CALIFORNIANS HAVE HAD A SPECIAL LOVE AFFAIR WITH Yosemite National Park since its discovery in 1849. However, access to the Park was very limited until 1907 when the Yosemite Valley Railroad was completed between Merced, in California's San Joaquin Valley, and El Portal on the western boundary of the Park. The railroad had been incorporated in December 1902 but efforts during the first few years concentrated on developing the alignment of the route between Merced and Merced Falls so that right-of-way acquisition could began as well as political efforts.
The boundaries of the new Yosemite National Park had been created in 1890 without regard to existing land patents, privately-held timber lands, or mineral rights within the new boundaries. By 1904, the problems created by these new boundaries were recognized and a Park Commission recommended that the boundaries be redrawn, a recommendation which Congress approved in February 1905. That action moved the western boundary of Yosemite National Park from Jenkins Hill, about 13 miles west of what became El Portal, to the current location about one mile east of current-day El Portal. The removed portions of Yosemite National Park were placed in a forest reserve.
Grading of the railroad began in September 1905 in Merced. The projected route headed north from Merced to Snelling and then east to Merced Falls, the site of an old woolen mill operation. From there, the route followed the Merced River to Crane Creek and the boundary of the National Park. This terminus was named El Portal by the railroad. The first scheduled passenger train arrived in El Portal from Merced on May 15, 1907.
The route of the YV from Merced to El Portal from a 1939 Trip Brochure.
While the original intent of the railroad had been to provide passenger service to the Park, the railroad was quick to encourage the growth of freight traffic. In 1910, the Yosemite Lumber Company was formed and purchased 10,000 acres of timber on the south side of the Merced River opposite El Portal. Access to that timber was accomplished by the construction of a bridge over the river and an "incline" up the mountain toward the timber.
Inclines were a simple solution to a problem that faced many logging railroads—how to quickly, easily, and economically get loaded log cars out of the mountains and down to the mill. The area being logged by the Yosemite Lumber Company at El Portal was 3,000 feet or so above the YVRR main line and separated by extremely steep terrain. Rather than construct a series of switchbacks with gradual grades to allow the use of steam locomotives to move the cars to and from the woods, the lumber company built a track straight up the mountain (an incline) to transport cars via a cable or wire rope attached to the uphill end of the cars. Grades on portions of this incline were as steep as 78%. A variety of rollers between the rails kept the wire rope in line with the cars. The incline was double-tracked so that a loaded log car coming down pulled an empty log car back up. The first trainload of logs was hauled to the new lumber mill built at Merced Falls in July 1912.
Around the same time, a mine at Rancheria Flat just west of El Portal (now the site of a National Park Service housing complex) began shipping barium over the YV. That operation continued fairly steadily over the years and was the last shipper on the YV when it was shut down over thirty years later. In 1928, a limestone quarry opened at Emory, 67 miles east of Merced which shipped crushed limestone to the Yosemite Portland Cement Company plant just east of Merced.
A significant change occurred to the railroad in the early twenties by the construction of a large dam on the Merced River at Exchequer east of Merced Falls by the Merced Irrigation District. When originally constructed, the railroad closely followed the Merced River from Merced Falls to El Portal. The planned dam was to be built directly over the railroad and thus required that the tracks be relocated. Ultimately, 17 miles of new track were required to replace the original tracks along the river to allow the dam to be built. The relocated route required the construction of five large bridges and four concrete-lined tunnels. One of these bridges was the 1,600-foot-long Barrett Bridge over the reservoir itself. That bridge was 236 feet above low water and was the longest steel railroad bridge in the West at the time.
Passenger business on the railroad peaked in the mid-twenties, dropping thereafter due to the increased use of private automobiles to go to Yosemite, accelerated by the completion of the new All-Year Highway (now State Route 140) in 1926. The new highway also allowed the extension of bus service from Briceburg to El Portal (there was already bus service from Merced to Briceburg before the completion of the highway route). The new bus operation forced the railroad to lower prices to match those offered by the owner of the bus company, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. The YP&CC had argued that lower fares for both the bus line and the railroad would result in increased traffic on both lines. However, that increase in traffic never happened for the railroad and passenger traffic on the railroad continued to decrease.
The Great Depression should have had major impacts on the Yosemite Valley Railroad since some of their most important freight shipments (finished lumber and limestone used to produce Portland cement which in turn was used in concrete) were both directly related to new construction. However, the railroad was able to remain in operation. However, costs to pay off the original construction costs continued to impact the railroad for decades after completion of that construction. In response, the directors of the railroad incorporated a new company, the Yosemite Valley Railway, which acquired all of the property of the Yosemite Valley Railroad in December 1935.
The new company (in name only) managed to continue to persevere until the Depression was eventually mitigated by the nation's entry into World War II. However, the start of the war ended Pullman traffic to Yosemite Valley as personal train travel was discouraged due to the need to move military personnel. The Yosemite Sugar Pine Lumber Company (which had taken over the Yosemite Lumber Company in 1935) closed down in late 1942. The railroad leased some of their locomotives to the Southern Pacific RR and substituted mixed trains in lieu of the regular passenger trains. (Mixed trains used a passenger car instead of a caboose to provide passenger accommodations.) While the mixed trains ran every day, the slow and unpredictable service created complaints about mail delivery. That problem resulted in the loss of the lucrative mail contract with the US Postal Service. The YV continued to hold on until June 1944 when Henry Kaiser purchased the Yosemite Portland Cement Company. The limestone traffic was extremely critical to the YV since it covered day-to-day expenses. The loss of that freight business was the beginning of end. The railroad petitioned for abandonment and the last scheduled run came on August 24, 1945; scrapping operations commenced shortly thereafter.
If the railroad had been able to stay profitable for a few more years, it might have experienced a dramatic increase in passenger business as vacationers and Park visitors rediscovered the romance of rail travel in the early 1950s much like the success of the Durango and Silverton Railroad at that time and, later, the Grand Canyon Railroad. However, the original YVRR right-of-way was located much too close to the unpredictable Merced River and floods, such as those in 1955 and 1997, would have resulted in miles and miles of lost track and roadbed. So, even if the railroad had been able to stay afloat after the loss of the Yosemite Portland Cement business, the railroad probably would not have been able to recover from the 1955 flood.