A serial about the construction history
of the Yosemite Valley railroad during
its construction. It ran June 14 through
19, 1926 under "Rad's Ramblings" in the
Merced Sun-Star.


June 14, 1926
xxx The greatest event ever taking place in the history of Merced, from the industrial and development standpoint, was the building of the Yosemite Valley railroad. The road was in the midst of construction twenty years ago. It was started in 1905 and completed in 1907. Old-timers in Merced will recall being thankful that the earthquake and fire in San Francisco came after the road was well started. Otherwise the project might have been abandoned or materially delayed.

xxxFor many years prior to the building of a rail line to Yosemite National Park there were rumors of all kinds of the starting of such an enterprise from some point in the San Joaquin valley. About the year 1900 it was seriously stated and published in the papers that Louis Kahn of Oakdale and other capitalists were behind a project to build a railroad to Yosemite in connection with the Sierra railway. On the other hand, Fresno was a vigorous contender for the honor and advantage of being chosen as the valley terminal. For a year or two after the work was undertaken Merced was uncertain as to whether the railroad would divert from Merced Falls to Turlock or Modesto instead of coming to this city, and there was much rejoicing when it was finally settled that the valley terminal would be located here.

xxxIn the early days of the project of the enterprise, there was apparently no thought of making the railroad other than an electric line. One of the earliest items in the Sun files bearing on the subject was the statement that N. C. Ray, civil engineer, formerly member of the assembly from Coulterville, was in charge of the survey of the work for the Mariposa Electric Power company and that this company backed by Capt. A. H. Ward veteran Mariposa county mining man, would build a dam nine miles above Benton Mills where 7000 horsepower would be developed. The ostensible purpose of this power development was to promote the mining industry, but it became known later that the initial intention was to use this plant as a unit for supplying power to the electric railroad that was projected up the Merced river canyon.

xxxBearing out the impression of the electric line we find this in the Sun of January 23, 1903, clipped from the Oakland Enquirer:

xxxIt will not be long before the tourist will be able to reach Yosemite Valley by electric railroad, a franchise for such a road having been applied for. Yosemite Valley is one of the wonders of the world and is every year becoming more popular. Tourists wish to get there quickly and cheaply and will hail the new railroad with delight.

xxxFresno early became interested in the Yosemite railroad project, and as will be seen later in this narrative fought to the proverbial last ditch to make Fresno the terminal of such a rail line instead of Merced. The Fresno Republican of May 1, 1903, said: "The Fresno Chamber of Commerce wants two electric railways built, one to Yosemite Valley and one up the Kings river canyon, with Fresno as the starting point. President Neu said all the proposition lacked was a good promoter. If somebody doesn't move to make Fresno the terminal some other place in this valley will be."

June 15, 1926
xxxThe Fresno agitation had its effect on Merced, as well will be seen from the following item in the Sun of May 8, 1903:

xxxS. Hartman, the pioneer merchant, urges the chamber of commerce in a communication to act promptly to secure for Merced the advantages of being the terminal point for the electric railroad to Yosemite. Mr. Hartman cited the activity of the Fresno Chamber in this regard and asserted that now is the time for Merced to bestir herself in this direction. Mr. Hartman pointed out the many advantages that would accrue to Merced if the railroad started from this city and thus settled once for all the fact that this place is the natural gateway to the great valley.

xxxThe first mention in the press of the Yosemite Valley railroad was in the Sun of May 15, 1903 in the following item which will be observed states quite definitely that the railroad will be constructed:

xxxN. C. Ray of Coulterville, civil engineer, and representative of the Yosemite Valley Railroad company, incorporated several months ago for the purpose of building an electric line from some point in this valley up the Merced river canyon to Yosemite, is in town. He was interviewed by a Sun reporter at the Central hotel. Mr. Ray said:

xxx"We are not ready for any definite statement. We have been working quietly and have now about reached the point where we will consider terminals. Surveys are completed from Merced Falls to the other end of the line, bur where the terminus in this valley will be has not been decided. In all probability it will be either Merced or Modesto. Both points have advantages that must be considered. If we build from Merced we shall expect some assistance. We have acquired power sites in the river canyon that will serve our purpose. We are not certain where the mountain terminal will be - the park line or Yosemite Valley.

xxxAt this point in the examination of the Sun file we run across news of a project to build a railroad from Carters, Tuolumne county, to Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite. It was to be a narrow gauge road and articles of incorporation were filed for the "Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valley Railway of California." The corporation was capitalized at $1,000,000.

xxxOn the 7th of August, 1903, the Stockton Independent told of a project to build a railroad to Yosemite from that city. The Stockton paper rejoiced over the prospect. It said that the promoter of the project was Charles Gave of Denver. The Independent said: a railroad to Yosemite would be a great thing for this city, as thousands of people would come here each year to make the trip by rail into the scenic wonderland.

xxxThere was a lull in the fore part of 1904 regarding the railroad building up the canyon to Yosemite. It was generally known that the Yosemite Valley railroad was pursuing its project quietly, but it made so little noise, and there was so little of the ordinary "fuss and feathers" attending its plans that the press got very little to publish. Merced was on the anxious seat. It was known that Fresno had vastly more resources than Merced and fear was expressed frequently by local business men that after all the "Raisin Center" would be first with its railroad to Wawona and the park.

June 16, 1926
xxxIt was with much satisfaction that readers of the Sun were informed on November 23, 1904, that a deed had been filed whereby J. M. McCoy conveyed to the Yosemite Valley railroad a strip of land 100 feet wide and 1330 feet long in the town of Merced Falls. The terminal matter in the San Joaquin valley was still unsettled. The paper stated that thus far no overtures had been made by the railroad to Merced City regarding terminal sites or rights of way.

xxxOn December 12, 1904, the Mariposa Gazette took great pleasure in publishing to the world the fact that "a large force of men arrived at Bagby (the name had just been changed from Benton Mills to Bagby) to begin actual work for the Yosemite Electric railway." The Mariposa paper went on to say editorially: xxx>No other one thing that is possible of being accomplished would be of such vast importance and give such benefit to Mariposa county as this proposed road. Every branch of industry would feel its beneficial effects and conditions would quickly improve. The enterprise deserves the assistance of the people of Mariposa county in every way possible.

xxxSeptember 20, 1904, the Sun published the fact that Engineer N. C. Ray was here with a force of sixteen men en route to Merced Falls, where "they will begin surveying a route up the river for an electric railroad to Yosemite. The crew is fully provisioned for a long siege. While it is certain that the new road will tap Merced Falls it is by no means certain that it will reach Merced. The overland connection will be made at some point in this part of the valley, and we hope it will be Merced.

xxxIn 1904, when the Yosemite Valley railroad began seriously to project its rail line to the park, the whole theatre of action was transferred to Washington, D. C., and there it stayed through nearly a whole session of congress. It was the law of the land, though a ruling made long before by the Interior department, that no railroad be allowed in national parks, Yosemite valley, proper, it will be noted, is only a small portion of Yosemite park, so the Yosemite railroad promoters found it necessary to get one of two concessions from the government, They must either get permission to run their railroad into the park or, failing in that, they must get the boundaries of the park changed to exclude certain lands so as to permit the railroad to get closer to the valley proper. This threw the fight into Washington, and here Fresno became a serious competitor and opponent of the Merced river canyon promoters.

xxxA group of lobbyists favoring the Merced canyon route quartered themselves in Washington. They were headed by Engineer N. C. Ray, Julius Ellis, later auditor of the railroad, was another, and Col. John P. Irish was another. They caused a bill to be fathered in the house of Representative James C. Gillette (who later became governor of California) excluding certain lands from Yosemite park which would meet the desires of the Merced canyon rail project. The Gillette bill passed the house, but it met opposition in the senate inspired by Fresno interests who got Senator Hard to "throw a cog in the machine." Fresno entered the fight vigorously. The Fresno Republican of Dec. 23, 1904, said:

xxxFresno contends that the electric railroad will be built from Fresno to Yosemite notwithstanding the withdrawal of four sections of land from the Yosemite reservation. The Merced route is down in the canyon and devoid of scenery, and at the end of the route there is a climb of 1000 feet to get into the valley. The routes surveyed for the Fresno road will afford the greatest scenic trip in California. It winds the crest of the hills and the outlook is magnificent. From Wawona to the valley it is planned to use electric automobiles.

June 17, 1926
xxxIn the issue of the Sun of Jan. 18, 1905, we note more evidence of the contest at Washington between Merced and Fresno. In that issue appeared the following press dispatch:

xxxWASHINGTON, D. C. Jan. 16 - Rival electric railroad interests pressing to get into Yosemite valley are struggling over legislation here. The house passed the Gillett bill excluding certain lands from Yosemite park and attaching them to the Sierra Forest reserve. Attorney Frank H. Short and State Senator Chester Rowell of Fresno have wire vigorous protests against this bill, claiming that the interests of Fresno are not protected.

xxxPresident Roosevelt favored the Merced canyon project, as will be observed in the following Sun statement dated Jan. 20, 1905:

xxxThe fight between rival railway companies that want to get into Yosemite goes merrily on at Washington. The Gillett bill has the sanction of President Roosevelt, but the Fresno chamber of commerce is waging strenuous opposition to it on the ground that discrimination is being made in favor of the Merced river and against the Fresno project. The Fresno chamber held a special meeting and wire a request to Washington urging that the secretary of the interior be invested with authority to grant railroad rights of way through national parks.

xxxHere the Merced chamber of commerce got into action with the following telegram to Congressman J. C. Needham:

xxxWe the undersigned, voicing the sentiment of this entire portion of your district, respectfully request our representatives both in the senate and house to use every endeavor to secure the passage of the Gillett bill, thus rendering possible the opening of the only feasible route to Yosemite valley for summer and winter travel.

xxxThe promoters of the Merced river route must have been confident of the success of their emissaries at Washington, because on March 8, 1905, Engineer Ray gave an interview to the Sun saying that Merced would be the terminus of the railroad which would be eighty miles long, and that work would begin in ten days. And on March 20, 1905, articles of incorporation of the Yosemite Valley Railroad were filed in the office of the county clerk, showing the directors to be John Drum, Wm. S. Bosley, Sidney M. Ehrman, Thomas Turner and Joseph D. Smith.

xxxOn March 27, 1905, the city trustees of Merced granted a franchise to the railroad for the use of R, 16th and 24th street in arranging its terminal facilities at Merced.

xxxThe railroad encountered trouble in getting rights of way through the Merced river bottom, as will be seen by the following item in the Sun of April 1, 1905:

xxxThe Yosemite Valley Railroad is encountering trouble and delay in getting rights of way through the Merced river bottom from Hopeton to Merced Falls. The ranchers are "holding up" the railroad, the officials say. H. K. Huls, J. G. Ruddle, and others in that neighborhood want the railroad to run up the south side of the river and make a station at Ruddle mill. If this is done it would probably result in the removal of the town of Snelling to that point.

xxxSnelling wasn't moved, however, as through adjustments and condemnation suits the necessary rights of way were finally secured through the river bottom. The railroad proceeded steadily with construction. An office and headquarters were opened on Canal street where the Merced Produce is now located, and on the door was posted this sign:

xxx"Busses leave at 7 A. M. Work for all."

June 18, 1926
xxxIt was not long before N. C. Ray had 1500 men at work on the grading of the road between Merced and Merced Falls. Some delay was caused in getting the Merced river bridge at Hopeton completed, but it was finally done, and then Traffic Manager O. W. Lehmer, who came here from the Santa Fe agency at Stockton, ran a special excursion formally opening the line to Merced Falls. This was on May 4, 1906. It was a gala day in Merced and the Falls. The following Merced were Lehmer's guests on the occasion: E. L. Wheatley, E. J. McKain, R. N. McKinnon, E. J. Kallwright, Corwin Radcliffe, A. F. Pedreira, J. W. Poor, W. E. Landram, D. K. Stoddard, L. Gatrein, B. C. Smith, A. G. Briggs, Hal Shaffer, John Swan, R. Kaehier, J. H. Routt, M. W. Vincent, Fred Huniburg, Walter Newbert, Ed Leeker, Tom Hall, R. L. King, R. Shaffer, John Czerny, Louie Wegner, H. J. Ostrander, Ed Nordgren, F. A. Stevens, W. T. Hohenshell, Robert Gracey, J. F. Chamberlain, Dr. Twining, M. Goldman, E. R. Jones, J. J. Griffin, M. D. Wood, A. E. Howard, Harry Allen, W. H. Hartley, George Bloss, A. G. Clough, Isaac Bird, Wm. McDonald, N. C. Ray, Sam Cornell, J. W. Knox, H. S. Spaulding, J. K. Law, J. H. Ellis, J. B. Garibaldi, R. Barcroft, Elmer Smith, J. G. Ruddle, M. S. Huffman, W. H. Turner, J. A. Norvell, Charles Harris, F. W. Hosmer, N. H. Wilson, S. D. Prather, J. H. Simonson, George Powell, Fenner Chamberlain.

xxxThe Southern Pacific made some surveys with a view of paralleling the line of the Yosemite Valley railroad to the park line. There was a survey made by Engineer Dexter and a later one made by E. J. Kallwright. IN the Sun of May 25, 1906, the plans of Kallwright were reported. His line for the S. P. ran up the canyon on the opposite sides of the river from where that of the Yosemite Valley railroad runs. Kallwright had 15 men camped at Merced Falls with complete outfits including teams, etc. The engineer explained that the line he was surveying was merely a preliminary one for the purpose of obtaining data.

xxxThe first excursion of a general nature ran over The Yosemite Valley railroad was on the occasion of a native Sons picnic held at Snelling June 7, 1906. The railroad carried over 1000 people to Snelling that day. Across the two main entrances to the town of Snelling were stretched banners with this flaming inscription: "Welcome, N. S. G. W. and Y. V. R. R." There were literary exercises in the old courthouse grounds. District Attorney Henry Hoar was president of the day, and Judge F. G. Ostrander the orator of the program.

xxxOn the 21st of September, 1906, the railroad contracted with Droesch & Boney for construction of a depot Building in Merced on R street between Seventeenth and eighteenth for the price of $10,000.

xxxThe final chapter in this narrative as to the building of the railroad to Yosemite is contained in a report in the Sun of May 15, 1907, when it was stated that with no ceremony and little ado, the first regular passenger train scheduled from Merced to El Portal pulled out of this city. It departed at 2:30 in the afternoon and was scheduled to reach El Portal at 6:50. In those days, the passengers stayed over night at El Portal.

June 19, 1926
xxxNow for a brief sketch of the inception of the idea of a railroad to Yosemite and the events leading up to the actual building of the road largely through San Francisco and Oakland Capital. The idea was first to build a wagon road up the canyon. This was favored by Capt. A. H. Ward, mining man, who wanted it in connection with his proposed power plants for mining purposes. This agitation led up to the appointment by congress of the Mansfield commission in 1899 to visit the scene and report on the feasibility of the free wagon road. That was when N. C. Ray became interested in obtaining easier access to the valley up the river canyon. Ray was a resident of Coulterville at that time, being consulting engineer for the Merced Gold Mining company at that point. The Merced board of trade appointed him their agent to appear before the Mansfield commission and urge the project. In 1900 Ray was elected to the California assembly from the district embracing the Coulterville territory, and in that year, the legislature for the third time appropriated $50,000 to build the free Yosemite wagon road, and Governor Gage vetoed the bill. Capt. Ward was still persistent in his scheme for the free wagon road and the development of electric power, and he interested other Alameda county men in the idea. Among them was Thomas Prather, Oakland banker, and one night in 1902 Prather phone from Oakland to Ray in Coulterville. "Can you build a railroad up the Merced river canyon to Yosemite?" "I can." responded Ray, and the next day Ray was closeted with Prather and his associates on the subject in Oakland.

xxxThe first actual survey for a railroad up the river canyon was made in 1894 by Mortimer McRoberts of Chicago, representing Chicago capitalists. But nothing came of it, and the maps were sold to Albert Stetson of San Francisco, son of John B. Stetson of the North Shore. Young Stetson prepared to finance the enterprise, and Mr. Bullock, who later started the Sierra railway, was to build the road. Stetson's tragic death by suicide put an end to these negotiations, and nothing more was heard of the Yosemite railway until W. H. H. Hart, a former attorney general of California, organized the California Midland. This road was built on paper from San Francisco to Fresno, with a branch up the Minnaret mining district of Madera county and another up the Merced river canyon from Merced to Yosemite. The surveys up the river canyon were made by Engineer Dexter, whose work was followed to some extent by Ray. The California Midland "died a bornin'" and now comes the story of the men who backed up their ideas with actual work and coin and made a rail line from Merced to Yosemite an actuality. 

xxxThomas Prather, W. W. Garthwaite and Edson Adams, all Oakland bankers formed a syndicate to promote the enterprise, and the surveys started. N. C. Ray was engaged as engineer and the Yosemite Valley Railroad company was incorporated in December, 1902. After the fight was won in congress which changed the park boundaries so the railroad could make its terminal at El Portal, bonds in $3,000,000 were floated, and actual construction began.

xxxThese are days of automobiling. But it is well to remember back 20 years ago when Merced and Mariposa secured the great advantage of making the Merced river canyon the permanent gateway to Yosemite. We recall the remark of N. C. Ray when so much talk was indulged over Fresno getting a railway to Yosemite. We said to Ray one day, "Do you suppose any other route will ever prove feasible and practical for a railroad to Yosemite?" Ray's answer was "No, not until God builds another canyon to Yosemite."

Clayton J. Guest
Web site: www.yosemitevalleyrailroad.com