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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Susanville’s Railroad Era Part One

Construction on the railroad cut near Lassen Street in 1913

By Susan Couso

By 1890, the railroads were the height of progress and economic stability. Everyone wanted a railroad in their area.

The Gilded Age, with its rapid industrial growth, had created huge financial success for those savvy enough to invest in any aspect of the railroad’s broad influence.

In the 1880s, more than 70,000 miles of new track was laid.

The rail barons grew wealthier, towns flourished, and transportation and shipping became easier for most every area of the country. The railroads were critical to our nation’s infrastructure.

During the 1880s, Lassen County was thriving. Susanville, the county seat, was a lively and vigorous place, the center of business as well as government for the isolated county. Local citizens were eying a time when their town would be included in the commercial boom that followed the railroad.

Excitement prevailed when, in 1873, it seemed certain that the rails would turn north from Reno and connect Susanville to the world ‘below’.

In March of 1873, the Nevada State Legislature passed the Reno and Susanville Railroad bill, to try to get the terminus of this new rail project moved to Reno, thereby insuring business growth for the Reno area. Several other rail companies planned to expand lines northward towards the “great timber belt near Susanville”, but each proposal seemed to lack the support to ‘take root’.

By 1875, anticipation of a new rail connection to Susanville was high, but hopes were dashed as the Nevada, California, & Oregon (N.C.O.) railroad, on its proposed route from Reno to Oregon’s Columbia River, turned to the east side of Honey Lake.

It temporarily terminated at Amedee, on the north shore of the lake in 1890. Amedee boomed, but Susanville was still many miles from the line.

The narrow-gauge railway, three feet wide, was much cheaper to build and operate. By the 1890’s most of the nation had shifted to the standardized gauge of 4’ 8 ½”. This caused a problem as freight and passengers needed to be unloaded from the narrow-gauge to the standard-gauge to travel long distances.

In 1904, the Marysville & Susanville Railroad was incorporated, in a plan to build 270 miles of rail line from Marysville, through Susanville and on to the Nevada border, where it would connect with Western Pacific.

This venture was considered a ‘sure thing’, and the new Lassen High School, under construction, was anxiously awaiting the construction blocks to be delivered on the new railway.

In June of 1906, the Marysville & Susanville Railroad was sold to Western Pacific, and the plans to head through Susanville over Fredonyer Pass were discarded. Western Pacific headed south through Beckwourth Pass, and once again, Susanville was left alone.

Susanville’s leading ‘movers and shakers’ had been disappointed numerous times before. In 1905 they gathered with a new idea. They would build their own railroad! Local businessmen, ranchers, and lumbermen, including lumber baron, Thomas B. Walker, planned to construct a 40-mile-long broad-gauge line from Susanville to a point where it would connect with Western Pacific.

But again, the plans failed. Rumors continued to circulate, telling of ideas to connect Susanville with the rest of the world via the rails.

In 1908, the Fernley & Lassen Railway Company was incorporated. It was a branch of the Southern Pacific and had the full backing of some powerful people. This new line would run from Fernley, Nevada, and head northwest, skirting the west side of Pyramid Lake. It then converged with the Western Pacific line at Flannigan, crossed the N.C.O. at Amedee, and continued on through Susanville to Westwood.

There was great impetus behind this rail line. Thomas B. Walker, who spent millions of dollars acquiring timber land in the area, needed a way to get his lumber to market.

And Great Western Power had plans to dam the North Fork of the Feather River and its tributaries at the south end of Big Meadows, to create electrical power. The GWP Co. needed to transport 15,000 tons of material for dam construction alone. These two ‘Giants of Industry’ assured the Southern Pacific that their financial outlay would be paid back many times over.

Susanville still waited. There were plans to build a line to Doyle, to link with Western Pacific, and another to connect Susanville to the N.C.O. at Amedee. It was so confusing for the local populace that they never knew where their new rail connection would come from, but they had more hope than ever.

The Utah Construction Company began work on the Fernley & Lassen line with a flurry in June of 1912. By June 26th, Susanville citizens could stand on the hill above the railroad ‘cut’ and watch the work. It was an exciting time.

On Saturday, April 26, 1913, the tracklayers reached Susanville. They had completed 106 miles of track and had only 29 miles to go. With their first goal met, the workers headed for the saloons! But the work up the canyon to Westwood lay ahead.

At the Susanville Railroad Depot in 1915 ~photo from UNR Reno Special Collections~

In May of 1913, the S.P. set up a boxcar at Susanville, and had C. B. Morton established as the agent. The Fernley & Lassen Railroad was in business! Sporadic rail service began for both passengers and freight. In July, Red River Lumber sent their first shipment to Susanville using teamsters, then onto the train toward its destination in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Through years of rumors, failed attempts, false starts and undelivered hopes, the railroad had finally arrived. With it came a change of life for a small town not used to outside ways. But along with the vagrants and ruffians who arrived with the train, came commerce, opportunity and growth.

But times changed. Trucks and automobiles became commonplace. The last passenger train left Susanville on November 30, 1933, and the 1956 Interstate Highway Act ‘sealed the deal’ as it made the country even more accessible for trucking and passengers through a vast network of well-maintained roadways.

Next Week – Part two

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