Oroville Line Change

Image of Oroville line relocation
This 1962 map shows the planned line relocation.
Railway Age 1962.

The California State Water Plan published in 1957, proposed immediate construction of a project on the Feather River. The Feather River Project thus marked the inauguration of the California State Water Project, strongly supported by future California Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown who realized the seriousness of California's water situation. Unlike the federally controlled Central Valley Project, which only compelled repayment for its irrigation projects, the State Water Project required water users to pay all project costs for the $1.75 billion in bonds.

On February 4, 1957, Governor Goodwin J. Knight signed a preliminary $25,190,000 appropriation bill to relocate Western Pacific’s main line between Oroville and Intake, and U. S. Highway 40-A (State Route 70) between Oroville and Jarbo Gap, the first step before construction of the then proposed project.

The relocated portion of the railroad is about 23 miles in length, about four miles shorter than the old line. By coincidence, the five new tunnels are numbered the same as the five tunnels that then existed on the old main line, which was inundated by 3,500,000 acre-feet of water formed by the dam.

When built five and one-half miles upstream from Oroville, the dam towers 770 feet above the streambed, taller than Hoover dam. The dam as designed required 14 million cubic yards of concrete, stores three and one-half million acre-feet of water, and has a power plant with a capacity of 645 megawatts.

Construction of the project was designed to provide needed supplemental water, primarily for irrigation as far south as Los Angeles and San Diego, power and flood control by harnessing the turbulent waters of the Feather River, located in Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, and Sierra counties.

With legal arrangements nearly complete with the State of California for exchanging the present Western Pacific line from Oroville to Intake for the new main line to be built around the future Oroville Dam the observation platform on the rear car of a Western Pacific special train served as the speaker’s platform for Governor Goodwin J. Knight on June 1, 1957 when he officially broke ground for the new Oroville dam site.

Image of groundbreaking ceremony starting Oroville Dam construction
Oroville Dam groundbreaking ceremony.
Mileposts. 1957

The Oroville-bound special left Stockton with 14 cars from Southern California filled with dignitaries and a 79-piece band from Lancaster High School, and another 7 cars, which picked up political, state and other officials at Stockton and Sacramento. Among the latter were Governor and Mrs. Knight, a large contingent of legislators and their wives, and other invited guests. Prominent Oroville people boarded the train when it arrived in Oroville.

The groundbreaking ceremonies consisted of a short talk by the governor. A wide, white chalk line, which began at the top of one canyon wall, crossed down over Highway 24 (US 40-A), the Feather River, then up over WP’s present main line to the top of the other canyon wall. This enabled all who attended the ceremonies to visualize the location and the immensity of the dam, five and one-half miles upstream from Oroville.

The special passed over a portion of the 27 miles which would eventually be inundated after the dam was completed. The special train then returned to Oroville where the Oroville Chamber of Commerce sponsored a parade and outdoor barbecue.

Specifications established for the new line called for a maximum grade of 1% compensated, and a maximum curvature of four degrees 30 minutes. To hold to these requirements it was necessary to resort to a number of tunnels and high bridges, plus deep cuts, high fills and several meandering curves of the "kidney" variety. As might be expected on a railroad construction project in such rugged country, extremely heavy grading was required at some locations. An idea of the magnitude of the grading is given by the fact that there are fills ranging up to 265 feet in height and cuts having a maximum depth of 218 feet at the centerline. Excavation totaled about 6,300,000 cubic yards, most of it in rock.

There are five tunnels on the relocated line, numbered from four to eight. These range in length from 2,750 feet (No. 4) to 8,830 feet (No. 8). All are concrete lined.

All the tunnels are concentrated in the northerly portion of the line where it makes several crossings with tributaries of the Feather River. This portion of the line presents a succession of tunnels and bridges coming so close together that, in some instances, tunnel portals and abutments of adjacent bridges are only a few feet apart.

The first of four bridges crosses the Feather River a short distance beyond the point where the new line leaves WP’s existing line just beyond Oroville. Here the Feather River Bridge crosses an after bay in which the water will be up to 110 feet deep. The crossing of this bridge is skewed about 30 degrees with the river. The structure consists of a series of 100-ft ballast floor deck plate girder spans with the main span being 128 feet long. Total length of the bridge is 1,108 feet, all on a 3-degree curve. To avoid skewing the superstructure, the spans are carried on single-cylinder concrete piers with "T" heads to support the girders. These circular piers were considered the most advantageous in countering the effect of seismic forces in water. There was a possibility that a second track would be required at this location in the future. Therefore, a second cylindrical shaft was built at each pier location and carried above the future pool level. Both shafts at each location have a common foundation.

For a few years, Vista-Dome passengers were able to see from this bridge to the right an engineering project of the old mining days. It is the “Old Chinese Wall,” a source of local legends, built by a mining enterprise to divert the river back in the 1890’s. The old wall will be covered by water upon completion of the Thermalito Diversion Dam, a part of the Feather River Project.

Image of GP40-2 3559 exiting West Branch Bridge westbound.
Nearly brand new GP40-2 3559 exiting the West Branch bridge westbound towards Oroville, California in July 1980.
Frank Brehm Collection

The West Branch Bridge farther north carries the relocated line and a highway across the Feather River’s west branch on separate levels. State Route 70, one of the major highway routes through the Sierra Nevada, occupies the upper level. This cantilever bridge spans the canyon about 400 feet above the streambed, although the future water line will be only about 40 feet below the railroad track on the lower deck. The $9 million structure has a main span of about 575 feet, anchor spans 432 feet in length, and a 360-foot simple span at the south end.

Dark Canyon Bridge, between Tunnels 7 and 8, is a 65-foot long filled spandrel reinforced concrete arch span, the shortest of the four bridges.

The most picturesque of the four bridges is located at the extreme northerly end of the new line, spanning the North Fork of the Feather River at Intake. Here the line emerges from the north portal of Tunnel 8 and passes almost immediately onto the North Fork Bridge. After crossing this bridge eastbound, and before approaching the bridge westbound, passengers will have a fine view of this artistic structure as the train rounds a long curve. The location is rather difficult to get to by other means of transportation. The structure is an open-spandrel reinforced concrete arch with a main span of 308 feet in length. Total length of the bridge, including approach spans, is nearly 1,000 feet. It is believed to be the longest railroad reinforced concrete arch structure in the United States. Height from base of rail to the river bottom is about 200 feet.

Preparatory work was already being done by the Department of Highways for the relocation of U. S. Highway 40-A (State Route 70) between Oroville and Jarbo Gap.

Access work had been completed by mid 1957 for driving the 4,412-foot Tunnel 4 and the 8,830-foot Tunnel 5. Both tunnels were driven each way from Dark Canyon. As the tunnels were being dug, it was necessary to create a means of access across the canyon from one portal of a tunnel to the other. A temporary 16-foot culvert encased the stream of water flowing through the canyon, and was in use for at least two years.

A concrete arch bridge ultimately spanned the canyon between the two tunnels, the culvert removed, and the stream flows normally below the span. Tunnel driving began in September 1957 with three shifts working around the clock on the project, being done by Peter Kiewit Sons’ Co.

Except for laying rail and completing communication lines, the relocation of the main line because of the dam, was nearing its final stages of completion in June 1962.

Elevation along the new line is about 200 feet at its beginning near Oroville, and nearly 1,100 feet at Intake. The new line is about four miles shorter than the portion of the railroad’s existing line, which will be inundated upon completion of the Oroville Dam.

Western Pacific freight and passenger trains began operation over the 23-mile stretch of new main line on October 22, 1962. Completion of the $45 million State of California financed project brought to a close, in the words of Frank W. Woolford, WP's chief engineer, "some 12 years of locating, surveying, planning and construction, including three years of negotiating for a fair and reasonable agreement."

Known as the Oroville line change, the new single-track railroad replaced about 27 miles of main line, which had been in use by the railroad since its construction in the early 1900’s. The project was one of the largest of its kind in years and the first of any major size on the Western Pacific since construction of the railroad. That section of the former main line through the lower region of the Feather River Canyon was inundated by water impounded by the Oroville Dam.

The new line departs from the former main line a few hundred yards north of WP’s passenger station in Oroville, near Milepost 205, which is some five miles downstream from the Oroville dam site. It then negotiates a wide swing to the west around Table Mountain before again turning north and eventually rejoining the existing main line along the North Fork of the Feather River at Intake, about Milepost 232. The territory traversed is mountainous and sparsely populated and is cut by several streams flowing in deep valleys.

During the first few miles beyond Oroville, as the train sweeps around Table Mountain, there are several locations where passengers on the CZ had a sweeping panorama of the Sacramento valley, which stretches out for miles south of Oroville. As the new line passes through ranch country it crosses over a 33-inch siphon carrying water from the Miocene Canal to the California Water Service reservoir on the left of the tracks. At one point in the rolling hill country could be seen the Berkeley Olive Association grove, one of the largest and most productive olive groves in Northern California.

There are three long sidings—Elsey, James and Kramm the first of which, Kramm, is 7,047 feet in length, and named for A. A. “Gus” Kramm, retired assistant engineer. Kramm was the railroad’s first resident engineer in charge of the new line relocation project. When it was first proposed to locate the Oroville Dam further upstream from its present site, Thomas L. Phillips, shortly after he became the railroad’s chief engineer, had “Gus” run a stadia survey in the early 1940’s over approximately the same route of the existing relocation. “Gus” had, at one time or another done engineering work on just about every mile of the railroad.

The second siding, 7,147 feet in length, is named Elsey, in honor of the late Charles Elsey, who retired as president of the railroad in December 1948.

James, the longest of the three sidings, 7,277 feet in length, was named for Arthur Curtiss James who had much to do with the early construction of the railroad, probably the last of the great railroad financial giants who added control of the Western Pacific to his other large railroad holdings in 1926. James died in 1941.

The Oroville dam is not visible from anywhere on the railroad. However, after the dam was completed passengers on the California Zephyr had an unobstructed view of a large body of backwater as the train crossed the high and long West Branch Bridge.

State Route 70, which parallels the new railroad along a portion of the new route, offers motorists several vantage points for scenic panorama views and pictures. Photographers interested in train pictures have one excellent viewpoint at the Pentz overpass, and just a short distance away at the Cherokee overpass about 13 miles from Oroville. Here the railroad passes immediately below the highway, makes a sweep around a long “S” curve, passes through Tunnel 4 behind a hill, and then emerges around another long and graceful curve before again passing beneath the highway. Another excellent location for train pictures is at the West Branch Bridge where the railroad passes through a deep cut adjacent to the highway just before approaching the bridge. There are several other vantage points for photographers, although getting there requires considerable knowledge of access roads, a few of which are not recommended for travel by passenger automobiles.

Track laying was done with railroad forces, although the distribution of rails, ties and accessories was carried out under contract. For the most part the rail was laid in 78-ft lengths, but continuous welded rail will be laid across all bridges and through all tunnels. However, at the time the track was laid a butt-welding machine was not available, requiring that 39-ft relay rails be laid across the bridges and in the tunnels. The 39-ft rails were replaced with continuous welded rail not having any joints except insulated joints and the connection with the 78-ft rails. The jointed rail was then used as inside guardrails across and through these structures.

In preparation for the track laying a material yard was established near Oroville where necessary track materials except ballast were assembled for distribution. Ballast had been produced and stored nearby. Railroad personnel accomplished all loading, unloading and distribution of the material. The contractor provided the rubber-tired hauling equipment and the personnel for operating it. A 15-ton American crane with flanged wheel attachment unloaded both the rails and the ties, which were in bundles.

In distributing the track material, it was placed in designated block areas. As soon as all material distribution had been accomplished in a complete block, the railroad's forces moved in, began the construction of turnouts, and made other preparations for the track laying operation, which included placement of the ties on the roadbed.

Upon completion of the material distribution, the railroad's steel gang began working at the Oroville end and built the track out-of-face for the entire length of the line. At the head end of the track laying gang was the American truck crane, which, operating on the newly laid rails, picked up the 78-ft rails and laid them on the ties. Modern machines, including several different types of power spikers, as well as bolting machines, tie spacers and anchor applicators, performed follow-up operations.

About a week or 10 days after the beginning of the rail placement, ballast-unloading operations got under way, followed by a first and then a second tamping lift. Each lift involved a raise of 4 inches.

Machines employed in the surfacing operation included an RMC Jack Tamper, with an RMC electronic surfacing beam, a Jackson Track Maintainer, an RMC tie spacer and a Kershaw Track Liner, which was used in conjunction with a Nordberg Line Indicator. These machines, plus a crew consisting of a foreman, an assistant foreman, 5 equipment operators and 14 laborers, accomplished a mile of completely surfaced track per 8-hr day. On completion of the second lift, a Kershaw Ballast Regulator and a Kershaw track broom were used for initially dressing up and cleaning off the ballast section.

One point of interest, particularly to operating employees, concerned the change in mileage over the new and old lines between Oroville and Intake. Milepost sign 205 remained at the west end of the Oroville passenger station. Mileposts 206, 207, 208 and 209 presently along the old line eventually were covered by water. Since the new line is four miles shorter than the old line, the next milepost sign east of Milepost 205 on the new line became Milepost 210. It is located just east of the Feather River Bridge.

The relocation of the main line prior to the construction of the dam did not deprive California Zephyr passengers of the type of natural and rugged scenery that could then be seen. Although about four miles shorter in length, the new portion of the railroad between Oroville and Intake is just as spectacular as the lower portion of the Feather River Canyon.

When operations were transferred to the relocated line on Oct. 22 there still remained unsettled a dispute between the state of California and the Feather River Railway regarding the disposition of this line. The Feather River was a lumber-hauling line that connected with the WP at Land, Calif., about seven miles above Oroville. Until settlement of the dispute, which was in the hands of the ICC, the WP ran one train a day over the old line from the northerly end to Land.