Truckee’s Logging Railroads


Richardson Brothers traction engine. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies 

By Nelson Van Gundy & Jerry Blackwill 

The forests of the Truckee-Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada have been logged since the mid-1880s to support the demands of the mining industry, the Transcontinental Railroad, the expansion of the West and, ultimately, the world. 

On July 27, Nelson Van Gundy of Truckee Donner Railroad Society will give a historical talk on Truckee’s logging railroads at 7 p.m. at Truckee Tahoe Airport Conference Room. | 

Once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, lumbermen came from the east in search of riches in the Sierra forests. Here, they found oldgrowth forests composed of 70 percent sugar pine. This tree is the tallest and most massive of the pines. It also has the largest cones of any conifer. Light in weight with a straight, uniform grain that is unique among pines, sugar pine wood is remarkable for clear, nearly knotfree properties. It works well with hand tools and fashions easily into smooth, straight surfaces and shapes.  

The heyday of the of sugar pine’s popularity was throughout the 19th Century when it was used to build homes and most public buildings. It was a key building material for churches and schools. The wood was used to make the furniture, pews and desks that were used inside these public buildings. The wood`s density, weight and strength made it suitable for structural use while its beauty and ease of workability made it perfect for interior finish work. It has always been popular for cabinetry, for custom furniture making and for carving and sculpture.  

To the lumbermen of the late 1800s, this was as good as gold and a new “timber gold rush” began. The arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad enabled the economical shipping of the wood to markets in the United States and abroad. 

 Why the Loggers used Railroads 

Narrow gaugeprimarily 3foot gauge logging railroads solved the problem of moving the logs to the mills. Wagons weren’t efficient for hauling huge trees to mills and trucks hadn’t been invented in 1868 when the first loggers saw the Sierra sugar pines. So the lumbermen had to lay railroad track up to stands of trees. The trees were cut down, trimmed and then pulled by horses or steam donkeys to the waiting logging trains. Steam donkeys were the diesel engines of the late 1800s and early 20th Century. Steam boilers were used to generate energy to pull logs attached by long cables to the logging train cars. 

The loggers used the lessexpensive, narrowgauge tracks and equipment because the lines were only needed during the clearcutting operation. Once a stand of trees was exhausted, the lighter rails could be pulled up and re-laid on a new bed of ties that led to the next stand of trees. Special logging locomotives were made to traverse shorter curves and steeper inclines so less preparation was needed for the track. 

Once the logs were brought to the mills and converted to sawn wood, the wood was placed on standardgauge, flat cars and taken to the standardgauge Transcontinental Railroad. The loaded flat cars were then pulled to ports in San Francisco for shipment to markets in the Midwest and East, as well as overseas. 

Loggers with a steam donkey. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

 Truckee Logging Railroads 

Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber was one of the largest of these logging and sawmill operations in the Truckee area. The operation was based about 6 miles north of Truckee in Hobart Mills. Logs were brought to the mill through a network of narrowgauge tracks that extended north to the lumber stands. Once the wood was milled, it was placed on standardgauge flat cars for the short run to Truckee and hookup with the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Another railroad was the Boca & Loyalton standardgauge railroad that ran north from Boca to the present-day town of Loyalton. This was a general haul railroad, as well as a logging railroad. The ruins of the town of Boca can still be seen just below the Boca Reservoir. 

The third railroad in the little Truckee river valley was the Verdi Lumber railroad. Their sawmill was in the presentday town of Verdi and their standardgauge track ran up and over Dog Valley and into the Little Truckee River Valley through Sardine Meadow and up past Sardine Peak.  Because of the steep grades, this logging railroad used specially geared locomotives called Shays to pull the heavy log loads. 

Truckee Lumber had a mill at the west end of Truckee and owned logging rights to Truckee River Canyon between Lake Tahoe and Truckee. They used a combination passenger and logging railroad, the Lake Tahoe Railway & Transportation Company, to haul their logs along the Truckee River to their sawmill. 

Other smaller railroad logging operations around Truckee were numerous and widespread. Most were relatively short lived, but still contributed to the trillions of board feet logged and shipped worldwide. David Myrick’s book, “Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California, Volume I  is considered the outstanding study of the railroads of the region. 

 Demise of the Logging Railroads 

Much of the sugar pine in the Truckee area was clear-cut leaving less profitable logs. Many of Truckee’s sawmills went out of operation in the first half of the last century. However, as late as the 1990s there was an operating sawmill near the Truckee railyard. 

If interested in learning more about these logging railroads, the Truckee Donner Railroad Society offers summer tours of their remains. | 

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook. 

 Jerry Blackwill is president of the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and board member of the Truckee History – Railroad Museum.  

Nelson Van Gundy is a well-known, respected member and contributor to Truckee Donner Railroad Society.