Building the Sierra Pacific Railroad – Part 1

Growing up in the Sierra Foothills, history was everywhere, especially railroad history. My father worked for the Pickering Lumber Company in Standard, California, which only fueled my love for shortline railroads. I began to learn about all the railroads in the area as a kid. Today, all my work as a model builder tends to focus in and around that area.

Now there are two basic types of model builders; prototype and freelance. I have always admired prototype modelers and share some of the same passions they have. However, the artist in me enjoys taking liberties in my work. I have always loved the Sierra Railroad, the Hetch Hetchy, Pickering Lumber Co., The Empire City Railway, and the Central California Traction company. I also have a difficult time trying to stay focused on a single railroad to model, which is why I’d rather build freelanced models based on all of those railroads.

The Railroads History

To me, model railroading allows an artist to tell his or her story through three-dimensional work. History or a back-story of that model is important to tell as it helps set the stage for both the viewer and the model builder. That goes for both prototype and freelance models. 

My railroad, the Sierra Pacific Railroad, was formed by two lumber companies; Alpine Lumber Company and Sapp Brothers Forest Products. The two railroads needed a way to ship material to and from their operations since there were no other railroads in the area. The railroad would also service mines and timber operations in Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties. 

The railroad was headquartered in Angels Camp and formed in 1899. This location was perfect as it interchanged with the Sierra Railroad’s Angels Branch. After the Sierra Abandoned the branch in the 1930s, the Southern Pacific expanded its Kentucky House Branch to interchange with the railroad. 

The railroad purchased a small 4-4-0 rod engine, second-hand to pull trains. However, as the trains grew, the railroad would need larger locomotives to pull the longer, heavier trains up the mountain. In 1939, the railroad purchased a 2-8-2 tank engine from the Sugar Pine Railroad and a Pacific Coast Shay from the Feather River Railway in 1940.


The entire line stretches 54.2 miles as it winds through the hills from Copperopolis to Arnold, California. As mentioned, the Southern Pacific interchange is located in Angels Camp. All cars going in and out are spotted here and picked up by the SP.

Copperopolis had a large copper mine and smelter. The railroad served it in it’s later years. After the mine closed, the railroad served the asbestos plant. 

East of Angels Camp, there is a feed and tractor supply which the railroad services. Continuing up the mountain, the railroad serves an oil company and gravel company in Douglas Flat.

In Murphys, Alpine Lumber Company receives equipment, and lumber is picked up to be interchanged with the SP. A few miles east, the railroad continues to Sapp Brothers Forest Products located in Arnold. Again, any equipment needed is delivered, and lumber is picked up to be interchanged with the SP.


Now that I have the layout setting and customers defined, I can now begin planning the layout. My layout room is 12 feet by 12 feet and I will be focusing on the Angels Camp and the SP interchange for the layout. In the next installment, I will describe the track plan as well as discuss the layout construction.


  1. Shawn,

    I really like your railroads “back story” and concept for a freelanced version of prototype railroads .
    Looking forward to your progress!

    Mark Lewis
    Narrow gauge modeling in N.C.


  2. I lived in Placerville so I like the CP&LT. But I moved to Reedsport OR. so I follow the Coos Bay Rail Line. Both are lumber supply lines. So I need to figure out how to connect the 2 lines. And suggestions you might have would be appreciated.


    1. That’s quite a distance between them. A couple of ideas you could play with are moving one of the railroads closer to one another. Or, instead of a shortline, consider a regional railroad. Starting on paper and drawing out the plan and writing about the railroad will help quite a bit.


  3. Shawn this is a very attractive concept and is bit reminiscent of Camino Placerville and lake Tahoe.
    I look forward to seeing your track plan.


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