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Sunday, January 07, 1996

Railroad brings Solano on track in 1860s

Kristin Delaplane

Advent of trains brings changes to communities

Information for this article came from the Vacaville Heritage Council and Vacaville Public Library.
First in a series
The advent of rail had a deep and lasting effect on Solano County. Hubs sprang up that had never before existed. The town of Dixon was created solely to take advantage of the railroad as was Elmira, both succeeding as central shipping locations for the wheat and fruit-growing districts.

In anticipation of the rail, Cordelia moved a mile so as to be centrally located next to the train station. Perhaps Vallejo prospered the most.

Located at the end of the line, this was the point where passengers transferred to take a steamer to San Francisco and freight was loaded onto ships. Wheat, a major crop of the day, was transferred onto ships bound for England. In addition, Vallejo became a center for rail maintenance. Even railway cars were built there.

Other towns saw their demise when they were bypassed by the tracks. Silveyville moved most of its structures to Dixon. Maine Prairie and its neighbor, Binghamton, which had enjoyed prosperity being located at a main shipping point, eventually withered and died when trains, rather than boats, hauled shipments. Rockville, which had enjoyed minor prominence as a stopover for the Pony Express and the stages, became but a sleepy village with the arrival of rail.

The California Pacific Railroad was organized in Vallejo by DeWitt Clinton Haskin, a major landowner, and other notables in the town.

In 1867, 350 men and 100 teams of horses began construction of the railroad bed that ran from Vallejo through Jameson Canyon to Suisun City. The tracks then spanned to Marysville and Sacramento. Finally, on an auspicious summer day - June 24, 1868 - excited sightseers in Vallejo clamored on board a five-car train and traveled the route to Suisun City.

By 1869, the tracks reached Woodland and Sacramento. It was advertised that travel time by boat and train from San Francisco to Sacramento now took only 3 1/2 hours. The first harvest of wheat was loaded on flat cars, and people flocked to the tracks all along the route to cheer the train and its crew.

In 1869, the golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, marking the junction of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies, making transcontinental rail service a reality. In 1871, Central Pacific bought out the California Pacific Railroad, and it was from that point on that the orchardists in Solano County would begin to realize their greatest profits and become nationally renown for their prized early fruits, as they could now ship their produce back East.

Central Pacific Railroad (later merging to become Southern Pacific) became most noted in this area for its line that was completed in 1879 and ran between Suisun City and Benicia. These became the most expensive tracks ever laid.

The rail bed was constructed on almost 11 miles of marsh and tule land between Goodyear and Suisun and was an engineer’s nightmare. The line was said to have been built on this route so as to accommodate the many duck clubs, as people came from all over to hunt in this area.

The following account of the famed “sink” was culled from Vallejo journalist-historian Ernie Wickle, now deceased.

With no solid ground to work with, fill was used. However, the fill did not always work, thus causing what became known as the “sink” condition - the rail bed would sink down and down. Workers would be seen one minute and be out of sight, down with the “sink” the next.

To solve the problem, piles were driven on top of piles. Literally, thousands of carloads of rock, millions of feet of lumber and 65,000 old railroad ties were poured into the sink. Up to about 1905, there was an average annual settlement to portions of this track of between 6 to 12 inches, and workers were called out to provide more fill as needed.

In 1905, the rail was shut down for three monthsas the roadbed was now 4 feet down. The quarry at the Benicia Arsenal and the gravel pits at Capay operated 24 hours a day just to keep up with the materials that were required. Then the day before the railroad was to restart, 1,000 feet of track went out at Spring Station. Another month was needed to fill this sink, a depth of 65 feet.

In all, about 1 million board feet of lumber was used for cribbing as sinks continued along the line. Then in the 1906 earthquake, one section dropped 12 feet. By now, engineers came up with the idea that the materials they had been using were too heavy, so they started using tufa and limestone for fill. By the end of 1907, it was recorded that some 19,500 carloads of tufa, 1,027 cars of gravel, 49 cars of lumber and 65,000 old railroad ties were used. Still the sink condition would not go away.

Late 1911 was memorable. A 2-foot drop occurred at Joyce Sing, and shortly afterwards 300 feet of track sunk 10 feet under water. Early in 1912, there were serious sinks at the Teal and Cygnus Station. Road gangs were rushed out and they raised the tracks 4 to 12 feet and still some were under water.

Once again the engineers put their heads together and decided that wooden cribbing or piling in other spots was the answer. Within a year, 2,200 feet of piling, 2,100 feet of wooden cribbings and 5,000 feet of fill was supplied. But now the tracks wouldn’t stay in a straight line, and some of the trestles moved with high and low tides. It was then that the engineers figured out that if the fills were constructed wider - 6 to 7 feet on either side of the ties - this would provide a better distribution of weight and prevent the mud, decayed tules and peat underneath the fill from oozing out and thus causing the sinks.

By now, Southern Pacific had taken over this line. In 1913, the company began the tedious work of removing the trestles and cribbing and widening the bed with new fill. Of course, during the course of this work, sinks were occurring along the line and the road gangs would have to stop their work to rush to the emergencies - instants when trains were suddenly running in water. By 1915, the job was completed. But the sink was not to be done in so easily. Gangs still had to maintain a stretch known as the “Suisun Sink.”

To this day, the marsh quivers the timbers at times. And watch the waterline!