Colusa Steam
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Colusa History

by Tony Johnson 

(Scroll down for historic photos of the SP Colusa Depot below)

Located in the heart of California’s Sacramento Valley is Colusa County, a county noted for it ability to produce vast amounts of agricultural products. Located north of the State capital, on the west side of the Sacramento River, Colusa County didn’t see its first railroad until the Central Pacific began building north from Woodland in 1876 under the name Northern Railway Company.

In 1875, not wanting to become left without rail transportation, the population in and around Colusa asked the Central Pacific to build their new rail line through Colusa. Central Pacific demanded, and was refused, the sum of $75,000 to build the line through Colusa. A check of a California map shows why CP demanded the sum; the railroad simply would be a straighter, easier route left as is. The line would have to detour 10 miles to the east to reach Colusa. From Woodland the rails ran north and 100.74 miles later reached the Central Pacific mainline at Tehama on September 27, 1882.

The Northern Railway was operated by the Central Pacific Railroad until April 1, 1885 and by the Southern Pacific Company until May 15, 1888 when it as consolidated with ten other roads to form the Northern Railway of 1888. On April 14, 1898, the Northern Railway was consolidated with the Southern Pacific Railroad, Northern California Railway and California Pacific Railroad to form the Southern Pacific Railroad (of 1898), the sixth corporation of the same name.

The building of the Northern Railway through Williams left a sour taste in the mouths of many. Since the Northern Railway wasn’t going to come to Colusa the citizens decided to build their own railroad to the Northern Railway.

In 1885, the Colusa Railroad Company was incorporated to construct from the town of Colusa to Central Pacific’s Northern Railway. The main reason for its construction was for the purpose of retaining the county seat of Colusa County at Colusa. At the time there was agitation for its removal to the town of Williams on account of the alleged isolation of the town of Colusa after the Northern Railway went through Williams.

Records indicate that practically every citizen of Colusa subscribed for stock in the Colusa Railroad Company. The 9.71-mile Colusa Railroad Company opened its 3-foot gauge line to the Northern Railway connection at Colusa Junction in 1885. A transfer station was built there to transfer loads between the standard gauge and narrow gauge cars.

Railroad to Sites:  The Colusa Railroad Company was incorporated into the Colusa & Lake Railroad (C&L) on June 8, 1886 for the purpose of constructing a railroad from Colusa Junction to the town of Lower Lake in Lake County. The line never reached Lower Lake and instead ended in the Antelope Valley at a place called Sites, 12.29 miles west of Colusa Junction, all in Colusa County.

The C&L was not blessed with dense population centers. The now 22-mile long C&L traversed through agricultural land, and not much else. In fact, the portion of the line between Sites and Colusa Junction was the source of practically all the freight business contributing to the earnings of the company. At Sites there were two sandstone quarries, from which the building stone known as “Colusa sandstone” was obtained. The remaining freight shipments on this portion of the line had been grain hauled from warehouses at Sites or other stations to Colusa Junction for transshipment via the Southern Pacific or over the remaining trackage to Colusa for warehousing. Additionally, shipments could be shipped via river steamers of either the Sacramento Transportation Company or the Farmers Transportation Company.

The fate of the Colusa & Lake was to change as two other railroads were about to construct lines to Colusa.

Around 1906, from its mainline station at Wyo, Southern Pacific constructed a 10.4 mile branch line east to the new Speckels Sugar beet refinery at Hamilton (later called Hamilton City).  Although it was constructed to serve mainly freight, SP did offer modest passenger service daily between Hamilton City and Davis (and the connecting trains to San Francisco and Sacramento) on Trains #522 and #523.  These “Second Class” passenger trains were nothing more than distillate-powered self-propelled motor cars, which the railroad used to keep costs down on lightly patronized passenger runs. With 27 flag stops and schedule stops between Davis and Hamilton City, it took a while to get over the road. Train #522 departed Davis at 4:10PM and arrived at Hamilton City at 8:15PM. Interestingly, at Arbuckle there was a 10 minute station stop. Additionally, at Willows you could transfer to Mixed Trains #267-268 to reach Fruto.

If you were not pressed for time, you could ride aboard the two “Daily except Sunday” Mixed Trains #308 and #309. These mixed freights operated between Hamilton City and Orland, taking 1 hour 55 minutes between the two terminals.

As the agricultural output of the area continued to grow in Colusa County, Southern Pacific looked at expanding its empire.

Beginning in 1912, under the name, Colusa & Hamilton Railroad (C&H), Southern Pacific constructed sixty-one miles northerly from Harrington to Hamilton. In 1912, the C&H petitioned the State PUC and was granted permission to construct its mainline at grade across 47 public highways. The following year the PUC granted the C&H permission to cross at grade, the tracks of the Colusa & Lake Railroad.

By 1917, the Colusa Branch was complete. The Colusa & Hamilton Railroad had no locomotives of its own, and was leased to the Southern Pacific on December 1, 1913, and deeded to that company of October 9, 1917. Now known as the Colusa Branch, this 72-mile branch left the West Valley (the former Northern Railway) mainline at Harrington (mp103.3) and went northeast to Grimes, then north through Colusa, Princeton, and Hamilton City, before heading back west to rejoin the West Valley mainline at Wyo (mp180.4).

Here is a list of the Colusa Branch station names and their milepost (mp) locations. Some of these station names you may not have heard of before. This is not uncommon as railroads often assigned non-agency station names to locations that often didn’t have any surrounding population. This was for bookkeeping and timekeeping practices.

------------------------------------ Station Names and Milepost Locations  ----------------------------------------------------

mp108.3 Harrington                                                                 
mp112.3 College City                                                                   
mp116.0 Graino
mp120.8 Grimes
mp124.4 Sycamore
mp125.4 Oak Flat
mp128.8 Dolan
mp133.0 Colusa                     
mp137.0 Denco
mp143.2 Stegeman
mp145.9 Princeton                 
mp150.4 Codora
mp155.6 Glenn                      
mp157.0 Nadine Spur            
mp162.1 Ordbend
mp165.9 Rotavele                  
mp170.0 Hamilton                 
mp175.2 Moda
mp178.6 Cory                        
mp180.4 Wyo


 Even before the Colusa Branch was completed it became less important. On June 13, 1913, the Northern Electric RR (later becoming part of the Sacramento Northern) opened a branch from Marysville to Colusa. The Northern Electric operated nine trains each way daily between Colusa and Marysville, connecting with trains to Chico and Sacramento. Just two days earlier, SP officials operated a special train on their new line from Harrington to Colusa without fanfare. It’s just as well there was no fanfare since Colusa residents were still angry because Central Pacific’s Northern Railway (SP’s West Valley Line) chose to build its line through Williams, instead of Colusa. 

The combination of having Sacramento Northern’s line enter Colusa from the East, and SP’s Colusa Branch from the north and south, proved too much for the little Colusa & Lake Railroad.

The C&L’s freight shipments dwindled to practically nothing and passengers found the Sacramento Northern, and to a lesser degree, the SP Colusa Branch a better alternative. As a result C&L’s trackage fell into disrepair and derailments were frequent. In May 1915 the little Colusa & Lake Railroad was abandoned.

Prior to the arrival of the Colusa Branch, if you wanted to catch a SP mainline train, you first rode west on the Colusa & Lake Railroad to Colusa Junction (4.9 miles north of Williams) where you could make your connection. C&L trains departed Colusa four times a daily to Colusa Junction and beyond to Sites. Scroll down to see a map of the C&L facilities in downtown Colusa below.

Colusa & Lake Railroad
Passenger Train Schedule in February 1911

                mp 22     Depart Colusa            6:15 am           12:00 noon      3:30 pm           9:15 pm

                mp 12     Arr. Colusa Jct.          6:45 am           12:30 pm         4:04 pm           9:45 pm

                mp 0.0     Arr. Sites                  - - - - -  -           - - - - - -           4:50 pm           - - - - - -

                mp 0.0     Depart Sites              - - - - - -            8:00 am           - - - - -              - - - - - -

                mp 12     Arr. Colusa Jct.          7:10 am           9:20 am           1:10 pm           9:55 pm

                mp 22     Arr. Colusa                7:40 am           9:50 am           1:40 pm           10:25 pm

Waiting at Colusa Junction you could board the following trains:

  • Train #14 – PORTLAND EXPRESS
  • Trains #29, #30 & #31 – RED BLUFF PASSENGER
  • Trains #125 & #126 – DAVIS-RED BLUFF PASSENGER

Colusa Junction wasn’t important enough to rate a stop for the premier SHASTA LIMITED passenger train.

Passenger service on SP’s Colusa Branch was modest. Like the service to Hamilton City before it, passengers could ride aboard self-propelled “Motor Cars” or on Mixed Trains. As losses mounted as the Great Depression began to take hold, Motor Car service was discontinued, but Mixed Train service continued.

An example of Mixed Train service can be found in a September 15, 1931 Employees Timetable (ETT).

ETT date                     Frequency                   Train Numbers                               Class

 9/15/31                     Daily ex. Sunday            #129-130 Mixed                            1st class

        #130 - Mixed              mp#                 Stations                      #129 - Mixed
                (read down)
                                                                                  (read up)

        12:01pm                      108.3               Harrington                   8:30am

        flag stop                      112.3               College City                flag stop

        flag stop                      116.0               Graino                         flag stop

        12:35pm                      120.8               Grimes                         7:55am

        flag stop                      124.4               Sycamore                    flag stop

        flag stop                      128.8               Dolan                          flag stop

         1.20pm                       133.0               Colusa                         7:20am

        flag stop                      143.2               Stegeman                    flag stop

         2:00pm                       145.9               Princeton                     6:30am

         2:20pm                       150.4               Cordora                       6:15am

        flag stop                      155.6               Glenn                          flag stop

        flag stop                      162.1               Ordbend                      flag stop

        flag stop                      165.9               Rotavele                      flag stop

         3:40pm                       170.0               Hamilton                     5:20am

         4:20pm                       180.4               Wyo                            4:40am

   Additional Flag Stops to Receive or Discharge Passengers: No.129 and 130, at road-   crossing 300 feet west of mp139, 148, Denco, Moda, Nadine Spur and Cory.

In 1938 Southern Pacific was authorized to discontinue mixed trains between Harrington and Orland via Colusa. There would be no more passengers arriving in Colusa on the Colusa Branch.

The War years kept the railroads very busy with troop and military equipment movements. The Colusa Branch – as well as many other northern California branch lines – carried on with moderate increases of traffic, but after the war business continued back on a downward trend. For decades trucks were siphoning off the short haul rail traffic and the Colusa Branch was not immune.

With the benefit of hindsight it appears SP’s Colusa Branch was moderately successful. Paralleling the West Valley Line it served mostly grain and rice elevators, the Holly Sugar refinery at Hamilton City, and occasional inbound shipments of large farm equipment.

Abandonment: The entire 72-mile branch remained into the Seventies, but SP was looking to trim the unproductive parts of the Colusa Branch. In 1974, SP petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to abandon the section between Colusa and Hamilton City, but the petition was opposed by the County Transportation Planning Commission. The Planning Commission requested a delay on any decision until local governments could complete their study on the transportation needs of the area.

The branch remained intact until 1977 when the ICC granted permission to cut the 35-mile northern section between Colusa, and just south of Hamilton City, thereby cutting the branch in two. The remaining 11-mile “northern section” from Wyo to Hamilton City was renamed the Hamilton City Branch, while the 25.2-mile “southern section” between Harrington to Colusa became the Colusa Branch.

Business was still good on the Colusa Branch into the mid-seventies. The grain elevator at Colusa was bringing in unit grain trains for unloading. In the early 1980s the Colusa Branch was used to store a wide variety of railroad cars during slow periods of business. On June 7, 1984 this author watched two SP GP9E diesels remove freight cars in long term storage - including empty auto carrier cars - between Graino and Harrington. It was a bit odd to watch autoracks moving over the Colusa Branch. Scroll down to see 1984 Tony Johnson photo below.

In 1985, the 25.2-mile Colusa Branch was abandoned, except for about a 1/4-mile spur to an irrigation pipe company. The last SP train to run on the Colusa branch was on March 7, 1985.  Scroll down to see 1985 Tony Johnson photo below.

What’s Left Today:  Other than the quarter-mile of track on the southern end at Harrington, the 11 miles of track between Wyo and Hamilton City (Hamilton Branch) is all that’s left of the 72.1-mile Colusa Branch. For a number of years the Hamilton Branch barely saw any freight traffic. Then around 1990, for the first time in approximately 35 years, Holly Sugar turned to receiving sugar beets in unit beet trains for processing at their Hamilton City plant. It was quite a thrill seeing beets arriving from Oregon and Washington in those ancient wooden ex-SP beet racks. It had been so many years of not receiving sugar beets by train, that for a while during that first year, Holly Sugar had to learn to unload beet cars all over again.

To handle the increased rail traffic, Holly brought in their unnumbered ex-SP Alco Model S-6 switcher (ex-SP1273) to shove beet cars up the unloading ramp. The Alco would take cuts of only two cars at a time to the unloader because that’s all the cars the unloader could handle at one time. A small 25-ton GE locomotive (ex-USN, built August, 1944) would be at the other end to bring the empty cars down the unloader, while the Alco was picking up more loads.

One of the more interesting sugar beet train operations SP tried a few times during 1991 was Push-Pull beet trains. Well, sort of.

The West Valley Local and the unit beet train would arrive at Wyo as one long train. The local, with two GP40-2 diesel locomotives would back its train into the siding (additional beet cars were also shoved in if the plant trackage couldn’t hold them). The beet train power (another set of GP40-2s, which had been coupled to the last car of the local) would bring the beet train past the one remaining switch at Wyo. (One leg of the wye at Wyo was removed in the 1980s - maybe Wyo should be called “Leg-O”).

After the last beet car cleared the switch the power off the local would cut from its train in the siding and couple onto the rear of the beet train. Then the train would reverse direction and run east (timetable west) to Hamilton City with two GP40-2s on the point and two more GP40-2s on the rear. It looked like someone thought rear helpers were needed to help shove the train up the maximum 0.3% grade. It was a strange sight indeed.

Now here’s the reason behind the unusual power arrangement.

The four diesel units (and two crews) would, in theory, cut down the time needed to switch the plant. Once the train pulled inside the sugar refinery, the two lead units would pull and switch the loads to their proper storage tracks while the rear two units cut off and gather the empty beet racks for return to Dunsmuir. The returning empty train to Wyo looked the same as the loaded train - two units on each end.

At Wyo the train pulled onto the West Valley Main. The rear two units were now on the head end of the empty beet train to Dunsmuir. The other two units cut off the train, waited for the beet train to depart and then returned to the West Valley Local’s cars parked in the siding. The West Valley Local then departed south (west) to do its job. Simple, huh?

Today the Hamilton City Branch and the West Valley Line are operated by the California Northern Railroad (CFNR). In late August 1999 Holly Sugar sent a batch of approximately 60 beet hoppers to the Hamilton City plant for repairs and addition of wire screen extensions around the top of the beet hoppers to increase capacity. Holly’s Alco S6 was reactivated to help switch the cars inside the plant. Soon thereafter, Holly Sugar closed the Hamilton City plant in favor of using other plants in California. The Alco S6 switcher was expected to be transferred to Holly Sugar’s operation at Woodland CA, but the Simplot Company began leasing the old sugar refinery as a place to store and ship bulk fertilizers. The 25-ton GE was transferred by flatcar to a Holly Sugar plant in Michigan.

Searching For Fossils: Even today, one can still find traces of all three railroads that once radiated out of Colusa. Between Harrington and Hamilton City the abandoned right-of-way is nearly impossible to find, but the right-of-way can be found in many areas between Colusa and Harrington. As you enter Colusa from the west on Highway 20, just before reaching the county fairgrounds you will cross the old right of way. A decade after the rails were removed this old railroad right-of-way still served Colusa, albeit in a different way. In early March 1995 heavy rains hit northern California and Highway 20 and the surrounding land between Williams and Colusa was under water. The old Colusa Branch grade acted like a dike and prevented the town of Colusa from being inundated.

The Sacramento Northern line between Yuba City and Colusa was abandoned in 1940.  The old right-of-way is visible only between Tarke and Yuba City. 

It may be hard to believe but there are traces of the old Colusa & Lake Railroad around today. The right-of-way is gone between Colusa and Colusa Junction, but traces of it can be found at the slate quarry near Sites and up the little creek on into the town of Sites.

Probably the biggest surprise is the Colusa & Lake roundhouse in Colusa - still standing until unceremoniously torn down in 2009. Highway 20 between Williams and Yuba City makes a square "U-turn" in the town of Colusa. After Highway 20 turns and goes down 10th Street, one block to the north on 11th Street, partially hidden behind another building, was the four-stall roundhouse. It’s a miracle it survived until just a couple of years ago, since the railroad was abandoned way back in 1915. (Scroll down to see photo blow).

Colusa Branch Memories:  One day I spoke with Pete Panos. Panos recalled, “I did not ‘connect’ with the Colusa until 1977, and by that time it was one-day-a-week line on life-support.

“It had three customers: One regular in the Pirelli Cable Co., which received loads of plastics pellets for cable insulation, and through 1981, shipped out an occasional gondola car or two of spooled cable. One semi-regular customer called the Sacramento Valley Warehouse at Grimes (mid-point), which would receive a car of bulk commodity now and then; and one rare customer called Zumwalt in Colusa, a farm equipment seller which would receive a carload of farm equipment a couple of times a year. I could count Northern Truck, which received irrigation pipe, but they came online shortly before the branch was abandoned and was just a short walk from Harrington and is still served by the California Northern Railroad.

 “The branch was handled by the Woodland Local. Standard operation procedure for the local was to serve Woodland proper, and then head up the West Valley as far as Maxwell (about 56 miles north of Woodland), serving what few remaining customers were off the main. The schedule would be slightly altered on Thursdays so the crew had enough time to shuffle down the Colusa Branch, which was the only day it traveled the branch.

“By 1981 the branch definitely seemed on borrowed time, but a bright light of hope appeared when the Sacramento Valley Warehouse (SVW) received a contract to process over 370 cars of safflower into oil. Since the facility could only off-load 3-4 cars a day, the SP ran up the branch everyday except Sunday for almost three months.

“SVW was ready to do it again the following year, but the SP wanted to rid itself of the branch so a $1200 surcharge was dropped on it in ‘82. SVW said no, and it was back to Thursday’s only and less than 3 years to abandonment (March ‘85). Pirelli stuck it out but finally caved in to the SP and that was it. The line was pulled up in 1986 and the lone depot on the line at Grimes was totaled a little over a year later.”

(Scroll down for historic photos of the SP Colusa Depot below)


The Southern Pacific Depot in Colusa, circa 1930.  Note the train order semaphore peeking above the roofline of the freight room.  Also note the vintage freight car spotted at the platform, the vintage brake wheel visible at the station end of the car.
Above:Circa 1930 view of the SP Depot in Colusa.  Offices and waiting room on the first floor, freight room in the single story portion on the right, and station agent's living quarters in the second story portion (hence the two chimneys).  Below: Another view, we think looking south in the early morning sunlight.  Circa 1920-1930, note the old car in the foreground with curtains and sausages hanging in the windows!

Above: Map of the Colusa & Lake Railroad facilities in downtown Colusa
Below: Incredibly, the Colusa & Lake RR Roundhouse remained standing until its demise in 2009!
Above:  Looking south from Lurline Avenue in 1984, then current end of track in Colusa - photo by Tony Johnson.  The SP Colusa Depot was located just beyond the grain elevator on the left and to the left (east) of the main track, torn down in 1961. Reading Oil Company is to the right (west) in this photo. 

Below: Looking north in Grimes in 1985 after the Colusa Branch had been abandoned, dismantling had already begun - photo by Tony Johnson.
COLUSA SUGAR BEETS ANECDOTE:  Colusa native Dean Berry remembers the old Southern Pacific Colusa Depot well, spending time there as a kid.  He says that sugar beets were a major area crop back in the day, and there was even a load out on the railroad here where the local crop was loaded into railcars.  After loading, the cars went directly to one of the sugar beet processing facilities at either end of the Colusa Branch, the big Holly Sugar refinery in Hamilton City to the north, or the big Spreckels Sugar refinery near Woodland to the south.  Today, both Holly and Spreckels are closed and there are no sugar beets being grown in the area. 
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