The Sacramento River Trail provides a chance to enjoy the incredible scenery afforded along Northern California’s Sacramento River near Redding. The corridor’s history can be traced back to a subsidiary of the Central Pacific (CP), which helped build the Transcontinental Railroad and later became a part of the burgeoning Southern Pacific system. The trail was the original alignment of the SP’s “Shasta Route” that linked Portland, Oregon, to California. After the line was realigned in the mid-20th century to make way for the Shasta Dam, it fell into a secondary role as a branch until finally being abandoned in the early 1980s. This particular section of the main line saw considerable freight traffic during its early years related to the local mining industry around Iron Mountain, which first opened in the 1880s. Mining continued intermittently until most operations were shut down between 1960 and 1980 when the railroad was also abandoned.
The history of trains operating through the Sacramento River Canyon go back to the California & Oregon Railroad (C&O), which was originally chartered on June 30, 1865, as a route from Marysville, California, to Portland. The railroad eventually connected with the CP main line south of Marysville at a location known as Junction. Actual construction of the C&O did not begin until a few years after its chartering. On May 10, 1869, CP made its famous Transcontinental Railroad link with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah. On August 22, 1870, the company was acquired by the CP, which looked to use the route as its own to reach Portland. By 1872, it had reached Redding, a town named for the railroad’s own land agent B.B. Redding. Further construction north of Redding was on hold while additional sources of funding could be acquired and a decision could be made on how to best link up with the Oregon & California Railroad (O&C). The latter was building southward from Portland but had fallen into bankruptcy itself in 1872.
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Building of the C&O route finally began north of Redding in 1883, and within four years, the two railroads linked their lines at Ashland, Oregon, on December 17, 1887. Soon after, the Southern Pacific acquired the O&C; it had already formally leased the CP as of April 1, 1885. While a somewhat circuitous route with stiff grades, it not only gave SP a strategic line linking California with the Pacific Northwest, but also offered stunning scenery of the region. Mining interests around Iron Mountain near Redding took off, and the new line provided a transportation artery to efficiently transport goods and people in and out of the region. The area became noted for its high volume of copper, iron, zinc, and cadmium but also contained lesser amounts of silver, gold, and pyrite. As a result, numerous smelters and refineries popped up along the line between Redding and Shasta Lake in small towns such as Coram, Iron Mountain, Copper City, and Kennett. Mining operations began being cut back after World War I because contaminants were polluting the waters and lands, although operations continued to carry on after that time.
For the Southern Pacific itself, the Shasta Route was rerouted in a big way to make room for the Shasta Dam project. The dam would flood much of the original right-of-way north of Redding around Shasta Lake. The final train used the line through the Sacramento River Canyon on May 23, 1942. The new alignment was built to the east, which is still in use today. Subsequently, the old route between Redding and Shasta Dam, roughly 15 miles, was retained as a branch to continue serving the region’s remaining mining industry. These operations, however, and the remaining freight the Southern Pacific carried slowly dried up in the succeeding years.
Mining at Iron Mountain ended in 1963 as a result of the severe level of pollution it had caused over the decade. Sporadic and light rail service continued over the remaining branch until 1980 when all service was suspended. In 1983, the region was designated a federal Superfund site and the cleanup has been ongoing today. Also in 1983 the first section of the Sacramento River Trail opened to the public near Redding. Today, the trail stretches from the town to Keswick Dam where it links with the Sacramento River Rail Trail, which continues northward along the river to near Shasta Dam.
Railroad history California offers a wide variety of attractions not far from the trail, including the California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento RiverTrain, and Sacramento Southern Railroad in Sacramento; Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum in Nevada City; and the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola.