A March 10 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court may have a profound effect on the 26-mile railroad corridor El Dorado County owns jointly with Folsom.
The 8-1 decision essentially confirmed what the U.S. government had argued 70 years earlier. That argument, which the government recently tried to weasel out of, was that the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 meant that the government only granted railroads an easement, not a right of way.
And in this case, the owners of private land that had originally been a sawmill and was now in the middle of a national forest would not be forced to allow a hiking trail through their property. The Supreme Court said that since the railroad had been abandoned for five years, the government could not now claim a continuing right of way.
The original railroad ran 66 miles from Laramie, Wyo., to the Colorado border. It traversed the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. The Laramie Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railroad was established in 1908 and later sold to Union Pacific, and eventually to an excursion train service that failed in 1996 and achieved formal abandonment in 2004.
The lesson here for El Dorado County is not to pull up the tracks as some trail advocates have demanded. The risk here is losing the entire right of way as it reverts to property owners along the way — or at the very least generates quit claim deeds and suits to quiet title.
Currently local train buffs are operating weekend excursion trains from a station in El Dorado to Shingle Springs. The railroad right of way joint powers authority should allow the Folsom-based railroad group to repair the line from Placerville Road to Latrobe and probably all the way to Shingle Springs.
Folsom has maintained its rails and street crossings. What this Supreme Court decision says is that railroad rights of way should be used or lose them.
There is plenty of right of way to run a pedestrian path alongside the railroad. Why chance it?
The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors should reconsider its previous action to seek removal of the rails west of Shingle Springs and should reverse its denial of the Folsom railroad proposal.
An 1871 U.S. law did give fee title rights of way to railroads. Prior to 1871, according Justice Sonia Sotomeyer’s dissenting opinion, the railroad rights of way were grants of a “limited fee,” “commonly known as a defeasible fee,” meaning they revert back to the U.S. government upon abandonment.
It is uncertain how the rights of way were acquired for the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad, later acquired by Southern Pacific. The PSVRR was built in sections at different times. Constructed by Theodore Judah, the first segment of the line opened in 1856 and brought passengers from Sacramento to Folsom, a distance of 22.9 miles. Between 1863 and 1865, the line was extended first to Latrobe and then to Shingle Springs. On May 21, 1869, the mortgage on the railroad was foreclosed on and sold at a judicial auction to William Alvord. Alvrod gained title on July 21, 1871, and immediately conveyed it to Colis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins of the Central Pacific. The Central Pacific then transferred the property to a subsidiary, the Sacramento & Placerville Railroad on May 28, 1877.
A descendent of Mark Hopkins, Dennis Ray Hopkins of Tuolumne sent us a copy of that 1877 deed recorded in Sacramento County by Stanford, Hopkins and Huntington. The deed noted, “Also the right of way and the land by said railroad now acquired or hereafter acquired by said parties …” Dennis Hopkins, also included the will of Mark Hopkins. Dennis Ray Hopkins claimed Jan. 10, 1988, to be “the rightful owners of the land and railroad track in question from Folsom to Placerville…”
On May 10, 1887, the Shingle Springs & Placerville Railroad incorporated and completed the 11.6 miles to Placerville, carrying passengers on March 29, 1888. Sometime thereafter the city of Placerville defaulted on its railroad bonds and disbanded, disappearing for several years.
The bottom line here is the county should keep railroads operating on the line from Folsom to El Dorado and even to Missouri Flat. And it should do a thorough title search and identify whether the joint powers agency has fee title right of way or an easement, or some combination of both. We question Hopkins’ descendents’ title to the railroad, but that, too, should be researched.