Blauert: Yosemite Valley Railroad 'glory days' revisited

November 27, 2012 

From 1907 to 1945, the Yosemite Valley Railroad carried Yosemite visitors from Merced to El Portal. When the operation ceased, the rails were scrapped, the locomotives and cars were sold, and the railroad faded into memory.

Between Briceburg (12 miles east of Mariposa) and El Portal, Highway 140 parallels the old Yosemite Valley Railroad grade. Although many sections have been damaged and the bridges mostly are gone, it still is possible to see where the tracks ran on the opposite bank of the river from the highway. If you cross a narrow suspension bridge at Briceburg, you can drive a 5-mile section of the old railroad grade along the river to three campgrounds operated by the Bureau of Land Management. From the end of the road at the Railroad Flat Campground, you can hike the old railroad grade to the point where the North Fork of the Merced River joins the main river. When you reach the North Fork, you can follow it for a short distance to a series of beautiful cascades. It's an easy, 3- to 4-mile round-trip hike.

The best-known remnants of the line are located at El Portal. If you turn off of Highway 140 at Foresta Road, you'll find an old railroad depot, a turntable, and a caboose that all were part of the operation. A Shay locomotive from the railroad that was used to construct the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir also is on display.

In the early 1900s, the most luxurious way to travel to Yosemite was in the Yosemite Valley Railroad's mahogany-

paneled observation car, the 330. A large, covered platform provided the best seats for sight-seeing. Presidents, movie stars, and visiting royalty traveled in it. After the railroad closed, the 330 was moved to Yreka, where it was transformed into a diner. Eventually, the car ended up abandoned in the city's corporation yard.

Railfan Wes Swift heard about the car in 1995 and decided to restore it, despite its terrible condition. The 330 was loaded on a truck and moved to the San Jose area. Seventeen years and many, many volunteer hours later, the restoration is nearing completion. Structural repairs have been completed, the exterior has been returned to its 1907 appearance, and the inside is awaiting donations of expensive mahogany. The story of the restoration is chronicled at

history.html. If you're interested in being part of the project, extra hands always are welcome. To learn about the history of the railroad in general, pick up a copy of Jack Burgess' carefully researched Trains to Yosemite.

Today, work continues on the interior of the 330 at the Niles Canyon Railway in the San Jose area. The Niles Canyon Railway is run by the Pacific Locomotive Association -- a nonprofit organization that restores and operates historic trains in a scenic canyon in the San Jose area. The trains run on many weekends throughout the year. You can hop on at either the Sunol Depot or the Niles Depot in Fremont for a 25 minute ride. Visitors from the Central Valley usually find it easiest to ride from Sunol to Niles and return after enjoying a lunch in the Niles Historic District. Multiple departure and return times each day allow flexibility. It's a fun way to enjoy history and the outdoors.

The Pacific Locomotive Association operates a festive "Train of Lights" on evenings between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. Regular excursions will begin again in January. Check the Web site ( or call (925) 862-9063 for current schedules, directions, and maps. Depending on the weekend, the train may be pulled by a steam or diesel engine. When the restoration of the 330 is completed, it will sometimes be included on regular excursions.

I've had a long-standing interest in the YV because my great-grandfather Robert Dalziel worked for the railroad as a carpenter and brakeman. His daughters -- my grandmother Gwen Phares and great-aunt Geri Buchan -- have fond memories of riding to Yosemite in the 1930s on the back deck of the 330. After hearing about the restoration project, we drove up to Sunol last summer when the 330 was part of a special railfan outing.

Eighty years after their first trip on the 330, Grandma and Aunt Geri joined the rest of the family for a fun "reunion trip" in Niles Canyon. The 330 is a beautiful success story -- a few dedicated volunteers have helped to bring the "glory days" of railroading back to life.

An historic railroad ride can be a great outing for any age or ability level in any season. You can board the Niles Canyon Railway's trains by climbing a few short steps. Wheelchair access also is provided.

Adam Blauert can be reached at

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