Merced to El Portal

The Yosemite Valley Railroad

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The logo of the Yosemite Valley Railroad. Photo by Steven Cope.

Long before one could hop in the family car for a leisurely afternoon drive through the mountains, the grandeur of Yosemite National Park was accessible primarily by rail. For over four decades, the Yosemite Valley Railroad provided freight and passenger service from the central valley city of Merced to the community of El Portal: A town long considered the doorstep to the natural wonders of the park. Additionally, the railroad provided a vital link to the outside world for such line side communities as Snelling, Merced Falls, Bagby, Briceburg, Emory, Incline, and Moss Canyon.

Constructed between September of 1905 and May of 1907, the 77-mile line boasted spectacular vistas and a mild gradient of between one and two percent. With much of the line following the course of the Merced River, the journey had nearly as much to offer in terms of scenery as the park itself, and attracted thousands of tourists as well as foreign dignitaries and heads of state. Crown Prince Gustaf Adophus of Sweden, King Albert of Belgium, Sir Winston Churchill, Presidents William Howard Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Prince Nokhuhito Takamatsu of Japan (Emperor Hirohito's brother) all rode this line.

The Right-of-Way

Starting at the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Merced, the YV proceeded north along a shared right-of-way for four blocks before turning east across 16th Street and beginning its own survey along the north shoulder of R Street. Continuing east, the YV crossed the main line of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway at an interlocking diamond, complete with a blockhouse-style control tower. From this point, the tracks crossed beyond the city limits, passed beneath the massive silos and rotary kilns of the Yosemite Portland Cement Company, and entered the rolling hills of eastern Merced County.

Located at milepost 24 on the line, the town of Merced Falls was home to one of the railroad's two major freight customers: The Yosemite Lumber Company. Drying kilns, a planning mill, a sawdust incinerator and a recreation hall were located here, in addition to a passing track, turntable and a two-story depot.

At the east end of Merced Falls Yard, the right-of-way makes a curious split: The result of a massive realignment project that occurred in 1925. Construction of the Exchequer Dam that year forced the relocation of several miles worth of track to higher ground, and inundated the original right-of-way.

Another major shipper on the line was located near milepost 67 at the town of Emory. Here, Yosemite Portland Cement had a limestone quarry and crusher, shipping hopper cars full of the product back to their mill on the eastern outskirts of Merced. Two boarding houses and a short incline hoist served these facilities.

At milepost 73 was the appropriately named station of Incline. Home to the longest incline hoist ever built, sugar pine logs of the Yosemite Lumber Company would be lowered down the steep slopes of Trumbull Peak and transferred to the YV for shipment to the mill at Merced Falls.

Finally, after traveling 77 miles and climbing nearly 1,900 feet, the railroad reached its terminus at El Portal. Here an ornate depot and covered boarding platform were constructed, along with a four-story hotel that boasted such modern amenities as hot and cold running water, steam heat and electric lights. (In 1907, that counted as luxury accommodations, folks!)

Boom & Bust

Business for the railroad steadily grew throughout the early 20th century, peaking in the 1920s. Carloads of crushed limestone, concrete, logs, lumber and passengers all plied the line. At El Portal, the American Lead Company built a small mine and began shipping ore on the YV. The tourist trade was booming as the nearby National Park drew record crowds, and the Hotel Del Portal was regularly booked to capacity. Life was good for the Yosemite Valley.

Even tragedy and mishap couldn't keep the YV down in these heady days. When seasonal flooding washed a large section of track right out from under a passenger train near Briceburg, fortune still smiled in the form of several dozen doctors and nurses who were on board, heading toward a medical conference being hosted by the park that week. Although seriously injured in the wreck, engineer Al Yokum was quickly and expertly treated by his passengers, and would live to make a full recovery. (His locomotive was not so fortunate, however, as the event left a sizable dent in the right side of its tender. In many later photographs of engine # 28, the so-called "Yokum Dent" is clearly visible.)

The prosperity, however, was sadly not to last. The bloom began to come off the rose in the early 1930s, as the Great Depression hit the YV hard, and the following years only brought further difficulty as paved roads and automobiles cut ever deeper into the company's profit margins.

On Veterans Day of 1942, Yosemite Lumber lowered its final log train down the Trumbull Peak incline, and while the Merced Falls mill would continue operating, it too would be silenced within a year. Then, on June 2nd of 1944, the last train of limestone left the crusher at Emory. Less than a month later, on July 1st, Yosemite Portland Cement followed Yosemite Lumber's example and ceased operations entirely.

In February of 1945, flooding in the canyon below Bagby caused extensive damage to the right of way, and on August 21st, fire destroyed a key bridge at the same location. For the struggling Yosemite Valley, it was the final straw.

Goodbye, Farewell & Amen

Temporary repairs were made to the bridge, and on the afternoon of August 24th the last train of the Yosemite Valley Railway left Merced. A cab-hop consist of locomotive number 28 and a lone caboose, the train and its crew proceeded to El Portal and retrieved the last few pieces of rolling stock that the railroad had left in the yard. Then, pointing its headlight toward the setting sun, the number 28 released its brakes and departed El Portal for the last time, leaving nothing but some rusting rails and a trunk full of memories to mark the passing of one of the most colorful railroads in California's history.

Thanks to Steven Cope for contributing information about this route.

Very nice looking railroad. I would like to see if Jack built the incline. Well done.

Robert VanDoren
Leesburg, FL
7/5/2011

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If I recall correctly, the cause of the Yoakum wreck was determined to be spreading rails due to completely rotted ties, and not a washout. I may be mistaken here, but I believe the famed "Last Train" on the YV was led by locomotive #23. Of course, there never really was a last train. There were several weeks worth of trains heading out to the end of the line to haul track materials back to Merced as they were pulled up.

Mike Ninneman
Concord, CA
4/15/2014

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A very good book on this subject is "Railroads of the Yosemite Valley" by Hank Johnston. The logging inclines were awesome and many remnants remain if you want to explore.

Dale Miller
Northridge, CA
10/21/2014

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