The Sacramento Northern Railway was composed primarily of two predecessor systems the Northern Electric
Railway and the Oakland, Antioch & Eastern Railway. The former
line made up the SN's Northern Division while the latter its southern
routes around Oakland and San Francisco. The Northern Electric was incorporated in 1905 and soon afterwards, in 1906, purchased the Chico Electric
Railway, a small streetcar system serving the small town of Chico. The
NE was funded and promoted by H.A. Butters who quickly set about
building south towards Sacramento. Butters also constructed the
interurban via a third-rail system for power, somewhat uncommon as most
in the industry used a standard overhead wire for power pickup.
In late April, 1906 the Northern Electric reached Oroville and by
December that year it stretched to Marysville, about half-way to
Sacramento. Nearly a year later in early September, 1907 service was
established to the city. This would prove to be the extent of the
interurban's main line. However, soon after opening it began
constructing branches. In late October, 1907 the NE reached Hamilton
City (northwest of Chicag); July, 1912 saw service established to
Woodland via Sacramento; and by mid-June, 1913 a line was open to Colusa
via Yuba City. Overall, the Northern Electric operated about 93 miles of track, including its main line as well as branches.
The Southern Division of the SN was built originally by
the Oakland & Antioch Railway. This interurban was funded by San
Francisco businessmen and its name was soon changed to the Oakland,
Antioch & Eastern. The line started from near Oakland at Bay Point,
where a connection was achieved with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa
Fe Railway (the Santa Fe) and construction
progressed eastward. In 1910 the OA&E reached Walnut and a year
later was open to Lafayette. By early April, 1913 the interurban had
its main line open to Sacramento and a connection established with the
Northern Electric. Unlike the NE, however, the OA&E was built to typical interurban standards of overhead wires for its power supply.
The OA&E soon added branches to its system that reached Danville and Pittsburg. The OA&E was the hampered but a stiff main line given that it had to cross the Coast Range east of Oakland requiring grades of 3% as well as a 3,500 foot tunnel. The first Sacramento Northern Railroad was created in 1914 when the NE went into receivership. However, the OA&E itself also fell into bankruptcy six years later in 1920 and was renamed the San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad, better known as the Sacramento Short Line. In 1922 the Western Pacific Railroad decided to buy the SN, interested mostly for its potential freight volume around Sacramento. Five years later the WP also was interested in the Short Line not only for its freight benefits but also recognized that it may use the two interurbans as its new through main line to Oakland. While this never occurred, in 1928 the Sacramento Northern Railway was created as a holding company for the WP's new purchases (the lines were eventually merged into the new SN).
Under WP direction SN opened new
branches to Clarksburg and Oxford and was finally able to reach downtown
San Francisco in January, 1939 via the new Bay Bridge. At its peak,
the SN operated 183 miles of trackage. Interestingly, even under WP's
control the Northern and Southern Divisions never received a unified
power supply, each using their original third-rail and overhead systems.
Unfortunately, however, as early as 1924 lines were being shed due to
low passenger traffic or insufficient freight potential. First to go
was the Danville Branch in 1924 followed by the Vacaville Branch in
1926. The Pittsburg Branch was abandoned in 1941 and in 1957 the entire
main line west of Lafayette was shuttered after the WP built its own
route into Oakland. In terms of passenger service, even with the
heavily populated region served, the SN could not compete with the fast
growing highway system and the speedier routes offered by rival Southern
In 1944 and 1945, after the final passenger services were discontinued the SN gave up its third-rail electrified operations in favor of standard diesel locomotives. Interestingly, however, its overhead system (a combination of wiring and standard catenary) remained in use well into the 1960s before finally being removed by Western Pacific. From an operational standpoint the Sacramento Northern was equipped to run between 600 and 1,200 volts, direct current (DC). Despite the fact that the interurban was never a highly profitable system it was a very well maintained operation throughout both its independent years before WP ownership and afterwards. With the SN's heavy equipment and well maintained right-of-way it was one of the smoothest rides via an interurban anywhere in the United States with speeds above 70 mph.
Additionally, SN offered incredibly scenic views with glimpses
of the San Francisco Bay around Oakland as well as bucolic rolling
farmland north and south of Sacramento. And of course, there was the nearby Coast Range mountains. The Western Pacific continued
to operate portions of the SN throughout its independence until Union
Pacific purchase the railroad. Today, the UP still operates sections of
the original Sacramento Northern Railway while other pieces of the
system are used by commuter agency BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).
Finally, the Western Railway Museum owns a 22-mile section of the main
line between Rio Vista and Suisun City, part of which is again under
wire and used for excursion service.
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