The Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail provides recreationists incredible scenic views of northern California. Along the corridor you will see former timberlands, cross numerous bridges and tunnels, travel along the Susan River, and pass through the Susan River Canyon. For a corridor that is only a little more than 25 miles long, it offers plenty of diversity. Considering where the trail is located, it is probably not surprising that its railroading roots lay in the timber industry. The line was built as a subsidiary of the much larger Southern Pacific (SP) and named the Fernley & Lassen Railway (F&L). Running from extreme northwestern Nevada, the route forged through northeastern California to reach a massive sawmill operation. During the early 1930s, smaller competitor Western Pacific opened its famed “Inside Gateway,” which pulled much of the traffic away from the F&L route. Following years of slow decline, the branch was abandoned in the 1970s, creating the trail known today.
Today’s Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail is located along the western 25.4 miles of a branch that extended roughly 135 miles from the SP’s main line (the “Overland Route,” AKA the Salt Lake Division) at Fernley, Nevada, to Westwood, California. Officially, the Fernley & Lassen Railway was incorporated by the SP on October 16, 1909. Its immediate purpose was to reach the Red River Lumber Company’s large mill at Westwood, owned by Thomas Walker. However, the other goal was to act as a shortcut between SP’s Overland Route and its “Shasta Route,” which crossed the Cascade Range through Northern California and Oregon. Three more years passed before surveying began in 1912. Following several stops and starts of construction, the railroad was finally completed in 1914 to Westwood, where that same year Walker’s mill opened for business.
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With the owner’s hope that the corridor would one day be part of larger route, and the fact that Walker demanded such, the F&L was built to main line standards. This is significant because many logging railroads were designed and built to 3-foot, narrow-gauge protocols to keep construction costs down. For instance, the section between Susanville and Westwood featured a ruling grade of 2.2% for westbound movements and 1.5% heading eastbound. While stiff, these grades would be manageable on any mainline railroad. A few years after the F&L began operations, additional branch lines from Westwood were added between 1918 and 1934 by the Fruit Growers Supply Company and the Lassen Lumber & Box Company to reach their nearby timber holdings. The latter also built a mill at Susanville, roughly 23 miles northeast of Westwood, to serve its interests.
The financial success of the line always depended on the Red River Lumber Company’s Westwood mill, which was one of the largest ever constructed. It featured a box factory, lath mill, molding and siding department, sash and door factory, and veneer plant. However, other traffic also sustained the property during its early years from various types of agriculture (e.g., alfalfa, wheat, hay, sugar beets). Other freight included livestock, general merchandise, and mail and passengers. Additionally, the F&L interchanged traffic with the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway (NCO) at Wendel, a system that would stretch 238 miles from Lakeview, Oregon, to Reno, Nevada. (Ambitious plans had hoped it would reach the Columbia River although these never materialized.)
While the NCO was never directly related to the Fernley & Lassen’s operations, all of the system north of Wendel was eventually purchased by Southern Pacific on April 30, 1925. Coupled with the F&L line, the NCO property provided the SP with its planned inside connection to its Cascade Line and Shasta Route, both of which reached Portland. Additionally, the NCO and F&L lines together brought about the joint Southern Pacific/Union Pacific Ogden Gateway. This corridor funneled finished lumber products from Oregon over the SP’s Overland Route and to the UP at Ogden, Utah. To complete this connection, however, the SP was required to also build the Modoc Northern Railroad between Klamath Falls, Oregon, and a connection with the NCO at Alturas, California. The route was opened by autumn 1929, and unfortunately its advantages were short-lived. In 1931 the Western Pacific opened its 131-mile Inside Gateway between Keddie and Bieber, California, where it interchanged with the Great Northern and passed directly through Westwood. The WP’s more direct line pulled much of the lumber and local traffic away from the F&L, forcing it into a secondary status from which it never recovered, despite a surge during World War II. The line continued to transport some logs and finished lumber until 1952, when the Fruit Growers Supply Company ceased logging operations that year. It had acquired the Red River Lumber’s interests in 1944 as well as Lassen Lumber’s in 1950. Then in 1963, the company sold out altogether.
In 1966, the SP and UP canceled their Ogden Gateway agreement, resulting in little remaining need for the F&L line. Instead, the SP would route remaining lumber traffic over its more circuitous Shasta Route through California and across its Sunset Route into Texas and Louisiana. While a far longer routing, it resulted in higher profits for the railroad instead of the much shorter trips to Ogden (longer rail movements generally result in more income per carload). In 1978, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the SP’s request to abandon the entire Fernley & Lassen Railway. Thanks to the efforts of California congressman Harold “Bizz” Johnson, the section between Westwood and Susanville was spared for the recreational corridor today known as the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail.
If you are interested in checking out other nearby railroading history in the region, be sure to visit the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City and the world-famous (and rebuilt) Virginia & Truckee in Virginia City. Perhaps more than any other state, California is home to dozens of museums, train rides, and historical sites. Those nearest to the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail include the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum and Nevada County Traction Company in Nevada City, and the popular Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola.