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.