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  • Out-n-About - The Feather River Canyon, California, USA
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    Out-n-About - The Feather River Canyon, California, USA

    Author: John Oxlade, Salfords, Surrey, United Kingdom (email: ) 

    Click on image to view a larger version

    UP SD-60M number 6207 leads a C41-8W #9542 and SD-60M #6332 on a double-stack container through the tunnel on the lower level of the Williams Loop, in the Feather River Canyon.

    On 1st November 1909, the last transcontinental railroad to be built in the United States was completed when a golden spike was driven on the Spanish Creek trestle at Keddie in Northern California. So was born the Western Pacific.

    The Western Pacific, the idea of Arthur W. Keddie, ran from its connection with the D&RG at Salt Lake City in Utah through Nevada and Northern California to terminate on the shores of San Francisco Bay at Oakland. Absorbed in to the Union Pacific along with the Missouri Pacific in 1982, the Western Pacific has left many indelible features stamped on the railroad maps of North America. In addition, many freight cars are still to be seen wearing either complete Western Pacific livery, or in Union Pacific livery, but still with "WP" reporting marks (this apparently has something to do with accountancy purposes).

    The Western Pacific was built with the intention of not exceeding a gradient of one per cent. By using a route surveyed through the Feather River Canyon, Arthur Keddie managed to maintain this grade, and in so doing did not exceed 4000 feet altitude in his crossing of the Sierras. The Central Pacific (later Souther Pacific) running 45 miles to the south, reaches to over 7000 feet in its crossing over Donner Pass. Although the lower altitude on the WP route means it is not plagued by Donner's heavy snowfalls, the canyon does suffer from heavy rains, and frequent rock slides.

    Arguably the most interesting portion of the former Western Pacific is the Feather River Canyon, now the Union Pacific's Canyon Subdivision between Oroville and Portola. This section of line is 116 miles in length, although the actual "canyon" portion petween Pulga and Keddie is only approx. 42 miles. This section of line includes the famous "Keddie Wye" bridge (officially the Spanish Creek Trestle) and "Williams Loop".

    Click on image to view a larger version

    Further on (actually out of the canyon itself), the same train is seen having just passed over the Clio Trestle, heading towards Portola and then (ultimately) Salt Lake City.

    Leaving Oroville heading timetable west, trains almost immediately take up the route of the "Oroville Line Relocation". Completed in 1962, this was built to divert the Western Pacific around a new dam built just down stream of where the Middle and North Forks of the Feather River joined. This dam flooded the original right of way requiring the building of 5 new tunnels and the impressive North Fork Bridge near Poe. With a central span of 308 feet and a total length of 943 feet (including approach spans etc.), the North Fork Bridge is the longest reinforced concrete railroad bridge in America. This is one of the features of the canyon that is not easily accessible from the road. For most of the journey from Oroville to Portola, California Highway 70 runs along the opposite side of the canyon to the railway. In general this makes photography relatively easy, although it should be noted that being in a canyon, the sun is only in ideal positions to light the track for short periods of time.

    At Pulga, the first of many interesting pieces of engineering is the twin crossing of the North Fork river. The railroad is low in the gorge and swaps from the east to west banks via three through girder bridges. The highway is much higher and crosses west to east via a high single arch steel bridge hundreds of feet above the railroad. The highway dept. created a pull-off from the road above (i.e. south) of the bridges. The pull-off was almost certainly not intended for railfans, but is in an ideal location to see and photograph trains. 

    Click on image to view a larger version

    Only a few miles West of Portola, four BN SD 40-2s cross Clio-Trestle, the highest brigde in the entire UP system. The train will leave UP-territory at Keddie and continue its journey on the "High Line", which is now owned by BNSF.

    Proceeding through the canyon, there are several opportunities to set up and take photographs of trains. Trains running along by dams, trains on high rock shelves, trains on trestles. Caution: In general Highway 70 is only single lane (each way) and there are not a huge number of places to pull off the road, and the winding nature of the canyon makes it dangerous to just stop. Be aware that other road users might not appreciate that you are just stopping to take a photograph.

    Following through the canyon, you eventually come to the famous Keddie Wye. When the Golden Spike was driven in 1909, Keddie wasn't actually a "Wye". The Northern California Extension (or Highline) to Bieber wasn't completed until 1th November 1931. Before that, the Spanish Creek Trestle (to give it it's correct name) was simply a curved bridge. In 1931, the northern leg was added making the famous "wye" bridge. Note for non-Americans: When the spur along the third side of the bridge was completed, this created a triangle. The Americans call a triangle a "wye", the British would call a triangle a triangle. Whatever, there is track on all three sides.

    Photographing the Keddie Wye can be a real pain. Due to its geographic location, sunlight only falls on it for a few hours in the early afternoon. With the relatively low traffic density on the line, this can make getting good photographs here very difficult. Once again, the highway dept. has provided a pull-off, but this time I think it was provided for railfans. The viewpoint is on a blind corner in the road so be careful when crossing to set up your camera on the narrow shelf beyond the crash barrier. Actually, if you drive past from east to west you may not notice it all (I didn't the first time) as the railway is a lot lower than the road. Going the other way it is obvious.

    Click on image for a larger version

    UP 9488 and CNW 6811 are snaking trough the curves East of Portola.

    After Keddie, the road leaves the railroad for a few miles and it's not until you reach the Williams Loop that the road parallels the tracks again. Just to make life interesting (if you have been following a train through the canyon), the track next to the road is the "other" side of the loop, so a train on it is actually going "the other way" through the canyon than you think. If you see a train going past you in the opposite direction, wait a while, it'll carry on round the loop and be going the same way as you in a moment. The loop is almost exactly 1 mile in circumference, so it is not unusual for trains to pass over themselves at the bridge. There is a small access road down to the loop, but I wouldn't recommend taking a normal "street car" down to the bottom. Go 50 metres/yards down the road, leave the car and walk the remainder.

    There are several locations between Williams Loop and Portola, so take the opportunity to get out of your car and have a scout around. However, the last few miles in to Portola is a little flat, and compared to the canyon itself, rather mundane.

    At Portola you'll find the Feather River Rail Society and the Portola Railroad Museum. Portola is a shadow of it's former (railway self), but the FRRS is preserving as much of the railroad heritage of the area as possible. The musuem is a "must see" and is one of the few that actively encourages people to explore - you are even allowed to climb in to the cabs of locomotives.

    Click on image for a larger version

    CNW 8730, UP 6250 and UP 3764 are seen at Beckworth Pass and will soon arrive in Portola, 17 miles down the Sierra Valley.

    After Portola, the railway runs straight and flat across the Sierra Valley to Beckworth and Chilcoot Tunnel. After this it is heading out in to the desert and towards Nevada.

    General hints for railfanning the Feather River Canyon:

    • Judging the canyon by European standards for train frequency is not fair... The canyon is quiet. Visits in 1997 and 1999 yielded about 20+ trains in a 24 hour period, and many of these at night. In 1999, I followed one train which took 5 hours to get from Williams Loop to Pulga.
    • Stock up on patience (you may be waiting a long time), water and snacks. There aren't many places in the canyon to get food - except perhaps Quincy.
    • Remember Highway 70 is a "main" road. Don't just stop to take pictures without pulling off the road unless you want a highway truck up your tail-pipe.
    • Take a folding stool like they sell to campers, you may be in for a long wait.

    If all this sounds pessimistic it's not meant to be. The canyon is lovely and well worth the effort, just don't expect to do a comprehensive photographic study of it in one day.

    Some photographs courtesy of Robert Brütting of and used with permission.

    [ last updated 31st Dec 2003 ]