The arrival of the railroad here in 1886 created the town of Dunsmuir, as the railroad decided that an uninhabited flat area south of Tauhindauli Park would be turned into extensive railyards and repair shops for the steam engines of the era. For the next 70 years until the 1950’s, the Southern Pacific Railroad was the economic heart of Dunsmuir, providing jobs and tourist revenue. By the mid-1950’s, however, with the change from steam to diesel train engines, the need for all those workers based in Dunsmuir disappeared. Today, the railroad remains an important part of Dunsmuir’s economy, but greatly reduced compared to earlier times. Echoes of train whistles in the Sacramento River Canyon still provide background music for visitors to the Park as the tracks just across the river here provide an up-close look at today’s modern trains.
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Railroads had transformed most of the rest of the United States beginning in the 1840’s, some forty years earlier. By the 1870’s, much of the eastern, midwestern, and southern U.S. was honeycombed with railroads connecting all the major cities and most of the smaller towns. Even the great transcontinental railroads connecting the West Coast with the rest of the U.S. had been completed beginning in the 1860’s, some twenty years earlier.
However, even by the mid-1880’s, the very rough mountain terrain of the West Coast, combined with the smaller population here, meant that railroad construction would be expensive and there would not be a lot of rail traffic to pay for the expensive construction. Beginning as early as the 1850’s, there were a few rail lines in California’s Central Valley to the south, and in the 1860’s, a few rail lines were built in Oregon near Portland. However, there was no rail connection between California and the Pacific Northwest.
It was not until the 1870’s that funding could be raised just to begin the expensive, difficult task of connecting California with Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
Initially organized as the “California & Oregon Railroad Company” in California, surveying and railroad construction crews started working from California’s Central Valley north (and in Oregon, the “Oregon Central Railroad” began surveying and building from Portland south). Crews coming from Portland at first had an easier time following the Willamette River and other Oregon river valleys. Construction coming from the south up the twisty and steep Sacramento River Canyon was especially difficult as dozens of bridges and tunnels had to be created for the railroad. In addition, construction through the rugged Siskiyou Mountains straddling the California-Oregon border was going to be challenging.
Work proceeded very slowly, both coming south from Portland and coming north from California. Despite the fact that work on the line had started in the early 1870’s, it took some twelve or thirteen years for the work to reach as far north as today’s Delta, California (about 30 miles south of the Park), and as far south as today’s Ashland, Oregon. Stagecoaches carried passengers between these two places.
By the autumn of 1886, the construction crews reached Upper Soda Springs and the site of today’s Dunsmuir. During that winter of 1886-1887, construction slowed, and much of the construction headquarters personnel over-wintered at Upper Soda Springs. The construction headquarters personnel, consisting of surveyors, engineers, management, and an accountant, enjoyed the hospitality of their Upper Soda Springs hosts during these winter months while planning and overseeing the continuing construction north towards Oregon.
It was during this 1886-1888 period that the railroad built the first railroad yard in what was to become Dunsmuir just to the south of Upper Soda Springs. Until the arrival of the railroad in the late 1880’s, the area that was to become Dunsmuir was simply another uninhabited flat area along the Sacramento. However, the rail builders foresaw that there would need to be additional engines added to northbound trains near Upper Soda Springs, to help push the trains up and over the unusually steep grades just north of Upper Soda Springs.
The railroad therefore built substantial railyards, repair shops, and administrative offices just south of Upper Soda Springs, and by 1888, Upper Soda Springs had a new neighbor—the brand-new town of Dunsmuir. Housing and a new business district sprang up near the railyards for all the new railroad employees who were stationed at Dunsmuir.
Surveying and construction work continued north from Upper Soda Springs and south from Ashland. Finally, in December 1887, a thirty-year dream of a railway connecting California with the Pacific Northwest was at last completed, and a ceremonial “Golden Spike” was driven into the ground uniting the rails and celebrating the joining of the north and south lines.
The Central Pacific Railroad, which a few years earlier had taken control of this project from the two original railroads, itself turned the project over to the Southern Pacific Company in 1885. It was the “SP”, as the Southern Pacific was affectionately called, which was the official entity that completed the task, and which for the next over 100 years was a major employer in Dunsmuir.
The arrival of the railroad to Upper Soda Springs greatly increased the popularity of the Upper Soda Springs Resort. What had earlier been a dusty and exhausting stagecoach journey lasting up to a week for travelers and vacationers coming north from the San Francisco Bay Area, now could be accomplished in just a day or so, in the relative comfort of a passenger rail car, with the new guests arriving refreshed and ready for their stay at the Resort.
Fashionable Victorian- and Edwardian-era vacationers now booked their travel directly to the new train stop at Upper Soda Springs with their steamer trunks full of clothes, and they spent several weeks to a month here, enjoying the mountain air, scenery, hiking, fishing, hunting, and the Resort’s bubbly soda water.