Jamestown to Angels Camp

The Angels Branch

Picture Point of Interest

Showing of

Then: A local landmark for generations, the oddly-shaped Table Mountain is the result of a lava flow that originated in the high Sierra Nevada mountains sometime around four million years ago. In 1898, construction crews used explosives and machine drills to carve a 40-foot-deep trench through the basaltic capstone of this geologic curiosity to allow safe passage of the tracks. (1916, submitted by Steven Cope)

This 19-mile long branch line of the Sierra Railway ran from the Sierra's main yard at Jamestown to the mining community of Angels Camp. Completed in September of 1902, the line here utilized many unconventional elements in its design including multiple switchbacks, curves of nearly 30 degrees, and gradients that hit 4.26 percent in some locations. Abandoned in the 1930s, many sections remain visible today. Additionally, the Jamestown railyard has been transformed into the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and is open to visitors year-round.

Designed by a young and ambitious civil engineer named William Hamilton Newell, the Angels Branch developed a reputation for daring construction and rugged beauty. Passing through areas with such colorful names as Table Mountain, Tuttletown, Jackass Hill and Gee Whiz Point, it became a favorite route for sightseeing and excursion trains as well as the normal passenger and freight traffic for which the line was built.

Pushing northward from Jamestown, the tracks descended a hill, crossed Woods Creek, and ascended the rugged slopes of Table Mountain on a sharp "S-curve." Upon acheiving sufficient elevation, the tracks then crested the summit through a deep cut hewn from solid basalt. Clinging to the north face of the mountain, the tracks then dropped steadily downward into Rawhide Valley before turning north once again toward neighboring Calaveras County.

Making their way through rolling meadows and groves of black oak trees, the tracks eventually passed through the hamlet of Tuttletown on a high trestle and then climbed once again, this time ascending the formidable slopes of the colorfully-named Jackass Hill. Once the summit was achieved, a harrowing descent through a pair of switchbacks brought the line to the floor of the Stanislaus River Canyon and the mining town of Melones. Crossing the river here, trains crossed the line separating Tuolumne and Calaveras Counties.

After crossing the river, trains climbed once again through another pair of switchbacks and worked their way up Indian Gulch to a exposed precipice known as "Gee Whiz Point." From here, a thousand feet above the river rapids, the entire expanse of the canyon came into view. Trains would often stop here to let passengers drink in the awe-inspiring vista that gave this location its name.

From there, the tracks passed through the town of Carson Hill before finally arriving at the Angels Camp Railyard: A small collection of tracks and warehouses perched on a hillside along the community's eastern outskirts. A depot and turntable were constructed here to serve as the railroad's terminus in Calaveras County.

Sadly, however, completion of the line coincided almost exactly with the decline of the Gold Rush in California, and as the region's mining industry began to slowly collapse, so too did the fortunes of the railroad. Profits slumped, then dried up completely as the development of paved roads and automobiles cut even further into railroad business, and in March of 1935 the line was finally abandoned. Within two years the rails were gone, and a year after that the entire company filed for bankruptcy and entered receivership, eventually re-organizing itself as the Sierra Railroad. (Versus the original name of "Sierra Railway.")

Today, the unique and colorful Angels Branch is but a forgotten footnote in the annals of California Gold Rush history. Many sections of the right-of-way have been reclaimed by nature in the 70-plus years since abandonment, and a large portion of the line near Melones now lies beneath the waters of the lake that bears that community's name. But if one knows just where to look, however, much evidence still remains to mark the railroad's passing: Stark reminders of an economic boom gone bust, and of a golden age too wonderful to last.

Thanks to Steven Cope for contributing information about this route.

Nice photos, I'll look for the foreman's house at Carson Hill next time through. The grade through Old Melones past mine workings, stamp mill foundations, ect... is interesting when the lake is low. Too bad the Melones station site is covered by water.

Mountain Ranch, CA


We invite anyone who is a curious railroad buff to come by any day of the week to visit the old Angels Camp site of the railroad. We are housed in one of the old warehouses and there is still a lot to see of the evidence of a wild little rail............. our scales stilll calibrate "right on the money" every year! Sierra Hills Stone

Lynn Bartlett
Angels Camp, CA


The Sierra Railway has taken over the Santa Cruz local from Watsonville to northern part of Santa Cruz cement factory.

Cupertino, CA


I don't understand how the other end of the line continues. right in front of it is a mountain. Was there a tunnel that collapsed, or a switchback, or just a really really sharp corner that leads to the house?

Alexi Lauto
Las Vegas, NV


I love the "river" vs "reservoir" pictures. Thanks for sharing.

Colorado, CO


Part of this is not the actual route outline. The part that goes under the bridge is actually supposed to turn right, right after the first large turn exiting the yard, then make a horse shoe curve to the left, then right again and joins with the rest of your route, and the end of your rout doesn't turn through the hill. It goes along the side of the hills.

Alexi Lauto
Las Vegas, NV


This route can be mapped using USGS historic map kmz downloads 100k scale (actually 125k)to Google Earth. Dates of maps are from 1898 to 1902.

Chuck Jones
San Juan Capistrano, CA


Does anybody have the address of the Sierra Raiload depot at Angels Camp? I can't seem to figure out where the railroad yard ran through town. Thanks

Michael Laine
San Jose


Great article, and very nice history lessons by Steven in his videos. My late mother and her parents knew the Ragios, Tryons and Mr. Carley, who owned a garage at the Southeast end of Angels. My mother was a pal of "Watt" Tryon, and often times had conversations with Charlie Tryon, who called the #30 and its train the "Tri-Daily," which meant that the train would leave Angels in the morning and "try daily" to return by the evening. If my memory serves me, Charlie Tryon had a home overlooking the ROW, and his dog would fetch the paper tossed from the train. BTW...Sue's Angels Cafe is a nice placr for chow.

Paul Kalff
Fremont, CA


Just for some additional info, my grandmother met one of the Stevenot daughters while attending San Francisco Normal College in the late 1800's. Blanch Perkins was invited on several occasions to visit the Stevenot's ranch, and that's how she became acquainted with the Tryons, Ragios and Mr. Carley. My mother would be given the task of closing the cattle gates during drives to summer ranges near Folger Peak...because she was the girl. But, she'd always get to eat, first, and the hands always looked after her. I believe Watt Tryon worked for Armour Meats....but that could be a brain fade sort of thing. The cattle, I believe, came up on the SP from Tulare area...possibly the Zumwalt Ranch.

Paul Kalff
Fremont, CA


I am tentatively scheduled to speak next Spring (2018) at the annual meeting of the Westside L C / Sierra RR guys in Sonora CA. My subject will be "Why was the angels Branch built in the first place?" My grandfather, the builder, had many mixed reasons. Watch your announcements for specifics. I am only 85, but will try to carry this through.

Tom Bullock
Pollock Pines, CA


Shortened Link: http://a-r.us/9rt

Do you have any pictures or information about The Angels Branch? Please . You will get credit for anything you contribute.