The following material was originally published in 2001 on Northwestrails.com., which regrettably is no longer online.

Text and photos resurrected from web.archive.org, Dan Sheets and Matthew Robbins. This article was reformatted by Larry Tuttle, November, 2012 for Alpharail.net.

The authors, Northwestrails.com and Alpharail.net are not affilitated with the Yreka Western. This web article is intended for railfans and others interested in shortline railroading in Siskiyou County, California.

 

 

Yreka Western SW8 #21 departs the Timber Products mill with two loads of veneer on July 29, 2000.

Photo by Matthew Robbins

Yreka Western Credits and Acknowledgments:

NorthWest Rails Visits the Yreka Western by Dan Haneckow

Layout & Design of Magazine Cover, Banner, and Feature by Daniel J. Sheets

Webmaster and Slide Management by Matthew Robbins

Special thanks to the Yreka Western Railroad and Larry Tuttle as well as the photographic contributions of Jack Bowden, Greg Brown, Charles Lange, Fred Smith and John E. Shaw

Map by John Macauley

Assistance with procurement of photographic material by David Lange

Photography by Dan Haneckow, Matthew Robbins and Daniel J. Sheets

 

PART ONE - FREIGHT

July 29, 2000. The sun breaks over the Cascades and bathes the Shasta Valley in low golden light. The temperature will easily break one hundred degrees later on, but at 6:00 AM the small town of Yreka, California is cold, quiet and largely still asleep. Inside the Yreka Western's depot however, a small office hums with activity. The coffee is on and the railroad's tasks for the day are being discussed in an informal planning session. The work will consist of a trip to Timber Products (the road's primary freight shipper) to pick up loads and take them to Montague (the connection with Central Oregon & Pacific's Siskiyou Line) then return with empties. After the freight work is completed, the "Blue Goose" passenger train headed by steam locomotive #19 will make its own turn to Montague. The Yreka Western Railroad is waking up to another day, just as it has for the last one hundred and eleven years.

The Yreka Western depot at 6:00 AM on Saturday July 29, 2000. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets.

Yreka is the northern most town in California, off Interstate 5. The town's location on a primary West Coast commercial artery was not always a given. In the early 1880's Southern Pacific subsidiary, California & Oregon Railroad, was being built north towards the state line. At the same time another Southern Pacific subsidiary, the Oregon & California Railroad was building south from Portland, Oregon. The two would meet at Ashland, Oregon connecting California to the Pacific Northwest. Originally the railroad would pass through Yreka on a route surveyed by Samuel S. Montague (of Central Pacific's Sierra crossing fame). Montague died in 1883 and was succeeded by William Hood, who elected to bypass Yreka in favor of an alignment that cut directly across the Shasta Valley. Yreka would be without railroad access.                                                                    

The town had been founded in 1851 when gold was discovered at Yreka Flat. At first known as Thompson's Dry Diggins, the name was changed to the more enticing Shasta Butte City in 1852 and made the seat of newly created Siskiyou County. Shortly thereafter the name was changed again to Yreka, from Wyeka, a Native American name for Mt. Shasta. The gold long played out, and bypassed by the railroad, the town's prospects had began to dim. An appeal by the city fathers to the headquarters of Southern Pacific in 1886 proved unsuccessful. An alignment through Yreka would add five and a half miles and unacceptable costs to the mainline through the Siskiyous. Any solution to Yreka's railroad problem would have to come from the town itself. With the incorporation of the Yreka Railroad on May 28, 1888, the town had taken matters into its own hands.

THE ENGINEHOUSE

The clatter of the metal sliding door awakens the dark slumber of the enginehouse. Inside is the motive power of the Yreka Western, two EMD SW8 units the #20 and #21, of Southern Pacific heritage, and the #19, the passenger power for the line, a Baldwin Locomotive Works 2-8-2 from the class of 1915.

The cavernous murk of the building contains most of the tools and equipment necessary to keep the 8 mile long shortline in operation. Of the silent locomotives only the #19 shows any sign of life, still giving off faint heat from the previous day of passenger operations. The #20 sits alongside the steam locomotive, bad-ordered with crankshaft problems. Nearest to the door is the #21, the primary freight hauler on the line. Engineer Dennis Woodruff climbs aboard and the silence is shattered as the forty-seven year old diesel is brought chugging to life.

Yreka Western #20, an EMD SW8, built in 1953 as the SP #4608. It was renumbered to #1113 in 1965 and retired by the SP in 1977. It is now sidelined with crankshaft problems. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets.  

The Yreka Railroad was opened to traffic on January 9, 1889, seven months after being incorporated. Rails were laid westward from the Southern Pacific station point of Montague (named for the late chief engineer) and crossed the Shasta River midway on the line. A climb up Butcher Hill past China Cemetery brought the line into Yreka. Between Montague on the Southern Pacific mainline and its namesake city, the railroad was 7.9 miles long.

In the early 1900's the railroad planned to expand westward through the nearby hills to Scott Valley and the towns of Fort Hill and Etna. On April 18, 1906 crews and materials were marshaled at the freight depot, sadly on the very same day of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, an event that would instantly dry up capital for the project. The idea of a railroad to Etna resurfaced in the 1920's with the additional prospect of an extension following the Klamath River as far as Happy Camp, 108 miles away. The onset of the Great Depression shelved those plans permanently (although the railroad would have a truck franchise for less than carload [LCL] and express service to Scott Valley and down the Klamath River as far as Orleans in Humbolt County).

Over the years the railroad would see numerous changes of ownership, public and private, as well as periods of receivership. Wood burning locomotives would give way to oil and passenger service would be reduced to a motor car and eventually eliminated.

On September 1, 1926, the status of the railroad's outside connection was downgraded by Southern Pacific with the opening of the Cascade Line to the east. The Siskiyou Line would remain important, but never again as a main commercial artery.

On August 24, 1933 the railroad was reorganized as the Yreka Western Railroad, the first step in a process that lead to rehabilitation of the road's finances and physical plant. Among the improvements 40-pound rail was replaced by 75-pound rail and basic track maintenance, by then practically non-existent, resumed. Business improved to the point that in 1948, the railroad at last emerged from receivership. In 1950, Baldwin demonstrator #750, a DS44-750 was tested by the railroad. On one of the tests the diesel collided with a log truck killing its driver. Ill omen or not, the railroad would remain steam powered for the next eight years. By the mid-1950's two Baldwin 2-8-2 locomotives, the #18 and #19, had been purchased from the McCloud River Railroad replacing two smaller 0-6-0 locomotives which were scrapped on site.

On August 6, 1956 the Yreka Western was sold to Willis Kyle, who would create the Kyle Industries family of short lines. Two years later the railroad acquired its first diesel; a SW8 numbered #602 from Utah's Bamberger Railroad, relegating the #18 and #19 to stand by service.

For the next forty-three years under Kyle ownership, the Yreka Western would serve its namesake town as its rail connection to the outside world. A parade of diesel switchers would make appearances over the years while the steam locomotives would serve as back up and occasional excursion power. Eventually though, the #18 would be sidelined with mechanical problems and in 1971, the #19 was transferred north to the Oregon Pacific & Eastern (a fellow Kyle property) in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Closing mills and the loss of other small shippers lead to the Yreka Western's return to the passenger business in 1986. This service would be enhanced three years later with the return of the #19 after the Oregon Pacific & Eastern ceased excursion operations. Known as the "Blue Goose" (a nickname brought in from its years on the OP&E and named for Kyle Industries flying goose trademark), the steam train brought the railroad a new audience as travelers pulled off Interstate 5 to experience the sights and sounds of another time.

In 1991 the railroad lost its direct connection to points north on the Siskiyou Line when the Southern Pacific embargoed the south end of the line between Ashland, Oregon and Montague.  Traffic bound for points on the Siskiyou Line was to be picked up by the Dunsmuir-based Montague Local and sent via the Cascade Line to Eugene, then back down the Siskiyou Line to its destination. The situation would remain in effect until December 31, 1994 when the Siskiyou Line was sold to Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad and the southern portion of the line reopened.

In the final year of the Twentieth Century the railroad could proudly look back on over one hundred years of history, serving the freight and passenger needs of the Shasta Valley.

The chances of the Yreka Western seeing the Twenty-first Century however, had become very slim.

Yreka Western  SW8 #21 in front of the Yreka Depot, 6:45 AM on July 29, 2000.

Photo by Dan Haneckow

ROUNDHOUSE NELLIE

Nose first, the #21 emerges from the enginehouse and proceeds forward, coming to a rolling stop in front of the depot. Engineer Dennis Woodruff climbs down from the cab and re-enters the station.  Inside is Larry Bacon, recently retired Manager of the Yreka Western, and Larry Tuttle, who will play two roles during the day; Brakeman on the #21 and Fireman on the #19 for the passenger train in the afternoon. The previous week, he had fired on another steam locomotive, also numbered #19, on the Sumpter Valley Railroad, a reconstructed narrow gauge line in Northeastern Oregon. In both cases he volunteers his time to hone his skills running steam locomotives.

The first order of the day is to make a light engine move to the Timber Products mill, two miles out of town. There, loads will be picked up and the train will continue on to Montague. While these plans are being discussed, a large cat regally strolls through the doorway and grandly rolls over on its back in the center of the room, allowing everyone the privilege of scratching its belly.

"That's Roundhouse Nellie," explains Larry Bacon. "Even when we were shut down, travelers would drop in and ask how she was doing. That cat even gets birthday cards." After each person pays tribute to the regal sprawl of cat, Roundhouse Nellie stands up and saunters out of the room.  The royal audience had been concluded.

Roundhouse Nellie.

Photo by Dan Haneckow

In 1999, the fortunes for the Yreka Western were as desperate as a railroad could face. Kyle Industries had left the railroad business leaving the line orphaned without an operator. With Kyle out of the picture the popular "Blue Goose" steam passenger train had been suspended and the railroad sat in a state of limbo.

On January 4, 1999, the Yreka Western filed for abandonment with the Surface Transportation Board, which granted permission to do so on May 4, 1999. For all intents and purposes, it appeared the end of the railroad was at hand.  See NorthWestRail News for January 11, 1999 and NorthWestRail News for February 1, 1999 .

The supporters of the railroad however, would not let it go down without a fight.

The "Save the Blue Goose" committee was formed locally to revive the excursion train. Eventually $23,000 in public donations would be raised by their efforts. Timber Products, the lines primary shipper, would also file an offer of financial assistance on May 11, 1999. Hopes began to raise that maybe the railroad was not finished after all. Then in January 2000, the Rocky Mountain Railway and Mining Museum from Colorado purchased the railroad. Against long odds a reprieve had been granted.  See NorthWestRail News for November 29, 1999 .

The new ownership went right to work readying the line for the start of the 2000 excursion season as track and equipment were brought out of hibernation. See NorthWestRail News for January 13, 2000 A new General Manager was hired in the person of Dan Wilkinson, a long time Yreka Western supporter and volunteer who had been instrumental in the "Save the Blue Goose Committee" (now known as the" Friends of the Yreka Western").  See NorthWestRail News for April 14, 2000.

On May 27, 2000 the #19 was fired up and the "Blue Goose" once again departed across the Shasta Valley. The railroad had entered its third century. In the words of the Yreka Western's new Chairman, Court Hammond: "This is a wonderful bit of history that has been saved for all, and we get to keep it here, alive in Yreka."

The task ahead is no small challenge. In the long-term view, Don Marshall, President of the Rocky Mountain Railway & Mining Museum estimates that it will take approximately $200,000 to refurbish the lines track and equipment. Both diesels are in need of overhauls. To this end, a former US Army MRS-1 numbered #204 has been acquired from the Feather River Rail Society's museum at Portlola, California (see photo in part three). Currently the unit waits at the museum while transportation to Yreka is worked out with the Union Pacific (equipment with friction bearings are forbidden to operate on the UP). When the MRS-1 does arrive, it will allow the shopping of the #20 and #21, which are rumored afterwards to emerge in colors based on their original SP orange and black tiger-stripe paint scheme. 

Meanwhile the day to day work continues on the railroad. A recent three party agreement between Yreka Western, Timber Products (the road's principle shipper) and the Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad allowed Timber Products to shift its shipping of veneer (used in the making of plywood) from trucks to rail. It is expected that the deal will generate over 1,000 carloads annually (approximately 3,300 truck trips). The agreement won Central Oregon & Pacific the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association's Marketing Award for the year 2000.  See NorthWestRail News for November 9, 2000 . With a steady source of traffic from Timber products and the resumption of the popular "Blue Goose" excursion train, it can be hoped that the Yreka Western will be around for a long time to come.   

ON THE ROAD

7:00 AM. Engineer Dennis Woodruff eases the throttle forward and the #21 starts slowly, rolling past the depot. Almost instantly the SW8 is confronted with the steepest grade on the railroad, the climb up Butcher Hill. When the locomotive crests the grade, the Shasta Valley opens below and the profile of Mt. Shasta towers in the distance.

Left: The #21 approaching the Hi-Ridge millsite after crossing Foothills Road. Photo by Dan Haneckow. Right: Brakeman Larry Tuttle and Engineer Dennis Woodruff discuss the upcoming switch moves at Timber Products. Photo by Matthew Robbins .

The descent completed, the #21 approaches a long line of stored former CSX open hoppers, the result of an unsuccessful attempt by Central Oregon & Pacific to place this type of car into woodchip service. These and another string of stored hoppers located beyond the depot in Yreka, generate a small monthly rental revenue for the railroad. In the distance the Timber Products is visible, but first the #21 will pass through the abandoned Hi-Ridge mill site, closed since the mid-1990's.

The #21 enters the Hi-Ridge site en route to the neighboring Timber Products mill. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets.

 

Left: Passing through the Hi-Ridge site. Photo by Dan Haneckow . Right: Leaving Hi-Ridge, the #21 approaches the Timber Products veneer-loading track. Photo by Daniel J Sheets. Compare these pictures with the view provided by Greg Brown in Part Three of this article, of the same area in 1989.

Upon arrival at Timber Products, the first order of business is to pick up two loads of veneer from a spur at the west end of the complex. The #21 stops at the switch and Larry Tuttle climbs down to do battle with a very stuck switch stand. Eventually the switch gives way and the #21 proceeds up the spur towards two flat cars loaded with veneer, thin sheets of wood peeled from logs which, when compressed forms plywood. The veneer is bound for mills north on the Siskiyou Line in Medford and Grants Pass.

 

Left: The #21 noses forward to couple with the flat cars loaded with veneer. Right: Brakeman Larry Tuttle on the way to the next switch. Both Photos by Matthew Robbins.

The #21 couples to the flat cars and backs them down the spur. After the switch is thrown the locomotive shoves the flats forward, further into the Timber Products complex. Engineer Dennis Woodruff spots the flats on the main while Larry Tuttle remains on the ground, throwing switches for the execution of a run-around move. This maneuver places the cars behind the locomotive.  They are then brought forward into the area near the wood chip loading facility and uncoupled. 

Left: Leaving the loaded flats on the mainline, the #21 advances en route to pick up four loaded chip gondolas. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets. Right: From the cab; the loaded flat cars sit on the main, on the left are the chip gondolas to be picked up. Photo by Dan Haneckow.

The #21 pulls a string of four loaded woodchip gondolas from the spur and shoves them back towards the veneer flats. The chips are bound for St. Helens on Portland & Western Railroad's Astoria Line. They will be sent down the Siskiyou Line to Black Butte, then north via the Union Pacific over the Cascade Line.

Larry Tuttle counts car lengths over the radio as the gondolas approach to couple on to the flat cars.  At 8:00 AM the switching moves have been completed and the train, four chip gons and two loaded flats, pulls out of Timber Products, blowing its horn at the crossing of Phillipe Lane.

The crew settles in for a leisurely trip to Montague over the gently rolling valley floor. The surrounding grasslands are actually quite marshy. Line-side fires caused by the trains have been rare over the years due to the deceptive amount of water flowing through the valley. Soon the slow moving Shasta River is crossed on the railroad's largest trestle. At Milepost 3, some cattle are encountered on the tracks. The train slows to a crawl as it navigates through the herd then throttles up with clear track ahead. At the old station point of Fioks the line curves and Mt. Shasta looms directly ahead.

Left: Mt. Shasta from the site of Fioks siding. Photo by Dan Haneckow . Right: Approaching Montague. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets.

The train arrives in Montague at 8:40 AM. The town is small and quiet, and has a look little changed from photographs taken in the early 1900's. Flat fronted buildings on the main street parallel with the Siskiyou Line give the place a distinctly Old West flavor.

The #21 drops the loads off in the small yard to be picked up by Central Oregon & Pacific's train from Weed. The northbound cars of veneer will be taken to Hornbrook, California eighteen miles up the line. There, the train from Weed will meet the train from Medford and switch crews, with the northbound traffic continuing over the Siskiyous. On their return to trip to Weed, the southbound crew will stop once again in Montague to pick up the chip cars bound for Black Butte and the Cascade Line.

Left: For the final few hundred yards into Montague, the Yreka Western parallels the former Southern Pacific's Siskiyou Line. Mary's Peak can be seen in the background. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets.  Right: The #21 in Montague, about to pick up empties. Photo by Matthew Robbins. 

THE RETURN TO YREKA

After dropping off the loads, the #21 picks up the empties, four flat cars and three wood chip gondolas, all for Timber Products. By 9:15 AM the work is done and the train departs for Yreka.  Other than the ratio of chip gondolas to flatcars, the operation is essentially a reverse image of the trip to Montague. Upon arrival at Timber Products the chips are dropped near the loader and the empty flats shoved up the veneer spur. When the mill work is done, the engine returns light to Yreka arriving at 11:00 AM just in time for the passenger train waiting behind #19 at the depot.

Left: The #21 and its train of empties approaches the Timber Products mill, shortly after crossing the Shasta River. Photo by Matthew Robbins. Center: Working in the Timber Products complex. Note recent track maintenance. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets. Right: After dropping off flat cars at the veneer spur, the #21 passes through the old Hi-Ridge mill site on its return to Yreka. Photo by Daniel J. Sheets.

Yreka depot from the cab of the #21 on July 29, 2000. Photo by Matthew Robbins.

 

The #21 meets the #19 and waiting passengers at Yreka.   Photo by Matthew Robbins.

 

PART TWO -- PASSENGER OPERATIONS

 

Kindly direct all correspondence, comments and concerns to Larry Tuttle

All photos and text © 2000, 2001, 2012 by the original photographers and writers.

Used with permission