The CPRR and the Feather River
Lynn asked the following and I thought I would share my answer with all (because it is a wonderful story).
"I have read that CP Huntington and Judah took a horseback ride up the Feather River. They may have been accompanied by others. The end result was that they felt it was too steep for a railroad and gave it no further thought. Then about 1900 the Western Pacific folks saw the potential of the North Fork of the Feather and history followed."
Judah "discovered" that the Dutch Flat-Donner Pass route was apparently practical for a railroad in late October 1860. Understand that all he was doing was comparing distance traveled by horse (with an odometer) and elevation (with a barometer). To do this rigorously one would build a fire and boil water every so often to determine the boiling temperature of water (which varies with elevation) to "calibrate" the elevation readings obtained with the barometer. Whether Judah did this very often on his two-day trip from Dutch Flat to the Summit is unknown. In any event, the initial "survey" was a fairly quick examination. However, it was enough (in light of the strong regional interest in developing a new route from tidewater to Virginia City. It was enough to induce Huntington, Stanford, and at least one of the Crockers into financing a team of surveyors (led by Judah) to conduct a more thorough survey—with transit and chain. This was accomplished during the spring and summer of 1861, following which Judah (in October)—and Huntington (in December)—went to Washington D.C. to see if they could get some federal money to build a railroad over that route.
In or about April 1862 Huntington returned to California. On 1 July 1862 Congress—with Lincoln’s signature—gave the CPRR the franchise to build the central portion of the Pacific Railroad. Judah arrived in California upon his return in mid August. On the 11th of August the Sacramento Union reprinted a note from the Mountain Messenger (of Quincy I believe) to the effect that the Feather River offered the best route over the Sierra. Oddly, the CPRR—over Hopkins’ signature—printed a notice in the Union of 22 August asking the public for information about a good route to run a railroad across the Sierra.
I think this is very interesting. It implies—if nothing else—a desire to make the best decision possible relative to route. But it also implies that some were having second thoughts about the Donner route. Between the time of Judah’s departure for Washington in October 1861 and Huntington’s departure two months later, Stanford, Huntington, and Charles Crocker had gone over to Carson City via Donner Pass. It was their first time there, and in Stanford’s testimony twenty years later, the visit was a shock. They had no idea just how rugged the country. It may well be that nothing was said (or done) at the time, pending action in Washington. But once that was accomplished, they really had to pick a route and start building a railroad.
In September 1862, soon upon the heels of Judah’s return from Washington and Hopkins’ query in the newspaper, the CPRR hired surveyor George Goddard to run up and “survey” Yuba pass (which leads between the Yuba River and Sierra Valley—on the upper middle fork of the Feather). At the same time, Judah and Huntington went to Sierra Valley (taken thence in a wagon by Congressman A.A. Sargent). I wonder just what Judah thought of all this. I think he may have been wounded that his “partners” would question “his” Donner route. Regardless, in Sierra Valley Huntington and Judah hired two local Chinese fellows to carry their gear and to cook, and the foursome commenced their examination of the Feather River to determine whether it had potential as a railroad route.
This must have been a very odd party. We can assume there was little communication between the two white guys and the Chinese. But we can only imagine what transpired between Huntington and Judah. By all accounts Huntington kept his nose to business and would rather sell liquor than drink it. One newspaper reporter described him as “the man who never laughs.” Judah on the other hand liked to drink, liked to buy people drinks, and also thought it was really funny to pass out exploding cigars. So, here we have a guy who “never laughs,” a guy who liked to pass out exploding cigars, and two Chinese with whom they could probably not carry on much of a conversation heading down the middle fork of the Feather River from Sierra Valley.
The middle fork of the Feather is still a remote and wild river. The trip took a full week. It was said later that they were the first to ever make that trip down the river. (I wonder if anyone has done it since.) In places the canyon was so narrow that they had to climb all the way up out of the canyon (apparently using rope ladders miners had used to reach the bottom) and then, after passing some obstruction, lower themselves back down into the canyon. In places the canyon is quite deep—Feather Falls (which drops into that canyon) is (if memory serves) the fourth highest falls in California. The whole experience must have been miserable—all that climbing up and down canyon walls, wadding down the river, scrambling over boulders (in black 19th century street clothes—and shoes—no doubt), probably infected with poison oak, and eating chop suey (or whatever). And IF, on top of everything else, Judah carried any pique that his route over Donner was being questioned, there might have been very little good feeling between the two by the time they reached Bidwell Bar and the stagecoach to Oroville. There is record of only one stagecoach ticket (in Judah’s journal) for travel between Oroville and Sacramento. I suspect Huntington and Judah traveled separately—perhaps with Judah taking the train to Marysville. In any event, Judah and Huntington were rarely together again—until the famous “blow up” the following July. Following the Feather River trip of September 1862 Judah remained in San Francisco until Huntington went east, and only then did Judah go to Sacramento to begin surveying on the grade—toward Donner. Quite correctly, Huntington and Judah concluded that the route they had explored was unsuitable for a railroad.
Now, the really ironic thing about this whole Feather River exploration is that Huntington and Judah went down THE WRONG RIVER!!! They went down the middle fork of the Feather—which drains Sierra Valley. The route Judah’s former partner William S. Stuart had examined in 1859, and which was subsequently used by the Western Pacific, was the north fork of the Feather. Arthur Keddie’s WP route runs up the north fork, and then jumps over to the middle fork at Spring Garden. I do not know just when that little gap between the north and the middle forks was discovered. It would also be very interesting to know just when Huntington learned of their “mistake.” Long before the CP connected with the UP in Utah, the Oroville and Virginia City was being promoted to use the Feather River route. Huntington’s nightmare was that the UP would not connect with the CP at all, but would run on to California and a connection with the California Pacific via the Feather River and the California Northern at Oroville. He must have rolled in his grave when the UP acquired the WP.
Now, having said all that, I think it unlikely that the CPRR would have used the Feather River route had they really known it. I am convinced that their primary objective was the Virginia City commerce, and the Donner route PROMISED to allow them to cut into that trade sooner than would a railroad built via the Feather. I think it was the wrong decision, but it was the only one they could have made. The men who built the CPRR knew no more about their future than we do ours. They made the best decisions they could based upon the best evidence they could gather.