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Narrow Gauge Railroads (March 2001)

image Shay No4 trainBetween 1892 and 1951, there were two main narrow gauge railroads operating in the El Dorado County ... the Diamond & Caldor Railroad and the Pino Grande Railroad.

Diamond & Caldor Railroad
The Diamond & Caldor Railroad ran the eastern end of the narrow gauge tracks near the town of Caldor (built by the California Door Company) with a mill located on Dogtown Creek, a tributary of the Cosumnes River. The California Door Company brought in the Shay Locomotive No. 4, built in 1907 by the Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio. The Shay hauled lumber between Diamond Springs and the Caldor Mill for 46 years. Caldor was a small, but important town near Grizzly Flats. Along the route, a total of 63 trestles were needed, including one 97 feet in length made of steel. In October of 1904, nearly $400,000 and 18 months later, the rails were completed. In 1953, since most of the logs were being brought from Caldor by truck, the company decided to remove the tracks and sell the railroad equipment. The old sawmill at Caldor is a ghost town today, 30 miles southeast of Diamond Springs.

Shay No. 4 (named after its designer Efrom Shay) was given to the County by Diamond and Caldor in 1954. Today, the Diamond & Caldor narrow gauge locomotive Shay No. 4 resides at the El Dorado County Historical Museum on Placerville Drive. The El Dorado Western Railway Foundation is now restoring the Shay back to its original condition.

Pino Grande Railroad
The Pino Grande Railroad traveled along the narrow gauge track through the Georgetown Divide area. These narrow gauge railroads hauled vast amounts of Ponderosa and Sugar Pine timber through the rugged terrain of the Divide as well as other parts of El Dorado County.

In 1892 the American Land and Lumber Co., later to be the Michigan-California Lumber Co., brought in the first locomotives to run on narrow gauge track through the canyons of the Divide. Trestles were built around curves in the mountains and across canyons. The little locomotives that ran the rails of the Michigan-California Lumber Co. were mostly Shays, small steamers usually weighing around 65,000 pounds, but built to pull the heaviest loads. There were other types of locomotives used, the Heisler and the Climax, but the Shay was the workhorse of the Michigan-California Lumber Company.

Shay No. 2, the oldest engine in the Michigan-Cal line, retired in 1951 and is now resting outside the mill in Camino where narrow gauge railroad buffs visit it often. Today, on the Georgetown Divide, the Canyon Creek Narrow Gauge Railroad Association has planned to resurrect the old Pino Grande narrow gauge railroad that was owned and operated by Michigan-California Lumber Co.

image of Caldor Crash
Caldor's railroad logging heyday from 1884 until 1964

What is a narrow gauge railroad? The narrow gauge track used by the railroad was 3 feet wide, whereas the standard gauge track was 4 feet 8 1/2 inches wide. Some cities in California, as they became prosperous in the early 1900's, were building railroads and using the narrow gauge, but in the end the wider track won out. The United States Government standardized the wider track across the country and there are only a few narrow gauge railroads left in the United States today.

Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English ex-patriates.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots first formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder who came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses. Thus, we have the answer to the original question.

Local Note: Did you know? ... The El Dorado "Bike Trail" stretches from Mosquito Road near Hwy. 50 to Smith Flat Road, largely following the path of the old railroad tracks that ran from Placerville to the Michigan-California Lumber Co. in Camino ...

Mountain Democrat Archives
Georgetown, California, Canyon Creek Narrow Gauge Railroad
United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region, Visiting the Heritage Sites of the Pacific Southwest Region