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California \ Yosemite Short Line Railway

Yosemite Short Line Railway Company.

By: Lennart Elg

The Yosemite Short Line Railway Co. was incorporated in August 1905, with the purpose of building a 30" gauge railroad connecting with the Sierra Ry. south of Jamestown, and extending some 60 miles to the Yosemite Valley National Park. A ten-mile branch was planned from Crocker's Station to the Hetch Hetchy Valley, where the City of San Francisco had plans for a large water storage project.

Passengers would arrive at Jamestown on the Sierra Ry. in the afternoon, and spend the night at the Nevill's Hotel. Next morning they would board the YSL for a scenic ride which would "hold its own with any line in California" according to the Tuolumne Prospector. The fact that the National Park Commission was not likely to grant permission for the YSL to enter the park does not seem to have bothered its promoters.

In addition to carrying tourists into the national park, the YSL would pass rich timber holdings owned by the investors, led by railroad entrepreneur Thomas Bullock. This was his third attempt to reach the Yosemite Valley. The first was the three-foot gauge Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley R.R., sold in 1903 (later better known as the West Side Lumber Co.), and in 1905 the National Park Commission had refused permission for the standard gauge Jamestown & Yosemite RR, to enter the national park, favoring the Merced River route being constructed by the Yosemite Valley R.R.

We can only speculate about the choice of such a narrow gauge for what was expected to be a fairly ambitious project. By 1905 most narrow gauge railroads had either been abandoned or converted to standard gauge, and no new lines were being constructed. While some 30" gauge railroads operated in Mexico, only a few small industrial trams had ever been built to this gauge in the US, so availability of second-hand equipment can not have been a consideration.

The choice of gauge may have been a gamble to reach the Yosemite National Park ahead of competing projects by minimizing the need for construction in difficult terrain. A subsequent upgrading would however have involved almost a total rebuilding of the line. The survey included a series of 70 degree curves (87ft radius !) down the canyons of Sullivan and Woods Creek. In order to accommodate track like this, the YSL's equipment was unusual not only in the choice of gauge: The freight cars were extremely short at 18', and the link-and-pin couplers were mounted on wide-swinging radius bars more often found on streetcars.

Construction on the YSL started in the autumn of 1905. A third rail was laid down the Sierra Ry. from Jamestown, and the 30" gauge track diverged from the Sierra at Quartz Junction. The right-of-way would follow Woods Creek, pass Jacksonville, and then head eastwards into the mountains along the same route followed by the Big Oak Flat Road.

By December 1905 ten miles had been graded, and rails laid on a portion of the grade. The narrow gauge followed a fairly steep grade, crossing Sullivan Creek on a high trestle and passing the huge Eagle-Shawmut mine before reaching Jacksonville. A spur was laid to the mine, which was by this time the largest deep quartz mine in Tuolumne County, employing some 250 men.

After Jacksonville the grade followed the Tuolumne River eastward, crossed Moccasin Creek and began climbing the Tuolumne River canyon to meet Big Creek two miles north of Groveland.

In order to reach the national park ahead of the Yosemite Valley R.R. a crew of Japanese workmen kept grading and laying tracks at lower elevations throughout the winter. By April heavy rainfall and flooding had stopped all construction work.

It was clear that additional financing was needed in order to complete the grading. At an emergency meeting in San Francisco on April 17, 1906, the Sierra directors agreed to extend the Sierra Railway Co's responsibility in backing Yosemite Short Line bonds.

Next morning at 5 a.m. disaster struck. The shocks and the ensuing fires of the great San Francisco earthquake destroyed nearly 28.000 buildings, including the Sierra's headquarters and all company records. In the following economic chaos Bullock's investors withdrew their support, and he was forced to abandon construction of the YSL.

At the time of abandonment tracks had been laid for 8.5 miles from Jamestown past the Eagle-Shawmut mill. Grading continued past an unfinished bridge across Tuolumne River at Jacksonville, and up the river past the mouth of Moccasin Creek at Stevens Bar. The survey was completed through Carlon, some 50 miles from Jamestown.

The third rail from Jamestown to Quartz Jct was removed around 1915, and the rest of the rail was taken up in 1917. In 1916 the std gauge Hetch-Hetchy RR used the YSL grade between Jacksonville and Stevens Bar on its way to the Hetch-Hetchy water project. The stands of sugar pine once owned by Bullock and Crocker were eventually logged by the Yosemite Sugar Pine Lumber Co. out of Incline, near El Portal on the the Yosemite Valley RR.

Revised: May 4, 2016.

Reference Material Available Online:


Yosemite Short Line Railroad Company: A Fresh Look. By Mark Steven Francis.
Touching on previously known facts of the YSL, Mark Francis provides an indepth look at this short-lived line.

Yosemite Short Line Railroad Company: New Findings. By Mark Steven Francis.
A look at the construction contracts for the Yosemite Short Line.


Collected Yosemite Shortline Photographs.
Images collected from private collections, libraries and historical societies.

California \ Yosemite Short Line Railway
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