered in 1848, the Gold Rush brought thousands of people to Northern California and with them, the idea of building a railroad from Sacramento to the Gold Fields. By 1853 the Sacramento Valley Railroad was begun, reaching Folsom in 1856.  Due to competition among various investors to build the western portion of a future transcontinental railroad, the railroad line to Nevada did not go through Placerville to Carson City, but instead went through Auburn and the Donner Pass.Because of heavy freight use along the Placerville-Lake Tahoe Wagon Road over Echo Summit, Placerville residents, pushed to continue the rail line from Folsom.  With new investors, the track was laid to Latrobe in 1864 and to Shingle Springs by 1865.  It took another 33 years to complete the rail line.  The Placerville Depot opened for business in March, 1888 and the Placerville Branch carried lumber, fruit, butter and other produce, along with passengers bound for Sacramento, until 1986.

After the Gold Rush lumber companies wanted to take advantage of the vast stands of timber in El Dorado County and two major logging railroads were built to transport logs and lumber. What eventually became the Michigan-California Lumber Company built an extensive network of narrow gauge rail to bring logs and rough cut lumber to the mills, including a cable which carried rail cars of lumber across the American River Canyon from the mill in Pino Grande on the north side of the river to the mill in Camino.  Their standard gauge railroad, the Camino, Placerville & Lake Tahoe Railroad brought the milled lumber to Placerville to be loaded onto the Placerville Branch line.  The Camino, Placerville & Lake Tahoe railroad right of way is now part of the El Dorado Trail. 

Another logging railroad was put in by the Diamond & Caldor Lumber Company.  Their network of narrow gauge rail was east of Grizzly Flat with a lumber mill in Caldor and another in Diamond Springs.  The Shay Locomotive #4 currently undergoing restoration at the County Museum worked for many years as a switch engine in the Diamond Springs Lumber Mill yard. 

Southern Pacific’s Placerville Branch had five combined freight and passenger depots, built to standard Southern Pacific Railroad designs:  Latrobe, Shingle Springs, El Dorado, Diamond Springs and Placerville.  The only existing structure is a portion of the Shingle Springs freight warehouse, built after a devastating 1896 fire burned the original 1865 station.  The town of El Dorado now has a scaled version of the El Dorado Station through the generosity of volunteers and donors.

El Dorado County's newest railroad is the EL DORADO WESTERN RAILROAD, the living history program of the El Dorado County Historical Museum, and through the efforts of volunteers, offers rides to the public on the historic PLACERVILLE BRANCH of what was the Southern Pacific Railroad line. The boundaries of the EL DORADO WESTERN RAILROAD are Shingle Springs and Missouri Flat Road, with current operations out of the Shingle Springs Dept and the El Dorado Station.  Plans to build the El Dorado County Historical Railroad Park facilities in El Dorado for exhibits and display track, a restoration shop and historical turntable are underway.   Track repair is occurring on the 7.9 miles of track, and rolling stock is being restored.  If you would like to VOLUNTEER, please contact one of the El Dorado Western Railroad volunteers or County Museum staff.

Additional historical information and photographs are at the El Dorado County Historical Museum, 104 Placerville Drive, Placerville, CA 95667.  Information courtesy of Doug Noble’s series of articles published in the Mountain Democrat Newspaper in 2007.