Friday April 24, 2015
One side effect of large California reservoirs getting drawn down to historic lows is the relics they reveal of times past. Along the Merced River and within the near-empty Lake McClure rests evidence of a train that once chugged from the Valley floor up the western slope of the Sierra Nevada to Yosemite Valley. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, the Yosemite Valley Railroad Company line ran from the city of Merced to what became known as the El Portal entrance to the National Park. The steam-driven train was originally constructed to carry passengers to the Yosemite entrance, and since railroad construction is not allowed in national parks, they would continue their journey by stagecoach (or by automobile after 1913). In addition to passengers, the Yosemite Railroad carried freight from such as lumber, limestone, and barium.
When Merced Irrigation District built Exchequer Dam in 1926, the railroad had to be relocated to higher ground. Tunnels were built and Barrett Bridge was erected to go around and over the newly formed reservoir. With the advance of automobiles and World War II, rail travel in the park diminished, and by 1945 the Yosemite Railroad ceased its operations. A second larger dam (New Exchequer Dam) was constructed and first filled in 1967, submerging the remaining train tunnels and pillars from the bridge crossing. Anyone who visits Lake McClure today has an opportunity to see the now-exposed tunnels first hand due to the drought. If you use your imagination, you can almost smell the soot that lined the tunnel ceilings.